Sunday, July 15, 2018

Power Without Love is Death

Sermon for July 15, 2018 – Preached at St. Matthew’s Bilingual Servic

Proper 10B – RCL Track 1

King Herod heard of Jesus and his disciples, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

This is one of the weeks that I would love to not preach on the Gospel text.  I would rather preach on David dancing before the lord as the ark of the covenant is being processed through the town.  A vision of exuberant worship that is not at all like the worship services in many Episcopal churches!  Although in other denominations there is dancing.  When I was in the Holy Land visiting the river Jordon there was an African orthodox group worshiping in one of the pavilions and there was much dancing and exuberant worship.  But I dare not skip a gospel when it is one that I find difficult to deal with.  For the gospels that grab our attention and make us squirm are ones that we need to engage. So with perhaps a little fear and trembling let us explore this text..

One of the things that gets my attention is how it is unlike the rest of the Gospel of Mark.  Everywhere else in this Gospel things are happening quickly.  Jesus goes from healing and teaching in one place to the next.  There is a lot of “Immediately” in Mark.  And now we have a multi verse flashback by Herod recalling the beheading of John the Baptist.  Where is the Good news in this lesson?  How does this lesson tell of the coming of the kingdom of God?

David Lose – a preacher I follow – suggested reading this section as another parable.  Or maybe we could read it as a cautionary tale.  Mark is giving us a multi verse lesson on what the world looks like absent Jesus.  Mark is showing us what power looks like without love.  Mark is showing us that without love power kills.  Mark is showing us that without love power is corrupt.

Everywhere else in the Gospel of Mark we have stories about the kingdom of God but here we have the kingdom of Herod.  A leader who is willing to kill someone he has protected because of a foolish promise to an entertainer.  Herod is willing to behead John the baptizer to save face.  He did promise the girl anything – even half his kingdom.  She must have been some dancer! 

The sad part is that while this type of power hungry leadership existed in the time that Jesus walked the earth in human form we don’t have to look too far afield to see the abuse of power when it exists without love today.  We can easily identify autocratic rulers who do anything to stay in power – we can easily identify religious extremists in our world that still behead people.  The danger is that we always look to other parts of the world for abuse of power.

But we really don’t have to look to places like North Korea, or the Taliban to see power without love abusing people.  We can look in our own backyards to see power without love at work.  The “me too” movement has exposed power assuming that they should have sexual favors just because they are powerful.  I just read in the paper that Harvey Weinstein admitted to offering acting roles in exchange for sexual favors – and that he is innocent  because it happens everywhere in the motion picture industry.  An example of power that corrupts.

We can look no further than our government separating children from their parents when they cross into our country illegally – even when people cross seeking asylum.  Separating young people because they cannot go to jail with their parents.  An abuse of power called out by both sides of the political aisle.  An exercise of power without love that led to calls to stop the practice. 

David lose said “The Reign of God in Jesus has been, essentially, the focus of Mark’s story thus far (and will be again in just moments). It centers on Jesus’ determination to free God’s people from the forces that rob us of abundant life: possession, disease, isolation, discrimination, even death. Jesus comes and, in compassion for the world’s need, respond to all those who ask. Indeed, and as we saw last week, the only ones whom Jesus has any difficulty releasing are those who don’t want to be free because they can’t imagine either that a) they need release or b) [Jesus] is able to.”[1]

We as follower of Jesus are called to continue this ministry of love and healing.  We are called to identify the power that acts without love and offer a different way.  A way the welcomes the immigrant.  A way that offers healing to those who society shuns or worse who allow to die because they are homeless and without health care.  We are called to do things like many did at the General Convention of our Church last Sunday  when over 1000 Episcopalians marched on a detention center in Texas that houses women who have been separated from their children.  To march and worship to show the women inside that there are people who come in love and care about them as beloved children of God.

We are called to remember – as Mark did in this gospel lesson – that power without love kills.  We are called to identify areas in our own world where power operates without love and to offer a different way – a way that offers healing and love.  Offers healing and love without regard to status, race, country of origin, sexual identity or religious affiliation – or lack of affiliation.  I believe that is why this congregation still exists.  It exists because we are willing to open this campus up to organizations that feed and educate our community members with love.  And we exist to offer thanks to God for offering a way that is different from our society.  A way that values love over absolute power.  A way that offers healing to our hurting and hurt-filled world.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

God's Love is Not a Zero-Sum Commodity

Sermon for July 8, 2018 – Preached at St. Brigid’s Rio Vista

 Proper 9B – RCL

Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Today’s Gospel lesson feels a bit like the assignments from various classes – particularly my college literature classes.  The two stories that Susan just read could lead one to do a compare and contrast analysis.  But I will refrain as I am fear such a dry analysis would put us all to sleep on a warm summer Sunday! 

It seems strange that we have this story about Jesus being rejected by those who know him.  It seems strange that rejection causes him not to be able to do the many acts of power that we have been hearing about in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus at first impresses the people with his wisdom.  They want to know just where he received this wisdom.  After all the last time they saw him, with his brothers and sisters, he was just Jesus the carpenter.  Now he is Jesus the wise.  It reminds me of a scene out of the Lord of the Rings where we see Gandalf the Grey fall to his certain death only to return latter as the wise Gandalf the White! 

There has been a change in Jesus that is both awe inspiring and a little off-putting at the same time.  The people in his home village do not applaud his knowledge and insights into scripture.  They offer a total unbelief that this Jesus of Nazareth can be anything other than the son of a carpenter and therefor a carpenter himself.  They will not listen to Jesus and now Jesus can do nothing in that town.  Except – Except he does heal a few sick folks. 

It is unfortunate that we sometimes treat people the same way Jesus town-folk treated him.  If we hear great insights from our neighbors or witness great acts of unexpected love from the people we know well we can be dismissive.  We want to get our theologically correct interpretations from those who have a collar – who have gone to the right seminary and have a piece of paper that says we know what we are doing. 

Preaching here in Rio Vista might even give me some pause since a certain Deacon here has known me since I was just a boy – Rik, the son of a brick mason!  The crazy kid who was willing to climb up on the roof of the church to fix leaks and clean out the leaves that accumulated between the church nave and the bell tower at St. Paul’s Benicia.  How dare I stand up here and interpret scripture? 

However, I know your Deacon has been recruited herself by the Holy Spirit and has been known to spread God’s Love with wild abandon.  And she is unlikely to be like the people in Nazareth who rejected Jesus.

This story in Jesus hometown also makes me wonder why.  Why couldn’t Jesus do deeds of power in Nazareth.  Is God only able to work his Love on people that will accept it.  This passage can lead us to some dangerous places.  Can God only work when we let God work?  Do we really have the power to limit God’s wondrous Love?  Does free will allow us to limit God?  We can head down some dangerous theological paths here. 

David Lose – a preacher I follow – said, “Mark records that, because of their lack of belief, Jesus can do no acts of power (except to cure a few people which, of course, if you’re one of those people cured is no small matter!). Why? While Mark doesn’t answer this question, I wonder if it simply reflects that we are participants in God’s work in the world to a degree far greater than we might imagine.”[1]

The second part of our Gospel seems to bare out David’s thoughts.  The disciples are sent out in pairs to declare God’s dream of Love to the people in the surrounding towns.  They are told that they are to stay only where they are welcomed and where people want to hear them.  And when they find these willing participants they too find out that they can cast out demons and heal the sick.

David Lose said “this isn’t a judgment about God’s power in the abstract, but rather about our willingness to be a vessel for God’s love and healing in our own lives and in the lives of our neighbors. Nor is it a verdict on the ultimate irresistibility of God’s grace or God’s freedom to elect. I am not, that is, trying to draw conclusions about the content of our salvation but rather about the character of our lives. Do we, from day to day, have a desire participate in God’s work to bless and care for creation or do we resist that? And do those decisions make a difference in how God’s power to heal and care takes expression?” 

This Gospel is about God pursuing us to be partners in God’s quest for a society that is radically different from the world in which Jesus walked – a world view of power that is still very much with us over two millennia after God walked this earth in human form. 

We still think that power is a zero-sum game.  We still think that Love is a zero-sum game.  That if we let someone else have power it somehow diminishes our power.  That if we let ourselves love those we find unlovable there will not be enough love to go around. 

Jesus – in sending out the disciples shows us that God’s Love is not a zero-sum game.  Jesus has created a franchise that is spreading the Good News of God’s dream to more people than one individual can do.  The disciples are proving that God’s radical love can come from many sources. 

This is the Good News.  God is creating franchises to spread God’s Dream to everyone.  The good news is that God is pursuing each and every one of us to be part of this crazy franchise.  The Holy Spirit will pursue each and every one of us to join in this dream of turning society right side up again. She will continually invite you to open your heart to God’s Love and invite you to spread that amazing love to all of God’s creation. 

It is also scary news – God the Holy spirit will pursue us until we say yes.  When we accept God’s call we will be changed.  We will start seeing the world differently.  And our countercultural call will see us living and loving differently.  The Holy Spirit will drive us to actions that are upside down from where we thought we would be going.  We might even find ourselves loving those with whom we disagree! 

And that is certainly not how much of our society operates these days.  All you have to do is read the newspapers, participate in any social media platforms and you will find people demonizing the other.  Demonizing the immigrant.  Demonizing those who feel that we should welcome the stranger. 

Our call as the Episcopal Branch of the crazy Jesus people is not to demonize but to love.  It can be scary to pray for and offer God’s radical love to those with whom we radically disagree.  It can be hard to show God’s love to people who we feel are damaging God’s creation and creating incarceration centers for some of God’s beloved children.  However, as crazy as it sounds we are called to love those with whom we disagree. 

We are indeed called to take a stand against injustice and oppression.  We are called to welcome the stranger into our midst, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison.  We are called to take actions that radically sow love and that means taking on systems that do the opposite.  To call out actions that hurt God’s beloved creation, to work to reverse policies that harm God’s creation and exploit our fragile earth. 

We can disagree with actions of people, but we are still called to offer God’s radical love to everyone. And like our Gospel reading today God’s love may be rejected by those whom we offer it.  Our call is to work for a world where God’s dream can come to fruition.  Here.  Now.  Not in some faraway place we call heaven. 

You see God’s love is not a zero-sum commodity! It is not diminished when it is shared.  God’s love is not finite.  It is infinite.  There is enough love and healing power for all of God’s creation.  David Lose reminds us that “God invites [us] to a life of holiness rooted in everyday acts of kindness that are simultaneously so ordinary as to be easily overlooked yet extraordinary in the difference they make to those around them. But God does more than see [us], God also blesses [us]. Blesses [us] to be a blessing and works through [us] to love, bless, and care for this world.” 

You may never know when the Love that you share will change the world.  A simple smile and hello to a homeless person may change their day in extraordinary ways.  You may never know the true impact that sowing God’s radical Love will have on our world.  But when you do share God’s Love healing happens and God’s dream of a different society – a right-side-up society continues to grow.