Congregation as Body of Christ

Sermon Preached on June 17, 2007 at Church of the Transfiguration (Palos Park, IL)
Proper 6C

In the 1991 movie What About Bob? a successful psychiatrist, Dr. Marvin, heads off with his family on what he hopes to be a relaxing summer vacation away from the cares and concerns of his patients. What he has not expected, however, is that one of his most dependent, most manipulative, and most annoying patients, Bob, has managed to discover his whereabouts and follows Dr. Marvin to his vacation getaway. Despite repeated efforts on the part of Dr. Marvin to send Bob home, it is clear that Bob is staying and, in fact, he quickly befriends Dr. Marvin’s wife and children who find him to be much more fun and interesting than their uptight and boring husband and father. As his family becomes more and more enamored of Bob, Dr. Marvin’s attempts to get rid of him become more and more egregious.

Bordering on the ridiculous at times, the movie, nonetheless, speaks to some of the categories of difference which we hold most dear in our society: health vs. illness, normal vs. abnormal, and honor vs. dishonor. And, in each case, the movie flips our assumptions around. The mentally ill patient, Bob, comes across as more “normal” than the increasingly frantic Dr. Marvin. Likewise, Dr. Marvin who holds an honorable position in society as a psychiatrist quickly calls that label into question as his actions and words toward Bob cross both ethical and legal codes of honor.

This morning’s gospel reading also draws our attention to differences between people - in this instance, Simon, the Pharisee, who is hosting the meal with Jesus and the sinner woman who is an uninvited intruder. Like Dr. Marvin in the movie, Simon makes certain assumptions about his uninvited guest and about how Jesus is expected to respond. Simon thinks to himself, “If this man [referring to Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” In the story that follows it quickly becomes apparent that not only does Jesus know what kind of a woman is touching him, but he also knows what Simon was thinking. This Jesus is clearly much more than a prophet!
Jesus goes on to list three things that a good host might be expected to do: (1) provide water for the guest’s feet, (2) greet a guest with a kiss, and (3) anoint the guest’s head. These are not unknown or unusual kindnesses. What is, in fact, unusual is that Simon has not done any of these things when Jesus entered his house. Instead, it is the sinner who has done all of these things. Here the categories of difference might be clean vs. unclean, righteous vs. sinner, and munificence vs. inhospitality. And, as in the movie What About Bob?, this story flips our assumptions around. The woman who is identified by her sinful nature is the one who cleans Jesus’ feet and is the one who behaves most hospitably toward him. Though she is uninvited, she has proven to be a better host than the host himself who is barely cordial.

O.k., so we get that there’s some irony going on here. But just what is the point? Certainly the message is not that sinners are better than the righteous. Nor is the point to prove whether or not Jesus is a prophet. So what is going on? I think the key lies in the conclusion of Jesus words to Simon and in his first words spoken to the woman. He says to Simon, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.” This relationship between love and forgiveness is the key to understanding this passage. And there is a bit of a chicken and egg chase going on if we try to identify which comes first love or forgiveness. But, in either case, the link between the two is made clear. Alan Culpepper, in his commentary, describes it neatly:
“It is not that the Pharisee had less for which to be forgiven than the [woman]. Rather, because he did not recognize his need for forgiveness he received less. And she, because she recognized her need and received forgiveness joyfully, received more. . . . Her openness to God’s forgiveness and her selfless loving response are accepted as faith. . . . Love is the natural response of the forgiven, but the capacity to love is directly related to the ability to receive grace, forgiveness, and love.”[1]

Now just a moment ago, I said that the point of this story is not to demonstrate that sinners are better than the righteous. And, I still affirm that. However, what becomes clearer as we think about this connection between love and forgiveness is that when we are tied up in making distinctions, in focusing on differences, on judging our fellow human beings, our ability to love is hindered. And, more importantly, our ability to experience God’s love is hindered. The woman in today’s gospel did not allow difference to hold her back. She entered the Pharisee’s home knowing that Jesus was there and she brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. What she left with was the knowledge that she was welcomed by Jesus, that her sins were forgiven, and that she was loved by God.

A little over a year ago, I came to Transfiguration with a jar filled with new ideas and a modest amount of energy. I came with the expectation that I would encounter Christ in this place. And today I am leaving here with the knowledge that Andrea and I have been welcomed, that Christ is truly alive in this place, and that we are – each one of us - loved by God.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote that a

“Congregation . . . is no longer the sum of all those who are registered as members on the church rolls. Congregation is rather a new kind of living together for human beings that affirms:
– That no one is alone with his or her problems,
– That no one has to conceal his or her disabilities,
– That there are not some who have the say and others who have nothing to say,
– That neither the old nor the little ones are isolated,
– That one bears the other even when it is unpleasant and there is no agreement, and
– That, finally, the one can also at times leave the other in peace when the other
needs it.”[2]
It is my prayer for Transfiguration that you will continue to live into this understanding of what it is to be a congregation, what it is to be the Body of Christ; that as you welcomed us, you will continue to welcome all who enter this place, focusing not on how they are different from you, but on how you are all alike in God. Christ is alive in this place and you are loved by God.

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Volume IX – Luke, John, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 172-3.
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 33.

How Precious a Life

An old friend of mine sent me an e-mail today. I don't think we've communicated for more than a decade. In his e-mail he told me that his son, Sean, was shot (nearly 4 years ago now) by police officers in an attempt to suicide-by-cop. I was his son (and daughter's) nanny for about 4 months during college. Sean (and his family, no doubt) to recover from the shooting. As I was wrapping my mind around this (and reading newspaper accounts of the tragedy), I received a phone call from Lane letting me know that my friend Barbara had died.

Barbara was a woman in her mid-60s with whom I visited most weeks for the 13 months I was at Transfiguration. We shared ice cream at Oberweiss, a game of Scrabble at her dining room table, and stories about her cat Baby and my dog Gabby. Despite multiple physical set backs over the years she maintained her sense of humor and I could always count on her for a good chuckle.

Barbara often would tell me, "I am not afraid to die, I'm just not ready yet." She wanted to see her grandchildren grow up, she wanted to be with her family and, more than anything, she wanted them to know how very much she loved them all. She agreed to receive care from hospice about a week before I left Transfiguration. And I trust that her death was the result of her deciding that she was, in fact, ready now.

All of this to say: life is precious. Tell those you love that you love them. Tell them everyday. Tell them until they are tired of hearing it and can laugh with you about how often you tell them. Tell them because you never know when it will be too late.

Rest in peace, Barbara.
Be at peace, Sean.

And this from the National Institute of Mental Health:

What should I do if I think someone is suicidal? If you think someone is suicidal, do not leave him or her alone. Try to get the person to seek immediate help from his or her doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room, or call 911. Eliminate access to firearms or other potential tools for suicide, including unsupervised access to medications. For more information about suicide, please click here.


Fun in New Jersey

Last night, Andrea and I had the opportunity to attend an Atlantic City Surf baseball game. They beat the Sussex Skyhawks with a score of 12 to 2. Here are some of the game highlights (and some lowlights interspersed for good measure):

      1. Splash, the AC Surf alligator mascot driving a tractor around the field at the beginning of the first inning

      2. Ryan, a youngster from St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Stone Harbor (one of the two churches I'll be serving beginning July 30th), racing Splash around the bases after the third inning - Ryan won! Way to go!

      3. Splash shooting baseballs out of a popper-gun and a young girl trying to catch the baseballs in a pair of over-sized sweatpants provided by the ballpark . . . this must be an odd New Jersey custom as I've never seen anything like it before! In any event, she "caught" one out of three

      4. A mother and her two daughters rolling the Comcast dice (which was nearly as big as they were) three times to see if they could win an iPod - they could not.

      5. Father John and I posing for a picture with Splash

      6. See #3 except this time a young boy had to catch the three balls in a butterfly net - and he did!

      7. The world's slowest fastest ice cream eating context

      8. Sussex Skyhawk pitcher (#24) hitting at least 4 players with his pitches and still staying in the game! Makes you wonder how bad the other pitchers must have been!

      9. Eating a funnel cake, lightly dusted with powdered sugar, with Andrea

      10. Meeting some fun folks from St. Mary's

      11. Fireworks after the 3+ hour game


      Sunset and Moonrise

      Sermon Preached on Sunday, June 10, 2007
      The Church of the Transfiguration - Palos Park, IL
      Proper 5C

      “The dead man sat up and began to speak.” Stories like this morning’s first reading and the gospel for today have always puzzled me. On the one hand, I am fascinated by a God who is so powerful that he can revive the dead. On the other hand, I am skeptical of the veracity of these accounts which fly squarely in the face of what most of us in this room consider to be the reality of our world – people die. And, sure, from time to time, they are resuscitated through the miracles of modern medicine (and don’t get me wrong, I do believe that God’s hand is at work when that happens too); but, by and large, death is final. So, just what are we to make of these two stories?

      My puzzling over the meaning of these texts and our understanding of life and death have been brought to the forefront over the past couple of weeks as SB and BS, two members of our Transfiguration family, have begun receiving care from hospice and as Lane, John and I have been in conversation about their pastoral needs. These conversations led me back to a book I had read prior to seminary by Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox theologian who died in 1983. This book, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, points to two primary, but conflicting, views about life and death held by those of us in the western world.

      The first of these lifts up life as something to be celebrated – achievements recognized, technological advances lauded, and milestones reached held up as human victories – and as an unspoken corollary to this celebration of life is an attempt to deny the realities of death. The flip side of this exuberance about life is seen when the sick are isolated and alone, the dead are dressed up neatly by morticians to mask death and make them look alive, and funeral arrangements are solemnly managed by directors in funeral homes that look, from the outside at least, much like the homes you and I live in and that present, from the inside, all the hospitality and personality of a fancy hotel lobby. Schmemann writes, “Christ’s victory over death” is a message we hear and celebrate during the season of Easter and yet it seems to “have had no real impact on the basic human attitudes toward death.”[i]

      There are those too who reject this secular understanding of life and death, embracing instead, what is erroneously called the religious view. In this view, our earthly life is merely a pain-filled period of preparation for the promises of paradise which we shall reach after death. The problem with this point of view is that it denies the fullness or our life as we know it – as it was created, in all its splendor and goodness, by God.

      So, two conceptions of life and death – the one which denies – or at least seeks to avoid - the reality of death and the one which denies the fullness of the only life we have ever known. But, reflecting on this morning’s readings, it seems that neither of these views of life and death is sufficient to make sense of these two stories. In each story a widow’s only son dies and in each story – God revives the dead son – in the first story through the prophet Elijah, in the second Jesus himself. Why is this significant? “Out In Scripture,” a weekly conversation about the lectionary published by the Humans Right Committee, points to the significance of the widows in these stories.

      In ancient Israel a woman’s worth was measured by her procreative ability. She was valued as an unmarried virgin in her father’s household, or a child-producing wife in her husband’s household. Therefore widows were considered worthless by patriarchal Israel’s standards and often found themselves on the margins of society. The only way a widow might have worth was if she had sons.[ii]
      By the death of these widows’ sons, their last chance at worth in society was stripped away. God revives these sons because their physical death will result in the complete separation of these women from society – they will become the living dead. What is significant in these stories is not only that the physically dead sons are brought back to life, but also that the widows, now completely marginalized by the death of their sons, are brought back to life. If death is understood in this way, as separation from community, as separation from God, then death can be experienced in this life or beyond this life. Death can be spiritual as well as it can be physical. In the same way, life can be experienced in this life or beyond this life. Because when life is understood as being alive in God, alive in Christ, then life is more than just breathing in and out, life is about being in community with one another and with God.

      Because I am concerned that my words may have become a bit confusing at this point and I am even more concerned that an attempt to make them clearer will only make them less clear, I want to leave you with an image from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. To set the scene: the main character is writing about a trip he has taken with his father to find the grave of his grandfather in rural Kansas. As the scene unfolds, you get the sense that the grandfather went to Kansas (away from his family in Iowa) to separate himself from the world – to die in spirit as well as in body. Upon finding the grandfather’s grave, the father and son set about cutting down weeds that have grown over it and setting up the marker and the marker of graves surrounding it. When they have finished this exhausting work which takes the better part of a day, the father begins to pray and here is what his son writes:

      Every prayer seemed long to me at that age, and I was truly bone tired. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but after a while I had to look around a little. And this is something I remember very well. At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I’d have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it. And then I said, ‘Look at the moon.’ And he did. We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them. And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon.

      My father said, ‘I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.’[iii]
      “It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend," writes Schmemann, "when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”[iv] As we, as a community, continue to pray with and for S and B, I hope we will recognize that we stand in a place of beauty, a place where the sun sets and the moon rises, a place where the love of God and our life in Christ together are only the first signs of God’s victory over death.

      [i] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 96.
      [ii] “The Power of Our Touch: 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 5), Year C,” Out In Scripture, (Human Rights Campaign) accessed online on June 5, 2007.
      [iii] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, (New York: Picador, 2004), 14-5.
      [iv] Schmemann, 100.