27 September 2015

Works of Justice and Mercy

Mark 9:38-50

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
27th September 2015

What a week this has been.  We’ve been flooded, flooded with images of Pope Francis’ historic visit, first to Cuba and then to the United States.  We’ve seen images of the pope at the White House, Congress, in parades, processions, a canonizing Mass, on airport tarmacs, at St. Patrick’s in New York, the United Nations, praying at Ground Zero, driving through Central Park, rocking Madison Square Garden, visiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia, visiting schools, Catholic Charities, and flitting about in a Fiat, with one arm out the window waving as he goes.  It’s been a remarkable week. A week of many firsts, highly symbolic and significant for the Roman Catholic Church and for the church catholic, for all Americans, really, and for the world.

I think we can all agree that there’s something different about this Pope.  I can’t remember a pontiff receiving this kind of adulation and support from beyond the Roman Catholic world, can you? As a staunch Protestant and one who is very Reformed, I confess that I’ve been surprised by my own response to Francis and to his visit.  There were times when I had to catch myself and remember that I’m a Presbyterian.  I’ve been glued to the television or the computer screen.  The world of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, was/is exploding with images and commentary, most of it (not all) very good. 

A Presbyterian minister colleague and friend, Henry Brinton, wrote an article in the Huffington Post, titled, “Presbyterians Don’t Have a Pope, but I’m a Fan ofFrancis.” Another Presbyterian minister, Rebecca Todd Peters, wrote an article confessing “Protestant Pope Envy.”  My friend Kate Killebrew, a Presbyterian pastor in New Jersey, yesterday asked on Facebook if anyone had a Pope Francis bobble head to go with her bobble heads of Calvin and Luther, which she wanted to use in worship this morning. 

I really wanted an opportunity to catch a glimpse of Francis. We were able to get tickets to the Pope’s speech to Congress—get this, from a guy named Gabriel.  No, we weren’t inside the House Chamber, but out on the West Lawson with thousands others, watching, listening to the Jumbotron.  And then the Pope came out on one of the upper terraces of the U. S. Capitol Building and spoke to the crowd.  It was amazing.  Electric.  So, yes, I’m a fan of Francis.  But don’t worry; I’m not ready to give up my membership in the Presbyterian Church. 

The Pope’s story—his ministry, his message, his style, his works of justice and mercy—is extraordinary. He’s accomplished a lot in the Vatican in a very short time.  There’s something different is at work in him, something very intentional.  

Did you hear that the Pope made history two weeks ago when he welcomed a woman archbishop to an official audience at the Apostolic Palace in Rome?  He welcomed Antje Jackelén, the archbishop of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, and referred to her as “my esteemed sister.”

And earlier this year there was another historic first.  Pope Francis walked into a Waldensian Church in Turin and formally apologized for the church’s persecution of the Waldensians, the followers of Peter Waldo (1140-1218) in the thirteenth century.  Why was that significant?  Because the Waldensians called for reform of the Church almost three centuries before Luther (1483-1546) and others got around to it.  They were persecuted and had to flee to the caves in the hills outside Turin to worship. You can visit those caves today.  There’s some evidence that the Waldensian movement influenced St. Francis of Assisi (d.1226).[1] When the Reformation took root in Europe the Waldensians joined the ranks of the Protestants.  Today, the Waldensian Church is technically the Reformed or Presbyterian Church in Italy.  They’re a tiny minority in Catholic Italy, with a strong history and impressive social justice witness in the contemporary church, both in Europe and here in the United States, east of Asheville, North Carolina.  The pope said, “On behalf of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness for the un-Christian and even inhumane positions and actions taken against you historically. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us!”

It’s fitting, therefore, that the lectionary reading this Sunday from Mark (which is an extremely demanding text) comes to us as the Pope brings his visit here to a close.  I’m not going to focus on the verses where Jesus talks about millstones and cutting off sinful appendages. I remember first reading those verses as a child, right after I received my Bible in Third Grade.  Reading it literally (because I was in third grade) I went crying to my mother because I was so scared by this text.  I didn’t know at the time how my eyes or feet or arms did anything that could warrant their removal, but I became fearful that I might one day do something or see something that would require their elimination—and I definitely didn’t want to go to hell.  These verses are not meant to be literal—they’re good examples of how taking portions of the Bible literally is dangerous and not good for one’s health.  But I’m not going to focus on these verses.

Instead, we have in verses 38 and following this account of John reporting back to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Two verses, yet extraordinary wisdom is offered here.  It’s a fascinating window, as well, into the narrow, selfish, petty, jealous, fearful psyches of Jesus’ followers.  They think that Jesus belongs to them!  They think his ministry belongs to them.! They’re treating Jesus as a commodity, as if they held the intellectual copyright to Jesus’ message and ministry.  Extraordinary.  The disciples actually tried to stop someone from getting healed because they weren’t the ones “managing” the Jesus brand.  They would rather let someone remain bound by a demon, suffering, than rejoice that someone, finally, experienced liberation, redemption, healing.  The disciples are often selfish.  They want the power and they want to control how it’s used.  We’ve seen this throughout Mark’s gospel over the last couple of weeks. 

Time and again, Jesus is offering an inclusive message.  Time and again, the disciples want to be exclusive.  Time and again, Jesus seeks to be broad.  Time and again, the disciples want to be narrow.  Jesus is trying to bring more and more into the fold.  The disciples want to admit only some and reject others.  For them it’s about them and their power.

Jesus is about his Father’s work.  That’s all that matters.  His Father’s work is justice and mercy.  That’s what matters.  That’s what the kingdom of God is about.  Making space for the least among us (as we explored last week), making a place for the marginalized, the invisible, the voiceless in society, giving them an honored place at the table, giving them an opportunity to live with dignity, giving them an occasion for hope in the face of a corrupt, immoral system set up to destroy and diminish most in order to allow some to survive, prosper, and thrive.

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”  There are others out there in the world doing the work of Jesus, sometimes saying his name, sometimes not, all engaged in acts of justice and mercy.  Whether they know it or not, whether they’re Christian or not, they are being Christ-like, for to be Christ-like is to embody God’s kingdom of justice and mercy.  This too is a message the pope seems to be stressing to the Church as a whole, but also, perhaps, particularly to the Roman Catholic Church in how it relates to the entire body of Christ.

Several times this week, on different occasions, I heard people say to me that what they really like about Pope Francis is that he’s “inclusive.”  I think that’s true and I suspect that’s what’s really speaking to so many, both Catholic and Protestant, both Christian and non-Christian.  Last Sunday in adult education Mary Gaut introduced us to the Pope’s recent Encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home. It’s essentially a call to address the threat of climate change.  It’s not extraordinary for popes to release encyclicals; that’s what, in part, popes do.  However, this one is addressed to the Church—and, “to all people of good will.”  Inclusive.  All people of good will.  If you’re committed to the good of society, the good of all people, then you’re with me and I’m with you. So let’s do this work together because there’s work to be done. 

When the Pope addressed the crowd on the West Lawn on Thursday morning he invited us to pray for him, which is his customary way of ending a Mass or a speech within the church.  But then he said if you’re an unbeliever or cannot pray for whatever reason, then please send me your “good wishes.”  Inclusive again.  That was an enormously generous gesture.  Bringing people in.  Inviting people of good will to wish him well in his work.  “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

There were some who were not happy with the pope’s address to Congress—of course.  Some of the criticism came from certain Fundamentalist sects within the Church—of course.  Some of the strongest outrage came from Christians who were appalled, stunned, that the Pope never referred to Jesus in his speech.  My friend, Simeon Spencer, pastor at the Union Baptist Church in Trenton, New Jersey said, in response to this ridiculous outrage,  “Please. I've encountered some Jesus in a lot of folk who didn't say his name.... Sometimes more so than in folk who call his name all the time....” Exactly.  There was Jesus all over that speech to Congress.  Anyone who knows Jesus or knows something about him knows that he was there—that’s what, in part, made it so extraordinary. 

“Whoever is not against us is for us.” 

So be merciful. 

Be merciful.  And the more merciful you are, the more inclusive your mercy, the more people will be drawn to the source of mercy, which is none other than the grace of God.

Pope Francis’ personal motto is Miserando atque aligendo.  Roughly translated, it means, “Choosing through the eyes of mercy.”  The motto is taken from the Homilies of Bede the Venerable.  The eighth century English monk, Bede (672-735) writes in his commentary on the Gospel story of the calling of Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13): “Jesus saw a publican, and since he looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The pope adds: “I think the Latin gerund miserando is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: misericordiando [“mercy-ing”].[v]  Choosing through mercy-ing.

Showing compassion.  Choosing mercy. Mercy-ing.  How can we do that?  How can we show more compassion?  Choose mercy? As a Protestant, as a Presbyterian, conscious of my weaknesses and sin, knowing my own proclivity to choose otherwise, I would say, we don’t first choose to be merciful.  That’s because in some sense we have already been chosen, or, better, we are already the object of someone else’s choice. We are always the objects of someone’s, of God’s gracious choosing.  As in the calling of Matthew, Jesus saw him, viewed him through mercy, in grace, and chose him, and then said, “Follow me.”  The call from God is always an expression of mercy and grace.

Those eyes of mercy have seen us.  They’ve noticed you in the crowd, they love you and in mercy choose you and summon you to follow. 

When we know this, when we know in our heart of hearts—here, within us—that
we are seen by the eyes of mercy, we too can look out with similar eyes of mercy.
We can be merciful because we know God has and is merciful toward us. 

We are compassionate because we have felt the compassion of God. 

We are inclusive because we have been included in the realm of God’s grace. 

We can be graceful toward the world because
we know of God’s “endless grace,” which the choir will sing about this morning in Stephen Paulus’ (1949-2014) hauntingly beautiful Pilgrim’s Hymn.[2]

Choosing through the eyes of mercy.  

It’s a good motto for everyone following Jesus,
            indeed, for all people of good will who work for justice with mercy. 

[1] See Paul Sabatier, The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis (Paraclete Press, 2013).

[2] Stephen Paulus, Pilgrim’s Hymn
Even before we call on Your name
To ask You, O God,
When we seek for the words to glorify You,
You hear our prayer;
Unceasing love, O unceasing love,
Surpassing all we know.
Glory to the father,
and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit.
Even with darkness sealing us in,
We breathe Your name,
And through all the days that follow so fast,
We trust in You;
Endless Your grace, O endless Your grace,
Beyond all mortal dream.
Both now and forever,
And unto ages and ages,
(Michael Dennis Browne)

20 September 2015

Whom Do You Serve?

Artist/Photographer: Standard Publishing 
Mark 9:30-37
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost/ 20th September 2015
When we hear about Jesus taking children into his arms—whether it’s here in Mark 9 or later in Mark 10, where Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14)—inevitably, particular images come to mind.  If you’re a certain age (I won’t say which age, you will know) and grew up in the church and went to church school, your image, our images, probably look the same.  I remember seeing those idealized images of Jesus (who look liked he was born in Northern Europe or Nebraska), surrounded by children that looked oddly like me, who were all clean, well-dressed, well-behaved (of course).  And smiling.  Jesus smiling.  Children smiling.  Today, the images in church school classrooms have been updated, with Jesus looking more Middle Eastern and the children more diverse, at least in terms of their ethnic configuration.

But what if some of our images of Jesus and children do more harm than good?  I mean it’s so easy to romanticize these stories of Jesus and children.  It’s so easy to idealize Jesus.  It’s so easy to idealize children.  When we romanticize something, whether it’s people or the past, we tend to create a fantasy around them.  Sometimes that fantasy corresponds with reality.  Often it’s an illusion.  When we idealize something or when we idealize people we tend to see, well, …the ideal, the perfect; we project on to that person or institution or idea or the past a certain image of perfection.  The act of idealization often distorts the truth.  When we idealize someone, for example, the true picture of who s/he is becomes obscured. When we idealize someone s/he becomes invisible; we see just the projection, not the real person.  When we idealize the past the full picture of what happened gets lost and we’re left with a skewed sense of history. We do this all the time, of course.  Still, sadly, a kind of violence is done when we idealize anything or anyone.

I wonder, therefore, about our idealized images of Jesus and children.  I wonder if our images, the associations we have of these stories, are helpful. What if our idealized images actually hinder us from hearing, keep us from “seeing” the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching here?  Teaching about children, yes, but also about the meaning of greatness and what’s expected of servants in God’s Kingdom.

It might help to remember that the focus of this text in Mark 9 is not children.  A child is used as a sermon illustration, an object lesson, in order to make a radical claim about God’s Kingdom and the nature of Jesus’ ministry.  A child is placed in front of the disciples as a witness against them, as a judgment against them—and by implication, all of us, should we fail to remember what it means to be a servant in God’s kingdom.[1]  This is what this text is about.

Let’s go deeper.  Jewish-Roman society in Jesus’ time was strictly hierarchical; each level of society was achieved and maintained through the exercise of power and economic status.  Society was highly structured.  This text begins, you’ll recall, with the disciples wondering about who is the greatest.  The disciples were preoccupied with the exercise of power and status and influence.  They obviously didn’t hear what Jesus said about suffering and dying!  Jesus was turning their world upside down and inside out and they didn’t realize it.  They had yet to learn that the word “great” in God’s kingdom describes one who serves—not served by others. A person is considered great in God’s kingdom when he or she serves all, especially the least.  That’s when Jesus turns to a child.

And in Jesus’ time children were the least. You’ve probably heard this before but it’s worth repeating.  Children were at the bottom of society in terms of status and rights.  Powerless.  A child didn’t have a special, cherished place in the family.  It was only in early adulthood that a young person was treated as a member of the family group.  Prior to then a child was a nonentity.  Prior to adolescence a child was invisible.  It’s remarkable that Jesus even drew attention to a child.  And it’s absolutely shocking that he would “advance them,” put them forward “as models for his social program.”[2] And Jesus does this not once, but twice in Mark’s gospel.  In the second encounter Jesus blesses the children, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14).

And, it’s important to stress, that these “such as these” are not necessarily children or only children to whom the kingdom belongs.  Children are used as an example.  The kingdom belongs to whomever society considers least—least in society, the least in our community, least wherever we live.  This is what Jesus is getting at here. 

Jesus is intentionally throwing his disciples into an enormous moral crisis by putting forth this radical status-reversal dynamic of God’s kingdom.[3]  The first are last; the last are first.  And he does this by launching an assault on the disciples’ concern for power and greatness.  If we think this text is only about children, if we approach this text with our contemporary, far more morally advanced view of children, we will miss what Jesus is really talking about: caring for the least that are still among us.  In our age, children can be in this category (often are), but not exclusively so.

Mark tells us, twice, that Jesus took a child into his arms.  Mark uss a unique Greek verb—enagkalisamenos—to stress the point.  Jesus welcomes the invisible ones, the nonentities, the powerless, the valueless into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes ‘such as these’ in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  For an individual is regarded great in God’s kingdom when he or she is a servant to the least and Jesus invites them (and us) to do the same.

Jesus invites them to look down.  Look down. 

In the musical version of Victor Hugo’s (1802-1885) Les Misérables (1862), in one of the most heart-wrenching songs of the musical, beggars in the streets of nineteenth-century Paris cry out for justice and grace:

The beggars are asking us.  Demanding?

Jesus, however, invites us.  We’re invited, not commanded.  There’s no command in this text.  Not, “You shall….”  Whoever. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Jesus isn’t saying you have to do this.  He’s saying that when you live this way, should you choose to live this way, when you wrap your arms around those whom society can’t see, when you wrap your arms around the invisible, when you put your arms around the powerless, the marginalized, when you look down—down, way down, way below your own social standing and all the power and privilege that comes with your level in society—and see whoever is down there (I’m not going to say who that is because you need to figure that out), when you see them, recognize them, acknowledge their presence and worth as children of God, and you wrap your arms around them and say, “How can I serve you?”—you just might discover that you’ve crossed over into a new world, entered a new life, a new way of living, into a realm that Jesus called the basileia tou theou, the kingdom of God, you realize that you’ve stumbled into the kingdom of God. 

May it be so—for you, for me, for us as people called by the suffering servant to serve.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988), 267.  I am indebted here throughout to Myers’ powerfully insightful reading of Mark’s Gospel.
[2] Myers, 261.
[3] Myers, 261.
[4] Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer, Charles Hart, and Webber Andrew Lloyd. Les Misérables (MMO Music Group, 1986).