Worship, Learn, AND Serve – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it below.


I’m not sure why, but recently, it seems I have been engaged in more than my fair share of conversations about our mission and vision.  It was just a few weeks ago that I based an entire sermon on our mission statement, so I don’t really want to rehash all of it here, but this week, I realized something that I feel I need to share with you.  After more than six months of living with and speaking aloud our mission statement, I came to the realization that it is strung together with an “and” and not an “or.”  We are a community of Christ’s servants who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, AND radiate God’s love to all.  This means that in addition to our mission being a statement about who we are as a community, I think it also serves as a call for each of us as individuals.  It isn’t that some are over here doing the worship bit, while others worry about learning and growing, and still others are in the kitchen radiating God’s love.  Rather, we are each called to engage in all three areas of mission and ministry here at Christ Church.  Worship is the proper response to God’s grace.  Being a disciple literally means being a student of the teachings of God.  The fullness of our life in Christ is exemplified in the ministry of service, reaching out and radiating God’s love to all.  Sure, each of us is maybe better equipped to fulfill one part of this mission than the others, but the truth of the matter is that all are called to serve God by way of worship, discipleship, and outreach.

In my experience, it is most difficult to convince people to engage in the outreach component of the life of faith.  We get showing up for worship, and most of us enjoy learning about God, but for some reason, many have been convinced that the call to serve is reserved for a small group who are particularly gifted in some way.  “Oh, I can’t cook.”  “I couldn’t possibly help with Room in the Inn.”  “I wouldn’t know what to say if I visited someone in the hospital.”  Most members of most congregations are quite content to write checks so that somebody else can radiate God’s love on their behalf.  Here at Christ Church, however, we are not “or” Christians.  We are “and” Christians.  Our Gospel lesson for today makes it clear that following Jesus requires us, all of us, to serve.

This story immediately follows last week’s lesson about Jesus healing a demon possessed man in the Synagogue at Capernaum.  As the crowd buzzed with excitement about the authority of Jesus’ teaching and his ability to cast out demons, Jesus and his disciples retired to Simon Peter’s house for the evening.  Upon arriving there, the group was made aware that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had taken ill.  The substantial news coverage of the number of people who have died from the flu this year might remind us that a fever isn’t as innocuous as we have come to believe.  In a world before antibiotics, Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever could very well have been a death sentence.  At the very least, and like every other illness and demon possession in Marks’ Gospel, her fever had rendered her as good as dead by keeping her from the fullness of her ministry and setting her outside of her relationships.

Here I feel the need to pause to make mention of how this text has been used very poorly in the past.  Too often, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has been told as a story that was meant to “keep women in their place” by highlighting that her ministry was a ministry of service.  Some translations say that after she was healed she “began to wait on them” or “prepared a meal for them,” and while that was the traditional role of women in first century Palestine, what Mark describes happening is of much deeper significance.

First, we should note that Jesus did not heal Peter’s mother-in-law in the same way he healed many in the crowd later that evening.  In the Greek, Jesus did something far greater than heal her.  Jesus raised her up.  It is the same word John uses to describe what happened to Lazarus.  It is the same word that Mark will later use to describe the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Day.  What Jesus did for her was far more powerful than the many healings he would do that evening.  He turned her weakness into strength.  He raised her from her as-good-as-deadness and restored her to fullness.  It didn’t take her any time at all to recuperate. Immediately she got up and served them.

As I noted just a moment ago, it is upon this word “serve” that plenty of bad theology has been built.  Rather than being a proof-text for why women shouldn’t be ordained or preach or teach in seminaries, what Mark is actually saying here is that she ministered to them.  The Greek word translated as “serve” is diakonai, from which we get the word Deacon.  It could be said that Peter’s mother-in-law was the first Deacon in the Christian Way.  Well before Philip, Stephen, and the rest, she was set apart in a ministry of table service and support.  Rather than a text that can be used to subjugate the call of women into ministry, this story seems to be an invitation to see women as fully part of the Gospel work from the very beginning.

Even more important is how Mark uses this word elsewhere in his Gospel.  While Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil after his baptism by John, Mark says that Angels waited (diakonai) on him. When Jesus was crucified, Mark tells us that all his male disciples fled.  Judas turned him over to the Temple Authorities, Peter denied him three times, and the other ten were nowhere to be found.  Yet, in that moment of pain and sadness, several women were there.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, are named, but there were others.   These were the women, Mark tells us, who had accompanied Jesus as disciples while he was in Galilee, and who had provided for him, served him, ministered to him, diakonai’d for him, along the way.  It is not unreasonable to think that, even though her son-in-law had failed his Lord that day, maybe Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was still there, supporting Jesus in prayer and grief.

Finally, Jesus even uses diakonai to describe his own ministry in Mark 10:45.  My New Testament Professor, John Yieh, called this verse the key to understanding Mark’s Gospel.  “For the Son of Man came not to be served (diakonai), but to serve (diakonai) and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  For those who follow Jesus, service (diakonai) is the basic building block of discipleship.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, then, is not healed simply to fulfil her role as a 1st century woman or to serve as the exemplar of what women are called to be in the church, but in being raised up to serve, she is the first true disciple of Jesus Christ.

Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from her fevered bondage in order that she might live fully into her identity as a disciple through loving service.  We who have been set free from our bondage to sin are called to the same.  We are called to worship by acknowledging the holiness of God in word, song, and sacrament.  We are called to learn and grow by engaging in practices of discipleship and Christian formation so that we can deepen our relationship with God through Christ.  AND, we are called to serve, diakonai, by working for justice and peace; by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger; and by visiting the sick and imprisoned.  We may not perform the same sort of miracles that Jesus did, but we can serve with the same goal in mind: joining with God in restoring all people to right relationship with God and with one another and living into the abundant life of grace.  Ultimately, we worship, we learn, AND we serve because it is who God calls us to be in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Advertisements

He Healed Many?

One of the more challenging components of Sunday’s Gospel lesson is how a preacher chooses to handle Jesus’ ministry of healing.  This issue comes up quite often, especially as it pertains to the mass healings that Jesus took part in during his earthly ministry.  These events raise real concerns for those of us who are engaged in pastoral care and believe in the power of prayer.  “Why did Jesus heal so-and-so, but let my child suffer?” is a real and honest question.  One for which there is no answer.

This is made all the more difficult as Biblical scholars make new advancements in understanding the Greek language and its idioms.  The King James Version, Young’s Literal Translation, NRSV, NIV, and even NLT all translate Mark 1:34 with the English word “many.”  “He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”  This translation is helpful because many doesn’t mean all.  Ergo, we see that even in these mass healing events, Jesus didn’t heal everyone.  There were, presumably, reasons for that.  We have no idea what they are, but we do know that even Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, died again, one day.  Death is batting 1.000.  Always has.  Always will.  (Yes, I’m aware of the mythology surrounding Enoch, Elijah, and Mary.)

What happens when many doesn’t mean many?  There is a shift afoot amongst liturgical scholars to shift the language of the words of institution in the Eucharist away from many and toward all.  Unlike the soft theology around Communion without Baptism, this isn’t being done under the safe blanket of “inclusion” or “hospitality,” but rather, with Biblical scholarship in hand.  In their notes on the changes in Eucharistic Prayers in Enriching our Worship 1, the SCLM elaborates on this shift from “many” to “all.”

The use of “all”… in the institution narrative emphasize that forgives of sins is made available to all through Christ’s sacrifice.  While the Greek word is literally translated “many,” biblical scholars have pointed out that in the context of the passage it means that the sacrifice is made not just for a large number of persons, but for all humanity. (77)

This may not be true in every usage of the word, but it seems reasonable to think it might apply in this case.  Or, if not, it at least raises the question.  If Jesus healed many, couldn’t he have healed all?  There are ways to talk about this that don’t fall into cheap platitudes like “God has a plan.”  Sometimes, it comes down to the difficult discussion of what healing actually looks like.  Isn’t death the ultimate healing?

em_gc279_gods_plan_empathy_2_1024x1024

I don’t have the answers, but I’m happy to raise the questions.  If you are preaching about Jesus’ healing ministry, how do you plan to handle the challenges it raises?  Will you talk about the differences between many and all?  Are you prepared to engage those whom you will lose in your sermon before the Gospel is done being read?  It is a difficult Sunday to preach, dear reader, and you are in my prayers.

Free of Charge?

0010700807220_cf_default_default_large

It being the last day of the month, payday has arrived for the employees of Christ Episcopal Church.  I enjoy payday.  I suppose most people do.  There is, if only for a moment, infinite hope on payday.  “Imagine what I can do with this money,” I think to myself, before I sit down and pay the bills.  “Wow, that went fast,” is usually my next thought.

There is a certain irony in being a clergy person reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 on payday.  As the lesson opens up, Paul talks about his motivation for preaching the Gospel.  His story is about as profound as any.  It is clear that the man who was once a persecutor of the Gospel would have never decided on his own to follow Jesus.  No, for Paul, as for all of us, it is a calling.  The prodding of the Holy Spirit, a deep relationship with Jesus, and a yearning for the Kingdom of God have brought him to the place where he is willing to travel the known world and risk his life to proclaim the Good News.

His reward for faithfully following the call of God?  Well, I’ll let Paul tell us, “that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”

Free of charge…

I am well paid.  Some days, I think I am too well paid, though my bank account does not reflect that thought, and if you tell my Vestry, I’ll say you are lying.  In more than a decade of being paid while working as a minister of the Gospel, I, like many of my sisters and brothers, have had to work out an understanding of what that means, and how it jives with these words from Paul to the Corinthians.  Others have worked out other understandings, and many pastors out there still follow Paul’s mode and work as 21st century tent makers.  What I have found helpful is the careful use of language.  If you are skeptical of organized religion, you might call it semantics, which I also understand.

We live in a world in which money must be offered in exchange for goods and services.  Over the years, clergy have been paid in various ways from currency to eggs, bread, meat, and wine, but now-a-days, we have to be paid in what former NFL wide receiver, Randy Moss calls “straight cash homie.”  Despite Paul’s own tendency to go without pay, he acknowledges the fact that even church leaders should be paid in 1 Timothy 5:17-18.  Where the challenge lies, I think, is divorcing pay from work done or tasks accomplished.  This is why I prefer to call the money paid to ordained clergy a stipend rather than a salary.

I am not paid by Christ Church to preach a good sermon or to visit someone in the hospital or to plan a decent liturgy.  I am paid by Christ Church so that I don’t have to work somewhere else while trying to follow God’s call to make disciples, preach the Gospel, and care for souls.  The difference is nuanced, and I get that, but I think it is important.  In line with Paul, I believe that clergy are not paid as a reward for preaching the Gospel.  Instead, we are paid in order to have the freedom to fulfill our obligation to preach the Gospel.  Either way, I’m glad its payday.

The First Deacon

rembrandt-mother-in-law

Rembrandt’s sketch of Jesus and Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law

As I read my go-to resources in sermon preparation this week, I’m noticing an undercurrent of discomfort with the story of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law.  It seems to stem from a common misreading of the text, which has led it to be a straw-man argument for those would say that the role of women in the church (and, by extension, in the world) is in the kitchen, preparing meals, organizing receptions, and holding teas.  I’m not suggesting that this reading of the text shouldn’t make us uncomfortable.  It most certainly should.  Rather, I’d like to suggest that we shouldn’t allow bad exegesis the power it holds over this text.  Instead of throwing this story away as an example of 1st century subjugation of women, perpetuated, and later enshrined in the Church, I want us to read this story with the wider Gospel narrative in mind.  I’d like us to dig beyond our discomfort with the modern English translations, and do the hard work of understanding what lies beneath.

Taken as a part of the larger story, the story of Peter’s mother-in-law being healed and then “serving” Jesus and his disciples is really a story about the impact that women had on the Jesus Movement from its very inception.  Throughout the Gospels and even into Acts, we are told of the role that women played in not just preparing meals and tending to the needs of Jesus and the disciples, but also how they gave of their sometimes significant financial resources to make sure the ministry tour could continue.  The Marys, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, Lydia, and the daughters of Deacon Philip all play integral roles in the spread of the Gospel during Jesus’ life and well into the first generation of the Church.

In Mark’s Gospel, this pattern begins with the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and it begins in a very specific way.  While the NRSV translates what she did as “serving,” the Greek word diakonai is where we get Deacon.  It could be said that Peter’s mother-in-law was the first Deacon in the Christian Way.  Well before Philip, Stephen, and the rest, she was set apart in a ministry of table service and support.  Rather than a text that can be used to subjugate the call of women into ministry, this story actually seems to be an invitation to see women as fully part of the Gospel work.

It is, of course, only a beginning.  Much in the same way this text is used to keep women in the Church kitchen, it could also be used to keep them set apart only as Deaconesses.    This could be the great unintended consequence of my reading of this text.  In my own tradition, I can see how a text like this one continues to have a profound impact on how ordained women are called to leadership positions like Cardinal Rectors, Cathedral Deans, and the Episcopate.  Because of where this text falls in the Gospel narrative, and because, later, Mary Magdalene will be called to Apostleship by the Risen Christ, I see this text as a way to re-frame the conversation, to think in bigger ways about how God’s call is open to all people, and to name and repent of the ways in which the Church has used bad readings of texts like this one in abusive ways.  We can’t let our discomfort with a bad reading of this text keep us from living into how this text actually begins to show us the dream that God has for the Church.

All Things

do-all-the-things1

My brain is currently engaged in a seminary cliche.  I am “living in tension” between the scriptures and the realities of life.  This past weekend, I was with the Bishop and Trustees and Council of the Diocese of Kentucky on a retreat.  That word was used in the corporate sense of getting away from everyday life in order to accomplish work, rather than the religious sense of quiet and contemplation.  As such, we did all the things one would expect on a working retreat.  We watched a video, we had small group discussions, and we gave large group feedback.  We ate snacks.  I consumed large amounts of mediocre camp coffee.  Like all good Episcopalians, the group drank plenty of LaCroix.

During one of our breakout sessions, we were discussing the image of the church as hired hand in the Parable of the Sower.  As we talked about what stones needed to be removed from the garden, and how we might offer shade to tender plants threatened by the heat, someone said, “We can’t be all things to all people, even though we have been called to serve all people.”  My ears perked up at that comment.  My gut reaction was to hearken to Paul, who, told the Church in Corinth that, in fact, he had tried to be all things to all people, so that, by all means, he might save some.  “No, I thought to myself, we are called to be all things to all people.”  Then, my brain responded with one of my usual sayings, “We can’t out Baptist the Baptists.”

Like so many working retreats, I didn’t really expect to spend much time thinking about these things once I had reentered real life.  These are, so often, just thought exercises that are not intended to produce any fruit beyond being an excuse to spend more time away from home.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the lessons for Sunday, and read those very words from Paul to the Christians in Corinth.

It is easy to read Paul’s words as hyperbole.  We know, from his other writings, that he did waffle a bit on eating meat, on food sacrificed to idols, and on circumcision.  He did attempt to make room in the reign of Christ for as many people as possible, but even Paul had his limits.  He could never really be all things for all people.  He could, and did, cast a wide net.  One of the gifts that the Episcopal Church has to offer is an ongoing understanding of casting a wide net.  We are willing to allow people the time and the space to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, but even here, there are limits.  Or, at least, there should be.  As has been said, God will accept you right where you are, but loves you to much to let you stay there.

We’ll never be able to, as the meme says, “do all the things,” but we can work to make the Kingdom of God as accessible as possible so that by all means we might save some.  In the end, that’s the goal, isn’t it?  To share the Gospel, to make disciples, and to send out Apostle?  In the interim, the details are only a part of the process of formation.

Who would like to be healed?

Perhaps the better question is “who wouldn’t like to be healed?”  In this Sunday’s passage from Mark, we find Jesus in Capernaum after his first sermon and the casting out of a demon in the Synagogue.  That all happened on the Sabbath, but Mark doesn’t indicate that there is any controversy about that particular Sabbath healing.  He is, however, clear to note that what happens next, happens “at sundown.”  The Sabbath is over when the whole town turns up at Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s house for help.  The construction of the NRSV is interesting to me.  “That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.”

As I read the passage this afternoon, I began to wonder, was the whole city in need of healing?

Biblical Greek didn’t utilize capitalization or punctuation and word order wasn’t really a thing.  What we have is the best guess of the scholars doing the work of translation as to what the original authors meant.  What that means, however, is that we can’t be sure that we’ve got the full meaning of the text before us.  Young’s Literal, a late 1800s translation that I just learned was licensed to BibleWorks by The Institute for Creation Research, a Dallas-based non-profit and “a leader in scientific research within the context of biblical creation,” which means I may never use it again, translates Mark 1:32-33 in this way, “And evening having come, when the sun did set, they brought unto him all who were ill, and who were demoniacs, and the whole city was gathered together near the door…”  For what its worth, the Greek uses as series of “kai’s” (and) to string together verses 32-44, so that they read, “and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this…”

If Jesus showed up in my town, and started healing people, you can bet that everyone would be there in search of some help.  When we’re honest with ourselves, don’t all of us, on some level, wish we could be healed?  Some wish to be healed of physical infirmities, some want healing from disease, some need healing from mental anguish, or the pain of the past, or the fear of the future, or the hurts of the now.  Everyone could use the healing touch of Jesus in their lives.  He may not still be walking the earth, but we are, and if we truly believe that the Church is the body of Christ, then part of our responsibility is to do his work of healing in the world around us.  It isn’t easy work, and we won’t always be successful, but with the help of the abundance of God’s grace, we take our place in a long line of healing ministers and act as the hands, heart, and ears of Christ.

The time they hunted down Jesus

It is always interesting to me when a word seems to appear in Scripture, seemingly out of the blue. I’ve been preaching the Lectionary for almost a decade now, that’s three full cycles, and I think I’m noticing a word for the very first time this morning. The scene in Mark’s Gospel is a familiar one. Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and in turn, the whole city comes to see what this Rabbi from Nazareth is up to. They’ve heard him teach, they saw him cast out demons, but now he is healing infirmities, actual diseases. He has raised the stakes.

Early in the morning, Jesus must have been a morning person, he got up and went in search of some quiet time with his Father to rest and recharge. Mark tells us that Simon and his companions “hunted for him.” I’ve never noticed that word “hunted” before. Maybe it is because I’m not a hunter. I grew up the son of a factory line supervisor. The Monday after Thanksgiving was the opening day of deer season in Pennsylvania, and my dad was in the bindery working while his crew was out in the forest hunting bambi. Hunting has never been a part of my life, so perhaps I just didn’t notice the word because it didn’t mean anything to me.

For some reason, this morning, it hit me. When they find Jesus, they tell him that everyone is searching for him. Searching is one thing, hunting is another. Now, I’m writing this in a Dunkin Donuts in Daphne, AL, so Bibleworks is not at my disposal, and I’m honestly wondering about this word “hunting.” Hunting to me insinuates a desperate search. Simon and the gang really wanted to find Jesus, probably not so he could keep healing people, though that’d be nice, but because they wanted to follow him. They hunted him down in order to stay with him, to learn from him, to be a part of what he was doing.

Plenty of people are searching for Jesus these days. They may not know that’s what they are looking for, but in many cases, it is. They feel empty or sad or are in need of healing and grace, and they search. They search the bottom of a bottle or a pipe full of smack. They search brothels and shopping malls. They seek to fill the void in all sorts of ways. Eventually, perhaps, they find themselves hunting for Jesus, desperate to find the key to life abundant. I wonder, have you ever found yourself hunting Jesus down?