<![CDATA[Grace Episcopal Church - Recent Sermons]]>Sun, 07 Feb 2016 07:19:03 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[The Incarnation according to Matthew - Christmas 2C]]>Sun, 03 Jan 2016 16:22:14 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/the-incarnation-according-to-matthew-christmas-2cThank you all for bearing with a long Gospel reading this morning! Most of the 2nd chapter of Matthew is appointed for today but broken into two options for Gospel readings. The more I considered this during my prayer time this week, the more I struggled to find a way to preach only part of a very important story. You see, only in Luke and Matthew do we get any kind of birth narrative for Jesus and in the Christmas season, we often weave back and forth between the two so much we get them confused. The two stories are starkly different, but by the time we get done with Christmas, we have the Magi visiting the baby Jesus in the manger! Both Luke and Matthew tell us important things about Jesus in these narratives, but I really wanted to give you the whole picture by reading all of Matthew 2 because in this one chapter, Matthew lays out the entire plan of salvation with rich imagery. Admittedly, being 21st century Americans who are largely unfamiliar with the first century Palestinian Judaism, it’s harder for us to connect with the story, its imagery and what exactly Matthew was trying to tell his congregation. Matthew is concerned with telling his community of Jewish converts exactly why Jesus is the fulfilment of prophecy and the promised Messiah of God.

Matthew begins his story grounding Jesus squarely as an Israelite – a Jewish child born into the covenant. In fact, Jesus becomes the embodiment of entire people of Israel. Let’s begin with just the family names, for they are rich in history and meaning. Nomen est Omen in Hebrew scripture – your name means something. Jesus’ father Joseph is portrayed throughout the first and second chapter as a man who receives messages through dreams just like his ancestor Joseph from the book of Genesis. Ancestral Joseph, favored son of Jacob, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. In a twist of fate, Joseph offers to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh and, in so doing, gives him a plan to avoid a major famine. Pharaoh elevates Joseph to second in command because of his ability to interpret dreams – and because of this, Joseph is able to bring his family down to Egypt to rescue them from death by famine. Just as ancestral Joseph rescues his family by bringing them to Egypt, so will this Joseph flee to Egypt to save the lives of his family members. Mary is the Anglicized version of the Hebrew name Miriam – the same name as the sister of Moses. Miriam played a role in the liberation of the people when they escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Jesus also bears the name of a liberating ancestor as his name in Hebrew is Joshua – the deliverer. The imagery of Jesus being in Egypt until it was safe to return evokes images of the return of the Israelites to the Promised Land. Even the violence of the murderous King Herod echoes the cruelty of Pharaoh to the Hebrews. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is the absolute embodiment of the covenant God made with Israel.

Matthew then evokes the prophetic eschatological vision of the plan of salvation being more and bigger than just the Jewish people. Jesus has come to reconcile all of the nations into the covenant of Abraham. God’s concern is not just for his chosen people, but indeed God’s concern embraces the whole world. We begin with hearing that a group of Gentile Wise Ones come from the East in recognition of Jesus as Messiah. It is ironic these foreigners know who Jesus is destined to be while Herod rejects this message. Now I know tradition tells us there were three kings, but the narrative only speaks of three gifts. Considering the serious cash value of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I’d venture a guess that there were more than three wise people – and I also say people because Magi were not necessarily male. The image of these foreigners coming evokes the image of Isaiah 60: “Nations will stream to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawning.”

But there is a dark side to these foreigners and their acknowledgment of Jesus as king. Matthew tells us that King Herod was frightened “and all Jerusalem with him.” A new king was a direct threat to his power and Herod would have none of it. After being tricked by the Magi who did not return with news of the child, Herod lashed out in murderous rage killing all of the children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem to eliminate the possibility of a challenge to his throne or that of his sons. Thankfully, Joseph hearkens to the angel in his dream and flees with his family by night to Egypt.

It is this part of the story where we hear another piece of the salvation of the Gentiles. Egypt, the land of Pharaoh and the reminder of 400 years of bondage for the Jewish people, is redeemed through their welcome of the Holy Family. It is Egypt who provides safety for these terrified Jews on the run. God’s plan of salvation is not bound by ethnicity or national borders! God actually uses the people once feared and hated as enslavers to be those who save the Christ child.

As the Holy Family had to flee for their lives, Matthew tells us exactly where God casts his lot – with the poor, refugees, and outcasts. Jesus and his parents are in solidarity with all of the marginalized and dispossessed of the world. Today we only need turn on our televisions to see images of frightened people fleeing the violence in their own homeland to catch a glimpse of the fear of the Holy Family as they sought protection in a foreign land as aliens. Throughout Jesus’ later ministry, he will reach out to those who were outcasts and marginalized. One cannot help but see how his early childhood in Egypt and the stories about it that his mother and father would tell him would influence his affinity for those on the outside.

The experiences of Jesus and his parents assure us he did not come here to escape the hardness and violence of this world by somehow living in a bubble. They lived in the real world and had to navigate the violence in it. Jesus would later teach us to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry not because these are “nice things” to do – it comes from the very reality that these things we do are what we do for and to him each and every day. For us who live in the relative comfort of the United State in the 21st century, it is hard to understand what it is like to be in the shoes of those who flee for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Quite honestly, our life of relative wealth and leisure puts us more in the camp of the Caesars and Herods than it does the Holy Family. Jesus was the outcast, the refugee, the migrant, the foreigner – it is his face we are to see when we look to those who have need. We are to do these things to honor God who reminded Israel to show hospitality to the stranger and alien because they too had been aliens in the land of Egypt even as now Egypt becomes the image of refuge and care for this family on the run.

Matthew closes this chapter with a reminder of something else – Jesus understands our joys too. We hear of Joseph having another dream and being told it was safe to return to Israel – the Promised Land. The Incarnation isn’t always about suffering and hardship – it’s also about rejoicing! The homecoming of Jesus echoes the return of Israel under Joshua’s leadership and the celebrations which accompanied it. Jesus shares in the joys of our lives as much as in the sorrows and challenges – he knows the fullness, depth and breadth of all of what it means to be human. His return is also a joyous reminder of God’s promises to bring justice and peace to those who live in God’s reign.

The second chapter of Matthew gives us hope in spite of the outer circumstances of our lives and our world. In baptism, we are brought into the family of God in Christ and through the Mystery of the Incarnation Christ comes to us. We are no longer alienated from God, but God has come to us in Christ to share every aspect of our lives and hallow them. We are no longer estranged but brought to the very heart of God through Jesus who gives us the grace and power to then take this gospel to the world, opening our arms like Egypt to all who are in need.
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<![CDATA[Christmas Eve 2015]]>Thu, 24 Dec 2015 16:11:53 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/christmas-eve-2015Long ago on this night, shepherds looked to the heavens and were given a sign from God. 47 years ago, we were much like them with our eyes turned towards the heavens, or at least to our televisions, as we heard the first Christmas Eve greeting from outer space. The crew of Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon this night in 1968.

While we look around us today and see a world in turmoil, it is easy to forget that we’ve experienced upheaval before – and 1968 was no exception. In January, the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam and by February we were involved in a full scale war there. In April, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and riots erupted across the cities of our nation. Two months later, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was also assassinated and riots broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

But on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit. Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon, and the first astronauts to spend Christmas in space.

To mark the occasion, they sent Christmas greetings and live images of the moon back to their home planet and read from the Book of Genesis. It was estimated that as many as one billion people worldwide watched the historic broadcast or listened on the radio.

As the world looked at images of the Earth and the moon seen from Apollo 8, Jim Lovell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” They ended the broadcast with these words.

William Anders said, “For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light:’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Jim Lovell read next, “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ And God made the firmament, and divided the waters, which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Frank Borman read, “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear:’ and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.” Borman then added, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

In that moment, we were reminded of something very important. We were reminded that regardless of the upheaval, violence, and fear surrounding us that we were all together on the good Earth. An Earth so good and a creation so loved that God slipped in quietly through this cleft in history 2,000 years ago to be one of us … on the good Earth. And God did so in the person of Jesus who we remember this night as a vulnerable, helpless baby reminding us that God in Christ gets us.

This news doesn’t come to the high and mighty – the Herods, the Quiriniuses, or the Caesars. This news comes to, well, lowlifes first! Shepherds were held in quite low regard in first century Palestine and the message of God's radical inbreaking comes to the ones we don't expect. When the shepherds go to Bethlehem and see this thing which had been made known to them … they found ... a very ordinary looking couple and a very ordinary looking tiny baby. Yet, looking into that baby’s eyes they saw themselves in a fully human child who would save them. In the eyes of the Christ child all of humanity was there and in all of humanity something of this child would be present too. In that mutual gaze between the Christ child and the shepherds lay the hope of the world … the hope for this good Earth and all who live in it. They then return home praising God for all they had heard and seen.

These shepherds and the three astronauts who greeted us from space this night experienced a transformation. Their experiences moved them to see beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary … to see a glimpse of the Divine. When you can see beyond the eyes of a baby and see the face of God and when you glimpse the good Earth from God’s perspective, you then can see the face of God in the eyes of others. And when you can see beyond the surface and see Christ in the other and in all creation, you can never forget who God is. From the farthest reaches of space to the dirt under the feet of shepherds, God is, was, and will always be there no matter what.

God has not given up on us no matter the circumstances of our lives or of this world. God came for us this night many years ago as a baby and on this night he still comes to us in bread and wine … and in the faces of all God’s beloved. The Christ child invites you this night to see beyond the obvious and through to the extraordinary … that we may bear the light of Christ to all … all of us on the good Earth.
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<![CDATA[What Should We Do? - Advent 3C]]>Sun, 13 Dec 2015 21:34:44 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/what-should-we-do-advent-3cToday is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” and nothing says rejoice like John the Baptist shouting “you brood of vipers!” Yeah … that’s what I think of when I hear the word “rejoice!” Last week John appeared on the scene and this week he’s tearing up the homiletical field. This is as good old-fashioned “hellfire and brimstone” at its best! He’s telling them to turn around and don’t think you can just rest on the cred of some long dead ancestor named Abraham – you’ll be held to account for you sin!

Now admittedly, the “turn or burn hellfire and brimstone” style isn’t usually what you hear in a proper Episcopal Church, is it? And let’s face it, ad hominem attacks like calling the crowd a “brood of vipers” just doesn’t get you very far in seminary homiletics class. I mean … that label alone is a flip on the “your momma” put downs … because, if you’re a brood of vipers, your momma is a snake! And we know how much snakes are loved in Hebrew Scriptures, right? I always imagine John the Baptist in a modern seminary homiletics class giving this sermon and afterwards the professor saying, "Um ... let's go back to your opening there John ... 'brood of vipers' ... would you like to unpack that?" Seriously ... this just isn't how preaching is done these days.

But did you notice the reaction of the crowd? I mean, John just called them an epithet and ranted about their sin of blindness and pride … and what is the crowd’s reaction? You'd think they would be reaching for some rotten fruit to throw at him, wouldn't you? But they don't! They ask what they should do. Let that sink in for just a moment. They ask "What should we do?"

Like many other liturgical churches, we use a lectionary which is a cycle of designated readings from Scripture. The Jewish rabbis have a similar schedule through their liturgical year – it’s not unique to Christianity. But because we have a lectionary, I don’t get to pick and choose what texts I want to preach on … they are set for me. That means I have to deal with and try to illuminate texts that frankly make people mad at some point or another. I was on Facebook this week commiserating with a few colleagues about complaints we get when we preach: “too liberal,” “too conservative,” “you’re a socialist,” “stop shoving the Bible down our throats,” “Jesus didn’t really say that,” “I’m cutting my pledge” … yep, we’ve pretty much heard it all.

What these complaints point to, though, is our very human reaction to hearing the Gospel crash into our carefully crafted ego. We all stand in the place of being convicted by the Gospel as falling short of the mark. Whether it’s our world view, or our values, or our habits – we all sin and fall short of the glory of God and we are convicted. So when we hear a disturbing message or don’t like what the preacher says our first reaction is usually to lash out at the preacher, question their credentials, claim they don’t know the Bible, or call the senior warden to complain. I confess, prior to ordination, I did it too … I guess being on the receiving end is poetic justice. John’s Gospel tells us even Jesus lost most of his followers after he preached about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The natural human reaction is to defend the ego at all costs rather than listen to how the Gospel is convicting us. That sounds harsh, but remember: the Gospel convicts us not to condemn us but to convert us.

But the crowd in today’s reading doesn’t react defensively. They don’t let their egos get in the way. They want to know what they should do and this is where it gets real. John gives them a plan of wealth redistribution! If you have two coats, give one away. Yeah … and I opened up my coat closet this week and BAM! I was hit with how many coats I had that I don’t even wear anymore! I was guilty of missing the mark (and for the record, we made a serious Goodwill donation this week … coats and all). Luke then tells us two specific groups of people asking John what they should do: tax collectors and soldiers. Both of these groups were officials serving the Roman government. The tax collectors were Jewish. The Romans used locals as their tax collecting agents because locals knew the neighborhood and who lived there. They were hated as traitors because they collected not just the tax owed, but would shake down their fellow Jews for more than what was owed and pocketed the rest (which Roman law allowed). John tells them to stop defrauding people and only collect what is owed. The soldiers were Romans – hated by the Jews as part of the occupying force who could take whatever they wanted by force. John tells them not to commit extortion by threats or false accusations, essentially stop blackmailing the people, and be satisfied with your wages. These encounters tell us that John’s message wasn’t just for Jews; it was for the whole world. Economic justice is a part of God’s plan of salvation, we all have a part in it and we can’t rest on our laurels and think just because we’re saved that we won’t face judgment: a hard teaching indeed.

Advent is the time when we focus on the end of all things as well as the reality that each of us will die. It’s also a time where we focus on the radical nature of what the coming of Christ really is all about. It’s about the total conversion of our hearts and souls, claimed by Christ in baptism, that we may be fully united with God. Divine union is the goal and we don’t get that on our terms. It comes on God’s terms … and it means, like the tax collector, the soldier and the crowd, we are going to be expected to change. This conversion will mean that there are things we will be asked to leave behind – beliefs, world views, values … all that is constructed by our egos has to be set aside so that Christ can enter our hearts and make us new. It doesn’t always feel good – in fact it usually feels pretty lousy when God rips out our hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh. But it is necessary if we are to be serious about following Christ rather than just admiring him from the sidelines.

So when you hear the equivalent of “you brood of vipers” and the hackles on the back of your neck stand up, remember you have a choice. You can choose to defend your ego … or … you can see these signs of ego stress as the Holy Spirit’s invitation to conversion and a deeper intimacy with Christ. Maybe it’s time to ask God, “What should I do?” and ask for the grace and courage to do it.
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<![CDATA[Hope - Dangerous and Good - Advent 1C]]>Mon, 30 Nov 2015 12:27:50 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/hope-dangerous-and-good-advent-1cStephen King wrote a short story a few years ago entitled Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption which most of you know by the latter half of the title was made into a move back in 1994. It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two convicted men: Andy Dufresne, a white banker who was wrongly convicted of murder, and Ellis “Red” Redding, an African American who was also convicted of murder. Red is the guy who can get things for the inmates and Andy is the quiet brainy ex-banker who becomes the brains of an intricate operation. Andy pulls a stunt which earns him two weeks “in the hole” – solitary confinement. Upon his return in the cafeteria, he sits down with his friends and tells them it was the easiest two weeks I’ve had here. Of course, nobody believes him but he goes on to say that he had “Mr. Mozart for company.” They wonder how he was able to sneak a record player into solitary and Andy replies, “No … it’s here” [pointing to his head] “and here” [pointing to his heart]. He goes on to say that’s what music does – it gets down deep where they can’t get at it and keeps you from forgetting there are better places outside the walls of the prison. It gives him “hope.” Red then tells Andy, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. There’s no use for it on the inside.” Hope is a dangerous thing.

Today we begin a new liturgical year. It is the first Sunday of Advent and every year the first Sunday of the Church year begins with a foreboding reading about the end of all things. We are in the year of Luke and today’s reading takes place in Holy Week. We hear Jesus saying: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Two weeks ago we heard the corresponding reading from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus predicted the end of all things describing a day when “no stone would be left on another.” His disciples then ask “When will these things take place?” Mark’s gospel is believed to be the first written and it was written either immediately before or right after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 66 CE. Temple destruction and its meaning as part of the signs of end times were on Mark’s mind and heart when he told the Jesus story as was the belief Jesus would be coming any day now. Luke, however, was written some 20 or so years after Mark’s gospel – temple destruction is past history. Luke and his community are struggling with the fact that Jesus’ return doesn’t seem as imminent as it did for Mark or even St. Paul. Luke’s concern isn’t so much “when will these things happen?” as much as it is “how do we live this faith right now as we wait?”

We live in a time often described as “already but not yet.” Jesus has already come, lived among us, died, rose and has ascended; but he has not come again and the last chapter has not yet been written by God. We live in that in between time – just like Luke, Mark, Paul, Matthew, John and all the others who bore witness to Jesus as Christ. In this in between time, there have been many wars and rumors of wars. There has been destruction and chaos. But rather than trying to pinpoint the end of all things, Luke give us a message of hope: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus exhorts us not to cower in fear when things get crazy and scary – instead he tells us to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” … in fact, it has already come.

We have seen resurgence in terrorism in the past few weeks which has brought out some very ugly behaviors in some of those who claim to be our leaders and even those who claim to be Christian. I am persuaded that terrorism and violence are not our greatest enemies – fear is our greatest enemy. When we are afraid, we forget who we are and whose we are. We will sell out our values and our beliefs under the false premise that finding a common enemy will somehow make us safer. It even causes us to make enemies out of people who are not. Just as Andy spoke of music being in his head and heart, fear is something which can invade our heads and hearts and really mess up our thinking and actions. Fear is a dangerous thing!

But remember, hope is also a dangerous thing because hope can give you the imagination and spiritual insight to see possibilities beyond the current reality. Our hope is centered in the cross of Christ and the resurrection. It tells us that no matter what and no matter how bad it gets, God is not finished and the final chapter of history is not yet written. This gospel also must be something in our heads and in our hearts: something they can’t take away from you (no matter who the “they” being referred to happen to be). These promises of Scripture need to be in our minds and our hearts so we don’t forget who we are and whose we are – and we dare not let fear into that space!

So when we become anxious over a terrorist attack and begin to fall back into fear, we need to remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption has already been won in Christ Jesus. When we are tempted to scapegoat Syrian refugees and blame “all Muslims” for the behaviors of a relatively small number of radicals, we need to stand up and lift our heads – our redemption is already here! When violence in our cities tempts us to abandon the civil rights of others, we need to stand up and raise our heads … our redemption is already here!

Jesus Christ is the lord of all time and all history. No matter what happens, no matter how bad things may get, our redemption has already been won by Christ on the cross and because of that, we need not fear anything ever. This is the essence of hope which, at the end of the movie, Andy reminds Red: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” So stand up … raise your heads … live in hope … your redemption is already here.
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<![CDATA[Which King will you follow? - Christ the King Sunday]]>Sun, 22 Nov 2015 16:38:39 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/which-king-will-you-follow-christ-the-king-sundayI’ve noticed something recently about interpersonal relationships. When two parties disagree and begin to debate something, have you noticed that there is a tendency to get the last word in? Think about it, two sides have a disagreement and both try to make their case going back and forth. As one party perceives they are “losing” the debate, the anxieties and tensions rise and it seems to result in attempts by both sides to make sure they get the last word. It’s as if we believe if we get the last word, we’ll somehow “win” the argument. I’ve noticed this tendency, both in myself and others, but in truth I’m finding that those who insist on getting the last word are really just anxious and afraid. I suggest this is the case in today’s Gospel passage.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King and we find ourselves on Good Friday hearing again this exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. I took the liberty of adding the first part of the verse following where our lectionary leaves off – where Pilate asks, “What is truth?” We usually like to let Jesus have the last word in lectionary readings, but today I suggest there is a good reason to give what appears to be the last word to Pilate.

Think for a moment about the setting. Pontius Pilate the Roman governor and procurator with the awesome power of empire on his side is facing off with this upcountry troublemaker from Nazareth, Jesus. Jesus appears beaten and bruised, a man who stands in the place to be judged and yet he is not impressed by Pilate’s display of power … and he lets Pilate get the last word. “What is truth?” Jesus lets that question hang without an answer.

I think this shows Pilate to be what he really is: anxious and terrified. Regardless of how much power he appears to have, he really is nothing but a puppet caught between the power of Caesar and seething anger of the Jewish people who are sick and tired of the oppression of Rome. He’s really far more vulnerable than he appears … and he’s scared.

Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t afraid. He tells Pilate about his kingdom and reminds him that if his kingdom was of this world, like that of Caesar, his followers would be launching an armed insurrection … but they aren’t. Because the kingdom Jesus is ushering in is one that does not derive its power from fear like Rome does but instead derives its power from love. This isn’t to say Jesus isn’t experiencing any existential angst of facing his own death, but it is to say he doesn’t let that get in the way of his plan – to lead an insurrection of love. I’m not talking about a love of sweet sentimentality – I’m talking about what the Bible calls a love “strong as death.” It’s a love Jesus taught in his lifetime – to love God, love you neighbor, and yes even to love your enemies. This is love which is hard but it is the only thing which can overcome anxious fear. This is the truth which Jesus embodies – perfect love which casts out fear. And this is what makes Pilate anxious enough to want to get the last word in … because for all of the worldly trappings of power, Jesus stands before him unimpressed and unafraid.

We are living in a time of widespread anxiety and fear, much of it centering on terrorism and especially the so-called Islamic State. In many ways, we are experiencing the same anxiety of Pilate. As Americans, we have all the trappings of wealth and power but we now realize this will not protect us from those who are intent on harm. Or in the words of Moises Naim, the author of the End of Power: ISIS has breached that perimeter that above all defines strong states: a monopoly over violence. The Islamic State terrorists have nothing to lose because they don’t believe this world has anything good to offer them. Terrorism is the language of those who feel like they have no other voice and so spread fear and intimidation. Fear, whether ours or theirs, is the mechanism which begets hatred, greed, and violence.

Jesus did not come into this world to create another system of domination and oppression based on fear. His entire message was that of love: love God, love your neighbor, love your enemies. He opted out of human fear based power games and launched an insurrection of love. He spoke of losing your life for his sake and the sake of the Gospel – not clinging to this life by any means necessary. Jesus knew and accepted a deep truth: we will all die. He knew his time was short, but he also knew that one day Pilate would die, as would Caesar, and Herod, and all the other tyrants who wield power through fear and exploitation. We will all die. And this leaves us with a question: how will you live in this time between your birth and death and what will that stand for? Will you live this life in a state of anxiety and fear, allowing that to warp your thinking into hatred of those who are different? Or will you live this life in a state of love, even if it means risking your life? What mark do you want to leave on this world?

Today, we are baptizing Miriam Lynne into the family of Christ. She will begin her journey like all of us did – at the font. And in this act of baptism, she will begin a journey to follow the Prince of Peace and become part of his insurrection of love. This love is demanding because when we enter it, we no longer have the luxury to choose who we love. That’s right, Christians do not choose who we love or don’t love because Jesus told us to love everyone … absolutely everyone … and this is very, very hard. We don’t just get to love those who love us back – we have to love even those who wish us dead. We can hate their actions but we cannot hate people – we have to love them. This is hard work … the work of a lifetime and we can only do it with God’s help.

On this feast of Christ the King, how will you respond? Will you join the insurrection of love or be trapped by fear and have the life Christ wants for you stolen away? Which king will you follow – the one of this world or Christ? Which one will get the last word?
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<![CDATA[Prayer changes ... me - Proper 25B]]>Sun, 25 Oct 2015 13:43:38 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/prayer-changes-me-proper-25bOne of the most influential books on prayer I ever read was Martin+ Smith’s book The Word Is Very Near You. Martin+ is a priest and the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Massachusetts. Lou Nutter, a senior saint at All Saints Church in Frederick, gave my husband a copy of this book when we were first married and I read it after he did. In that book, Martin+ talks about how we first come to prayer. He describes something which is very familiar to us – we “assume the posture” of prayer, we trot out our laundry list of things to pray about (usually intercessions for others and petitions for ourselves), and then we wait … and we hear … crickets … and it feels like nothing is happening. When we do this for some time, we get frustrated and some give up on prayer. He suggests when we do this, we have the locus of our prayer in the wrong place – we believe it begins with our initiative. He recommends moving the locus of initiative off of us and onto God. In essence, the fact you felt the need to pray is proof that God has already initiated the conversation with you and you have entered into it. Wow! You mean it’s not all about me?? Oh thank God! That one change in perspective really opened up my eyes to prayer in a whole different way. It’s part of what we hear about in today’s conclusion of the story of Job.

Our lectionary gives us the Sparknotes version of Job and we have skipped a lot and today is no exception. But there was something in today’s portion that looped back to prayer. Did you notice what this conclusion to Job said? “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” What is it about prayer being a part of Job’s “restoration?”

First let me recap for those of you who have missed some of this series. I’ve been saying for the past four weeks the story of Job is a parable – it is a folktale which is similar to a number of ancient Near East stories from Sumeria and Babylon: the story of a person who suffers for no apparent reason. It is our story too, isn’t it? In our lives, we will suffer and at times we won’t know why. Sometimes we suffer because of our own choices and we know it … and sometimes we cannot admit our own complicity in our suffering. But sometimes bad stuff just happens for no apparent reason at all. Sometimes we get a glimpse of why in retrospect, but just as often we will never know. This ending of Job where God thunders out of the whirlwind still leaves us not knowing the reason why Job went through what he did. Rabbi Cushner in his book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” suggests part of the reason is that God is not finished with creation and there are a lot of loose ends still being worked out. I find that plausible. His take on God speaking out of the whirlwind is more like God saying, “Hey! You think you can do a better job than me? I’m still working on all this mess!”

If we remember this is a parable and we are left in mystery, then we can approach the ending in a different way. The narrative says “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” I’d like to suggest a different word than “restored” – let’s consider this the “resurrection” of Job. The word “restored” kind of makes it sound like God showed up and said, “Hey, sorry about that. My bad … here’s some replacement stuff and kids.” The truth is, new children cannot replace the ones who died. I find resurrection a more helpful word here because it tells us God moved Job to a different place. Resurrection is never the revivification of what has died – it is moving through death and loss to a new reality. Job is in a new reality because God moved him there … but only after he prayed for his friends.

We are missing a few verses from the lectionary today, so we lose the emphasis on the prayer of Job. After addressing Job, God turns attention to Eliphaz the Temanite (one of Job’s clueless friends). God basically says, “Hey, you three ticked me off! You are clueless about me and you spoke like idiots. You three need to make a burnt offering sacrifice in front of Job and he will pray for you … because you need it!” OK … admittedly that was the AAV (Anjel’s Authorized Version, not available in stores), but you get the gist of it. God again trusts Job to be a righteous person who will pray for his friends. The three friends offer sacrifice, Job prays for them … and then Job is set in a new place after the prayer. God called Job to prayer, Job prays, and then Job is set in a different place – prayer changes the situation.

I couldn’t let go of this because I have experienced something similar in the past month; only instead of praying for my friends, God pulled me into praying for someone who has set himself against me as an enemy – someone who betrayed me deeply. Now I know Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us … but I confess I don’t like that any more than you do! It’s hard for me too.

God called me as is usual when I wasn’t quite awake, you know that half awake/half asleep state we are in at times? I had spent a big chunk of time since this person left my life working through what happened with my therapist and spiritual director. Now I want to be clear, I’m not telling this story because I want to call attention to myself. I’m hoping you hear this is about what God did to put me in a new place, much like Job … but I kind of went with more resistance. I tell you this because I believe in the incarnation and the presence of God working in and through our flawed selves and the only story I have to tell is my experience. So in that state where I wasn’t quite awake, I had a message: “You need to apologize.” My first reaction was, “Are you kidding me?? What do you mean apologize? Did you even SEE what he did to me??” Well, duh, of course God knows what he did! But God also sees what I did and I was caught up short. The message continued, “He may never apologize to you and I know what he did, but you reacted to him in a hurtful way and you are responsible for that.”

OK … fair enough. I did react in a hurtful way. I remember the last time I spoke to this person on the phone. I let loose. I spoke a lot of truth to him … but it was NOT in love. I’d come to the end of my rope with deceptions and lies and I reacted in a way that wasn’t very Christ-like. I think I may have even hung up on him. Now compared to the lies, slander, defamation of my character, and the other evils he directed at me, what I did was pretty small. But God doesn’t care about whether my sin was “lesser” or “greater” – God cares that it was sin … period. God also knew I was stuck and wanting vindication. But what was revealed to me in this call to apologize was that vindication would not look like what I had envisioned. Vindication would not come through his apologizing to me – it would come through owning my brokenness and apologizing. OK … I agreed. Then came the harder request – “before you write the letter, you’ll write an icon … for him as a way to make peace.” I really did not want to do that! I write icons for people who ask me to pray with them. What do you mean write an icon for someone who did what he did? When I resisted, I woke up crying. I hate crying … but I pay attention to it now. It usually means I have something I need to release. OK … an icon it is.

So I wrote an icon and started it at the Chapman Dialogs and I know Bishop Michael Curry’s words on the Liberation of Love were working on me too. Writing an icon is an act of sacrifice … like Job’s friends. It came effortlessly, like it had been pent up trying to get out, and when it was done I really liked it. But I knew it had to go along with my letter of apology which I then wrote. I spoke of my wounded soul and his. I named both of our wounds and how I see we now both struck at each other out of that place of hurt we each have. I told him I was working on this so I wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes in the future. I also told him I did not want to re-enter his life in any way because the likelihood of repeating a destructive pattern of behavior was high and I didn’t need that negativity … nor did he. I wished him peace and healing and told him the icon was a prayer that he might find a way to wholeness. And off it went … through an intermediary … and it was delivered to his workplace.

But here’s where the story gets weird. The very same day this icon and letter was delivered, I received a Facebook message in my “Other” box. Usually those messages are spammy – scams requesting money or guys who thought I was cute and want a date (Seriously? Do they even see that I’m a married priest?? Sheesh!). I did not recognize the name of the sender at first but when I opened the message I was caught short. It was an ex-boyfriend of mine from way back … I mean wayyyy back … 33 years to be exact. He said he thought of me often and wanted apologize for the hurt he caused me. He thanked me for my prayers way back then and said they eventually led him to Christ. Wait … what?? Do you know what my first thought was? “Hey! Who do you think you are barging in on my life after 33 years?” … DOH!!! Yeah … right after I did the same thing to somebody else. Wow. I took a few days to think about this and whether I would respond. I could have ignored it (and I did delete his Facebook friend request) but then I thought, “Where would the grace and mercy be in that?” Clearly, he had carried this burden of what he did for 33 years … and that’s too long. He wanted to clean his side of the street just as I had done. I wrote him a short note. I told him I hoped he understood if I didn’t accept his friend request – it had been too long and we had both moved on. I told him I accepted his apology and thanked him for doing so. I wished him blessings in living the life God had given him to live. He replied: “I understand. Thanks.”

I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of that. I didn’t want to clean my side of the street and apologize for the hurt I caused but clearly something opened up for another person to do the same with me and it lifted a very old burden. I can’t understand the timing on this but prayer moves out in unpredictable ways. In that sense, prayer is a risky enterprise. Prayer moves us to a new place but we don’t always know what the implications of this will be. I rarely understand it, and it doesn’t always work the way I think it will but I know this: it works … for me and for you too.
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<![CDATA[Getting Real - Proper 23B]]>Sun, 11 Oct 2015 22:03:25 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/getting-real-proper-23bWhen I was a visitation pastor at a local Methodist church, I called on elderly members who could no longer get to church regularly. There was one lady named Marie I visited who is now one of our saints in heaven. When I knew her, she had been bed bound for six years. She had a benign brain tumor removed and shortly after had a stroke which left her paralyzed on the left side. She was always in a pleasant mood when I visited – everything was always “fine pastor.” I suspected it wasn’t but like a lot of people, they really don’t want their pastor to know what’s really going on. So one day after I thought she knew me well enough, I asked her a question. I asked, “Marie, do you ever get mad at God?” She grabbed the side of her hospital bed rail with her good hand, hauled herself up to a sitting position and yelled, “Hell YEAH!” It was thunderous. Then she got real. She told me about being furious with a God who would let her rot in a bed for six long years. She said she was sick and tired of being a burden to her daughter and son-in-law. But then she told me she fired her hospice team six years ago because she told them, “You’re all nice people but I’m not going to die yet, so you can leave.” After that, she was honest with me. Some days were good and some just sucked … but it was never a tepid “fine pastor” after that. What does it take to get real? Last week I talked about right relationships being a red thread between the readings from Job and from Mark. I think we’re still on that train because this week it’s about getting real with ourselves and God.

Once again we’re in “one, two, skip a few” land with Job. He’s been hanging out with his boils sitting in ashes and pretty miserable. He has four friends show up to hang out with him and essentially they tell him he must have done something wrong to have all this crap come down on him. Job protests his innocence throughout. And here in chapter 23, we now have Job demanding a hearing before God. I hear echoes of the prophet Hosea in this when the Lord says, “You will call upon my name and I will not answer.” He is also giving a parody of Psalm 139 – “where can I go to flee from your presence?” While the psalmist posits God as everywhere, Job experiences him as the God who has fled and won’t give him a fair hearing. Job is getting real with God. He’s pouring out his complaint – he’s shaking his fist and railing. He’s getting real with God!

In the same way we encounter the story in the gospel today. Now I hate Bibles with headings because those headings are spoiler alerts on a story like this. Most headings say “The Rich Young Ruler” or the “Rich Young Man.” Totally messes up the story! We don’t know he has anything at first, do we? We don’t even know that he’s young. A man runs up to Jesus and kneels down before him to ask, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus seems a bit annoyed in his initial response, but he tells the man he knows the law and recites several passages. The man says he’s “kept all these from my youth” and then we hear that Jesus looks at him and loves him before telling him to go and sell everything he has and give the money to the poor and then follow him. Then the punch line: “…he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” DOH!

While it seems this is a story about wealth and its evils, I don’t think it’s that as much as it is about soul sickness and getting real with God. Yes, Jesus taught much about wealth and how the more we get the more corrupting its influence is. But there are some clues this man is sincere. Let’s begin with how he approaches Jesus – he runs to him and kneels. In almost every healing story, the supplicant kneels or prostrates themselves before Jesus. This is a humble posture, not one of testing or accusation. He seems very sincere but the problem is he doesn’t recognize his soul sickness – his attachment, or addiction, to wealth and how it is getting in the way of his relationship with God. He needs healing but he doesn’t yet know it. The ensuing conversation about wealth and getting into the kingdom is really more about shedding what gets in the way of getting real, in this case the wealth of this man.

Jesus points to a paradox – when you let go of the things which pull you away from your first love, God, you find you have more than you can possibly imagine. It’s about holding things with open hands instead of clenched fists. What might you open your hands over in order to get a little more real with yourself and God? Maybe it’s letting go of something just for today … and if that works, try again tomorrow. What stands in the way of being real with God and living into the kind of freedom Job and the disciples have? What will you release to be more real? You can do it ... for with God all things are possible.
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<![CDATA[Love Wins - Proper 22B]]>Sun, 04 Oct 2015 21:19:11 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/love-wins-proper-22bThis week’s Hebrew and New Testament scriptures seem like the perfect homiletic throw down or a game of “stump the chump.” After getting a touch of Proverbs here, a little Wisdom of Solomon there, and a dash (just a dash mind you) of Esther, now the lectionary compilers decide to give us three weeks of Job! There’s nothing like a little levity to brighten up the end of Year B, is there? Then you couple that with Jesus’ teaching on divorce and it’s like a homiletical minefield. But in the midst of the heaviness, I want to consider there is a tenuous red thread: the question of right relationship.

Virginia Woolf once said, “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” If you’ve read Job before, you probably felt the same way. Rabbi Morris Kosman, the rabbi emeritus of Beth Shalom Congregation in Frederick, once presented a series at the adult forum at All Saints on Job. He told us there is more commentary on that one book than on any other in the whole of Hebrew scripture. I believe it! It is a book that faces the unanswerable questions, “Where is God when everything falls apart?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” These are questions of theodicy. How do we seek God in the dark places of our lives? It is also a book about relationships.

First let’s consider not only God’s servant Job but also the idea he may not have been a real person. His birthplace “Uz” is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible and there’s no corroborating evidence such a place existed. The story even begins like a folk tale: “There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” … “Once upon a time … there was a man named Job.” Sounds like the beginning of a good story, doesn’t it? So rather than seeing this as some historical account, I invite you to consider it is a folkloric parable.

Now our lectionary cuts out most of the first chapter which sets up the story – Job’s seven sons and three daughters are killed prompting Job’s response, “Naked I came into the world and naked I will go. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job does not curse God but instead holds onto God even when disaster strikes. The lectionary portion picks up after this first disaster with the second wager between God and Satan: “Take away everything and Job will curse you,” Satan says. In Hebrew, it reads “the Satan” which translates as “the accuser.” Satan is a servant of the God – the one who strips away the egos and falsities of humanity. Satan has a purpose – to expose the true self. But I do confess the idea this is Job and the Giant Cosmic Wager really makes me uncomfortable (although it would make a great title for a Roald Dahl book – “James and the Giant Peach” – “Job and the Giant Cosmic Wager”). But remembering this is a parable and one about relationships is it possible that God’s wager is really a statement of how much God trusts Job and his relationship with Job? In essence, God is saying, “When the going gets tough Job, I trust you to stay in relationship with me.” This helps explain Job’s response to his wife. While many have been unsympathetic to her because of her telling Job to curse God and die, we need to remember she has also lost her children and now she’s watching her husband suffer too. Maybe she’s just had enough!

Job’s persistent integrity can be viewed as foolish or even a candy-coated prescriptive to how we should respond in times of trouble. If we do that, we do a disservice to the next 35 chapters where Job lays out a pretty serious lament and complaint against God. Job does not roll over and play dead – he comes roaring back against God and against his friends who have lots of advice on what is happening to him. No, this opening to this troublesome parable shows Job who is relentless about remaining in relationship with God no matter what happens, how bad it gets, and how confused and hurt he is. Job trusts God enough to be brutally honest in his relationship with God.

The Gospel reading today is a text which honestly can be cringe worthy. It is often read at weddings and it can, at first glance, feel like an indictment against divorce and divorced persons. Even in the midst of the marriage equality debate, this passage was used to essentially tell heterosexual people to back off because Jesus said nothing about same sex marriage but actually did say something about heterosexual married persons divorcing … again which rubbed salt in the wound of divorced persons. But, what if divorce is not what this passage is about? What if it’s about right relationships instead?

I think a case can be made that divorce is the topic of Jesus’ discourse because that’s the topic raise by the Pharisees. It is the topic but not the issue. Notice how the passage opens up with the words “Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked …” The intention of the Pharisees is to quiz Jesus on the law. “Teacher, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The Pharisees frame this within the context of knowledge of the law. Jesus’ response tells us that while we can follow the letter of the law, law is not the basis of right relationships! Love is the basis of right relationships. This is why the passage ends with Jesus rebuking the disciples for trying to keep the children away from him. Right relationship is rooted in love and love makes a way to open ourselves up to be fully present to others.

Right relationships with God and others is what both of these stories have in common. Trusting God’s presence even when it doesn’t make sense and, as we’ll see next week, even trusting God to lament and pour out our complaint is the model of right relationship Job shows us. Jesus shows us the law isn’t the last word on living in right relationship, especially in his context when divorce was always one sided (only a man could divorce his wife) and women were viewed as disposable property. In our current context, divorce is quite different and I have witnessed many cases where divorce was the event which led to healthier and more respectful relationships between two formerly married persons. That doesn’t always happen, but it happens enough we hear people say, “We’re good friends but we just can’t be married.” In those cases, dissolution of the marriage led to a renegotiated relationship where each of the former spouses could be present to the other in a more loving way than they could when they were married. This once again underscores the point that the law isn’t the last word … love is and love wins.
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<![CDATA[Who are you? - Proper 21B]]>Mon, 28 Sep 2015 00:47:41 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/who-are-you-proper-21bIn the early 19th century, the state of New York outlawed slavery. They emancipated the slaves but not all of them. There was a cut-off date in the law and, if you were born before that date, you would not be granted your freedom. I’d like to think this was born out of a paternalistic concern for older slaves who might to too old to work and make their way in a world of freedom. But nobody asked the slaves if they wanted the law written this way. There was a woman who was a slave in upstate New York – she was big and powerful and still had young children. She could not, however, prove her birthdate and her owners claimed she was born prior to the cut-off date. She could have accepted this news but she didn’t. Instead, she rejected her owner’s definition of her and, gathering up her children, walked off the farm and never looked back. She took a new name in freedom – Sojourner Truth. She went on to become an outspoken abolitionist and feminist arguing for not only the abolition of slavery but also for the suffrage of women. She lived long enough to see the first but did not live to see women, all women, get the right to vote. Sojourner rejected the definition others tried to put on her in favor of a new identity she was called to by God.

Who defines you? That might seem like a strange question but consider we do not leap from the womb with a fully formed personality and sense of identity. Our self-definition comes from the people around us and how we interact with them. Our lives are spent working out this definition – accepting some definitions and rejecting others. Who defines you? Both the Hebrew text from Esther and the Gospel reading from Mark address this question.

I’ve said I have a “love/hate” relationship with the lectionary and today is more the latter than former. This is the one and only time the book of Esther shows up in our lectionary! It’s as if the writers of the lectionary realized they had missed the wisdom literature so they have to put a smattering of it in … and we get the very end of the Book of Esther. Some of you know the story, but a good number don’t and quoting the end of the book is kind of like turning to the last chapter in an Agatha Christie novel to find out “who done it” rather than read the whole thing. So permit me to give you the Sparknotes version of Esther.

Many scholars question whether or not Esther was a real live human being. There is some belief this is a fictional work and there is evidence to suggest this. First, there is no corroborating evidence from other ancient Near East sources documenting a King Ahasuerus. Usually there are other sources that can cross reference nobility from other places. Second, the story line begins in a preposterous way. King Ahasuerus throws a big party and so does his wife Queen Vashti. He demands she come over to his party so he can show her off and she refuses to come. There may be some good reason for this but the king overreacts and his advisors tell him if word gets out all the women in the kingdom will disobey their husbands … the whole thing gets out of hand and Vashti is banished – a pretty extreme response and not very kingly. Then the advisors decide to hold a beauty contest to choose a new wife for the king. There is nothing in ancient Near East literature to suggest this was the way any queen was chosen! So, you see there’s a comic element going on here.

Mordecai, a Jew in exile, puts forth his niece Esther as a contestant in the beauty contest and she wins. She hides her true identity from the king and his advisors, which include the notorious Haman. Now Haman is a “Snidely Whiplash” kind of villain – the kind who tries to undo his nemesis Mordecai and every time he does, it backfires on him. Today we hear about the final backfire – Haman has determined to annihilate the Jews and Queen Esther reveals her true identity to save her people. The very gallows Haman built to hand Mordecai becomes his own death sentence. In the end, we hear of the decree to observe the 14th & 15th of Adar as a feast to remember Queen Esther revealing her true self to save her people – and the Jewish people celebrate this as Purim by eating cookies known as Hamantaschen or “Haman’s pockets.”

The Gospel reading also is about identity and who defines it. John begins by telling Jesus the saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples told him to stop because he wasn’t part of their group! Jesus essentially tells them to quit protecting his brand identity and recognize that anyone who does a work of power in Jesus’ name cannot remain an enemy of theirs. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

But there is a subtext in how Mark is telling this story. This vignette comes on the heels of the conversation about who is the greatest. In the days when the Gospels were written, there were a lot of little communities springing up around the Jesus movement and there were a great variety of understandings of who Jesus was and what his life, death and resurrection meant. This is long before the Nicene Creed was written or any of the church councils convened. So there’s rivalry between the Jesus groups about which ones are the “real Christians” and who are the posers. Mark is addressing this controversy by weaving the story the way he does. John and the disciples are presuming to define the other person and essentially say his ministry in the name of Jesus is not legit. Jesus responds by saying it isn’t important whether they are part of “our group” or not – what counts is doing the things Jesus told us to do.

We still do this as Christians today, don’t we? Various groups define themselves by defining others with rules of exclusion. The most obvious issue that comes to mind is Eucharistic practice – who gets to receive the Eucharist at any given church? Some Christians practice closed Communion where only their members can receive. I’m not just speaking of the Roman Catholic Church – the Orthodox Churches, Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and some Baptists also practice closed Communion. Who defines who can receive is an example of defining one’s self over against another.

Episcopalians do this too … but in a more subtle way. Sometimes we can get to thinking we are “all that and a bag of chips” and believe that we have the best music and most beautiful liturgical practices. Again, that’s defining ourselves at the expense of other Christians – and Jesus says when we do that we are wrong. Anytime we define ourselves by putting our foot on someone else’s neck, we are not embodying the Gospel.

So who defines you and where do we make the error of defining another at their expense? The truth is there is only one identity which matters to us. It’s our identity as “child of God” … and even more than that: “beloved child of God.” Our human tendency towards striving to be special and set apart is nothing more than vanity and ego. The truth is our best and greatest identity is found in God and being claimed in Baptism as Christ’s own forever. Beloved children of God is who we really are – and that is enough.
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<![CDATA[Inconvenient faith - Proper 18B]]>Sun, 06 Sep 2015 14:50:13 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/inconvenient-faith-proper-18bHis name was Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. If he had lived in the United States, or the UK, Japan, Australia or Western Europe, he might have been starting preschool right about now. Instead, his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach this week. Aylan, his mother and 5 year old brother all drowned at sea trying to escape the violence in Syria. This picture struck hearts around the world. Over 4 million people have fled not only the Syrian civil war but also the threat of ISIS and their recruiting of children as soldiers. When one embarks on the open ocean in a small boat or enters the back of a tractor trailer truck for transport it is for one reason: staying where you are is more frightening than taking your chances on leaving. It is estimated there are over 4 million people of Syrian origin who have fled the country and that 25% of all refugees worldwide are Syrian. And this isn’t a foreign thing to us here at Grace Church. Our friend Abed who owns the Potomac Street Grill, is from Syria and still has family there.

The response of the world to this crisis has been mixed. Turkey has already resettled 1.6 million Syrian refugees. Jordan has been flooded with them too. But European countries and the United States have been slow to respond. The official word from the Icelandic government last week was that they could accommodate 50 refugees … 50. Seriously Iceland … 50?

This week’s gospel reading shows us a similar desperation and a very rude response by Jesus. In the village of Tyre, which is located in modern day Lebanon and just west of the Syrian border, Jesus enters a house and is hoping not to be discovered. But when word gets out, a Syrophoenician woman comes and throws herself at his feet in humble prostration to beg him to heal her daughter of a demon. Jesus responds in a manner which is shocking: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s right … he not only refused, he called her a dog.

There are scholars who want to refine and clean up Jesus’ intentions and words here. They will tell you this was just a case of Jesus testing the woman’s faith. I’m not buying that. I’m not buying that primarily because it doesn’t do justice to the text or to Jesus. I have trouble believing that the Son of God, who has shown mercy to others, is going to proverbially kick this woman when she is down. That posits a God who is sadistic and cruel – one just waiting for us to be in a vulnerable position so he can stick it to us and test our faith. I rather can find myself understanding this through the lens of Jesus as fully human. If we look at the progression in the Gospel of Mark, we cannot understand his response to the Syrophoenician woman as a typical response to a Gentile in need. Two chapters ago, we heard the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac in the region of the Decapolis. He didn’t have a problem healing him … so why this response to this woman in particular?

I think Mark gives us a clue at the beginning of the reading. “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Why would he leave Galilee and go to the ancient land of Phoenicia? Perhaps, he wanted to get away from the demands of his ministry. He needed a break. He was exhausted. I don’t know about you, but when I’m exhausted, I get a little cranky. Who knows? Maybe his blood sugar was low too! No matter … he didn’t want to be detected for a reason – he likely needed a break. But that was not to be and I think we can gauge the difference in Jesus’ interactions with the Gerasene demoniac and this woman by who initiated the contact. If you recall, the Gerasene demoniac ran up to Jesus, bowed down before him and the legion of demons begged Jesus to be left alone … because Jesus had tried to cast out the demons. From the way Mark tells this story, it appears that Jesus is choosing to engage with the demon possessed man. The man does not ask for anything but to be left alone. In contrast, the Syrophoenician woman makes a demand on Jesus asking for her daughter to be healed. She might not have asked for herself – but a desperate mother will do anything, even endure humiliation, for the sake of her child. Jesus is not in control of this encounter – she has been the agent of action on him not the other way around like it was with the demoniac. She has inconvenienced him and intruded on his private time and he responds rudely. Notice too, that after she gives her retort, Jesus ends the encounter abruptly: “For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.” This is no Hallmark moment and Jesus doesn’t commend her faith or say anything to her other than her desire had been granted. He still seems a bit cranky.

I think it no coincidence that Jesus has a similar encounter with the man who is deaf and mute. He returns to the Decapolis and “they brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.” Who are “they?” Honestly, we don’t know, but now we hear a group (they) are begging Jesus to heal another person. The word begging is link here – both “they” and the Syrophoenician woman beg Jesus on behalf of another. This time Jesus complies and in one of three points in Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus speak in his native language of Aramaic: Ephaphtha! Be opened!

It seems to me these two stories together are telling us something of the nature of ministry and of Jesus’ growing understand of who he is. Rather than clean up Jesus and make excuses for him, I’d rather hold that Jesus did not come into his ministry having all the details worked out. Unlike Athena who sprang fully formed from the mind of Zeus, Jesus is human and his own self-awareness and understanding of what it means to be Son of Man and Son of God is evolving in his own lifetime. He knew the prophesies about Messiah coming to the Children of Israel, but he didn’t quite realize until this encounter that the world, the others beyond his own people, would come to him and yes, make demands of him. He realizes he cannot control when or where the needs of others will arise and when and where he will need to respond. Ephaphtha, to be opened, is a statement not only for the deaf man’s ears and tongue, but also of Jesus’ heart to embrace a new understanding of what the demands of a hurting world will place at his feet.

This is also true for each and every one of us. Today’s admonition from James reminds us that faith without works is dead. Turning a blind eye when the needs are in front of you does not honor God and makes our faith a sham. The Gospel shows the demands of a hurting world are not always going to show up when it is convenient for us. They will come at us when we are tired and cranky – when we believe we have nothing left. It is in these moments where we are called to remember it is not ourselves we proclaim and it is not the power merely within us that will respond but that God will supply what we need to act. Our call is to be opened, ephaphtha! Be ready to see the need and respond.

The Icelandic people did just that this week. After their government said they could only take 50 refugees from Syria, two people went onto Facebook and called Icelanders to action. “Who knows? We might be welcoming your next doctor, or a baker, or a drummer for your band!” Over 10,000 Icelanders heard the call and promised to open their homes, provide for the needs of the refugees, teach them their language, help them with jobs – whatever it took to help their sisters and brothers in need. This is the Christian response! This is being opened to the possibilities in faith instead of fear. This is what we are called to do and to be for the sake of the world … and the next Aylan.
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