Sunday, September 09, 2018

Be open... here is your God

Mark 7: 24-37    

This week, our cousin Stephanie died.
Many of you have lost very dear friends, very dear family, too—people who like the Syrophoenician woman in Mark’s gospel today, met unkind and exclusive words with gospel truth, shared a spirit that said, “Ephphatha!” Be open to all that God has done, is doing, will do.

When called a dog, this stranger woman pushed back…
for love of her daughter, she pushed back.
The power of her faith is stunning… that even a crumb of Jesus’ healing power would be far more than enough to cast a demon from her daughter and save her life.
When someone dies, we often only tell the good stories about them, painting half truths about their life. The thing is, you'd have to dig for a long time to come up with a story about Steph that wasn't surrounded in goodness, mercy and love. What could we say? That she was just too kind? Too much of a servant [& justice-seeker]? Too quick to show up for others? Preached too big of Gospel? Goodness and mercy and love surrounded Stephanie, as surely as goodness and mercy and love have led her home to Jesus. In the wake of this death are her three small ones and husband, large extended family, ginormous circle of friends and colleagues, a congregation for whom Good Friday has arrived out of turn. We trust that Jesus works near the wounded, near the wound, binding up the brokenhearted. Grief is a consequence of love--and my how she loved; how she was loved…. This life is not a dress rehearsal. Today, beloved. Today is not a dress rehearsal, it's the real thing.
but I have to tell you that I am far more afraid of us dreaming too small and asking for too little from one another and missing this vital moment.
who lifts up those who | are bowed down… who cares | for the stranger; who sustains children who have lost their mother, the ones who have lost their life partner… (Psalm 146)
For those of us who are used to having a place at the table, maybe we need to be reminded that none of us has any right or privilege whatsoever to claim with God. We all come as beggars to the table, and it is solely by God’s grace that we are fed. God’s welcome table is immeasurably larger than we can imagine.[2]
And for those of us who identify more easily with the Syrophoenician woman begging for crumbs, it must be said that Jesus does not leave any of us in a state of beggarliness. Christ seats us at the table and claims us as God's beloved children -- children from every language and nation. Even crumbs from the table would be enough for our healing and salvation—because in just a crumb Christ is fully present.[3] But Jesus has given more than enough. He sets an abundant, life-giving feast for all.

Even if you won’t give me bread, won’t you give me the crumbs?
And in this amazing response, you can almost see Jesus’ eyes widen, his breath taken away.
This stranger’s trust in Jesus was far more than his disciples’ trust, even though they had seen Jesus multiply loaves for more than 5000 hungry souls. The usual suspects didn’t understand about the bread… But that gutsy stranger did. With just a word, her daughter was healed.
And then Mark tells a story of a man who couldn’t hear or speak. His friends ask Jesus just to touch him… but Jesus does way more than they asked for, sticking his fingers into the man’s ears, putting spit on his tongue. The man ends up able to hear and speak… and in fact, when Jesus tells people not to mention it, they can’t stop talking…
They are intriguing, weird, amazing stories—healing because of challenging push-back from a stranger, healing that’s kind of over-the-top, invasive…

But what about for us?
What about for us who are having trouble hearing right now… and no devices or prayers have made that better? What about for those of us who can’t speak… ?
What about us? The ones whose sons and daughters have not been healed of their demons—whatever that means to us…
Saint Teresa of Avila is remembered for this sentiment… – If this is how you treat your friends, God, no wonder you have so few!
What about us? Even though over 176,590 people followed her story and prayed fervently around the clock these past two weeks… faithful Stephanie died.

Of course, I’m biased, but here’s what Jodi Houge, one of our pastor colleagues, wrote:

Those of us who knew her will miss Stephanie so much… So many circles and tables, her congregations, her mother’s heart, and most of all her own home has an empty space without her, and in this grief, we are connected to every one of you who has lost a dear one… we’re connected to a whole world that grieves because like Jesus’ disciples, so few of us understand about the loaves. We are clueless, really, most of the time, to God’s abundance.

Here at Christ, we are about to embark on a Capital Campaign together and as we have had initial conversations around little tables about our capacity as a congregation—and if and whether we can do the things we think God is calling us to do—specifically, right now, that is to renovate our kitchens and pay our first Deacon and seed a hunger ministry that could transform us and bring new life for years to come.
This is a big dream for a congregation that has historically thought of itself as “struggling”…
One of our team leaders wrote this to me:
Our congregation clearly faces significant challenges and we ought to be wise about how we move forward… The one decision we can’t afford to make is to be safe. First of all, if we think we are safe or can be safe we are operating under an illusion, and secondly, a desire to be safe is a decision to underperform, to be irrelevant and cease to exist. Therefore, as we celebrate 150 years, let’s celebrate with a full recognition of all it entails.

We can’t help it… our inclination is to restrict God’s intent to restore life to all.
We resist and oppose just how far God is willing to go so that all experience resurrected life. We always tend to make God less than God is...[1]

But death, birth, baptism, diagnosis, tragedy, celebration can also potentially connect us to the God who experiences all of these milestones personally…

Another Teresa said, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”
She also said, “In this life we can do no great things. We can only do small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa

Spiritual nourishment for faithful people is essential, and our congregation’s mission cannot end there. Like Jesus himself, his disciples are continually called to a larger vision of mission -- one that aims to embrace the outsider, the stranger…

I’m going to end with a few words from preacher Karoline Lewis:
It is a rare moment when we glimpse how much beyond our comprehension God really is and how much beyond our imagination God’s love extends. And in that same moment, we perceive how easy it is to give in to this world’s estimations of God, this world’s [tendency] to limit what God can do. How quickly we retreat from zealous proclamation and settle for lukewarm confession. How often we shrink in fear from the bold belief, “Here is your God” (Isaiah 34:4).

In our worship and service together, in the risk-taking actions of throwing a really big party for our 150th Anniversary (to bring all kinds of people from our past, present, and future to the table) and kicking off a Capital Campaign, God challenges us to consider how we will live out our faith together, in ways that will better reflect God’s kindness, mercy and justice.
We don’t have forever… we just have this time, this place… this season to recognize God’s abundance and give from it with great love.

[1] Karoline Lewis,
[2] Elisabeth Johnson,
[3] A note from Pike Hunter, “To add my own two-cents, I think the crumbs are Jesus (the Summer of John 6), that is why she is satisfied with them.  This narrative is tucked right between the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000. All this bread is pointing to Jesus. Remember the disciples were hard-hearted after the feeding of the 5000 because they did not understand about the loaves. This woman, unclean outcast, not a disciple, understands about the loaves. Jesus is her bread of life. She'll take the crumbs because a crumb of Jesus is all of Him.  And there will be even more baskets full of bread after the 4000. More Jesus! But this time all the bread is for the gentile, outcasts from the region of Tyre.”  - Pike Hunter, in a comment attached to the commentary at on Mark 9 by Elisabeth Johnson, September 9, 2018.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Where else would we go?

Suffrage Sunday: Ephesians 6: 10-20, John 6: 56-69

As I’ve been thinking about this Sunday – Suffrage Sunday – over the past week, I’ve had this song from Mary Poppins in my head in a loop… (feel free to sing along if you know it)…

…So, cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters' daughters will adore us
And they'll sign in grateful chorus
"Well done! Well done!
Well done Sister Suffragette!"[1]

Some of you may recognize this from the Disney movie.  In this early scene of the movie, as we’re just getting to know the Banks family and their closest neighbors, we notice that as Mr. Banks arrives home, Mrs. Banks immediately reverts to her domestic roles and hides all evidence of her involvement in Women’s Suffrage because, “The Cause” infuriates Mr. Banks.
Still, her moment of marching around the living room in song sets the stage for the arrival of Mary Poppins, a remarkable woman who clearly sets her own agenda … She says early on in her time with them, when confronted and asked to explain herself, “First of all, I would like to make one thing perfectly clear. I never explain anything.” And that’s a good thing because how could she? She is magical… she is wondrous but she also gets away with it because she’s never around very long.

In sharp contrast to the Disney portrait, the actual women of the Suffrage movement knew it for the difficult, spiritual struggle it was.

“We tend to think of suffrage as an “on-off” switch. Women didn’t have the vote, then women did have the vote in 1920. The story is quite different.”[2]
Margaret Case Harriman described it this way: “…The newspapers, poor dears, looked of course for something very spectacular. But then newspapers are always apt to be more interested in phenomena like meteors than in the slow growth of a mighty tree. Wait ten years, and the politicians will one day wake up and say, 'Look who's here!'[3]
Mary Church Terrell, African American advocate for women’s equality, said, “And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long. With courage, born of success achieved in the past, with a keen sense of the responsibility which we shall continue to assume, we look forward to a future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance.”[4]
It was a terrible, and a wonderful struggle, and that is also the kind of spiritual struggle that Paul describes in the letter to the Ephesians. Paul writes: For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh… but against the cosmic powers, the spiritual forces of evil.

When we have learning days together with Muslims (as we did in our forums last fall), always, from one of us Christians comes this question—tell us what you think about jihad. Through our news sources, jihad is presented as the particularly militaristic and violent aspect of Islam. But every time, our Muslim teachers, say something like this… jihad is primarily about the spiritual struggle that we have with ourselves. It’s not about conquering infidels (although it’s sometimes used like that among Muslims gone off the deep end – Which group of people, religious or otherwise, doesn’t have the element after all?)… but primarily, this concept of jihad is very similar to what Paul describes—“our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh… but against the cosmic powers, the spiritual forces of evil.”

It’s not easy to change ourselves. It’s not easy to change systems. Even if we’re all in agreement (which as human communities, we seldom are…) but even if we’re all more or less on the same page, we still struggle to make change. And when we struggle, we’re ready to find enemies and scapegoats. We’re ready to place blame. We’re ready to tell a story to ourselves that we’re alone and not one person is on our side in the deep struggle of life.
This even happened to Jesus… as he got deeper into his descriptions of what it really means to follow God, as he got into the struggle, as he got really deep into life-changing gospel, John says “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him…”
This leads to a very vulnerable moment where Jesus asks his closest friends,
“Do you also wish to go away?”
Peter says, “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to trust and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus is in this struggle with them so for now, they are in it too—they’re all in…

Paul, follower of Jesus, writes: “For our struggle is… against the spiritual forces of evil.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day…” The armor? Well, it’s not chain mail or guns or tasers or nuclear arsenals… all these weapons are nonviolent:
The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness…
Shoes… whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
The shield of faith… that quenches all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
The helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit… which is the word of God.
Notice that because this is a spiritual struggle, nearly all the garments mentioned are defensive, protecting you from whatever might be hurled your way in life…

One, maybe two, items are for our part in the struggle…
1) “shoes” that make us ready to proclaim peace and
2) the “sword of the Spirit”… God’s words in us (not to use as a “weapon,” as we’ve come to know some judgmental types of Christians do… but) to keep us alert to God’s continuing presence, guidance, and help us persevere.

These words in Ephesians start to sound a lot like the Suffrage movement.
Madelyn Hanson, the incredibly enthusiastic historian who brought this celebration to us, has pointed out that U.S. women have had the vote for less than 100 years, and it was and has been a phenomenal struggle to get those rights and to keep things moving in this expansive direction.
This is how we fight when our struggle is not just for us, when it is for our daughter’s daughters, for all our children and grandchildren, when we realize that we are really one body and God’s gifts of truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation give us what we need for the struggle… through freedom for the oppressed, freedom comes to all.

Are we in for the struggle? Oh, I hope so… but if we’re not sure, here’s what we can know for sure. That Christ, who knows what it is to be abandoned will never leave us.
That none other than Paul invited us to clothe ourselves in spiritual practices to help us persevere… and that so many Women—Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cody Stanton, Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, and Rev. Olympia Brown, Aretha Franklin and Mary Church Terrell, and our mothers and grandmothers, godmothers and aunties, teachers and mentors that we’ll remember in just a few moments… all these faithful women have lit the way for us.

Are we in for the struggle? Well, where else would we go?
It’s here that we have come to trust and know the Holy One.
It’s here in the struggle, with Christ, where we taste life.
It’s here that Spirit clothes us so we can persevere.

A few more quotes:

Helen Keller, explaining her stance in an article called “Why Men Need Women[’s] Suffrage,” wrote: “There are no such things as divine, immutable or inalienable rights. Rights are things we get when we are strong enough to make good our claim to them.[6]

How can this Congress, which voted for war to make the world safe for democracy not allow women this small measure of democracy.Jeannette Rankin, to the House of Representatives (1918), in Louise Bernikow, The American Women's Almanac(1997)
Emmeline Pankhurst put it this way: “We woman suffragists have a great mission — the greatest mission the world has ever known. It is to free half the human race, and through that freedom to save the rest.[7]
A gentleman opposed to their enfranchisement once said to me, 'Women have never produced anything of any value to the world.' I told him the chief product of the women had been the men, and left it to him to decide whether the product was of any value.Anna Howard Shaw, in Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 4 (1902)
"Those who may read this will think it strange that I could only find a field in run-down or comatose churches, but they must remember that the pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men, and were looked forward to as the goal of all the young men coming into the ministry with whom I, at first the only woman preacher in the denomination, had to compete. All I could do was to take some place that had been abandoned by others and make something of it, and this I was only too glad to do." - Olympia Brown[8]

Though the suffrage movement was fraught with its own problems, including racial inequalities, leaders of the movement hoped suffrage would one day seem entirely unproblematic for American culture. The fact that women’s suffrage is something so obvious for Americans today was precisely what Susan B. Anthony wanted, [Allison] Lange explains.
“[Susan B. Anthony’s] goal was that in 80 years, no one would understand why women worked so hard to gain the right to vote,” she says, “and that would be representative of the success of their movement rather than a negative thing.”[9]

[1] Songwriters: Richard M. Sherman / Robert B. Sherman, Sister Suffragette lyrics © Walt Disney Music Compan
Sung in the movie Mary Poppins by Glynis Johns
[2] Quote from Victoria Brown,
[3] Margaret Case Harriman, From Pinafores to Politics  (1923),
[4] Mary Church Terrell, Advocate for Racial and Gender Justice,
[6] Helen Keller, "Why Men Need Women Suffrage," New York Call (1915),
[7] Emmeline Pankhurst speech, "I Incite This Meeting to Rebellion" (1912),
[9] On Women’s Equality Day, Here are Are 3 Things to Know About the Suffrage Movement, by Rachel E. Greenspan, quoting Allison Lange, an assistant professor of history at Wentworth Institute of Technology, August 24, 2018.