Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Traveling Light

Scriptures:           Ezekiel 2:1-5                      Psalm 123
                              2 Corinthians 12:2-10       Mark 6:1-13

Have any of you ever visited a church that was once your home church, but is your home church no longer – for example, perhaps spending Christmas Eve with your family In the church you grew up in, but no longer attend because you’ve moved.  As those who have been in this situation can attest, it can be a strange feeling.  The surroundings are likely familiar – renovations in churches are few and far between, especially in these days of low attendance and tight budgets.  So the building and the worship space are more or less as you remember them.  But the people have changed.  There are new people there, who of course you don’t know, and the ones you do know have grown older, and you see more grey in their hair and more lines on their faces, and the older members may have visibly slowed down a bit from when you saw them last.  Those who know you want to pick up the conversation where it would have been when you were there last, but your life has moved on, and their lives have moved on as well.  It’s possible that the pastor you grew up with has moved on, and the church has a new and unfamiliar pastor – and of course, no pastor can ever measure up to the pastor who baptized or confirmed you.  Now, it’s one thing if you plan to reconnect with the church on a long-term basis – perhaps moving back to your hometown to take care of an aging parent.  Over time, you’ll plug back in to the life of the congregation, get to know the new pastor, and eventually it’ll be as if you’d never left.  But if you’re there just that one time, it can be a reminder of the truth of the saying that “you can’t go home again.”
In our Gospel readings over the past several Sundays,  Jesus has been constantly on the move, healing and teaching.  Just to recap:  since the beginning of Mark’s gospel, he healed a leper, cast a demon out of a man in a synagogue, healed a paralyzed man, restored a man’s withered hand, cast demons out of a man who lived among the tombs, healed a woman with internal bleeding, and raised the daughter of a synagogue leader – just to name some of the more prominent healings.  In the midst of all this, Jesus called disciples and taught the crowds.  With this background, and after all the travel involved, perhaps we can understand why Jesus may have wanted to come home. 
But, even though Jesus had likely only been away for a matter of days and weeks, not month or years, Jesus found that home wasn’t necessarily a place of comfort and refuge.  Again, that saying:  you can’t go home again.   In the short time he’d been away, Jesus had been experiencing and proclaiming and channeling the power of God in a unique way, has changed many lives, has touched many communities.  Meanwhile, the lives of the people in his hometown had gone as they ever had.   And so when Jesus tried to share his experience of God’s power with those hometown folks…..well, it didn’t go so well.  Jesus was on fire with the Spirit, and wanted those in his hometown synagogue to bask in the warmth of the spirit’s fire.  But the response of the hometown folks was like a bucket of ice water:  “Who does this guy think he is?  We know who Jesus is!  We knew Jesus when Mary was changing his diapers!  Mary and the brothers and sisters have been here all this time…..though God only knows where the father is, or even who the father is.  And now he wants to get up there and presume to instruct us?  Who does this guy think he is?”  After telling us all this, Mark’s gospel concludes, “And they took offense at him.”  And Jesus was astonished – expecting to re-enter the warmth of his hometown synagogue, he instead got the back of their hand.  Who are these people?  Who had they become in the short time he’d been away…..or had they always been like this, and Jesus was just discovering it now.  Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  We’re told that Jesus could do no deed of power there, except apparently a few people believed in him, so that he could heal them.
Not the homecoming Jesus envisioned.  So he took his show back out on the road.  He also sent the disciples out on their first mission without him by their side.   He sent them out two by two, and as we read his instructions to the disciples, we may have visions of Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s witnesses dancing in our heads.  And he told them to travel light – no luggage, no travelers checks, don’t bring a change of clothes, don’t even pack lunch.  He wanted them to be entirely dependent on the providence of God and the hospitality of the people among whom they’d be ministering.  Jesus told them that if they were rejected, they should knock the dust off their sandals as a testimony against them, and move on to the next village.  And, we’re told, “they proclaimed that all should repent.  They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
After a successful ministry tour, Jesus came home, and got a cold reception from those who’d known him all his life.  The folks in Jesus hometown knew him….and what they knew about him from the past blinded them to what Jesus had to offer in the present.  It can be like that for us as well.  We use past conduct as a predictor of future behavior – we expect people who have helped us in the past to be there for us in the future, and conversely if people have disappointed us in the past, we don’t expect much from them going forward.  The same can be true of groups of people, be it a football team or a faith community.  And it’s a sound practice.  And yet, God is at work in ways we can’t see, in us and in our neighbors, and so people can surprise us, and faith communities can surprise us, just as the Eagles surprised us this year.  After decades of chokes and disappointments, who at the beginning of the season expected the Eagles to go all the way….and yet, this year, they did.   In the same way, people and groups that haven’t impressed us much in the past, or that have crashed and burned in the past, or have even hurt us in the past, may yet hold unexpected God-given possibilities for health and wholeness.   And if we’ve given up on ourselves – well, the same is true of us.  We also hold unexpected God-given possibilities for health and wholeness.  God is not done with us yet, or with our neighbors.  Sometimes hard experience can distill into wisdom that can bring change.   God’s resurrection power can transform even the most seemingly dead-end people and situations.  So it’s ok to be skeptical, but let’s guard against becoming completely cynical.  God is still speaking.
After being rejected at his hometown, Jesus sent his disciples into ministry.  And we should take another look at how he did it.  He sent them out two-by-two – for mutual support and mutual accountability.  Ministry is a lonely, lonely call – believe it.  One thing for which I thank the Penn Southeast Conference is that they’ve encouraged pastors to form into support groups, which are called communities of practice, where we can share the joys and struggles we encounter in ministry, sometimes hear new perspectives on how to deal with this or that situation.  I’m a member of such a group, and I’ve really come to look forward to meetings.   But the same applies not just to pastors, but to any ministry of the church – we need to support one another and be there for one another.
Jesus also told the disciples to travel light, and to rely on the hospitality of those they visited.   Had they brought a lot of supplies with them, the disciples could have gone into a given village, done some ministry, and then gone off by themselves at day’s end to eat and sleep.  But Jesus’ instructions forced them not only to rely on God but to connect with and rely on the people to whom they were ministering, as they’d be depending on them for food and shelter.  By contrast, our churches seem so dependent on things, on gadgets and technology, be it televangelists shaking down their faithful for money to buy jets, or megachurches with amphitheaters equipped with visual and sound effects to dazzle the eye and delight the ear.  And those churches like ours who don’t and can’t offer such things may feel ourselves left out of the running.  But Jesus’ disciples could offer nothing but themselves and the power of God working in them – and we’re told that they cast out demons and healed people, that lives were changed forever by their work.   And we can offer that as well – ourselves, and God’s power working in us – and change lives as well.
Jesus also realized that not everyone will respond to the Good News, just as those in Jesus’ hometown did not respond.  So he gave his disciples permission to disengage, to knock the dust off their sandals and move on.   We have that permission as well, when those we try to reach don’t respond.
One other thing:  God sent the disciples out, to do ministry among the people.  He didn’t send them out to gather people to where Jesus was.  Rather, he sent them to do ministry where the people were.  So much effort and energy, in our congregation and elsewhere, goes into getting people to come to church.  And denominations encourage this, as they tend to measure churches according to membership numbers and attendance numbers and offering numbers.  So much energy goes into asking what can we do to get people to come here.  And what we do here on Sunday morning is critically important.  But what we do here is to equip us to go out there and do ministry.  I’m so happy – so happy – that our newly-launched homeless ministry is modeled on going out to homeless people and giving them food where they are, without any kind of precondition.   And, like the ministry done by Jesus’ disciples, it’s done in groups, not alone.  Yes, make no mistake, I want people to come to church….but I also want what we do here in church to have an impact that extends far beyond the front steps of the church.  Jesus told his disciples to go where the people are, to go where the pain is, and make a difference.  God calls us to do no less.
Jesus sent the disciples out two-by-two, and gave them authority.  May we at Emanuel Church support one another, and claim the authority God has given us – to share the Good News of the gospel with others, to pray for healing and to bring healing to broken people and situations, to share God’s love with all who cross our paths.   May God’s love fill us and surround us, and through us may God’s love bring hope to a hurting world. Amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Ways Of The King

Scriptures:     I Samuel 8:4-20                                 Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15                         Mark 5:21-43

You may remember the Star War prequel movies…and yeah, everybody hated Jar Jar Binks.  But anyway, among other things, it shows a galactic senate squabbling over trade issues and unable to accomplish anything.  Eventually, tired of squabbling, the legislature votes to give “emergency powers” to Senator Palpatine, to the cheering of the crowd.  And thus the Republic is turned into an Empire.  Padme Amidala, dismayed at this turn of events, says  “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”
This Wednesday, July 4, we celebrate the 242nd anniversary of our country’s Declaration of Independence from British rule.  The Founders made this ringing declaration:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  The writers then named a number of ways in which the policies of King George III had encroached on these rights – what the declaration describes as “a long train of abuses and usurpations”.  Among these were the maintenance of standing armies among the colonists and the quartering of troops among the colonists – that is to say, forcing private homeowners to allow military personnel to live in their homes and eat at their tables - even in peacetime, the overriding of laws passed by the colonists, the practice of holding legislative assemblies at remote locations and at inconvenient times in order to discourage the public from attending, famously, the imposition of taxes on the colonists without their representation in passing them, not allowing trial by jury, and cutting off trade.  The declaration declares the colonies to be independent from Britain, and asserts that “as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  It was a costly declaration, and some of the signers did indeed put their sacred honor on the line, did indeed sacrifice their fortunes and their lives in defense of these words.  A bit over 10 years later, a Constitutional Convention was held, at which was hammered out our present system of government, in which no one person or group of persons holds all the power, and in which the three bodies of government – legislative, executive, and judicial – each represent checks and balances on the power of the others.   This reflected not only the experience of living under the rule of King George, but a knowledge that power corrupts, and therefore must be kept within limits.  In 1787, outside Independence Hall, following the end of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a Mrs. Powel, “Well, Doctor, what do we have, a Republic or a Monarchy?”  Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” 
The Declaration of Independence was a rebellion against an oppressive and unaccountable central government.  Our Old Testament reading today reflects a different problem, not of too much central power, but too little.  It comes at the end of the time of the judges.  After Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, his designated successor Joshua led them into the promised land.  While Moses had designated Joshua as his successor, Joshua had not designated any one person to succeed him, and so after Joshua’s death there was a power vacuum.  This period is described in the book of Judges.  Left to their own devices, the people fell away from the Lord.  Periodically, a crisis would arise, and God would raise up a charismatic leader, called a judge, to bring the people through the crisis.  But after that judge’s death, things would fall apart again.  A few weeks ago, we read the story of the boy Samuel, who was told in a vision that the aged Eli, the judge at that time, would be punished, because his sons who were also judges were corrupt and oppressed the people, and Eli had been unable to restrain them.  In today’s reading, things have come full circle: Samuel is now old, and his sons who were made judges were corrupt and oppressing the people.   What the boy Samuel had spoken against, the aged Samuel had become.  The people had become tired of lurching from crisis to crisis without strong leadership.  They saw that the surrounding tribes had kings to lead them into battle, and at least from a distance it seemed to work pretty well for them.  So the elders of the people came to Samuel and did a sort of intervention:  “Samuel, you’re old and your sons are corrupt.   This isn’t working for us.   Appoint a king to rule us like the other nations have.” 
Of course, Samuel was terribly hurt because the people had rejected his sons, and went to the Lord to plead his case.  However, God told him to go along with the peoples’ request – but beforehand to warn them that their request would come back to bite them, and hard.  The people only looked at the benefits of having a king – that is, having someone to lead them into war and fight their battles.  Basically, they wanted a strong man that would kick butt and take names.  But Samuel warned them that eventually it would be their own butts that would be kicked by their king, that this king would reduce them to slavery:  your king will conscript your sons and daughters into his service, will take the best of your lands, the best of your produce, and you’ll be left impoverished by this king that you’re begging for.   While, to quote Mel Brooks’ famous line, “It’s good to be da king,” it’s not so good to be the king’s subjects.  Samuel’s warnings came to pass, especially during the reign of King Solomon.  His reign was peaceful, but he heavily taxed the people to pay for the Temple, his palace, and other projects dedicated to his glory.  After his death, his son Rehoboam was asked by the people for tax relief, but Rehoboam promised to jack up taxes even higher.  This led ten of the tribes to revolt against Rehoboam.   God’s people were divided, and eventually God’s people conquered, the ten tribes by Assyria, and later the two remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin by Babylon. 
Our situation is very different from that of the elders of the people during Samuel’s time, and yet there are similarities, notably the prevalence of corruption in government.   A study of public policy and legislation done at Princeton University concluded that in effect our government functions more like an oligarchy – a government by a small number of elites – than like a republic, as the preferences of ordinary citizens have minimal if any influence on public policy.  While money has always influenced public policy to some extent, the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which defined campaign donations as protected political speech, opened up the floodgates to corruption, to the point where we now have the best “democracy” corporate money can buy. 
At the same times, the system of checks and balances established by the founders isn’t working so well.  Over time, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, American presidents have grabbed more and more power for themselves.    For example, Article 1, section 8 of the constitution specifically grants congress, not the president, the power to declare war, but in practice, since the Korean War, one president after another, regardless of party, has bypassed congress in sending troops into battle.   More recently there are questions about the executive branch’s warrantless surveillance of US citizens’ phone calls, text messages, and other electronic communications – and again, this has only increased over a succession of presidents of both parties.   What is always forgotten is that a power grab by a president of one party, if allowed, sets a precedent that can be used and abused and expanded upon by all succeeding presidents thereafter of whichever party, unless legislation is passed to end it.  Franklin’s words, “A republic, if you can keep it” are as relevant today as they were when first spoken.   
Power can be used to oppress, or to uplift.  In our Old Testament reading, Samuel warned the people of how power could be used to oppress.  Our Gospel reading shows us Jesus using his power to uplift.  Jesus is approached by a desperate synagogue leader, who pleads for Jesus to heal his twelve year old daughter.  On the way, Jesus is also approached by an anonymous woman who had been living with internal bleeding for twelve years.  In the midst of the crowd, the woman touched Jesus and was healed, and Jesus took the time to acknowledge the woman’s faith.  And then, even after the synagogue leader’s daughter was declared dead, Jesus raised the girl.  
I don’t have the power to raise anyone from the dead.  I don’t have the power to stop anyone’s internal bleeding.  Most of the time I don’t even have the power to stop my own perennially lousy sinuses from spewing incessantly, much to my embarrassment and discomfort.  But we all have more power than we know.  Democracy is not a spectator sport.   Edmund Burke is quoted as saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”   We may remember the words of German pastor Martin Neimoller who famously wrote, “First they came for the socialists, and because I was not a socialist, I did not speak out.  Then they came for the trade unionists, and because I was not a trade unionist, I did not speak out.  Then they came for the Jews, and because I was not a Jew, I did not speak out.  Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out.”   We might remember Neimoller’s words when we look at how Muslims and immigrants and racial and sexual minorities are treated today – any abuse visited on them today could come our way tomorrow.  We do have power as individuals to put others down or lift them up, power to give aid and comfort to official abuse of power, or to confront it.  Our votes, our calls and letters and emails and tweets to congress, our public gatherings and protests all have the potential to change society, have the potential to restrain evil, have the potential to promote justice.
Historian Tim Snyder has studied how democracies in the twentieth century had fallen to authoritarianism – fascism on the right and communism on the left.  In his small book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”, Snyder gives twenty lessons for resisting authoritarian rule, and here are just a few of them:  “Do not obey in advance” – i.e. don’t immediately cave in to whatever those in power may demand, before they even demand it.  “Defend institutions” – such as the courts and the press, which tend to be suppressed in authoritarian regimes. “Remember professional ethics” – which would have prevented doctors from being transformed into killers in Hitler’s Germany and elsewhere.  “Beware of paramilitaries.” – self-appointed goon squads with guns - well, that one seems self-evident.  “Believe in truth” – absolutely crucial in our day of so-called fake news and alternative facts.  “Investigate” – don’t just share that photo or meme on Facebook without doing research to confirm whether it’s actually true.  ““Be kind to our language” – you may remember from high school how in Orwell’s book 1984 the government dumbed down the language by promoting “Newspeak”, creating words such as “doubleplusungood”, and authoritarian governments do their own versions of this this in real life.  “Maintain a private life” – Don’t put every last detail of your life up on Facebook, because whatever you say can and may be used against you. Snyder wrote of how keeping a diary – in secret -  kept some persons sane during Hitler’s rise to power, as everything was changing around them.    “Practice corporeal politics” – get out from behind that computer screen, get out of doors, breathe some fresh air, and actually vote, attend community meetings in person, etc.   “Make eye contact and small talk” – maintain connections to our neighbors, especially those who differ from us.  And finally, “Be as courageous as you can.” 
The prophet Samuel warns us to beware the “ways of the king”, to avoid authoritarian rule, and warns us not to surrender our power to those who promise quick fixes to complex societal problems.  Jesus, whom we as Christians claim as our King of Kings, brings healing and life to us, and inspires us to use our individual power to bring healing and life to others. 
On this July 4, it’s not enough to celebrate independence with a parade and a barbeque.  We need to live independence from authoritarian rule, interdependence with our neighbors near and far, and dependence on God’s grace. May God shed His grace on us, and may God mend our every flaw.  May God indeed crown our good with brotherhood – and sisterhood – from sea to shining sea.  Amen.