Sunday, July 25, 2010

"When you pray, say, 'Father'"...

Sheepscott Community Church July 25, 2010

Genesis 18: 20-32

Luke 11: 1-13

“When you pray, say ‘Father’”...

There is no such thing as unanswered prayer, if that prayer is made sincerely from the heart. We may not get what we ask for, exactly when we want it, but when we do get an answer, even if that answer is a refusal, we can be sure it is the answer that comes out of the wisdom and love of God. So often our requests in prayer are self-servingly shortsighted. We can only rejoice that God has the longer view. That’s clear in Jesus’s instruction to his disciples and so to us in how to pray to the Father in the first part of this morning’s gospel.

“When you pray,” said Jesus, “say, ‘Father.’” That very first word tells us that we are not coming to someone whose hand and heart have to be pried open with fancy words or even perseverance. It reminds us that we are coming to One who delights in filling his children's needs.

“Hallowed be your name.” Another translation, “let your name be held in reverence.” Focus on the word name here. In Hebrew the word name means way more than just the name by which a person is called. It means the character of a person. Those who know––as far as our human limitations will allow––the character, mind and heart of God will easily put their trust in that One, whose name––Yahweh––I Am Who Am––stands for that One.

One of our kids was driving her Ford Ranger truck on Rte 27 out of Augusta on a January night some years ago on her way back to Farmington. For any of you who are familiar with that road, in New Sharon, the angle of ascent becomes sharper, and rain in Augusta that has turned to sleet and snow and rain in Belgrade is usually straight sleet by the time the driver is ascending through New Sharon. By the time you reach Farmington, it’s snow. That’s the way it was the night our daughter was driving.

In a moment of skid, her pickup crossed the road and did a 360 roll in the air before coming down hard on its four wheels in a ditch. She told me that in those frightful moments, without thinking about it, she cried out, “Jesus Christ!” not as an imprecation, a curse, but as an invocation, a prayer. A non-churchgoer, she nevertheless had been baptized into Christ as an infant and raised up in a church family. When she knew that she was about to die, she cried out the name that is salvation. In God’s mercy, she survived with a cut pinky finger.

Why I am telling this story is to illustrate the power of a name. What our minds and bodies cannot necessarily construe and register, our spirits know by heart. Our spirits know the character of the One on whom we can depend because that One is trustworthy. I am also telling parents, grandparents, and concerned others, to, yes, continue to pray with love and not fear for your kids and grandkids, who may not be where you think they should be or would like them to be, but who are on their individual journeys toward God––as we are. They will find their way because the One they are seeking, whether consciously or unconsciously, knows them and loves them completely right now. Let them continue on their way without judgment on them or God about the way they have chosen. Pray for them and love them. That’s the most and best we can do.

“Give us each day”––or this day––”our daily bread.” We aren’t talking about tomorrow. One day at a time. We have the wonderful precedent of the manna in the desert when the Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land and needed sustenance. God provided a dewy-like substance on the ground each morning that would dry out in the sun to something like a sweet, edible flat wafer, and the people were exhorted not to gather any more than they needed for one day . They were not to hoard. Anything stored or hoarded would rot and be inedible anyway. There are a number of Biblical exhortations against hoarding, aren’t there? Interesting. That’s all I’m saying. Well, maybe I’m also saying trust in the Lord, a day at a time, for all things.

Address God as one who wants to provide for his children; reverence or hallow the name of God––give the praise due that One; and ask for what you need in the daily round. If that is all vertical, between us and the Father, now we have the horizontal part of the The Lord’s Prayer, between us and our neighbors, and it comes in that tough and familiar dress of forgiveness.

The New International Version, which I read as part of the gospel this morning, has “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Another translation, “for we too forgive all who do us wrong.” Both of those translations have a kind of quid pro quo setup. You forgive us because we forgive others. It’s a statement of fact and something of mutual respect. The other popular and familiar translation is, “forgive us our sins or trespasses or debts, as we forgive those who sin or trespass against us or who are indebted to us. The “as” in this translation is ominous. We are asking God to forgive us in the same way that we forgive others, not because we too forgive others, but as we forgive others. The power of a translated word. Even if we pray one of the other translations, I think it’s a good idea to keep this one in the back of our minds to keep us aware and perhaps more careful than we might be otherwise, when we’re thinking about that grudge we’ve been bearing for how many years? Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins in just the same way we forgive others. Think about that. If you remember nothing else from this sermon today, remember that.

Besides addressing the rightness and necessity of praising God, asking for what we need in the daily round, and addressing the always thorny issue of sin and forgiveness, the prayer Jesus taught to his followers also deals with future trials. That entails asking God’s help as we face any of the testing situations of life, any of the challenges, not just matters of sin, commission or omission.

Notice that there isn’t one “please” in the Lord’s Prayer. To return to an earlier theme, God does not have to be cajoled or convinced to hear and answer prayer. God is wanting and waiting to be asked, to be spoken to, because that is one aspect of our relationship with God, one way of being in touch, and he covets our being in touch. Really. In the prayer there is respect and submission––your kingdom come––but there is no shuffling. No obsequiousness. No please and thank you. God is straightforward, and it’s a really good idea not to try to cloak our intentions in pretty language to make it appealing to God.

It’s important to note again vis-à-vis the second half of the gospel this morning that we do not have to wring gifts from the tightened grip of an unwilling God. Not at all. The parable of the householder, who tells his friend to go away and not to bother him with his late night request for bread, would seem on first blush to be teaching us that we have to persist boldly in prayer until God answers us. A wider understanding of what the function of a parable is can help us to see the story differently.

A parable means literally something laid alongside something else. If we lay something beside another thing to teach a lesson, that lesson may be drawn from the fact that the things are like each other, or from the fact that the things are a contrast to each other. The point of the story of the householder with the shut door is one not of likeness but of contrast.

The lesson is not that we must persist in prayer, banging at the door to compel the occupant to open it to us. The lesson of the parable is that if this surly, ungracious and grudging householder finally opens the door to his neighbor’s need because of the neighbor’s bold perseverance, how much more will God, who is like a loving Father, supply all his children’s needs? God does not have to be badgered: God needs only to be asked. And sometimes––I don’t know if you have found this, but I have––that “ask” doesn’t even have to be put into words. The unspoken ask, the unarticulated prayer that is written on the heart and in the heart, also ascends to the One who knows the language of the human heart and needs no translator. It is perhaps the epitome of encouragement to have such an unarticulated prayer answered. God knows my heart.

Let’s talk about the other main character of the parable, the original householder whose door is knocked upon by the late-night traveler. First question: What is the man doing traveling near midnight? And isn’t that unreasonable to expect a response at that hour? It was a fact of life in the East of that time that people did often travel during the night––they may still, even as some of us do now in the summer––to avoid the heat of the day. Maybe they were avoiding caravans as well,even as we would avoid the heaviest traffic by traveling late at night. So, it isn’t really as unreasonable as it would first seem that someone would be traveling so late. And there wasn’t a Motel 8 to stop at, no light left on. That traveler was dependent on his friend for hospitality, which is the second element, another fact of life in the East of the time, and still in force today, viz., hospitality as a sacred duty.

If this traveler turned up on his friend’s front porch at midnight, it wasn’t enough to set before him a bare sufficiency of food. Abundance was what was called for from the perspective of fulfilling the sacred duty of hospitality. Now here is a complication. Bread was baked fresh daily because it quickly went stale and no one would want to eat it the next day, so here we have our first householder in the embarrassing situation of having an empty cupboard and a hungry guest. His solution was to go to his neighbor––why he had bread available isn’t addressed by the reading, and I confess I did wonder about that. Then I had to remember, This is only a story. Don’t for heaven’s sake take it literally, and I caution you the same way. What we are always remembering to be open to is what the story is teaching, not necessarily the picky details.––Anyway, he goes to the cranky neighbor’s and bangs on the door until he gets what he asks for.

One other note is that the man whom the traveler-friend approached for hospitality was asking for something for someone else. Yes, he was seeking to fulfill his sacred duty, but that duty involved loving his neighbor. In truth he involved the cranky neighbor in an involuntary act of kindness toward the traveling friend. He was fulfilling the Law in a most complete way.

It won’t hurt to say one more time what the lesson of the parable is: If you with all your faults know how to give your children good gifts, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to his children?

Straightforwardness in simple language can focus the need in prayer. We can gauge the reality and sincerity of our desire by the passion of our prayer. I remind you as I did at the beginning that there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. The answer given may not be the answer we desire or expect, but even when the answer is no––and yes, that does happen sometimes––we can be sure that it is the right answer out of the love and wisdom of God. Amen.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Only One Thing Is Needed...

Sheepscott Community Church July 18, 2010

Genesis 18: 1-15

Colossians 1: 15-19

Luke 10: 38-42

Only One Thing Is Needed...

What is that one thing that is needed which Jesus speaks of to Martha and which is what Mary has chosen? It is not only in today’s gospel, but in the gospel or good news of our every day lives as we are living them right now. Maybe by the end of this sermon you can come up with your own answer. What is that one thing that Mary has chosen?

Jon had a teacher when he was in secondary school who touted to the boys the virtues of the dictionary, “Fellas,” he’d say, “there’s a whale of a lot in the dictionary. A whale of a lot, fellas.” Well, I’m going to appropriate his figure for today's’ gospel and say, Folks, there’s a whale of a lot in the gospel today––and the other two readings as well, a whale of a lot. Maybe a smorgasbord is a better figure because the gospel did put me in mind of a groaning board of a meal that was put on for me in the home of my mother’s cousin, when I was visiting in Finland in 1994.

Aino Kuhala, my mother’s first cousin, prepared uncountable dishes for perhaps a dozen family members when I visited that day. What I remember best is the cloudberry pudding because I had never heard of cloudberries nor eaten them before that day. I noticed that Aino didn’t sit down to eat with us. She stood in the doorway in her apron, waiting to see if anything was needed and simply enjoying the people enjoying the food. I asked her son Veikko why she didn’t sit with us, and he explained that she would eat later. That’s just the way it was done.

Well, huh, I thought. Tradition. Both the incident with Abraham and Sarah and the aspects of God under the form of three angels in the reading from Genesis, and Martha’s interaction with Jesus in today’s gospel made me think of that dinner with Aino in Finland.

We assume Sarah prepared the bread, as Abraham told her to do, to feed the guests. After they had eaten the bread, the tender young calf and the milk curds that Abraham put before them, the Lord––under the guise of three angels––said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Sarah, who was eavesdropping, chuckled because she was way past childbearing age. One way to hear her chuckle is as, “Yeah, right!” The point I want to make is that Sarah was listening to this conversation from the entrance to the tent, which was behind the divine speaker. Like Aino leaning in the doorway and watching the others eat, Sarah was not at that point physically with Abraham and the guests, directly involved in the conversation, although the conversation was about her. A woman and her life as currency.

Fast forward now to the gospel story. We can read it as a change in dispensation, viz., a change in the order or administration of things or systems; in this case a change in the religious order or system, with regard to the place of women, conceived as a stage in progressive revelation. Let’s set the narrative table, so to speak. This dinner which Martha was all het up about was taking place six days before Jesus’s last Passover, and it followed the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We find this out in John 12, where we also find out that this dinner is in Jesus’s honor. It may have been a celebration of the raising of Lazarus as well. If we put the two stories from Luke and John together, it would seem that when Jesus arrived, before the dinner, he was teaching. Mary was sitting at his feet listening with all of her being focused on what her Lord was saying. Martha was in the kitchen getting hotter and hotter under the collar, even as the stove was heating up for the cooking. Finally she couldn’t stand it any longer––Haven’t some of us experienced this?––and she went into the room where Jesus was reclining at table with Lazarus, his disciples, and some others who had come to see this man who had raised Lazarus, and most significantly Mary. What was she doing in the front room with all these men? Her place was in the kitchen. Martha spoke in what sounds like an indignant manner to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” she demands.

Is Jesus moved by her vehemence? Not at all. “Martha, Martha,” he replies, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”

In John’s account we get none of this verbal exchange. It simply says, “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at table with him.” The story can be read as another example of a woman––Cousin Aino, Abraham’s wife Sarah, and now Martha––eavesdropping on the more important world, at that time, of the doings and decisions of men. What Martha does, in a scene-stopping moment, however, is to burst into the front room with her wounded self-righteousness and sense of offended justice and demand of Jesus that he tell her sister Mary to assume her rightful place back in the kitchen beside Martha, helping her with this dinner.

But Jesus surprises Martha, perhaps Mary, and certainly us, who still live under a mantle of expected gendered behaviors and roles, at least to some degree. He kindly dismisses and defuses her fit of pique. Can’t you see him smiling gently and shaking his head? He is so patient with our impatience. He doesn’t give one inch of ground, even as he is being kind and patient. No, he won’t tell Mary to do that because she has chosen the better part and it won’t be taken from her. Apparently Martha accepts this, probably not without a few choice words under her breath, as there is no further exchange between them; at least nothing is recorded in scripture. She goes back to the kitchen to resume taking care of the details of hospitality.

It may simply be a story that teaches the importance of balance. Both things, both kinds of activity are needed in this particular story, the serving dimension for hospitality, to feed the needs of the body, and the listening dimension that in this case feeds the needs of a human soul. As I have demonstrated before, Jesus never missed an opportunity to capitalize on whatever the situation or surroundings were, in order to teach. Familiar as he was with the homely details of everyday life, he being a man of the people, he employed the metaphors of that everyday life to speak about the life of God in order to make it accessible to the people who listened.

A dinner being put on for a lot of people following hot on the heels of the host’s having been raised from the dead by the guest of honor; two sisters, one hardheaded and practical, used to getting her hands dirty, and the other a dreamer, more inclined to listen to a teacher, especially this extraordinary teacher and to think about his words, than to wash the dishes or peel the potatoes. These are the elements of a good story with its inherent conflict and they prove out.

I think all of us who entertain with any regularity are very sympathetic with Martha and need to hear what Jesus is saying. Let the dishes stay in the sink. If there’s important talk going on at the table, sit down. Listen. You may learn something, something you didn’t know before, and for all you know, your life might change because of it. Is that idea threatening? That your life might change? There will always be more dishes to do, but there won’t always be the opportunity to hear what this particular person is talking about in this particular place at this particular time. Sometimes we can overhear, but we might miss key parts if we’re not seated, as Mary was, at Jesus’s feet.

I said earlier that this story can be read as a change in dispensation, a change in the order of things. Jesus is teaching a new dispensation that breaks down artificailly constructed barriers and roles, in this case, that would put Mary back in the kitchen. Even in our time––and I do know there are exceptions––ordinarily at a holiday dinner the women will be in the kitchen cleaning up after the meal, and the men will retire to the front room easy chairs if not with brandy and cigars to talk politics, then with Budweiser and a bag of Doritos and the football or baseball or basketball game, depending on the season of the year. That front room is a NO GIRLS ALLOWED kind of clubhouse, and while in fact, that’s usually the way the girls prefer it because they have their own interests and conversation, I think Jesus would break that sign over his knee and call everybody in from the kitchen, turn off the television, and proceed to teach. Whatever he has to say is “the better part” and it will not be taken away from any of us. But we have to want it, don’t we? We have to go after it.

Do you think of Paul’s letter to the Galatians here? I do. “There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That is the new dispensation. Nobody is consigned to the kitchen against her will in Jesus’s book of roles and life lived. Everyone has a say-so and is responsible to make decisions for his or her own life, but because women were chattel––and still are in some parts of the world––whose lives were decided by the men in those historic or geographic worlds, I am focusing on them toda in relation to the gospel.

That scene in Bethany six days before Passover, the Passover that would change the history of the world, is a kind of snapshot of what we are as church. We all set down the dishes and dish cloth, come in from the kitchen, so to speak, and listen to Jesus. How does he speak to us? In the stories we read in scripture; in the stories of our lives that we share with one another; in the births and deaths and marriages; the agreements and disagreements, the arguments, the music and laughter and dance, through all of this human experience––this is how he speaks to us. In our own prayer he speaks to us. Listen and learn, and it will not be taken from you. There is a whale of a lot in that gospel, isn’t there? Amen.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Who Is My Neighbor?

Sheepscott Community Church July 11, 2010

Colossians 1: 1-14

Luke 10: 25-37

Who Is My Neighbor

I think today’s gospel about the Good Samaritan, combined with the parable in Matthew 25 of the separation of the sheep and the goats at the time of the last judgment, constitute the core of the Christian religion. Both of them have to do with action, not creed.

In Matthew 25, the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of my brethren, you did for me.’”

This story, today’s gospel of the Good Samaritan, and the Golden Rule––Do unto others as you would have them do unto you––which is found in some form in all religions, including Christianity, all of this I consider the core of the Christian faith. All answer the question, Who is my neighbor? We turn away from the full answer to that question at our own peril. Additionally, Jesus is the teacher, the way-shower, the one whom we listen to and imitate to bring about what constitutes the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, the kingdom of God on earth.

Let’s focus on this morning’s gospel now, and try to keep an open mind, an open spirit to what Jesus is teaching here. It’s possible to have a radical conversion to Christianity today, or, for some of us, a recharge of our batteries and a deeper conviction of the rightness of our choice to continue to follow the teachings of Jesus, which you will hear in this church. But just as surely, you will not hear the command or even a suggestion to judge others for what they do or do not do.

In today’s gospel, judgment is the name of the game. Let us consider the players, but first, the setting. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a dangerous place. In something less than 20 miles, the road dropped from 2300 feet above sea level in Jerusalem, to 1300 feet below sea level in Jericho. A narrow, rocky road, its sudden turnings made ideal hiding places for robbers and brigands to surprise and seize upon their victims. The man who was set upon by robbers in the gospel story was reckless, as he was traveling the road alone. People generally traveled that road in convoys or caravans, especially if they were carrying goods or valuables. There was more likely safety in numbers. It is not ill-conceived to say that the man was foolish and brought this disaster on himself.

The other characters of this drama? Biblical commentator William Barclay suggests that according to the Law, the priest who hurried past was remembering that anyone who touched a dead man would be unable to fulfill his priestly duties for seven days because he had made himself unclean. He couldn’t be sure the man was dead, but he did look dead from the distance and he wasn’t about to take any chances on not being able to discharge his duties. He set ceremony over charity, and made the liturgy more important than the pain of another human being.

Then came the Levite who also passed by. Barclay suggests that he was not going to risk his safety, aware as he would have been that groups of robbers would often put a wounded-man decoy out to trap the would-be compassionate passerby. The Levite didn’t want to be caught in such a trap. And who can blame him?

When Jesus in his story introduced the Samaritan, it’s probable that the listeners expected that ah, here comes the real villain. As we have talked about before, the Samaritans were the despised others, who worshipped on Mount Gerazim, and not on the Jerusalem Mount where, according to the Jews, all true believers worshipped. Actually, the man did not have to be a Samaritan racially, the term could have been employed to indicate any despised other. Jesus himself is called a Samaritan in John 8: 48, named a heretic and breaker of ceremonial law. Do you ever think sometimes how difficult it was for Jesus to be Jesus? Don’t forget, he was thoroughly human, no less than you and I, and we know how difficult it is to bear the slings and arrows of slander. Now multiply that to the 10th or infinite power to imagine what it was like for Jesus, as far as frequency and virility of attacks. If Lindsay Lohan thinks she has trouble with the paparazzi, she should try being Jesus the teacher who had his own paparazz, the scribes and pharisees, always after him, always waiting and hoping for him to trip himself up.

Back to the story. We have this despised Samaritan, and isn’t he the one who gets off his animal, bathes the man’s wounds, puts him on his own animal and takes him to an inn, where he slips the owner a few pieces of silver and asks him to watch out for this man. If there is any additional charge, he’ll take care of that on his way back through the next time. He must be an honest man, and probably a frequent visitor, as the owner apparently knows and trusts him.

Whether or not he was a heretic as defined by Jewish law, the love of God was in the Samaritan’s heart. It is not really a surprise in the story to find the orthodox Jews are more interested in dogma and ceremony than in helping the man, and no doubt would have been quick to justify and back up their lack of action. It’s also no big surprise as stories go to find that the man the orthodox despise is the person who indeed helps the man in need. Jesus knew his audience and he knew how to tell a story, how to get the point across. The moral of the story was transparent enough so that anyone within hearing couldn’t miss it: In the end we will be judged, not by the creed we hold but by the life we live.

Because of the jots and tittles of qualification in the Law as Jews read it, we can assume that the scribe’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” is a genuine one. Jesus’s answer to him was another question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? And the scribe answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus’s admonition? “Go and do likewise.”

And what constitutes mercy in this story?

1) We must help a person, even when he or she has brought trouble on their own head, as the man who fell among robbers had done.

2) Any person of any country who is in need is our neighbor; our love must be as wide as the love of God, which is wider than the span of any country and does not honor national boundaries.

3) The help must be practical and not consist in merely feeling sorry for the person. To be genuine, to be real, compassion must manifest in deeds or action.

One of the things––let’s call that “sin,” not thing––one of the sins I am most sorry for in my own history was not stopping on the side of the road once to help someone who needed it. I was in a hurry, subject then even more than now to the tyranny of the wrist watch, the tyranny of time. I know now in a way I did not know then that never is it more important to arrive anywhere on time than it is to help someone who needs it, someone on the side of the road.

But here’s the rub. Okay, many of us, if not all of us, have sinned in this area of not doing good where we might have. Breast-beating and self-flagellation do not further the cause of good either. What does re-enable us, if you will, to do good is to repent, be forgiven, and go forward. It’s nicely captured in this morning’s psalm 25, which we read together as the Call to Worship. To wit, “remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways;/ according to your love, remember me, for you are good, O Lord.”

And further on in the psalm, “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way./ All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant,” which brings us full circle back to the gospel. The man of the Law, the scribe had asked Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life, and Jesus had answered with a question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

He answered, “Love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind; ‘And love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus approved of his answer, which constitutes the demands of his covenant mentioned in the psalm. Are we meeting the demands of his covenant? Are we loving the Lord with all our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength? And our neighbor as our self? Well, if our sin against God or our neighbor is leading us in the way of the aforementioned breast-beating, self-flagellation and woe-is-meness, get over it. Repent, receive God’s forgiveness and move on. Get back into life.

The answer to the question Who is our neighbor? covers a lot of ground. Remember what I said among those three points that characterize mercy? That our love must be as wide as the love of God. To include turtles crossing the road and fledgling swallows fallen from the wire, the nest, the sky? All creatures? A mercy so wide that it translates to stewardship of the earth? Are all these fellow creatures our neighbors? Doesn’t yes make more sense than no when thinking in terms of the wide net of love God casts?

Another example of Who is my neighbor? was someone for whom no good Samaritan came in time––Matthew Shepherd. Fifteen years ago, he died after being tied to a fence post in a field in Wyoming, and savagely beaten. Like the man of this morning’s gospel, beaten by robbers and left to die, Matthew Shepherd was beaten and left to die because he was homosexual. No other reason. We don’t have to go as far as Wyoming. Right here in our state of Maine, 1984, Charlie Howard was thrown off a bridge in Bangor into the Kenduskeag Stream because he was a homosexual. It was too late for Matthew Shepherd and Charlie Howard, but it isn’t too late for us to learn a lesson from their deaths, and that lesson, as Jesus taught by choosing the despised Samaritan to be the hero of his tale, that lesson is that nobody is other. Acts of kindness and goodness, as well as acts of meanness of spirit and depths of depravity are possible for every human being, whether as giver or receiver. We are all connected in the family of God, the body of Christ.

We move more in the direction of goodness and kindness when we make good choices, when we build a habit of virtue and not of vice. That can be done in small, homely ways such as making coffee for your spouse in the morning and serving it with a smile instead of retreating behind, “Don’t talk to me. You know I’m not a morning person.” Get over yourself and make some coffee. We can build habits of virtue by service in the community, on the planning board, in the Legislature, volunteering at the library or hospital. We can build habits of virtue by listening to the literal words of Jesus in his parable of the sheep and goats: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the stranger, visit the sick and those imprisoned. Performing these acts of mercy, creating these habits of virtue and distancing ourselves from vice becomes easier when we associate with others who are trying to do the same, when we seek the source of all mercy together in our Sunday service.

An example of a father and son a few weeks back who chose an act of kindness that literally saved a life even though their own lives were thereby endangered. This story was reported in the Kennebec Journal. A woman had crashed her car into a moose at night. The moose was dead on the road, the woman’s car was in the way of traffic, and the woman herself walking around dazed and disoriented, when the father and son team stopped. The son quickly assessed the situation, picked up the woman and threw her over the guardrail just as a truck bore down on them. He saved her life. When the police arrived the father and son left, and no one knew who they were. But we know: they were Good Samaritans. If Matthew Shepherd didn’t have someone that night who cared as these two did for the woman, whether she lived or died, if he didn’t have anyone to care for him the same way, maybe we can care in his name, and in the name of Charlie Howard and of all those who have died beaten and alone with no one to be their Good Samaritan. Let us thus strive to love our neighbor as ourselves, indeed as we ourselves would hope someone would so love us if the shoe were on the other foot. It’s pretty simple, really, isn’t it? Amen.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Responsibility: The Other Side of Privilege

Sheepscott Community Church July 4, 2010

2 Kings 5: 1-14

Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

Responsibility: The Other Side of Privilege

What I have titled the sermon this morning, “Responsibility: The Other Side of Privilege,” is one message from this morning’s readings. What constitutes privilege in the readings, and what is the consequent responsibility?

Let’s start with Naaman, the protagonist in the first reading. The commander of the army of the king of Aram, Naaman was highly honored in the kingdom because of the victories he consistently wrought, but, he suffered from leprosy. It surprises me that he still moved among men with that disease because the common practice was to isolate those suffering from leprosy. I can only guess that the disease wasn’t that far advanced, that it was one of the lesser skin diseases classified underthat name, and/or that his prestigious position as head of the army stood him in good stead that way. More important that the king retain this best of soldiers than that he be put away because of disease. It may be that the king of Aram jumped so quickly at the prospect of sending him to Israel for a cure––not necessarily out of any great love for the man, but for the very reason that he wanted to retain an outstanding commander’s services for the sake of the kingdom.

Naaman’s privilege was his high position that gave him complete access to the king, which access resulted in the letter of introduction to the king of Israel. Naaman’s quest for healing brought him to the doorstep of the prophet Elisha. The prophet did not come out to greet him but sent the message that he was to bathe seven times in the River Jordan, which for the Jews is comparable to the Ganges River for the Hindus, viz., a sacred river. When he got that message, Naaman was furious on two counts: that the prophet did not come out himself to meet him––after all he was the commander of the army of the king of Aram––and that the cure was simple and foolish in his view. They had better rivers in Damascus. He didn’t have to come to Israel to bathe in a river.

Naaman’s pride was potentially his downfall, and could have prevented a healing. The Spirit of God in the prophet Elisha knew that and acted on that knowledge by prescribing what he did. If humility wasn’t native to Naaman, perhaps good sense was, as he had the good sense to listen to his servants who convinced him to go back and do as the prophet had ordered. When he did, he came up out of the water the seventh time entirely healed.

No fool, Naaman saw and believed that he had been healed by the God of Israel through the word of his prophet Elisha. This new understanding was a privileged understanding, and Naaman’s response to it was to bring home earth from Israel out of which he would construct an altar in Syria, where he could worship the God of the Israelites. He was responsible to worship the One who healed him.

The kingdom of God was near to Naaman as it was near to the disciples of Jesus, whom Jesus sent out in pairs to the towns where he was planning to stop. He told them that in the towns where they were welcomed, they should heal the sick, but for those places where they were not welcomed, they should shake the dust of those streets from their sandals as a testimony against the towns and move on. The disciples’ privilege was their proximity to Jesus and his teachings. They were the inner circle around the Messiah and shared with others what he shared with them: knowledge of the things of God and healing life.

But as with Naaman, pride was potentially their downfall as well. They were jubilant when they returned to Jesus from their forays out, exclaiming about how the demons were subject to them. Jesus admonished them and called them back to his perspective: rejoice not that the demons are subject to you but that your names are written in heaven. The privilege of association with Jesus and his life meant simply that they should continue to spread the word. It didn’t mean that they were particularly special, but that knowledge of the salvation of God in Jesus had to be preached, with healing of the sick as part of that package, and that they would do as well as anyone else, considering it’s God who is the sourve of healing, not they.

The word salvation itself means healing. Consider the word salve from the same Latin root salve. As a noun, a healing ointment for application to wounds or sores; figuratively, a remedy, especially for spiritual disease or sorrow. When used as a verb, to anoint a wound with salve or healing unguent; figuratively, chiefly to heal sin or sorrow, to heal a person of sickness or sin. Salve, salvation. Healing.

If we ourselves have been healed, whether in the body, in the mind and emotions, or in the spirit, and whether that healing is a result of the normal state of health acquired from good habitual practices––eating to live, not living to eat––exercising, sleeping, and so on; or whether that health and healing, that salvation is due to the interventionary prayer of others that brings the kingdom of God within healing distance, whatever reason or means for that healing, to God be the glory. Not to any man, woman or child, but to God who will employ any man, woman or child who is open to the Spirit of God to bring about his ends, to God be the glory.

I have stressed the application of the title of the sermon, responsibility being the other side of privilege. Continuing in this vein of healing, all of us who have experienced God’s healing in any way, sacramentally, interpersonally, or otherwise, we all have the responsibility to pass on salvation, to pass on healing to others who are suffering, whether in the body, the mind, the emotions or in the spirit. It is the wisdom behind the application of AA’s Twelfth Step: How to stay sober? Pass on the healing. Those of you associated with AA or any of AA’s offshoots know how that works.

Cyndi Brinkler and I have both known the healing of God in our lives. It has been a privilege to associate with people who have been God’s ministers to us, and we have now a responsibility to pass on what has been given to us. It seemed a good idea to offer prayer for healing on at least one Sunday a month. We have done that twice and will continue to do it after the coffee fellowship here in the church on the last Sunday of the month, and come fall, down at the Valley Church, with anyone who wants to come in for prayer. Neither Cyndi nor I are particularly special, but we have surrendered as best we can to God’s purposes for our lives, and part of that is to indeed pass on to whoever wants it some of what we understand to be the kingdom of God here and now, not there and then.

In this context, I would like to mention Francis MacNutt, a former Dominican priest, who almost single-handedly rescued the ministry of healing from the dusty archives of early church history, to which it would have been consigned by those who are embarrassed by the intimacy of a God who wants to heal. The immediacy of that form of salvation, of wellness, is embarrassing to some who want God to remain enthroned out there where he can be properly worshipped, not kneeling before human beings, where he is washing feet with a towel wrapped around him. Clean up your act, God. Stay out there in space where we have put you! Where you belong. You’re embarrassing us.

Back to MacNutt. The Episcopal Church has housed the Order of St. Luke, where prayer for healing has quietly gone on for decades and decades. One of the principle actors in that order was Agnes Sanford, the wife of an Episcopal rector. She was a quiet teacher with a great gift of healing and as great a gift of grounded common sense. In fact, it was Agnes Sanford who prayed with Francis MacNutt for the release of the Spirit of God in his life. He followed the same healing route as she did and now, with his wife Judith, runs a center for healing in Jacksonville, FL. This couple has also conducted annual healing retreats for the past 25 years in Vermont and Maine, and it is through that ministry that Cyndi and I learned about healing in the history of the church, but more importantly, healing as part of the kingdom of God here and now among us.

All of this is background for a little vignette about Francis MacNutt. I remember the first time I saw him at a conference praying with people. He might have his hand on someone’s head, but he was looking around the room and seemed to be counting people. I later found out that that was exactly what he was doing. A scientist, he was always interested in statistics. He had no illusions about his own personal importance in that kind of prayer. It was God’s doing. He was simply––as the disciples were learning to be at the time of this morning’s gospel––a well-disposed instrument, called particularly, in his case, to healing. A footnote to this kind of healing prayer is that it is not a replacement for healing through medical means, but a complement to it. Healing through prayer is another tool in God’s toolbox of salvation, of well-being for his people, and we’re denying ourselves when we don’t employ that tool.

Two things I’d like to leave you with this morning: an invitation to come to the next time of prayer for healing, if you are so moved, when Cyndi and I will be in church for that purpose, on July 25. The other is a suggestion to approach the sacrament of communion this morning, recognizing it for the gift it is: the Christ in our midst in one way he chooses to reveal himself––as food and drink, and the inherent health, the inherent salvation contained therein. The source of all life and healing feeds us his life. As we bring the dimension of our faith to this reality, we can experience healing through the presence of God in our midst in communion–– and in each other. A friend has told me he gets a dose of healing every time he comes to church, when he moves further away from sinful thoughts and behaviors.

A wonderful line from this morning’s lectionary reading from Galatians that sums up what I think we hope to be living out as church: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.” And part of that good is to heal where and when God calls us to, like Elisha, like Jesus and his disciples, like Agnes Sanford and Francis MacNutt. Amen.