Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 20B] - September 23, 2012 (Mark 9:30-37)

Since the last time I climbed into this pulpit, I have put one of my own children into kindergarten. Our family’s sleeping and waking schedule has shifted quite a bit from what it used to be, and we’re still trying to figure out just exactly who in our household needs to get up at the crack of dawn and do exactly what to get her out the door on time, but by far the biggest wake up call for me is the length to which we’ve gone to help that school receive our daughter.

Mind you, these lengths are not just ours; they are all a part of a system that has been has developed and put in place in order to make all of us painfully aware of how valuable and important this step is. Like every parent of a kindergartner, we had a one-on-one orientation with her teacher so they could get acquainted with one another three weeks before school started (which is after the kindergarten screening we had back in April). Then we had open house where we got to meet some of the other kids in the class and their parents. Just this past week we experienced our first back-to-school night, where the teachers and administration of the elementary school put on a big show to make sure we understood how much everyone values and appreciates our children—from the principal in the office to the bus drivers outside.

And then there was the shopping list. At some point during this roller coaster ride, my wife, Melinda, approached me with a piece of paper that contained a rather extensive list of everything we needed to properly outfit Clare for school. Two different pencil boxes stocked with all the usual goodies. A towel for sleeping at naptime. An old t-shirt for painting at art time. Binders, boxes, broad point markers. Crayons for this box, a different set of crayons for use by that box over there, and crayons for home. At the bottom of the list was something I had truly not expected to see: tennis balls, four of them. Sure enough, the teacher had even thought about the legs of the chairs. The tennis balls were not for some fun game or activity, but for cutting open and placing on the four feet of the chairs so that they wouldn’t make noise scraping across the floor. Another father who had sent his child to kindergarten the previous year asked me one day, “So, did you cut your tennis balls open yet? Watch out. I almost sliced my hand open doing it.”

As I peeled open the Wilson jar and bent down to and jam them on the chair legs, it half occurred to me that the tennis balls were on the list as much to help the dads get involved in the process of welcoming that child to school as they were for cutting down on the noise level. No matter the reason, we have gotten the point: they’ve thought of everything. They are ready to receive our child.

Yet it has not always been that way with children. When Jesus takes a child and sets it among his disciples on the way to Capernaum, he does not start talking about the safest way to cut tennis balls open for the legs of its school chair. Welcoming a child in Jesus’ day and age meant far different things. In fact, not a whole lot of thought was given to it. Back then, children were huge liabilities, germ-carrying, resource-depleting moochers that often didn’t make it to adulthood. They were a drain on the family economy (I guess some things haven’t changed, after all) and very little worth was placed in their lives, unless they happened to make it to young adulthood, which very few of them did. It is estimated by some historians that infant mortality in those days could reach 30 percent. Another 30 percent of live births were dead by the age of six, and 60 percent were gone by the age of seventeen. There was little point in getting too attached even to your own children—not to mention someone else’s—since their chances of survival were so slim to begin with. It is safe to say that childhood was a terrifying time and people did not romanticize it or seek to prolong it nearly to the degree we do in our culture now.

This is all to say that when Jesus chooses a child to make his point about his kingdom he is identifying his kingdom not just with the most vulnerable among us, but with a social non-entity. Jesus is associating discipleship in his name with those who can do nothing for them in return. Jesus’ kingdom is not like a kindergarten classroom, with its whiz-bang Promethean boards and shiny new iPads. It is place where the scraps are tossed and where all kinds of germs are passed around. To identify service in Jesus’ kingdom with welcoming even a child in his name was to say that Jesus’ kingdom was about utter humility and self-sacrifice. It was about completely relinquishing yourself and your ideas of grandeur and instead opening yourself up to the possibility of loss and disappointment. It was a lesson that if God’s kingdom was going to be located somewhere, it was not going to be located more readily than among those who were outcast and on the margins. It was about thinking of others not chiefly in terms of what they could eventually do for you but rather in terms of how they might introduce you to Christ.

"Jesus teaching his disciples, and holding a child"
Thomas Stothard (1780)
For the disciples, Jesus’ teaching entails a huge shift in thinking. The Messiah was typically thought to usher in God’s appointed time of prosperity and power, where judgment against evil was issued with unmistakable power. And the Messiah’s kingdom was to be one of decisive riddance of everything that stands in the way of righteousness. But they are still thinking in human ways, and the stuff Jesus is talking about is so frightening to comprehend that they don’t even ask him about it. The shift, then, entails thinking about power in terms of service and humility, of stooping down to the least among us and welcoming God there.

I recently came across a news article about a well-known comic book illustrator, Karl Kesel, who, at the age of 53, adopted his first child, a baby who was born with a heroin addiction. In addition to the significant costs often associated with the adoption process, this one came with another set of staggering medical costs associated with neo-natal intensive care and detoxification from drugs. In order to help defray those expenses, Kesel has begun selling off his entire comic book collection, his back pages, the priceless originals of his own work he had been holding onto for over forty years. Worth over tens of thousands of dollars, they are being handed over for a new legacy to begin growing. “I don’t necessarily feel that I’m putting away childish things.” Kesel remarks. “I may be putting away my childish things. But I’m embracing Isaac’s.”

The article claims that the only way he and his wife can keep the child from shrieking as his tiny body reacts to withdrawal is to hold him in their arms constantly; that is, to set down the things of old importance and value and embrace the new. It is to get rid of the old definitions of worth and future and inheritance and start learning the new ones. It is to say goodbye to the old arguments about authority and power and begin making space for the powerless.

How might such a model mold us as we become frustrated with the baby who starts crying during the sermon, or the single parent who is trying her best to keep her kids quiet during worship? Or the newcomer who arrives just in time for church but is really looking for a handout? Or the new face at youth group who clearly needs a friend, but who would distract you from spending more time with your established group of friends? Or the food pantry guest or CARITAS guest who acts unappreciative of all your hard work? Because my guess is that no kindergarten teacher has made a list of how to receive those folks. They just show up, needing to be cradled, needing to be listened to, needing to be seen, needing to be fed. They can't really do many things for us. But be warned: when we welcome one of them in Jesus' name, we are, in fact, welcoming God.

This past week one of my colleagues in Pittsburgh told me that at last Sunday’s service they baptized a three-year-old. As they held him over the font, he screamed “NOOOOOO!” at the top of his lungs. This week, he underwent a five-hour-procedure at a hospital, followed by six hours of having to remain perfectly still. His nurse entered his room after recovery, asking the obligatory, “What’s your name?” Without hesitation, this three-year-old replied, “Nathan Johnson, child of God.”

May we be so confident in our identity…that, yes, that is who we are. That, in fact, is whose we are. And that is how we have been received--as children--by the Messiah who offers up his own priceless back pages to suffer, die, and rise again to cradle us and claim us as his own.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17B] - September 2, 2012 (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

On the one hand, I think it can be a little difficult for us in twenty-first century America to imagine and understand the religious scene of the world Jesus and his disciples inhabited. Like our own culture, Jerusalem and the surrounding Jewish territories teemed with different groups and races of people, many of whom were just trying to make a living and survive the policies and programs of whatever political regime was in office. However, at least in the towns where many of the people were Jewish, life was dominated by a long list of ancient codes that revolved around ritual cleanliness. Many of those codes and laws about ritual cleanliness were written in the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and our Old Testament—but many more were piled on top of those and recorded in various other books and scrolls that were pored over and memorized by the Pharisees and scribes.

Recent research has suggested that the ordinary Joe and Josephine, working to make ends meet in the market or in the fields, may not have been quite as keen as we have traditionally believed at actually maintaining ritual cleanliness, but the concern was still out there in society, wherever they went, and the Pharisees liked to remind people of it. The list of what could make one “ritually unclean” was quite extensive. Touching corpses, for example, could do it. So did coming into contact with most kinds of bodily fluids, including blood. Skin diseases, money, livestock…and the list goes on and on.

Mark the gospel-writer tells us about some of those rules and regulations in the reading this morning. True, Americans wash things they buy at the market in order to rinse off pesticide residue, perhaps, but not so some pastor can declare it safe. Ritual cleanliness, you see, wasn’t so much about preventing the spread of infection as it was about delineating who was in the community and who was out. It was about setting down some order amidst a chaotic existence: everything and everyone had its place. Ultimately, however, it was about declaring who was on the side of God’s good life and who was, at least for the time-being, cut off. The Pharisees would, among other things, make a big deal about washing their hands before they ate to underline the fact that they were “in,” and those who didn’t were “out.”

On the other hand, I’m not so sure our own society—religious and secular—is all that different in this regard. We may not use the words “ritually unclean” to describe many people, but we do pretty much treat them that way, often in the church. I suspect many people don’t attend worship in a church on Sunday mornings because they think they might be judged, or because they believe that don’t have the right clothes to wear, or feel their race or sexuality or past indiscretions make them unwelcome. Others may come once or twice to worship but never return, feeling we’re too obsessed with certain aspects of worship that seem pointless, like the correct order for lighting the candles on the altar (p.s.: there isn’t one), or the fact that you’re supposed to enter the sanctuary through the side doors and leave through the middle ones (you’ve all been doing that wrong since I got here three years ago).

Ritual and tradition, just like anything else, can become an idol. What really honks Jesus’ horn in this morning’s story from Mark is that the Pharisees and other religious types choose to follow certain rules and regulations that are not really written in Scripture and then create loopholes around other ones that clearly are. So he calls them hypocrites. Jesus does his part to dismantle the system of ritual cleanliness but he is also trying to point out the inconsistencies in their religiosity. They make a big show of washing their hands—maybe like a surgeon going into the operating room—and criticizing others who don’t follow suit, but then find no problem in circumventing more serious parts of the law that Jesus points out elsewhere.

In ancient Greek, “hypocrite” was another word for an actor, someone who played a part. When Jesus calls the Pharisees and the other rule-followers hypocrites, he is pointing out that they “play the part” of having faith in God by following through with certain showy traditions—but their skirting of other parts of the law reveals that they are only in it for themselves. In doing so, the Pharisees have essentially picked and chosen which rules and laws apply to them and which ones don’t, and their religion has become vanity. Early Church theologian St. Augustine put it this way: “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”[1]

The Pharisees are easy boogeymen in the stories of Jesus. They’re the ones who get it all wrong, the judgmental, legalistic, power-hungry brokers of religion who attempt to keep the good, humble, righteous people down. But really, Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees and the scribes is a criticism of everyone who picks and chooses from God’s Word, who conveniently rejects the parts that make them uncomfortable and keeps the parts that make them feel good. Truth be told, at some point we all end up “playing the part” of someone who has it all right, who’s figured out exactly what God wants, of someone who knows exactly where those boundary lines are and on which side we stand.

Jesus’ relationship with and to God’s law as set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures has always been complicated to understand. We can run the risk of “playing the part” like the Pharisees, of boiling down our faith into rules, regulations and restrictions: Christians don’t do that. Christians don’t associate with them. Christians light the candles on the altar this way, not that way. Christians don’t vote for that political party…and so on. Yet, a relationship can never be reduced to just a set of expectations, of do’s and don’t’s, and a relationship is really what faith in God is about.

Likewise, followers of Christ have also been tempted to boil down faith in the other direction; that is, so that the practice and meaning of faith in God is just about some fuzzy notion of love. If ritual and laws can be so misused, then why not get rid of them altogether? And if Jesus can dismiss laws outright—like when he declares all food clean—then why not just ignore any old law that God issues? It really doesn’t matter what you do as long as love is there, however one wants to define it. While it’s true that Jesus highlights love of God and neighbor as the essence of all of the law and the prophets, he never intends to nullify all regulations and restrictions. Many of those laws help show us the shape love is to take, how our true faith and love is to perform. For example, we honor father and mother. We watch our speech and don’t take advantage of the poor and needy. As James points out in our second reading, true religion keeps our devotion focused on the  orphans and widows and others who are unable to care for themselves.

But God’s laws and words do another very important thing, as well. They reveal to us our persistent uncleanliness…and not type that can be washed away at the bathroom sink. Although Jesus pretty much does away with the various rules regarding ritual uncleanliness, he and his Father are still very concerned about inner cleanliness, the things that can really stain. Fornication, theft, murder, deceit, pride…they are the things that plague us all, elements of our putrid self-centeredness that keep us separated from the perfect nature of God.

Two weeks ago Melinda, the girls and I spent a week of vacation with the families of our closest friends and godchildren. We do this every year: we find a place that can fit us all and have a good time relaxing, cooking for each other, and filling each other in on the last year. This was our tenth summer trip, and we spent it in a distant cottage far back in the hills of southwestern Virginia. There were thirteen of us, in all—six adults and seven children, all under the age of 8 (Don’t it just make you want to go with us next year??). A fourteenth guest came along this year for the first time: a nasty stomach virus. And because we were all in such close proximity with each other—sharing those bronze kettles—well, you guessed it: most of us got to share that, too.

Let me tell you: I started washing my hands like a Pharisee, ritually, after I touched anything that might make me unclean. We went through an entire jumbo-sized container of Clorox wipes. I followed our daughters around, cringing every time they came into contact with something that might be infected (“Don’t touch that!”). But despite our efforts, by the time the last night rolled around, about half the group had come down with it.

Caroline, our two-year-old goddaughter started feeling ill right after our last supper together. In fact, she got hit the worst. Unable to keep anything down, she rolled around on the bathroom floor in agony. Caroline’s mother, who had plenty of other things to do for the family—run another batch of clothes through the laundry, pack the luggage for the long drive back to Wisconsin, dry her wet hair—decided the best place for her to be was on that bathroom floor with her. Clean and showered, and in freshly-washed clothes, Carla sat there the whole night right in the mess of it all, cradling her puking daughter who was unhappy, scared, and unsure of what was happening to her. Carla was not going to let the filthiness of her precious little one keep her—or her love—away.

That, my friends, is the good news of the cross. God is not going to let the filthiness and sinfulness of his precious ones keep him away. Rather than keep the distance, rather than devising new rules and regulations that might clear all this messiness up somehow, God decides to come down to the bathroom floor and be in the midst of it, himself. On the cross, God’s holiness encounters—and, in fact, embraces—our dirtiness, so that we may be brought through the long, cold night of loneliness and made clean.

You see, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God finally accomplishes what the law first set out to do; that is, make us clean and reconcile us to the one holy God. No amount of hand-sanitizing or rule-following or boundary-drawing will do it. God doesn’t choose the parts of us he likes and then reject the rest! He takes us whole, cradles us there at the center of that eternal love, and in the holy waters of baptism, applies this deep cleaning to us all.

May this new relationship be the basis for your faith in a God who loves you. May you learn to honor God with your heart and your lips, and then may you be freed—freed to touch the world with compassion and mercy as doers of a word that heals and saves.    


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Augustine, Sermons