A sermon reflection for Proper 23, Year B, given at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, WA, October 14.
Amos 5.6-7,10-15
Hebrews 4.12-16
Mark 10.17-31

Today’s readings make me sweat a little under the collar, they always have (perhaps they always should). The way I tend to read them is that either you give away the farm to those who are in greater need than you, or you’re selfish for holding onto any material gain—and God knows when I’m being selfish! Where is the grace in that? Today we are faced with two renditions of the ‘woe to the wealthy’ literary formulae. The passages from Amos and Mark are squarely aligned with a long prophetic tradition that culminates in Jesus’ teachings on the upside-down kingdom of God, where the last are first and the first, last. I take some relief—and I hope you do, too—knowing that the disciples were exceedingly perplexed by these teachings.

The other challenge with these texts is that they are riddled with a number of familiar phrases that stand out from years of hearing and reading scripture. Who here has heard a sermon or two on the ‘rich young ruler’? Or, how about cherry-picked phrases like, “for God all things are possible.” Lesser in popularity–though a personal favorite of mine–comes from the letter to the Hebrews. Certain Protestant traditions are not terribly keen on the priestly language, but who can forget the “word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword…able to judge thoughts and intentions of the heart.” There’s nothing quite like the image of getting spliced open by the Holy Spirit to spur on fervent prayer.

And then the saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” That one has kept me awake from time to time (especially when I find myself preaching on it). In fact, on my bookshelf at home sits one of Peter Brown’s formidable tomes with that very title: Through the Eye of a Needle: wealth, the fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. In a mere 500+ pages, he charts out a 200 year history of the early church’s relationship with money and a falling empire. It is a history of soul searching and mixed responses. Throughout the church’s history, there have been times when Lady Poverty was (or continues to be) honored to great effect, and other times when she has been neglected in the corner. As we heard last week, Saint Francis was one who elevated her to renewed status. And to this day, the subsequent monastic tradition of the Franciscans continues to instruct us on the way of self-denial. Their approach remains one among many. We may not come to conclusive agreement on notions like “wealth” and “stewardship”—or even who is wealthy, or who is responsible for stewarding resources—this is one needle that will continue to prick us, the church, for a very long time.

Wealth and justice are fully intertwined in today’s texts. In Amos, we learn that the Israelites who have accrued wealth have also neglected justice. In the gospel reading, Jesus lovingly suggests to a potential disciple that he exercise radical generosity. In the Hebrews text, wealth and justice are addressed through discernment of thoughts and intentions, and we are reminded (echoing Amos) that there will come a day when we open our books to none other than God in Christ.

I want to invite us to listen closely to these hard teachings, together. And, following the letter to the Hebrews, let’s invite the Spirit to bring discernment, to illuminate our way, as we move toward the seat of grace. (Come, Holy Spirit.)

~~~

As I was sitting with these passages, allowing them to be both familiar and yet alien, a phrase in Amos stood out in its repetition: “in the gate.” It shows up three times. The first instance states, “they hate the one who reproves in the gate.” The second instance shifts from ‘they’ to ‘you,’ meaning Amos’ listeners, the Israelites, “and push aside the needy in the gate.” Finally, the third changes verb tense to a directive, “establish justice in the gate.” In the repetition of this one phrase Amos spells out a fairly clear picture of what is wrong within the nation of Israel at that moment, and the remedy for what needs to happen to correct.

But why a gate? What is important about the gate? In the ancient world, they were the thresholds into a city where people gathered daily. Vendors occupied market stalls, elders adjudicated cases, gossip percolated. Imagine something like a city plaza—an open area between two passageways—and that comes close to how gates in ancient cities functioned. The heart of a city could be discerned by noticing what activities occurred at the gate. Do widows and the poor receive food? Are the cases of less wealthy citizens heard with the same sobriety as those with status and influence? How do vendors price their goods, and how are they treated by authorities? In other words, how wealth and justice are performed, how they interact, in the gate defines an urban culture, and is a primary concern for God.

At the first mention of the gate, an undefined ‘they’ has targeted ‘one who speaks truth’ as an enemy. Amos being a prophet, happens to be one who speaks truth—it’s his job description, you could say. Given the nature of the prophetic message, the ‘they’ here is likely to point to those in positions of power and authority who may or may not be among the prophet’s listeners, but they are certainly perturbed by the message. In the second instance, what should be a visual cue in the form of vulnerable persons is, quite literally, pushed aside altogether. The prophetic voice has been silenced, and now visible need is not only ignored, but forcibly moved. The third instance offers an opportunity to turn things around. Seeking good, loving good, looks like (re)establishing justice in the gate/out in public—sharing bread and beverage with those who do not own fields or have the ability to make their own food, listening to wisdom from those who know and follow the way of the Lord, dealing honorably with one another (and not taking bribes or using privilege for gain). If only the people would seek God and live.

At this point in our journey through the texts, we could go down the path of constructing a political agenda that would be faithful to scripture. Or we could come up with all kinds of social commitments that would keep us busy, for the sake of the kingdom. I certainly have my biases in this department; perhaps you have one or two. In Mark’s gospel, too, it seems pretty clear that economic justice here on the earth has something to do with the kingdom of heaven. Yet, I believe we would miss something important if we only read this to further a cause. So, what might we find in the particulars of this encounter?

A rich man runs up to Jesus, kneels down, calls him “Good Teacher,” and asks what can he do to inherit eternal life. He does this, not when Jesus is teaching somewhere publicly already, where he would have to angle his way through a crowd, but when Jesus and the disciples are on the way (to Jerusalem). Presumably, Jesus had already been teaching in that area—had the rich man gone to hear him and been impressed? Or had he heard about this man, Jesus, and decided to catch him on his way out of town (kind of like getting a back stage pass)? Why would the man call him “Good Teacher” instead of “Rabbi,” which was more common? The scene Mark paints illustrates an aggrandized display of deference on the part of the rich man—who perhaps thinks very highly of himself to make such a showing. Jesus doesn’t exactly respond accordingly. (He never does.) Notice that when he recites the commandments, an extra one is thrown in. Recognizable are, no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness, and honoring one’s father and mother. To these Jesus specifically inserts “no defrauding.” Naturally, the man says he’s followed the rules since his youth, but it would seem he doesn’t quite catch that extra one. Jesus addresses those commandments that deal with how we treat one another, then includes another term that explicitly points to economic and power differentials. When that passes the rich man by, he reiterates by saying, “you lack one thing; go [get up], sell what you own [land, property], and give [the proceeds] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus looks at this man, loves him, and attempts to redirect his gaze from eternal life, to seek good exactly where he is.

Perhaps this form of redistribution sounds familiar; remember the command concerning the year of jubilee, when the land and all people are to have a sabbath year? Early on, the Israelites are instructed, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants…In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another.” (Lev. 25.10,13-14) This command had social, economic, political implications (and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, was never practiced), and in the moment between Jesus and the rich man, the reverberations of jubilee are intended to strike a chord within the rich man, calling him to turn away from material status, to follow Jesus (the Messiah) into a new way, into life. The story of the rich man is just as much about the larger socioeconomic systems of disenfranchisement as it is an invitation to an individual to seek out and to love justice.

~~~

As we see in today’s readings, seeking good is locational. In Amos, it happens in the very public place of the city gate. In Mark’s gospel, it happens on the road, along the way, as Jesus himself is facing the gates of Jerusalem.

Glines Canyon dam removal 3Sep14 USGS Jeff Duda

Credit: Jeff Duda, U.S. Geological Survey, Western Fisheries Research Center

Recently, I watched a documentary film that offers an example of (re)establishing justice in a place, and in such a way that brought disparate communities together. The Return of the River is a film, released in 2014, that follows the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, over on the Olympic Peninsula. It follows the flow of the river itself, from the mountains out to the Strait, then back again as salmon swim upstream to return for spawning. And it follows the dream of one man to bring electricity and industry to this furthermost corner of the United States, which he did. At the time the dams were built, timber was a vital industry. It employed and fed families in the Port Angeles area, and the dams provided affordable power to a great many people. Yet, for the good they did, they also cut off entirely an essential conduit of salmon and trout from the sea to the inland portions of the river. The priorities of one community superseded the local indigenous communities, as was the case more often than not at that time. Until the mid-1990s when the timber industry was in transition, and environmentalists started to petition for the removal of the dams—an unprecedented proposal. It took nearly two decades for a plan to come to fruition, but eventually, these engineering feats were blasted back to rubble, the river flowed, and the fish returned. (I cried, through the whole thing.) This is not everyone’s definition of justice, however, it is one example of what it can look like to honor those who have been economically, politically, even religiously pushed aside.

Loving good is particular to the individual heart/soul just as it is locational. We are all invited to follow the way of Jesus, each according to the way Jesus calls us. This does not mean that we may remain naïve to the systems of oppression and privilege at work in the world. Yet, we may approach the throne of grace boldly, knowing that Jesus will ask some very difficult things of us and that God will provide a Spirit of grace, creativity and truth in order to do what is asked of us.

May you receive exactly what you need for this day, and every day. Amen.

 

 

 

A sermon reflection for Proper 14, Year B, given at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, WA.

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

When I was in college, I spent much of my time with art students. We would rent the strangest films. For someone who grew up in a Scandinavian American family, the most foreign of all foreign films were Italian. How was it possible to contain that much emotion, and all those hand gesticulations within a 70mm strip of film?? Was it even possible for the camera to capture every turn of the head, flick of the finger, and eyebrow arc, given how rapidly they would move across the screen? These films must have made an impression upon me, because I found myself recalling the distinctive stylistic markers while reading through the book of second Samuel and the stories of king David’s family. It’s all there—irrational passion, repudiation, betrayal, murderous revenge, conspiracy, family members storming off. To say that David’s children were ill behaved would simply not do justice to the terrible texts found between last week’s reading and today’s.

What might it look like, I started to muse, for an Italian director to film David’s family reunion? (Absurd? Perhaps, yes.) Just for a moment, picture it: Sicily. The late summer heat coats the leaves of a nearby orchard and makes the winding paths shimmer at a distance. A slight breeze tousles the olive branches, lazily picking up the corners of table cloths anchored by plates upon plates of cheeses, charcuterie and garden vegetables. Cisterns of water and wine punctuate the scene with glasses spotlighting where to find refreshment. Some of the children have detached themselves from the adults to avoid getting fussed over by this or that relative, who remembers them from when they were yea high. Women have begun to gather together, circling in conversational flocks; while the men greet one another heartily, sizing one another up through story and sheer volume. The din of voices and clatter of dishes rapidly reverberates off the stone buildings, covering the sound of a large party of men coming in the distance. As the laughter crescendos another loud cry is suddenly heard: he is here; he dared to come. The one who, ever so briefly, had stolen the hearts of the Israelites from their true King, to the point of taking Jerusalem and putting his own father to flight across the Jordan. Absalom approaches. As he nears there are some who recall how beautiful he is, and how wise he had seemed. Why shouldn’t he have been king after David? Arguments break out in sporadic clumps. Others debase him in favor of his older brother, David’s firstborn, Amnon; the one who—they are quick to remind everyone within hearing—Absalom himself had killed. Who would support a murderer, they demand. As the commotion sweeps across the gathering, gesticulations intensify, and cracks emerge between parties: those who begin to move toward Absalom separate themselves from Amnon’s defenders.

Meanwhile, an old man sits under the shade of a thick cedar, shoulders sloping downward. Longing, regret, and love stain his cheeks as he observes the gathering. A servant holding a plate of food and cup of water implore him to eat and drink, even just a morsel. He shakes his head. He can see the factions forming, and is afraid of what might happen when his eldest sons meet again. The scene ends with the face of the patriarch filling the frame.

~~~

In today’s old testament reading we hear a small but significant excerpt of a much larger story. Absalom has indeed driven his father and his father’s company out of Jerusalem after winning over allies in Israel. Prior to that he had lived for a time in exile after killing David’s eldest son, (and) his brother, Amnon. It was an act of revenge for Amnon having forced himself on Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Throughout all of these events, the text renders David as virtually helpless, in part because he simply cannot refrain from loving his children and extending forgiveness. The consequences for his newly united kingdom include schisms and faltering loyalty among the people of Israel and Judah. Such a weakened image of King David is a far cry from the triumphant warrior conquering the Philistines, or strong ruler uniting disparate tribes.

Reading through second Samuel I found myself infuriated by David, annoyed by his inaction at crucial times, (even) irritated at how often he followed the counsel of others whether or not they had his best interests in mind (spoiler: they usually had their own). But I also found an unglossed portrait of a man whose character is too often lionized beyond recognition. I’ve been in church communities before that look to David as a model worshiper—and, there are moments when he truly is. They see his passion and exuberance dancing before the ark as another kingly attribute, fully inline with his image as a valiant warrior. David and God, side by side, marching to victory. However, in the passages that focus on David’s children, the text illustrates a very different side to him. After learning what his eldest son Amnon had done to his daughter Tamar, he still couldn’t bring himself to punish the young man. When Absalom was living in exile, David was preoccupied with worry about him. Today we read that, even after Absalom rebels against him, he implores the military commanders, “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” Deal gently, with the enemy.

Absalom_getty

Unknown
Scenes from the Life of Absalom, about 1250, Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 32.5 × 29 cm (12 13/16 × 11 7/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

How confusing it must have been for the military leaders to hear their king dictate mercy to the one chasing after them. When it comes to love and war, a black and white, right and wrong duality is much easier to navigate—but if our anger is always justified, where, then, lies the need for forgiveness? And, are we called only to forgive those with whom we share relationship of some sort? What about people we don’t even know?

~~~

I have a confession to make; I can no longer look at neighborhood blogs because, at the very sight of one particular commentator’s name, I become irate. My pulse quickens, my temper ignites, hair stands on end, and I think some very bad thoughts about this person I do not know (and wouldn’t be able to recognize if we brushed past each other at the market). The nature of her online comments makes me feel very justified in thinking she is a horrible person who deserves…well, fill in the blank with any manner of nasty things. This person articulates views and attitudes toward our unsheltered neighbors that are similarly shared—though to a lesser extent—among some of my Ballard acquaintances. At dinners with neighbors, the topic of homelessness seems to ebb and flow with news coverage. (And) As many of you [in the congregation] know far better than I do, defending an unsheltered neighbor’s right to simply exist (let alone be fed and cared for) can be utterly exhausting. When sheltered neighbors—either in person or online—willfully remain dismissive and outright antagonistic towards local services, St. Luke’s Edible Hope, and guests, surely we are justified in feeling anger on behalf of others? …And then I turn to the week’s scripture lessons.

In today’s reading from Ephesians, Paul makes this curious statement, “Be angry, but do not sin;” here Paul is writing as a pastor. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger…and be kind to one another, tenderhearted…” (v. 31,32) This is not a legal statement, not an order to ‘do this, or be cast out’. Frankly, it has taken me years to hear those words, “be angry, but do not sin.” The culture I was raised in negated any expressions of anger, and for years when I read Paul, all I saw was, do not be angry, at all, under any circumstance. That isn’t what he says, first of all; and it isn’t healthy. Sometimes, we need anger. Anger is a defensive emotion when someone or something we care about is threatened. But we don’t stop there, because anger in and of itself requires separation. It is very difficult to be in relationship with others when anger is present. And so, for Paul, we must move beyond anger in order to grow into the life of Christ as a community.

Anger serves another function, though; it can also be a necessary point of entry to grief and lament. Anger wants to remain as a shield set against the adversary, but we cannot live together with our shields up all the time. Encouraging one another to live into the hope of the risen Christ means crossing the protective threshold of anger and moving into a place of mourning together. David’s grieving for Absalom demonstrates not only the intense experience of loss for a child but also a giving up of anger. After all David had been through, after all he had put others through, any determination to remain angry at his beloved son crumbled. Perhaps he was even preparing to fully forgive Absalom in that moment when he ordered, “deal gently for my sake with the young man.”

~~~

Each week we practice together elements of forgiveness when we prepare ourselves to come to the communion table. In the confession of sin is an opportunity to acknowledge those times when we have allowed anger to remain too long, or to shield our hearts against a neighbor, friend or family member. The absolution is a reminder that we are invited, every time we come to the table, to pass over the threshold of anger into renewed relationship with others; to draw near to the person of Jesus Christ and receive nourishment and healing in community. And, by greeting one another with words of peace, we practice in word and gesture the motion of putting away anger, Sunday to Sunday, weeks to months, months to years, until it becomes muscle memory. With the help of the Holy Spirit, as we put away anger, we are freed to empathize with others (maybe not right away, and maybe not the people we’re angry with, but eventually). It is easy to be forgiving toward people we like, it is a work of God to pass through anger and move toward forgiveness of those who really offend us.

Here lies the way of salvation, the way of healing: to draw near to Jesus Christ in the bread and the cup; and to draw close to one another, participating in the life of the Holy Spirit through praying together, through fellowship around coffee, and in the garden. Amen.

 

I had been waiting for the call for much of my life, the one that said my mother was dying. Over the years there have been many calls–for urgent care visits, doctor’s appointments, grocery runs, help cleaning the apartment. It’s always serious. This time, it was real. Interstitial lung disease has no cure. The lungs continue to develop scarring so that, with each cold or respiratory event, they can no longer take in sufficient levels of oxygen. This time, her lungs finally gave out. The times I saw her in the last six weeks, I could see, too, that she was sick of living.

“In case something happens” was an oft-repeated refrain. For my mother, the emotional earthquake of the divorce was compounded by a tsunami-force illness, and she almost died. I was seven or eight. Nothing was the same after that. The anger she threw at my father stormed around me, the only child of two deeply incompatible humans. Add to that the bitterness oriented toward her mother would rain down in phrases–“I am a much better mother than her” and, “you’re lucky to have me.” Meanwhile my child sized body absorbed her vitriol year after year, until I left.

My mother was not loving, but she was kind. Some years ago she shared a memory with me of a Mother’s Day elementary school assignment. Apparently I had been instructed to write something about my mother on that thin, off-white, lined paper–the kind with a dashed line between two solids an inch high and with space to draw a picture. While my classmates compared their mothers to sunshine and roses, I wrote, “my mother is kind.”

My mother was angry. Her gaze was like flint with her cool blue eyes and pale skin. When she smiled there was a kind of forced compulsion in her facial muscles to do so. And yet, I can’t truthfully say that she never smiled; it just always seemed awkward. Or perhaps that was just with me. Emotions are foreign territory for some families. I only remember seeing her cry twice in my life–the second time was around dusk when she thought she had run over a racoon and killed it. Any time she told me to do something I thought I had already gotten it wrong. The thought of ever trying to please her burrowed deep within me. It just wasn’t possible.

My mother seeped bitterness some days. The divorce and her illness took away a great deal of independence financially, emotionally, and vocationally. Searching through files for the title to her car, I found cards from my grandfather with notes saying things like, “I hope this helps get you through for the next little bit.” She hated needing assistance. She hated the one who left her vulnerable. She hated how I adored my dad and wanted to spend time with him. The worst thing I could ever do was become financially dependent upon a man.

My mother was not well. She stayed alive through sheer determination, and a fear that I would turn out like my father without her constant correction. On bad days, her conversations were disjointed, jumping between present to past back to present. I remember one particular phone conversation during a heat wave–in the midst of telling me the refrigerator in her apartment didn’t work, she suddenly recounted a story of when my father couldn’t fix the fridge in our first house. When I asked her why, in God’s name, is she bringing up something from 30 years ago, she thought it made perfect sense. A broken fridge is a broken fridge.

My mother had big dreams. The sheer number of organizational self-help books, notebooks from certificate courses, and health guidebooks she left behind, is fodder for black comedy. She never spoke much of travel, limited mobility and adult onset diabetes curtailed her energy and desire to do much. Yet she loved nature shows and calligraphy. I found prints and cards in her apartment that I had sent to her from South Korea, along with other drawings she had collected. She always said she was aiming for a Japanese style in her home.

My mother was kind. Cleaning out her kitchen, I found thank you notes left for her from neighbors. She had only been there less than six months.

This Mother’s Day was quiet, almost ordinary. The previous two had passed with no communication between us. After an especially distressing phone conversation a few years back, I had had enough. Yet there was always the weight of wondering when to get back in touch. Getting back in touch requires having something to say, and I could never find the words. So, as I learned from childhood, at some point you just stop talking.

On Sunday, while social media was a blur of flowers, hearts, deep thoughts, and sincere sayings all dedicated to the wonder of mothers, I sat in anticipation of this coming Friday when I’ll join her coworkers in remembering my mother.