Friday, July 22, 2016

The One Who Serves

It is hard to overstate the importance of hospitality in the ancient mid-east, the cultural setting of the Bible. The arid, desert-like, conditions of the land made sharing food, water, and shelter with travelers a matter of life and death. There was also of course the danger of wild animals or bandits. It wasn’t as if travelers could stop at the Holiday Inn for a room for the night. Sparse populations in these regions made maintaining an Inn extremely impractical. The duty to welcome or care for travelers and visitors in the land was a deeply embedded social code, because it really needed to be! It was particularly so for the people of Israel. The Law of Moses reminded them that they were once strangers and sojourners in the land. They should remember this, and show hospitality to those who came to them.

 But there is another reason why showing hospitality is so important. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” This was often the case throughout the Bible, including in the story we read from Genesis about Abraham being visited by Angelic messengers in our Old Testament reading this morning.

There nothing in the passage to suggest that Abraham knew it was Angels who were his guest, yet notice the reverence and lavish hospitality he shows them. He bows to the ground, he calls for water to wash their feet, he provides them with fresh baked bread, and even slaughters a calf. It only after they have eaten that they reveal themselves as divine messengers. Some commentators have even suggested that this event was a theophany or in other words that it was the Lord himself who visited Abraham that day. The reading seems to suggest as much when it says, “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre.”

What this means is that we should welcome guest as if we were welcoming the Lord himself! What sort of preparations do you make when you are expecting a special guest in your home? Just imagine what it might be like to have Jesus himself as your guest! You would be understandably anxious to see that everything goes just right. This is the situation in which Martha finds herself in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus and his disciples are passing through her village and she opens up her home to them. No doubt she has a lavish feast in mind. I can just picture her hard at work buzzing from pot to pot.

Again, it is hard to overstate the solemn duty of hospitality in that culture. This is why her sister Mary’s actions are so frustrating and shocking to Martha. They have guests! Not just any guest either, but very important guest.  Yet here is Mary just sitting in the living room while Martha is busy making the preparations.

There is something else shocking about Mary’s actions as well. It is not just what she is not doing—helping her sister in the kitchen—but what she is doing instead. She is sitting at the feet of Jesus! “What,” you ask, “is so shocking about this?” Saying someone is sitting at the feet of a rabbi is a way of  describing them as his disciple. Saint Paul, for instance, said that he studied, “at the feet” of Rabbi Gamaliel. This was a position absolutely forbidden a woman in that culture. Historical records indicate that women were even dismissed during the part of the liturgy devoted to teaching in the synagogue.

The Mishnah, or rabbinical commentary on Holy Scripture, speaks rather harshly on this manner. For instance it says, “Let the words of the Torah be burned rather than handed over to a woman!” And Rabbi Eliezer says, "If a man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law it is as though he taught her lechery.” 

Incidentally, Saint Paul’s instructions to, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness,” which sounds so sexist to modern ears, is actually a direct contradiction of this cultural consensus. The shocking thing in his time would have been the words, “Let a woman learn…”

Flying in the face of her culture’s gender norms, that is exactly what Mary is doing, she is learning at her master’s feet in quietness and submissiveness. Her actions are doubly scandalous. Not only is she failing to assist her sister in showing hospitality, but she is also behaving in a manner absolutely forbidden a woman, and Jesus doesn’t seem to care! This is why Martha, exasperated cries, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."

One might expect Jesus to say, “Mary, Mary, don’t you have work to do? Go to the kitchen with your sister, where you belong, this is not your place.” Instead Jesus surprises everyone, not least of all Martha, when he says, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

To many readers this seems like Jesus is insulting or devaluing the work that Martha is doing as if she were, “Only a homemaker.” This too can seem kind of sexist. The often invisible work of hospitality—traditionally associated with women—is frequently underappreciated or ignored while roles traditionally associated with men such as leadership and scholarship are praised. I don’t think this is Jesus’ intention. As we have already said, the work of hospitality was considered very important in Jesus’ culture, and there is no reason to suppose that Jesus felt differently. So what exactly is the point he is trying to make?

The Greek here is a bit obscure. This is one passage in the Gospels where we find a number of textual variants. Many commentators, Saint Augustine among them, suggests that his answer should be translated more like, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted about many dishes, but only one dish is needed.”

If this is true, it seems to suggest that it is Jesus who has prepared  the meal. He has food that she does not know about. Human beings do not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. He has prepared a rich table of wisdom and truth and all are invited to feed their souls at this table. Saint Augustine writes,

 But you, Martha, If I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labors you seek the reward of peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveler to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarrelling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?
No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them

Do you remember what it was that Jesus told to his disciples? “The son of man came not to be served but to serve.” He is the one that offers hospitality to us. He is the one that bowed down to us, from heaven to earth. He is the one who stoops to wash our feet. He is the one who has prepared a meal for us. He is the one that was slaughtered for our sake. 

What he is telling us is this, “You are busy about many things, but one thing is needful.” Being Jesus’ disciple is not primarily about the service we offer him, the work we do for him, it is about allowing him to serve us. This is the one thing that is needful and it comes before all the many things that we are busy with. Please don’t misunderstand me, Jesus welcomes our service with joy, but he does so for our benefit. Because through serving him we grow in his likeness. But he doesn’t actually need anything from us! Indeed there is nothing that we can give to him that isn’t already his.

Why do you weary yourself with all your striving? Your work can wait! First, come and sit at Jesus’ feet. Allow him to serve you.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Who is my Neighbor?


Luke 10:25-37

“Shema yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad”

“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” This is the prayer recited by devote Jews at least twice a day, in the morning and evening, or "when you lie down and when you rise up." It comes attached with a commandment,
 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. This the summation of the law described in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. It has come to be referred to simply as “the Shema.” When Jesus was asked by an expert in the law, “Teacher what is the greatest commandment,” he responded by citing this verse as any good Jew would, but he amended it with a quote from Leviticus 19:8, “you should love your neighbor as your self.” Love God and love your neighbor, according to Jesus, these two commandments taken together are the core of God’s law. They are the touch stone for what it means to live a Christian life.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is similarly questioned, but this time the questioner asks, “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering the question directly, Jesus turns the questioning back on his interrogator. He says “You tell me. What does the law say?” Like a student eager to impress, the lawyer gives him the answer he knows he is looking for, the Shema, complete with Jesus’ own amendment to it.  He had clearly been listening closely to Jesus’ teaching, and believed he had found an inconsistency or weakness.
If these two statements represent the height of righteousness, the summation of the law, wasn’t Jesus setting up an unreasonable standard when he taught that one should love even enemies? After all, who is my neighbor? “Neighbor” in Leviticus 19 is clearly limited to one’s own countrymen.

Let’s pause here, because even if the lawyer’s limitation of neighbor to the people of one’s own nation is correct, the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self remains an extremely challenging one. The passage being referred to from Leviticus reads, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Think of the state of our own nation. We are a deeply divided people. We are divided over issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and the role government…the list can go on and on. There seems like a never ending stream outrage coming through the media. Our national discourse is increasing polarized and rancorous. What would it mean to say that there were no grudges between us as a people? It’s hard to even imagine such a state of affairs. What would it mean to say that we love our neighbor as ourself? At the very least it would mean being able to see ourselves in the other, to consider things from their perspective, and to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ as the expression goes.

This is not an easy task. There is, for instance, a deep and wide chasm separating the experiences of white people in our culture from people of color. Yet again, this week, we have heard reports of black men shot by police officers. The way these events are experienced by blacks and whites contrasts sharply. The African American community is increasingly outraged, by what they believe to be a system where black men are murdered with impunity, where their lives just don’t seem to matter. Many white people find it hard to identify with their rage and are offended by the accusations of racism. The state of race relations in America is deteriorating. There are bitter grudges and deep anger between us.

These divisions were horrifying manifested not only in the deaths of these two black men, but in the terroristic actions on Thursday in which several police officers were wounded and killed in retaliation.

Episcopal Bishop of Dallas, George Sumner, has said this, “I have no easy answer to the crisis in which we find ourselves as Americans. But this much is clear: Dallas Christians, black and white, of all denominations, are called to stand together. As one we pray for those harmed. We who do so are already one body in Jesus Christ, in spite of all the fault lines in our society.”

As Christians we are called to model the unity God desires for our nation. Part of what this means is to listen to one another’s concerns with charity and compassion.

The parable that Jesus tells in response to the question, the parable of the Good Samaritan, challenges us to see those who are radically different from us as our neighbor. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is the #BlackLivesMatter activist and the police officer. My neighbor is Muslim and Christian. My neighbor is gay and straight. My neighbor is conservative and liberal. In Jesus’ day one might say, “My neighbor is Jewish and Samaritan.”

The Samaritans were the product of those Jews who remained in Israel during the days of the Assyrian conquest and exile. Those Jews intermarried with the foreigners who were occupying the land. They developed their own ethic and religious traditions which mixed Jewish and Pagan ideas. They were despised and hated by the Jews who returned after the exile

Jesus’ questioner was trying to narrow the field, to precisely define who it was that qualified as his neighbor. Jesus refuses to even answer the question, but instead tells a story, and asks an alternative question, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? Was it the lawyer or the Levite who passed by and left him for dead or was it the Samaritan?”

The man is forced to affirm the very thing that he was trying to deny, that a gentile, in this case a Samaritan, can be a neighbor to a Jew.  The question isn’t “who is my neighbor”, but “what does it mean to be a neighbor to others?” Jesus shifts the responsibility to the questioner. Have you been a neighbor to those in need or have you avoided your responsibility to God by passing them by? Have you been so preoccupied with your own purity that you neglected the higher duty of the law?

If we hear this story and pat ourselves on the back because we’re not jingoistic or racist like the lawyer who questioned Jesus, we are missing the point. If that is what we take away from the story, we are more like him than we care to admit, because we are, “seeking to justify ourselves.”

 Who among us can honestly say that we have faithfully fulfilled all our duty to God and man? If we say that we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Instead we confess that we have not loved God with our whole heart or our neighbor as ourselves.

We confess that we have failed to be a neighbor to our fellow man. What we have failed to do to the least we have failed to do towards God. Jesus identifies with those in need, For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’” Jesus is the one who was descended upon by robbers, pretenders to his throne, stripped and beaten, and left to die, but he is also the Good Samaritan, the one despised and rejected, the one who took compassion on us when we were in need, the one who took us in and healed us at great expense to himself. Jesus was a neighbor to us even when we failed to be a neighbor to him.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Mother of Exiles

Isaiah 66:10-14

I want to begin my homily this morning by quoting the words of a poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, the last lines of which will no doubt be familiar to most of you,

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The poem was inspired by the Statue of Liberty, a national monument and symbol that we all know well. It is engraved upon a bronze plaque and mounted on the pedestal of the lower level of the statue.  It speaks of the millions of immigrants who stream to the United States, many of whom came through Ellis Island at the port of New York. Lazarus’ poem celebrates how the Statue had become a beacon of freedom and a symbol of hope to those who were coming to these shores seeking a new life.

Lady Liberty lifts a torch as she holds a tablet inscribed with the date of our nation’s independence. At her feet is a broken chain. She is an embodiment of the principles upon which this nation was founded, a kind of personification of our national ideal. Lazarus’ poem envisions her as the “Mother of Exiles” welcoming all of the outcasts and downtrodden of the world. Her words in many ways are reminiscent of our Lord’s own welcome, 

“Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

The personification of America as a welcoming mother also reminds us of Isaiah chapter 66 which is our Old Testament reading this morning. In it we have a similar personification of Jerusalem as a welcoming mother calling all exiles to her welcoming breasts. He writes, “nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom” and “you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees.”

 Isaiah proclaims that Jerusalem will be a blessing to all nations of the world. Like our own Statue of Liberty she is a beacon for the oppressed. In her arms she holds the tablet of the law and she lifts high the torch of the gospel, a light to the nations. Therefore he calls on all who love her to rejoice with her and be glad for her for the blessing God has shown to her. Interestingly, Isaiah speaks of a glory that has yet to come, because he writes during a time when the people of Israel are in exile and their nation in ruins. He writes of the restoration of the nation and of the royal city of Jerusalem the place where God dwelt with his people in the Temple. This is a promise God gives to the nation of Israel, but the divine vocation of Israel is bigger and broader than their own national interests. The ultimate fulfillment of these promises lies not only with the restoration of ethnic Israel’s own nation, but with the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the New Jerusalem which will be a dwelling place for the people of God from every tribe and nation. This is the city that Saint John saw descending from heaven and from God prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Her glory consists in being the wife of the Lamb, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is her spouse, her eternal consolation, and her king. Jerusalem’s calling is to represent that city, which is above, to all the nations of the world. She is only great in so much as she fulfills this calling.

On this Independence Day weekend it is right and fitting that we dwell upon this fact. As both Americans and Christians, we have a dual citizenship. We are citizens of the United States and we are citizens of that Heavenly City. God has placed us here in this nation that we love and we seek her welfare and her flourishing, but in another sense we are strangers and sojourners here. Our ultimate allegiance is only to our true homeland. Like the ancient city of earthly Jerusalem, the greatness of America consists only in the extent to which she is like the Heavenly City.

We sing, “God bless America” but we must remember that God has blessed America only in order that she might be a blessing to the world. America represents more than a nation of people, she represents an ideal of liberty and hope for all people. She represents a dream that has lived in the heart of mankind for ages upon ages. She is the hope of a perfect kingdom of peace and justice. Whether the Roman Goddess Libertas, Roma the personification of Rome, Britannia of Great Britain, Germania or Germany, or Lady Liberty of America, all are types of shadows of the one Saint Paul calls, “Jerusalem above who is our mother,” the one Saint John saw great with child, clothed in the sun, crowned with stars, and the moon under her feet. She does not seek her own glory or worship, but only the glory and worship of Christ. Her demonic parody, Lady Babylon, however, sets herself up as an idol and is drunk with the blood of the saints.

Every nation is in constant danger of being possessed by this idolatrous spirit. Even Jerusalem herself, called by God to be his own bride, was often denounced by the prophets as an adulteress and a harlot. She failed to live up to her high calling and instead became the seducer and oppressor of God’s people. America too is not free from this temptation. While she is celebrated as the “Mother of Exiles” and a beacon of freedom for all people, she has too often been a force for nationalism, greed, and prejudice. She has not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured, or welcomed the stranger, but has treated them harshly and brutally. Brothers and sisters, if we love our great America, we will assist her instead to be faithful to her true vocation.

As the Church, we are called to be a colony of the Heavenly City, in the midst of our own nations. We are intended to be like holy leaven permeating and transforming the whole lump of dough. But even the Church, too often, has failed in that divine vocation. We have instead nourished the fear, jingoism, and hostility that have been so poisonous to our national ideals. This is our shame. I pray that instead the churches of this nation would be a haven for all people where they can experience the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ, where their tears would be wiped away, their wounds salved, and their sickness healed. Let God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Friday, July 1, 2016

"Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

 As many of you know, I buried my father last week. I have been touched by the many gestures of consolation shown to me by members of this parish and this community. I thank you all for the opportunity to go home and say goodbye to my father. Losing someone we love is never easy, but the pain of such a loss can be somewhat alleviated if we are able to prepare ourselves, say our goodbyes, and have at least some kind of closure. I have been blessed that at both the death of my father and my oldest brother six years ago, I have had the opportunity to be with them in their last days; to pray with them, to share with them the hope of our faith, and along with my family, to usher them gently into the presence of God. It makes a huge difference. A sudden loss can be so much more difficult to endure. We need to be able to end things well, and to have closure, which is why our burial rites are so very important.

My father’s funeral was indeed a beautiful one. I did not do the service myself—I’m glad I was able to merely be the grieving son—but the pastor of my father’s church did a wonderful job officiating. The graveside committal was particularly cathartic. I was invited to lower my father’s urn into the grave that was prepared.  I stooped there in the dirt and gently let him down, and as is the custom in our tradition, I took a handful of dirt and made the sign of the cross. When I stood back up, the undertaker rolled over a wheelbarrow of dirt and invited me to fill the grave. Standing there in my black suit, I was momentarily hesitant, but I took up the shovel and began literally burying my father. Soon I was joined by my brothers. It was a bit awkward, but I am so thankful for that experience. It was the closure I needed.

Our Old Testament lesson this week presents us with another kind of farewell.  Elisha has been chosen to be the disciple of the great prophet Elijah. His call came right in the midst of his labor. He had twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him and he was plowing the fields. Suddenly Elijah threw his mantle over him, a sign that he was passing on his role as prophet to him. The scene is reminiscent of Jesus calling his disciples by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ disciples dropped everything and followed him. Elisha too is ready to follow his Lord even though it means that he must leave everything behind, but he makes of him one request, "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you."
Elijah grants the young Elisha this mercy. Elisha is able to satisfactorily bring his former life to a close. He slaughters his cattle and has a farewell party for all his friends and family. He finds closure. Then he leaves them behind to be Elijah’s disciple.

It is impossible not to compare this story with very similar incidents recorded in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Like Elijah, Jesus is calling men to be his disciples. In these stories, however, Jesus seems far less merciful and accommodating than Elijah. To one who says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” he responds starkly, "Let the dead bury their own dead.” To another— with a request like that of Elisha to say goodbye to those at home—Jesus says, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

We have been speaking about the importance of closure, of resolving things, and ending well. Does not Jesus seem cruel to deny this opportunity to these disciples? Indeed, these verses have been numbered among “the difficult sayings of Christ.” They emphasize the great cost of discipleship. Following Jesus requires self-denial; it requires us to make a break with our former way of life. Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him. He asks that we place obedience to him above all other duties and responsibilities. Being his disciple takes priority over all else. It is of absolute importance.
The Jews took the duty to one’s parents with great seriousness. It was the solemn responsibility of a son to bury his father. To emphasize the urgency of following him, Jesus shockingly places it above even the commandment to honor father and mother.

When I got the call from my Mom to come home, that my father was close to death, I dropped everything and went. I was preparing to lead a bible study that afternoon. We were preparing the bulletin for Sunday services. I was getting ready to attend our diocesan convention. I had a lot on my plate, but this call took precedence over them all. All of the things I was working on were important, but my duty to my family was even more important. So, what is this call which is of such importance and urgency that it comes even before father and mother? Our first and greatest duty is to honor God above all things. Jesus’ request is so shocking because he claims the devotion and honor only due to God. In putting these other duties first, these disciples are denying the proper worship that belongs to God for the sake of lesser goods. This is idolatry!
How often have we been guilty of the same? We say, “I want to grow in my faith, but first let me get more established in my career, first let me get married, first let me raise my children, first let me retire. We have any number of things we put first before following Christ. To be sure, our Lord wants us to fulfill our duties to those we love, he wants us to have closure, but we must never use these responsibilities as a way of avoiding the greater responsibility of following him. The main difference between these two men and Elisha is the intention.

Commentators have often pointed out for instance that we shouldn’t assume the father of this man was already deceased. It is possible that he is saying, “Lord I will follow you in a few years after my father has died.” It is an excuse to delay obeying the urgent call. Elisha, on the other hand, acts decisively to bring matters to a close. He slaughters his cattle, and uses the yoke and plow for firewood. This was his livelihood! It was a tremendous sacrifice and showed great faith. There was no turning back from that! Elisha was willing to pay the great cost of discipleship!  The question is are we?

When I was back home, I had the opportunity to visit with my uncle, Dad’s brother. The last time I spoke with him, he told me he was reading the book The Divine Conspiracy. Some of you recently participated in a parish study group on the same book. I asked him if he enjoyed reading it. He told me that he didn’t think “enjoy” was quite the right word because he found the book so very challenging. “He is asking us to become disciples,” he said, “I have to confess that I don’t know if I have what it takes for that kind of commitment.” I agreed that being a disciple was indeed a daunting prospect.

In the eulogy I gave for my father, I spoke about the spiritual awakening he experienced midway through life, the transformation that happened in him through faith in Christ, and the influence it had on my own spiritual journey. After the service my Uncle approached me in the parking lot. “I think your Dad was a disciple,” he said. He was indeed. That is a great consolation to me in his death. The cost of discipleship is great, but no sacrifice in this life can be compared with the crown of glory that awaits those who follow Christ in faith.