Monday, July 26, 2010

St. James the Elder, Apostle - July 25, 2010 (Mark 10:35-45)

By all accounts, James, the apostle, was a go-getter. To be honest, we know blessed little about most of the apostles’ personalities and motivations. The gospels were not written to tell their audiences the details of anyone other than Jesus—and, more specifically, the details of a certain sliver of Jesus’ life. Most of the people other than Jesus, play relatively minor roles in the story before fading into obscurity, and it is important that we do not attribute too many characteristics to them that just aren’t there. Yet, in spite of this fact, we are told enough about James and his brother, John, that he manages to come across throughout the New Testament as something of a zealot, an eager beaver.

He is one of the first disciples to respond to the call to follow Jesus. He is fishing in the boat with John and his dad, Zebedee, when along comes an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth seeking new disciples. No matter that an occupation of fishing was steady work—and apparently a family profession for the Zebedees—immediately, the gospel-writer Mark tells us, they leap from the security of the nets to follow this Jesus. James, along with his brother and Peter, are the only disciples to trek to the top of the mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus is revealed as God’s own Son. There is one point in Luke’s gospel, when the disciples and Jesus are making their way to Jerusalem, when the eager James suggests that Jesus command fire to come down and consume the Samaritan villages en route who have refused to accept Jesus. And no one else in the Bible, to my knowledge, is given a nickname by Jesus. Events like that one in Samaria and the one in this morning’s gospel text likely lead Jesus to dub James and John “Boanerges,” which is Aramaic for the “Sons of Thunder”.

The lesson from Acts illustrates that, even after Jesus’ resurrection, James’ instinct for zeal, his thundering passion for following Jesus, has not abated. In fact, in what seems like a fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction in the gospel lesson after James declares that he will, by golly, be able to drink the cup that Jesus’ drinks, James’ zeal leads to his death. At one point during the Acts of the Apostles, when the church was just getting going, members of the church hear that a great famine is expected throughout the earth. Rather than, perhaps, going into hiding and hoarding what they have to escape this potential tragedy, rather than circling the wagons, they organize a relief mission—an outreach pantry, if you will—to fellow believers in another region. In this case, a mission-driven church sticks its neck out, and Herod Agrippa’s sword comes slashing down, right on the head of James the elder. According the Bible, that makes James the first disciple to die for the sake of the gospel. According to legend, the executioner who was appointed to put James to death was so moved by James’ testimony that he converted to Christianity at the last minute and was beheaded simultaneously with James. Even if it is only legend, it certainly fits James’ “go-getter” persona that comes through in the gospels.

It is the episode from Mark’s gospel this morning which illustrates for James, however, that Jesus’ kingdom involves a certain kind of go-getting. James and his brother are so keen on following Jesus and so excited about the coming reign of God that they want Jesus to rank them as number one and number two. I’m sure they feel they’ve deserved it. After all, they’ve followed and listened like any good disciple should—and once they get to Jerusalem, it will soon be time to start handing out judgments and decrees. “We are able,” they confidently respond when Jesus asks them if they can drink from the same cup that he will. It is clear that they are eager to assume the roles of glory and honor. What is not clear is whether James and John and the other disciples understand the type of glory and honor Jesus will embody.

In order to explain it, Jesus compares the honor and glory that Jesus’ disciples are to seek to two professions—serving tables and being a slave—that not only required a lot of work, but were also traditionally looked down upon. In Jesus’ day and age, fewer kinds of work were seen as more demeaning than bringing people things while they ate and serving as a house slave. In a society where everyone was trying to accumulate honor for themselves by getting other people to do as many tasks for them as possible, willingly making the choice to be focused on others’ needs seemed backwards, counterintuitive. But that, as it turns out, is the way God’s kingdom works. In the world’s eyes, it is backwards, counterintuitive, upside down. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. This is what happens when your leader goes to Jerusalem not to rule with power and might, but to overthrow the powers that be by suffering, being mocked, and eventually dying. This is what a kingdom looks like whose own leader comes in humility to put himself in a position to serve even the least among us, whose own leader is such a go-getter that he goes to the cross to get us saved.

The witness of the apostle James reminds us of our call to be a “go-getter” church—but not with a zeal that seeks worldly glory, or with a thoughtless passion that runs roughshod over everyone else. We are called to be a “go-getter” church in the manner that Jesus shows to James: where greatness is measured not by how strong or powerful we are, but by how we use our strength and power to serve others. We strive to be “go-getters” for God’s kingdom, where true honor is determined not by how many people listen to us, but by how attentively we listen to the needs of others. The witness of James the elder, apostle, reminds us that a church is not great which seeks to establish its authority through force or cunning or wealth. The church is great which embodies Christ’s authority through service, kindness and generosity. And a disciple is not one who seeks praise, or accolade, or status, but one who seeks to serve, often tirelessly, and often without recognition.

Vacation Bible School is happening this week, as evidenced by the African motif running throughout the church building. It will be a Baobab Blast!  One-hundred twenty four children will make their way through our doors each day this week, most of those not members of our congregation. I have always thought that Vacation Bible School volunteers are some of the best foot-soldiers that the gospel has, and we’ll have fifty of them this week. They will lead songs, teach crafts, make snacks. They will console homesick kids, resolve minor disputes, and apply band-aids. They will collect donations from little hands that will go to purchase mosquito nets to save the lives of children half a world away. They will get silly tunes stuck in their heads for about two weeks they will create and then tear down construction paper and hand-painted set designs within five days, and by Friday they will wonder how all of this made them so tired. All because they are a part of a “go-getter” church.

I remember distinctly the night in my former congregation when my first week of leading Vacation Bible School came to a close. We had held our VBS for two-and-a-half hours in the evening. As my volunteers and I reckoned it, each hour of VBS took an average of four hours in planning and preparation. I didn’t know about them, but I was exhausted, mentally and physically. That night I called my folks to let them know how it went. In all honesty, I called to let them know how ridiculously hard I had worked and how as a child I never realized Vacation Bible School was that draining and, to be totally honest, I expected my parents to praise me up one side and down the other. I was sure they’d think no one had ever worked as hard as I did in that Vacation Bible School.

But when I got done with all my complaints and embellishments about how grueling it was, how I clearly deserved better, my mom’s response was, “So? Well, yeah. Sounds like every Vacation Bible School I’ve ever done. It was exhausting in the eighties when you were a child. It’s tiring for the adults, but the kids love it. What did you expect, Phillip?”

What did I expect? Perhaps, deep down, I was expecting some other sense of glory other than the one that comes when serving Jesus. Deep down, I suppose I was expecting the church’s mission to happen without any real hard work and humility from me. What my mother’s response taught me was not too far off the lesson learned by James: that zeal properly placed and channeled for the kingdom of God leads to acts of service and tending to the needs of others. And it can seem slave-like at times. What I had expected was a place at the right hand of VBS-volunteerdom. What I got was a little death. A little death to myself. A death, but a life-giving one.

Those who are baptized with Jesus’ baptism all eventually learn the same thing: the path of glory and honor in the kingdom of God never leads to a retreat from the world. In fact, it makes us daughters and sons that thunder straight into it. The call to be a disciple is an invitation to share the message that has so wholly claimed us: into Judea where a devastating famine is about to hit…into the mud-huts of malaria-ridden African villages…into the needs of the nearby low-income neighborhood, into the hospital room whose air is heavy with mourning…into the friendship with the non-believer.

Yes, this can be tiring cup to drink, but it is a cup that never runs dry. Filled to the brim with Jesus’ own love and sacrifice, it always flows with the promise eternal life. Filled with the drink of gracious forgiveness, it refuels us to be a church that, by all accounts, is a go-getter.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11C] - July 18, 2010 (Luke 10:38-42)

Any parent or grandparent or babysitter who has been faced with the task of equally dividing a remaining cookie, or piece of cake, a set of chores, between two (or more) siblings knows first-hand what a challenge it can be. I remember that my sister and I, as youngsters, could argue over any discrepancy in fairness that we perceived, however trivial. And, oh, how we would protest if my sister, for example, thought that I had received a larger portion of the last slice, or if I thought the piece she got contained more chocolate chips than mine did, or if we thought the list of chores was unevenly distributed. And to this day, I’m fairly certain my English-major sister, who always had the upper hand in argumentation skills would claim I got the better portion in most situations. As wise as King Solomon, and no doubt weary of our bellyaching (as she called it), my mother pretty quickly developed an ingenious method for splitting tasks or pizza, come what may. In her plan, one of us would be entrusted with dividing whatever portion or object we were fighting over, and the other one would get to choose. This tricky little system put the onus on the person entrusted with dividing the portions to make them as equal as possible so that the chooser had no one to blame but themselves for the portion they ended up with.

My point is we don’t know if Mary and Martha, the famous sister act of the New Testament, had a similar ingenious system for dividing their tasks and chores, but we catch a glimpse of a little tension in the lesson today. When Jesus comes to visit, Martha does all the work. Mary, on the other hand, sits around. Martha ostensibly makes him feel “at home,” busying herself with the domestic tasks of providing a fresh basin of water for washing, as well as food and drink. Mary pays no heed to what he might need. Martha chooses to tend to the many duties of good hospitality, working in the kitchen and the hearth, engaged with the expectations of decorum and service and protocol. Mary, meanwhile, chooses simply to listen to whatever their guest says, engaged in little more than conversation. And, after all this, after all Martha’s huffing and puffing, after all her hard work and dedication—after all her bellyaching—Jesus explains that Mary has chosen the better part.

I don’t know about you, but when Jesus utters something like a value judgment, my ears perk up a little bit, my back straightens a little more against the pew. I don’t know why that is. I suppose I expect Jesus to be supremely fair, bipartisan and impartial. I half expect him, the Prince of Peace, to stay out of such matters as choosing sides, and, if he must, I usually expect him to spin out a parable that completely disorients my take on the situation. But here, in this case, Jesus clearly sides with Mary. No matter how Martha looks at it, Jesus has stated that Mary’s choice of sitting and listening—and therefore all but ignoring the typical obligations of hospitality—is the slice of the pie that really is better. Not only that, but Mary’s choice of task reflects an attention to a necessary thing, a devotion to one particular thing that matters above anything that Martha is doing.

In the ancient Middle East, hospitality might have been considered the highest virtue. Its importance was tied partially to the unforgiving nature of the desert environment and the need—which everyone collectively comprehended—to tend to the fragility of human life. Hospitality was tied to honor, as well as the understanding that God and God’s messengers often masquerade as strangers in need of shelter and food.

In this case, Martha is simply enacting exactly what the best mores of her culture—indeed, her religious faith—would dictate. She is serving as hostess with the mostess, taking the proper steps to make sure that their guest is comfortable And it has nothing at all to do with gender roles. Notice that in the Old Testament lesson from Genesis that Abraham and Sarah both undertake the obligations of welcoming strangers into their camp. The event of someone entering your home was a chance to make that guest feel safe, well-fed, and honored. So what is so wrong with this part Martha has chosen? After all, doesn’t even Jesus himself says at one point, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve”?

Although Mary does seem to shirk her responsibility of showing good hospitality, she does display the attitude of a faithful disciple, one who listens attentively to the words of Jesus. Mary, in choosing to hear what her distinguished guest has to say, in letting the dishes and pans wait until later, exhibits undivided devotion to the kingdom of God. It’s not that Jesus slams housework, per se, or taking care of others’ needs, but when Martha emphasizes service and caretaking to the point that it becomes hers and everyone else’s priority—notice how she demands that Jesus get after Mary—Jesus must gently remind her that discipleship is not all about doing. In fact, the better part of discipleship, the one thing that is truly necessary, does not really involve doing anything at all, but, rather, being near enough to Jesus’ word that it can be heard. Martha’s error is not that she tends to these tasks of service, but that she has let them distract her from that one thing Mary chooses.

It is a dilemma that all people of faith struggle with, this pastor especially. Our culture has become far too preoccupied with being preoccupied. The demands on our schedules these days are intense. And when we’re not rushing off to one event, or preparing ourselves for the next show or practice, we are plugged into a cellphone or an iPod or an email, as noble as some of those causes may be. I wonder how much of this attitude has even infected our Sunday worship of God, where we think things must get done in a prescribed amount of time so that we can get on with the next item on our agendas. We run the risk of expecting to be preoccupied during worship, distracted into thinking that worship is somehow supposed to move us, that it should always be entertaining or uplifting or mentally provoking.

However, truth be told, we come to this gathering with a different motivation than to be preoccupied or distracted. Christians come to worship because we discover that God is in our midst, and therefore deserves undivided attention and praise. The focus, as Mary illutrates, is not on us or our tasks, but on Jesus.

Mark Allan Powell, a professor at one of our ELCA seminaries, tells the story in one of his books about once meeting a young man he describes as a Christian rock fan. Powell explains how he envied this young man, for his faith seemed to be so centered on the joy of living in Jesus. When Powell asks the young man where he goes to church, he almost brushes him off, explaining that he couldn’t find a church where he fit in. The young man then complains that the church where he’s a member is “like something out of an old black-and-white T.V. show.” The young man goes on to explain that everyone gets dressed up fancy, and that the music doesn’t sound like anything on the radio and the preacher never preaches anything exciting. “I don’t know,” he says, “it’s just…boring.”

Powell then goes on to ask the young man, “do you love Jesus?”

“Yes, I do,” responds the young man. “I love him with all my heart.”

“Would you die for him?” Powell inquires.

“Yes, I would,” replied the young man, after some reflection.

“You would die for him, but you won’t be bored for him?” countered Powell. Powell goes on to say that “we can waste our time in worship, and know that it was time well-spent.” Why? Because we have spent time like Mary, giving our unreserved attention to the things of God. Powell ends up encouraging the young man to go to church the next Sunday and be bored and see what happens (Loving Jesus. Mark Allan Powell, Augsburg Fortress, chapter 14).

I’m sure that, to a certain degree, Mary does sits at Jesus’ feet in order to receive wisdom, to be fed by what he says, but I reckon she largely pays close attention to him simply because he is there. Jesus has come into her midst, into her home, and that is reason enough to drop the distracting tasks and pay him attention, to focus on his words. In a day and age when we feel the weight of so many distractions, when we can easily come to equate faithfulness and devotion to how busy and preoccupied we are, the challenge for the disciple is always to remember that our faith and our truest life is grounded in what we hear about God and about ourselves. And that, my friends, starts with listening, first and foremost, to what Jesus says to us. Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha is not a moralism about slowing things down. Yet, as it turns out, there are some basic things we can learn only by listening to God.

I have a cousin who has spent the last four months of her life, more or less, waiting at the side of a hospital bed as her close friend fights for his life against a debilitating disease. He is in intensive care, unable to move because of all the machines and tubes that are hooked up to him. For the majority of these last few months, he has been under the clouding influence of heavy sedation and coma-inducing drugs so that his body can heal enough to start taking the medicine. My cousin, meanwhile, sits patiently at his side, with little responsibility other than to be there if he wakes up and remind him of where he is and what is happening and, foremost, that his loved ones are near. He wakes in such fits, fighting at the IV line and yanking at the ventilator tubes, and my cousin and this young man’s other relatives jump into action and say, “John, you’re in the hospital.” “John, you’re OK.” “John, settle down.”

It occurs to me that, in this hospital vigil scene, John is a lot like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, my cousin, Amanda. You see, it is only when we’re in the presence of our Lord, that we can properly hear who we are, that we’re fine, that we’re loved. Because, let’s be honest, we’re all fighting for our lives, and we can all get distracted by so many things—the IV lines and ventilator tubes of our careers, our passions, the clouding effect of our diversions, our duties, our relationships with others. When we sit at the foot of Jesus and come-to…when we hear his word…when we take the bread and pass the cup…we are reminded who and, more importantly, whose we are. We come to know our Lord, once again, and our identity as his child forever is brought into focus again.

In the end, this is the one thing we really need.

In the end, this is God’s intensive care, and we are provided with grace to steady us for the tasks ahead. And yes, at the foot of Jesus is where we are prepared for service.

May we all, at long last, quit our bellyaching and come to see that this is the better part and that, no matter what, it will never be taken from us.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

painting: "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" Jan Vermeer, 1654-55
photograph of church by Meredith Sizemore Photography:

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10C] - July 11, 2010 (Luke 10:25-37)

You can practically hear the pencils being sharpened in the crowd at the beginning of today’s gospel lesson. A lawyer has just stood up in the midst of the crowd to test Jesus, and his aim is to snare this bright young rabbi from Nazareth with a sticky question about Jewish law and, with hope, humiliate him in front of everyone. This lawyer is good. He is a product of the recent rabbinical education reform, “No Pharisee Left Behind.” He learns for the test, can memorize anything set in front of him, and can quote it back to you. If he has a weakness, it is his inability to think creatively, but he hopes that won’t come into play because he wants to catch Jesus on a technicality: who is the neighbor?

The issue at hand is that Jewish Law, the Torah, is actually inconclusive on this question. At one point, “neighbor” is defined as other sons and daughters of your own people; that is, neighbors are other fellow Israelite countrymen and –women. However, at another point in the law, the term “neighbor” is expanded to mean anyone who is found in your land, foreigners and illegal aliens, included, even ones who come seeking economic opportunity. By pinning Jesus down with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer is asking Jesus to clarify this distinction. If actions toward my neighbor are what will help me to live in God’s kingdom, then it will be helpful to know exactly how Jesus will interpret this. Pencils are sharpened, and the whole crowd is ready to take notes. You can’t fault them for thinking critically. Perhaps they are even thinking carefully. But I can’t help but believe they might be thinking a little cowardly, too.

And, like a clever Supreme Court nominee before her panel of politicos, Jesus slices and dices the question in a way they can’t initially make heads or tails of. He tells a story. It was actually very common for rabbis to tell stories to respond in debates, but Jesus’ story has a few twists and turns in it. When a fellow Israelite countryman gets beaten by bandits and is left by the side of the road for dead, both a priest and a Levite walk by on the other side, refusing to help him. Perhaps the priest and the Levite do recognize the poor, injured guy as a neighbor, but they are too bound by other restrictions and regulations—“don’t touch blood, don’t be late for obligations”—to help the man. Perhaps these professionally religious types recognize him as neighbor but their response to him is all in their head, as if their faith has made them too heavenly-minded to do any earthly good.

That’s the first twist—the non-response of the two figures representing the best of Israel’s holiness. Then comes the next twist in the plot: the person who actually does stop and take care of the wounded man, going the extra mile to make sure he gets healed, is a person whom no one would ever expect to go out of their way for an Israelite.

Samaritans were despised by the Israelites. They were considered half-breeds, imposters, dirty and mean. You could expect no good to come from Samaritans. In fact, in the previous chapter of Luke, Jesus himself gets rejected by a Samaritan town. But in this parable, which is told maybe even in the same day as that rejection, it is the Samaritan who saves the day. The key phrase in the story is that Jesus says the Samaritan looks on the man and is “moved with pity.” The Samaritan has compassion. He wants to suffer along with this wounded man with the chance he might restore him to health. In doing so, Jesus imbues his filthy main character with the quality that Israel’s own prophets had associated with God’s own heart. A Samaritan’s display of compassion for and Israelite = one enormous plot twist.

The lawyer in the crowd has most likely stopped taking notes at this point. He is either drawn into the unlikely drama of this fictitious story, or it is likely he is repulsed altogether. When Jesus looks at him and says, “Which of these three turned out to be a neighbor to the one who fell into the hands of robbers?” the lawyer is not even able to mention the word “Samaritan” on his lips. He simply replies, “the one who showed mercy.”

And right there is the final twist to the story, and the most remarkable one. The hinge of the parable swings not on discovering who our neighbor is so that we may respond appropriately, but actually being a neighbor to anyone in need. The point of the parable is not that the Samaritan correctly recognizes the wounded man as his neighbor. The point is that the Samaritan lets himself be ruled by compassion and, in doing so, becomes a neighbor to the other. In his reply to the lawyer’s question, Jesus doesn’t simply tweak the definition of who counts as a neighbor, but he gives greater clarity to what it actually means to be a neighbor. The lawyer’s task has been to think critically about these issues, to reason and to act carefully. But in God’s kingdom, the chief task is to think and act compassionately.

Furthermore, we must remember that this parable is set within the context of a question about eternal life. Jesus’ story is told in order to clarify exactly what “loving the neighbor” entails. So, in addition to receiving a lesson about the Law’s expectations, we also hear a story about God’s grace. Maybe, in fact, this is what eternal life looks like. It looks like no one caring anymore about these boundaries of race or class or national identity or ethnic identity, distinctions for which we are far too quick to take up arms to defend. Instead, eternal life is best envisioned as surprising, death-defying occasions of self-sacrifice and compassion, times where we take the side of someone who is hurting enough to take on some of the hurt ourselves. The fullness of God’s kingdom will be borne by compassion that wipes the tear from every eye, compassion that drives us the extra mile and makes short order of the artificial restraints we place around it now—restraints imposed by our own schedules and budgets, our own prejudices, our own agendas. Eternal life resembles this kind of suffering alongside our other brothers and sisters more completely, unafraid of how it will make us look, or whether it will wear out the back of our own animal and deplete our resources. Eternal life, therefore, will look more like the great teacher himself, Jesus, self-sacrifice extraordinaire, who himself stops on his own journey of glory to go to the cross, and in the process, picks us all up from the side of the road and heals us.

Mariam was a teacher on staff with me at the school for refugee children at my internship congregation in Cairo, Egypt. A refugee herself from the war-torn country of Eritrea, Miriam had been eking out a living in Cairo for her family for a few years before I got there. I assume she is still there, either unable to seek refuge in another country, or perhaps she feels that teaching young refugee children is her place. When I was there, Mariam taught the upper-level classes of English and science. She was a trained teacher, qualified to do much more than our little school, with its limited resources, could allow. Nevertheless, she taught with unparalleled love and enthusiasm and integrity. The children absolutely loved her and thrived in her classes, even though they were action-packed with energy and themselves dealing with the effects of many internal wounds.

As is common in refugee work, about every few weeks or so another child would get word that his or her family had been accepted for resettlement in the States or Australia or Canada, the very places Mariam herself might have dreamed that she would take her family someday. Once she brought us both to tears as she explained that three of her former students saved up their allowance so they could call her long distance from Calgary, Alberta, every night for a week in order to tell her they missed her and loved her. Mariam put herself in a position of pain and vulnerability in order to teach those students and make them better people. In fact, I could say that everyone who passes through St. Andrews Church in Cairo, whether a student or teacher (or feckless Lutheran intern) is touched by her mercy and compassion.

And Mariam is Muslim. She is a veil-wearing, peaceful, take-her-Islam-seriously type of Muslim. And, what’s more, almost all of her students and co-workers are Christian. She loves them without question—offers her life to them, you could say. I know that we often see on the TV pictures of turbaned so-called Muslims ramming planes into skyscrapers and inciting suicide violence against Westerners and Israelis, but I can’t get Mariam the Muslima out of my head as the example of the Good Samaritan. In the crazy way God often chooses to get his point across, I learned from Mariam a little more about how his kingdom functions, how we are to stop worrying about what the law requires and figuring out who exactly is our neighbor and instead just be a neighbor, be ruled by compassion, and show mercy. And every tear will be wiped from every eye. This is the stuff of eternal life.

So, at the end of his twisty-turny parable, Jesus simply tells the lawyer “Go and do likewise.” Go and do likewise. Suffering pays no heed to any boundaries. Neither then should compassion. Break your pencils, O Pharisee. This is no test. Christ has claimed everyone for mercy. The same goes for you—you who have been picked up from the side of life’s road and washed clean with this water, whose wounds have felt the salve of this body and blood: you, too, can let loose with his compassion. “It is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. This word is near you…in your mouth and in your heart.” You, too, can stop the studying. Go. Be a neighbor.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.