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I Pledge Allegiance. . .

Sermon preached at St. Mark’s EpiscopalChurch
Proper 23, Year B: Mark 10:17-31

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. . .”  Many of us can remember standing beside our desks, reciting these words together every morning at school.  It is part ritual but, more than that, it is a statement of who we are and what we stand for as a citizen of this country. 
In today’s Gospel a man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He is a good man.  He obeys the commandments. He doesn’t murder, he’s not an adulterer, a thief, or a liar.  He honors his parents.  He is, in short, a law-abiding Jew.  A good man.  So, I can only imagine his surprise and dismay when Jesus tells him there is yet one more thing he must do – he must sell all that he owns and give the money to the poor.  Then, he should come and follow Jesus.[1]  This man has pledged his allegiance to the rules of his faith.  And, in his actions, he is a faithful man.  But, Jesus points to what is missing in the man – a willingness to have his heart converted and to pledge allegiance to God’s transforming love. 
It’s a tough lesson and we, the Church, have spent years trying to soft pedal the lesson.  We’ve suggested it’s a metaphor or that there is something missing from the story – some truth that Jesus knows about this man that we, the readers, are no longer privy too but that earlier readers of the gospel would have known. And later in the passage, when Jesus explains to his disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” we’ve tried to explain that away as well saying, “it’s not about a sewing needle but simply a common name – the Needle Gate - for a gate in Jerusalem” – in other words, it’s not that hard to get through!  But, no matter how we parse it, such attempts are not true to the text.  The hard truth is that you and I, like the man in the story, may be unwilling to hear Jesus’ invitation, may be unwilling to whole-heartedly follow Jesus.
We have become so accustomed to our pledge of allegiance to our country and to its value of consumerism that we are stuck when it comes to this word from Jesus.  Philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested that “Consumerism. . . has become the only universally available mode of participation in the cult of modern society.”[2]  This is a pretty bold claim – but if you doubt it think of the temptation – given in to or not – to purchase the latest, greatest gadget be that a car, a television or an even smarter Smart phone – even when making such a purchase results in debt.  This is a system that has us in its grips.  Walter Wink, biblical scholar and theologian, describes it this way:  “The economic system is greedy on our behalf” and so “the quest for a private solution is futile.”[3]  The economic system is greedy and “we are contending against the greed, including our own, reified into systemic solidarity by a host of persons over a long span of time.”[4]  And it is a system that is at odds with the Gospel.  There is no way to soft-pedal this one. 
So, what do we do?  Do we, like the rich man, walk away grieving because of our many possessions?  Do we look to the disciples and let them stand in for us – after all, they left everything to come and follow Jesus.  Maybe if we acknowledge their saintliness and confess our own willingness to be that saintly, it will be enough.  Do we simply wring our hands and give up all hope?  Or do we take some time to consider:  to what or to whom do I pledge my allegiance?  Might we look at our behaviors and ask honestly, “am I going through the motions of faithful living – coming to church on Sunday morning, praying before meals, reading the Bible at least sometimes – am I going through the motions” or, am I letting my heart be changed, allowing myself to be converted by the love of Jesus?  Because it is possible to follow all the rules of the faith and still not be converted by God’s love. 
This morning we are going to welcome Henry Lewis Babbitt into the household of God through the waters of baptism. We are going to show Henry that the waters through which we enter this community are the waters of conversion, they are the waters of change, they are the waters of love.  And they are the waters of invitation – God’s invitation to let our hearts be changed by a new truth – by a truth that says, you are not blessed because of what you do and you are not blessed because of what you have, you are blessed because of God.  You are loved because of God.  You are welcomed because of God.  You are made new because of God. 
What will you do with that blessing?  How will we show Henry what converted hearts look like?  How will we prepare ourselves so that the next time a person comes through our doors and wonders what the waters of baptism can do for them, they won’t have to ask because they’ll be able to experience it firsthand by watching and listening and being with those of us have already experienced the blessing of those life changing waters?  What one step in faith are you willing to take today in order to open your heart more fully to the invitation of Jesus to come and follow; to open your heart more fully to the baptism you have already received?  What one step in faith is St. Mark’s being called to take in order to open our hearts more fully to the invitation of Jesus to come and follow? 

“Hope of the world, thou Christ of great compassion, 
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent. 
Save us, thy people, from consuming passion, 
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.

Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
bringing to hungry souls the bread of life,
still let thy Spirit unto us be given
to heal earth’s wounds and end her bitter strife.

Hope of the world, afoot on dusty highways,
showing to wandering souls the path of light,
walk thou beside us lest the tempting byways
lure us away from thee to endless night.

Hope of the world, O Christ, o’er death victorious,
who by this sign didst conquer grief and pain,
we would be faithful to thy gospel glorious;
thou art our Lord! Thou dost for ever reign!”[5] Amen.

[1] Mark 10:17-22.
[2] In Walter Wink, “Unmasking the Powers,” Preaching the Word, accessed October 8, 2015.
[3] Wink.
[4] Wink.
[5] Georgia Harkness, “Hope of the World,” (The Hymn Society, 1954) in The Hymnal 1982 according to the use of The Episcopal Church, (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1985), #472 (vv. 1-3, 5).


What We Can Learn about Black Lives Matter from Jesus' Encounter with a Syrophoenician Woman

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)

August 24, 2015, "Black Lives Matter Minneapolis," Facebook post
Our scriptures have a lot to say about what matters in life and about who matters in life.  This morning’s brief excerpt from the book of Proverbs tells us that “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”[1]  In other words, both the lives of the rich and the lives of the poor matter because they were both created by God.  But, if we look carefully at the arc of the biblical story we will note a consistent theme --- God sides with the downtrodden, the weak, the poor, the hungry, the destitute, the outcast every time.   Not because the strong, the rich, the well-fed, the joyful and the in-crowd do not matter but because there are other lives that have been pushed to the sidelines; other lives that have, in some instances, been trampled upon.  For those lives, we are told, “the Lord pleads their cause” because those lives matter too.[2]  Again and again God sides with the downtrodden, upholds the outcasts, and demands justice for all whom the dominant society says there shall be no justice. 
Now, in this morning’s gospel reading, we have a bizarre story – a story that seems to run counter to the primary narrative of God’s commitment to the outcasts.[3]  Here we have a woman whose daughter is ill.  But, she is a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.  When she begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter, Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[4]  I want to be really clear here because this is a passage that is easy for us to skip over because it is ugly.  Jesus compares the woman and her child to a dog.  Jesus does not even see the humanity in this woman who stands before him begging for help for her child.  But then something happens.  The woman stands up to Jesus and says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”[5]  And with that single sentence, Jesus is changed.  And, in his being changed, Jesus does what the woman asks – he heals her daughter.
Last Monday morning, when I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a Tweet from Phil Ruge-Jones, professor in the theology department at Texas Lutheran University. He wrote, “Jesus understood justice more deeply because [the Syrophoenician gentile] insisted that Syrophoenician lives matter.”[6]   In this moment, Jesus doesn’t do what many of us might be inclined to do – he doesn’t defend himself, he doesn’t try to explain away what he had just said. He simply hears her and is changed.  And, then, what’s even more important, he uses his power to do what she said was needed. Her daughter is made well.    This, according to Professor Ruge-Jones, is what makes Jesus truly human – not that he gets it all right all the time but that he willingly changes when he is correctly called out.[7]  “Jesus understood justice more deeply because she insisted that Syrophoenician lives matter.”
In our time, all around people are shouting, “Black Lives Matter!”  And, like Jesus, we – especially those of us who are white – but all of us collectively who make up what we refer to as “society” – we are being offered an opportunity not to defend ourselves demanding that all lives matter and not trying to explain away the inequities experienced by persons of color in our communities. We are being offered an opportunity to hear the cry and to change the systems around us that continue to create unequal access to education, to healthcare, to housing, to food, and to due process of law. 
Justin DaMetz is a father, a husband, an aspiring seminarian, an amateur blogger and writer who wrote a provocatively titled blog post last week – “Why Black Lives Matter is Crucial, All Lives Matter is Unnecessary, and White Lives Matter is just Racist.”  I read his post – the whole thing. It’s good and it is worth reading (I’ll put a link to it on the sermons page of our website).[8]  But here’s the part I want to share:
“[Black Lives Matter] isn’t an assertion that no other lives matter.  Stop reading Black Lives Matter as a zero-sum statement. It isn’t.  Acknowledging the existence of one injustice does not negate the importance of others. Acknowledging the humanity of another person, or of a specific oppressed group, does not deny the humanity of everyone else. . . .” [9]
He continues by offering this analogy:  if a man goes to the doctor for a broken arm and “the doctor starts examining the rest of the man’s body,” the injured man stops the doctor and says, “’Doc, it’s my arm that’s broken; everything else is fine’ and the doctor responds, ‘All bones matter.’ Of course they do! But they aren’t the ones that are hurting right now!”  Likewise, “when Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor,’ no one stood up and yelled ‘Blessed is everyone!’”[10]
Black Lives Matter! It is shorthand for a whole lot of injustice in our world.  It is shorthand for confederate flags flying in public spaces. It is shorthand for 60% of the prison population in this country being African American men when only 12-13% of this country’s total population is African American.[11] It is shorthand for Trayvon Martin killed in Florida. It is shorthand for Michael Brown killed in Ferguson, Missouri.  It is shorthand for Eric Garner killed in New York City.  It is shorthand for Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray.  It is shorthand for Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  This list, my brothers and sisters in Christ, this list is already too long and it only begins to scratch the surface of what Black Lives Matter means.
So you and I  - collectively and individually - have a choice:  we can argue about why we should really say “all lives matter,” we can make excuses for why the systems are the way they are or we can listen to and hear the message being proclaimed:  Black Lives Matter.

Because God has always sided with the oppressed and the downtrodden.

Because God continues to invite us to participate in the ongoing work of liberation, of justice-making, of peace-building.   

[6] Phil Ruge-Jones, tweet posted at .
[7] Phil Ruge-Jones, Facebook post at 8:30 AM on September 5, 2015 accessed on September 5, 2015.
[8] Justin DaMetz, “Why Black Lives Matter is Crucial, All Lives Matter is Unnecessary,and White Lives Matter is just Racist,” Justin DaMetz Blog accessed on September 5, 2015.
[9] DaMetz.
[10] DaMetz.
[11] Heather C. West, “Prison Inmates at Midyear 2009–StatisticalTables,” U.S. Department of Justice, June 2010, NCJ 230113 accessed on September 5, 2015.


A Matter of Death and Life

Sermon Preached Sunday, August 23, 2015                        
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church                                                              
Proper 16 (John 6)

Today’s gospel brings to an end a 5-week series taken from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.  Among clergy there is a collective groan every three years when we hit this time of year – 5 weeks to talk about Jesus as the bread of life! Oy!  What on earth can I possibly say for five weeks?  I know what I’ll do? I’ll go on vacation!  And so I did – and, if Facebook posts are any indication, so too did many of my colleagues.  But in all seriousness, I think it is critical for us to think about why those who plan out the readings for our churches would make a decision to emphasize this message for 5 weeks.  That’s longer than the time we spend preparing for our Christmas celebrations and as many Sundays as we have in our Lenten preparations for Holy Week and for Easter.  In other words, some people in the church think this is really important.  Jesus is the bread of life.  Pay attention!
Like me, you may not have been here for all five weeks’ of the readings, so I’m going to give a really brief recap:  The first week we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish.[1]  This miraculous story is then followed by a lengthy dialogue between Jesus and those around him.  The dialogue begins when the five thousand seek out Jesus the next day and Jesus calls them up short saying, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. . . . I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[2]  What follows is a lengthy conversation about what Jesus means by these words.  Today’s section of the conversation is the conclusion and offers this summary:
 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. . . . the one who eats this bread will live forever.”[3]
At this time, John’s gospel reports that many of Jesus’ disciples “turned back and no longer went about with him.”[4] They found the teaching too difficult.  Jesus even asks his closest companions, the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Simon Peter, purportedly answering for the twelve says, “No! Of course not” – after all “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”[5]
I wish the gospel writer had given Peter’s response more flesh because as it appears here, it sounds too easy.  But, my brothers and sisters, the question asked of the disciples – “Do you also wish to go away?” – is a question of life and death.  Following Jesus is a risky affair and though it comes with the promise of eternal life it also comes with a guarantee of death.  Jesus will die on a cross and the disciples and earlier followers of the Way of Christ will also be persecuted.
In a 3-day break from vacation, I attended the North American Association for the Catechumenate’s Annual Gathering just outside of Baltimore.  The keynote speaker, The Rev. Paul Hoffman talked to us about the way we order our lives, or more aptly the way the world orders life versus the way in which God orders life.[6]  In the world, we are used to thinking about beginnings, middles, and endings.  We are born, we live our lives, and, eventually we die.  But in God’s order, the end is the beginning.  Christ has died – ending.  Christ is risen – beginning.  Christ will come again – middle.  These words – or something similar – are spoken in every celebration of the Eucharist in our churches - a reminder that our lives are no longer to be lived from birth to death but to be lived instead according to God’s Way - the Way of Christ.  It is why we pray each week that when we eat the bread and drink the wine – the flesh and blood of Jesus - that God might
“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”[7]
Let the flesh and blood of Jesus abide in us as we abide in Jesus.  And so we as church arrive in the midst of death – what Paul Hoffman refers to as the chronic illnesses of our age (mediocrity, hypocrisy, racism, sexism, classicism, greed, self-aggrandizement, moralistic deism, you name it).  The church shows up in the midst of this death and destruction and proclaims a new beginning in Christ.  The church shows up in the face of death and proclaims, “Christ is Risen. Alleluia!”  Beginning.  And as our liturgy each week comes to a close and we are sent back out into the world; we are invited to be a reminder to the world – by the way in which we live our lives – that Christ will come again. Middle. 
Why do we repeat this every week?  Because day after day you and I have a habit of practicing our faith as if we don’t really have to die.  As if we do not need God to transform our lives in order to follow the Way of Jesus.  As if our prayers on Sunday morning have nothing or little to do with the rest of our lives.  As if the promises we made at our baptism can be lived out half way.  And so, week after week, we return to our worship – to the sacrament - to be fed again by the body and blood of Jesus to be reminded that we must live in the middle; to be reminded that we have a place where we can bring our inadequacies, our insecurities, our heresies and our sins; to be reminded that we have a place to fall apart, to die again to whatever must die in us; to be reminded of the power of the bread and the wine, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, to transform our lives – to strengthen and renew us – to be sent out once again into the world where we are invited daily to abide in Jesus as Jesus abides in us.[8] 
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ . . . [and] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” 
But there were 12 others who remained because they had come “to believe and know that” Jesus is the Holy One of God.
Where are you on this journey?  Where are we as St. Mark’s on this journey?  What must die in you – and in us -  so that we might live more fully into the Way of Jesus?  And, are you ready to ask God again and again, day in and day out, week after week, to help with this transformation?
So, do we really need 5 weeks about Jesus as the Bread of Life?  Yes, we really do. Because it really matters.  In fact, it is a matter of death and of life.

[1] John 6:1-15
[2] John 6:26, 35.
[3] John 6:56-58.
[4] John 6:66.
[5] John 6:67-69.
[6] Paul Hoffman, “A Baptismal Center for Parish Life,” Lecture at Transforming Congregations through Spiritual Practice: Creating a Discipleship Community: North American Association for the Catechumenate Annual Gathering, Bon Secours Conference Center, Baltimore, MD, July 30, 2015.
[7] Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 372.
[8] This is a paraphrase of Molly Baskette’s devotional, “Blessing Everything,” July 25, 2015.  United Church of Christ website accessed online at on August 21, 2015.

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