Is Home Where the Heart Is, Or is It where We We Learned To Put on Masks?

A Reflection on the Gospel

for July 5

the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

by David Somerville+

If you haven’t had the chance to do so yet, take a look at Mark 6:1-13, the gospel coming up at the beginning of next week:

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Successful businessman, author and columnist, Harvey Mackay wrote in his series, “Most fears of rejection rest on the desire for approval from other people.”

There are some Christ-like souls who handle rejection well and with a spirit of equanimity.  Another personality type is one that simply does not care what others think, and, a third group is one that lives with such intolerable anxiety about what others think that they must don something like a mask on the order of a fake image depicting a smiling face.  These people strap the mask over the real face that is tearstained with heartbreak, or worse yet, a real face that is twisted with rage and hatred of others whom they believe are the cause of all their failures and disappointments. (Of course I am speaking metaphorically,  not about literal  masks.  These are the behavioral masks that disguise  how we genuinely feel).

You have heard the expression that “So-and-so is always putting on airs”.  That is the kind of person who wears  a mask).  The masks these kinds of people wear obscure the peripheral vision of their eyes. Because they are so concerned with the impressions they are trying to make on others, they miss a lot of what is going on around them.  They are, sadly, self-absorbed.  In addition to that, the masks are not comfortable on the ears and nose, and they can inhibit the movement of the mouth so that real speech is impossible.  But put together with some other stuff, masks can make up an impressive costume.  One can look at people like this, note all the details, find them beautiful,  intimidating, or both, and still know nothing about what these incognito souls are really like.

I suspect that all of us have worn masks from time to time.  I know I have, and sometimes I still do; most of us probably can remember those wonderful, good days when we could relax, be ourselves, and take the masks off. That is when we can say, “I love going to thus-and-such place, It’s where I can really let my hair down”.  Is there some place in your life that is like that?  I hope so. When your church feels like that, then you are getting a glimpse at the Kingdom of God.

This is the fourth of July weekend, so what has all this got to do with our nation’s independence? It would seem logical that the sermon message for a July Sunday like this one should not be about masks.  Save that for Hallowe’en or Mardi Gras.  Shouldn’t we, instead, be reflecting on the pride we have in our country, the United States of America?  It would seem that the logical thing to do is to address our  responsibility to be good citizens of our homeland.

Let me assure you that we will find something in this upcoming gospel lesson that relates to our responsibility to be patriotic citizens.  But on this day, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus shares with us and teaches us about his ministry in his home neighborhood, and how his ministry there apparently failed with the people who, one would think, would have trusted him the most — his home neighbors. So this is where we need to begin — with Jesus in returning to his home neighborhood, and with some thoughts about what returning to our home neighborhoods would be like,

Listen to the lyrics of a familiar song.

Oh, theres no place like home for the holidays                                                                         Cause no matter how far away you roam                                                                                   When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze                                                                          For the holidays, you cant beat home, sweet home

Clearly this was not Jesus singing.  Where did he see a friendly gaze? Not in Nazareth, certainly. No, this isn’t Jesus. This was Perry Como in a 1958 Television special some fifty-six Decembers back.  It was a production that made a hot, artificially lighted studio with sprinkles of fake snow on Mr. Como’s topcoat with ear muffs look like he was standing at the front door to an idealized home with a cozy fire on its hearth.  All this was artfully conflated to a seventeen inch black and white television screen on the face of a one of those old round tubes.

I would like to share with you something that happened in a later December. This one was only about twenty years ago.  I was listening to a troubled soldier in the army brigade that was my pastoral responsibility as the organization’s chaplain.  I was glad to see “Nick” as I will call him for the sake of this narrative. Until sometime late in September that year, 1993,  Nick and his young wife were active in the chapel program, but then had dropped away.  His first sergeant sent Nick to me because this young man, normally a thoughtful,  conscientious worker and family man, got into a scuffle in the motor pool, and his wife had at some earlier point decided to move back to her mother’s house more than seven hundred miles away. Nick had become moody, difficult to live with.

Then it  happened. It never was made clear who hit whom first. The bottom line was that Nick had been counseled, and given a nonjudicial punishment, according to article fifteen in the uniform code of military justice.   It was a fine levied by his commander.   In conversation with me about the incident, the discussion took an unexpected twist.  Nick confided to me that he was homesick.

I asked Nick to tell me more about this.  “It began,” he said, “when I heard this old Perry Como song on a radio in the motorpool.“It made me think of my childhood, where I watched some of  those television specials.  The Andy Williams show was a family favorite.

“But my homesickness,” the soldier continued “makes no friggin’sense! I really had no fun as a kid growing up. But I went home anyway last Christmas to a family reunion with several aunts, uncles, my brother, and some nieces and nephews. Somehow I thought things would be different.

“But as soon as I arrived at the Iowa homestead, this was the first thing my dad said:  ‘Well, you’re in he army making good money at last. When are you gonna pay us back the five hundred dollars we loaned you five years ago. Times have been hard lately.  The least you could do is help out a little bit.’

Then came Christmas two days later. At  5:30 in the morning, three of the seven kids in the reunion were already at the tree in the living room, tearing open their presents.  They woke up Uncle Eddie who was still drunk from his revelries the night before.  He went to the tree and grabbed Billy by the scruff of his neck, and then as he started to wallop Billy’s behind, lost his balance, fell into the Christmas tree, knocked it over and broke Johnnie’s electric train.  Johnny was still asleep, but the joy of his Christmas was already trashed.  Mom, who was looking forward to getting the turkey into the oven by seven O’clock, just crumpled in tears, and went back to Bed for the rest of the day.

“Dad who had always been bullied by his brother Eddie, somehow found a way to blame me for having gotten Uncle Eddie drunk the night before — so everything was all my fault.

We have a lot of men and women  in our country that are like Nick.  When these people are given love, understanding, and encouragement, they can return to actualizing their potential to become the highly functional citizens that will continue to keep our country strong enough to fight for, and maintain the blessing of freedom as a compassionate, democratic society.  But without it, self-loathing, addictive behavior, depression, and the temptation to engage in criminal misconduct will abound; unemployment will continue to be high, while, paradoxically, industry struggles with a labor shortage.  So the gross domestic product will be less than all of our natural resources would have provided. Some of this population of men and women like “Nick” attend church occasionally, others not at all, but none of them are ones that feel like they can take off their masks — unless they belong to a truly wholesome community that assures them that they are valued an loved in ways that never happened in their homes of origin.

Some who fail to appreciate the reality of God’s desire for a world of peace and good will believe that the church has no role to play in our postmodern life.  But in people like Nick there is a real need, and it is the faithful of the church who are positioned to fill it. The local church, where Christ is made really present in word, sacrament, and whose presence is then continued by the good we do in response to our our acts of worship is medicine to the world of people like Nick.  God is already working with many of you, while he waits for others to join, perfecting the place where you can go, just be yourself, let your hair down, and not put on airs—if we are faithful to do what we are called to do.

There is good evidence that generally, though not perfectly perhaps, we as a whole strive to  take seriously our baptized ministries with their obligations to be mindful of the needs of others, and, as the baptismal liturgy of our PrayerBook mandates “… strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

I am sure you know that when you live up to this promise, you provide nourishment for many of the spiritually impoverished Nick’s of our community, and the savior who loves people like Nick and his family members.   You give them the healing that neither Nick nor his savior experienced in their remembered homes of origin, that place that taught us that we are all sinners — perpetrators, yes, but more importantly victims of sin and in need of healing forgiveness including the frightened children who never grew up, like Uncle Eddie, a child who wears the armor coated mask of a bully.

All of this is how the church can be brought into contact with its potential for success in growth, and as it grows, experiences the actual believability of its vocation to continue to spread the Good News of God.  For as we persevere, we as a local community become more and more like what we are destined to become – truly the kingdom of God, the new family dominated not by people like Uncle Eddie, but our heavenly Father whom we see in our relationship to our companion and family brother, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Discernment for ministry (and when I speak of ministry, I mean the Christ-lit life of every baptized soul, of whom some may be “ordained to one of the three orders, deacon, presbyter, or overseer, who serve you, the faithful, the baptized ministers in their lives hallmarked by teaching, hospitality, and all the other actions that make the stranger, the lonely, and the bereft feel valued and loved, in a place where they can remove their masks, and let their hair down.  It involves confronting and overcoming our own fear-filled character traits to uncover our qualities of integrity for the tough going that lies ahead in one’s vocation to be as Christ to the other.  The humble, ego-strength required to be self respecting in the midst of adversity when assurance and acceptance by the prevailing culture is unavailable is something that comes from a mature spirituality, and is a necessary ingredient of it. It comes to us in our togetherness. This is the secret and gift of the Gospel that unlocks the wholeness and strength that perfects our stature in Christ.

When we attend to our spiritual strengthening, we are doing something really more patriotic than flag waving because true patriots can only come from communities of people who love their God, their brothers and sisters who are God’s children, and also the citizens of our country. What’s more, when there is corruption and justice in the United States, we have the freedom, the faithful integrity and courage of our convictions to address these concerns without making our great nation into something it should never be, an object of nationalistic idolatry.

To sum up, God wants us to continue with Harvey Makay’s  thought —which is on target as far as it goes: “Most fears of rejection rest on the desire for approval from other people.”  Mackay adds something more that certainly goes without saying, “Don’t base your self esteem on the opinions of others”. We who are in Christ know the truth of that — as far as it goes.  When we feel sick we don’t go to a quack.  We go to a doctor. It is that basic.  We are armed with a better wisdom:  We know that in Christ we can take off our masks, and let our hair down.

___________________

Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/

SummerDave@aol.com

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If We have not been Bleeding Recently, Maybe We’re Dead

A Reflection on the Gospel for

June 28, 2015,

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

by David Somerville

Evangelist, Charles Hembree, once was asked, How can I really know God?  His answer was simple.  We must “live by [the new] law of Christ.

O. K. That was a good answer — for Hembree. So what kind of answer should be ours?  Ponder that while taking another look at next Sunday’s gospel, Mark 5:21-43.

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, `Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

The scene is tense. The father of a very sick twelve year-old is desperate. He is also a prominent member of the local neighborhood.  Jairus is the synagogue leader, and he asks Jesus, an unaccredited, itinerant preacher, to bring about his daughter’s recovery from a life-threatening illness.  And then, while Jairus hurries this preacher to his daughter’s bedside, he is interrupted. Jesus stops for someone else who needed his healing as much as Jairus’ daughter.  So Jesus stops and heals an adult woman with a hemorrhage that had been with her for the same length of time as the child’s age — twelve years.

As far as Jairus’ daughter is concerned, twelve years is significant. This was the year when the girl’s young body would begin to function as a woman’s with her first menstrual period, which to Jairus, would be a welcome  harbinger telling that his daughter’s womanhood was soon to arrive; this is joyful news for any respectable Jewish father. The daughter would be fertile, eligible to marry, and have children of her own.  But Jairus’ hopes for his future with a growing family was on the brink of shattering completely.  So in desperation he sought the services of this man from Nazareth, a carpenter, on the waterfront, whom his fellow colleagues in synagogue leadership had already denounced.

To begin a search for a relevant meaning of what this gospel portion means for us here in the southeastern United States at the beginning of this particular summer, I start by asking an unlikely question: Who really invented the telescope?  It was not Galileo.  He was the first to point a telescope toward the night sky.

The development of the telescope was the product of several serendipitous events by different people several years before Galileo.  One of the events involved a couple of children hanging around the shop of a seventeenth century Dutch lens grinder, a Hans Lippershey, maker of primitive eye glasses —some for people who were near-sighted and others for the far-sighted.  The grinder, had a collection of lenses – concave ones for the nearsighted who could see well enough over a distance, and convex lenses for people with the opposite problem.  The kids were playing with some of the lenses on Lippershey’s workbench.  One of them picked up two of the lenses, one of each type, and looked through them both at the same time. The child was fascinated by how a speck on the horizon jumped forward.  It was a weathervane on a distant spire, in the shape of a rooster! The kids showed this to the grinder. He was intrigued and amused. He then put the lenses into a tube. There is no evidence that Lippershay, when he had done this, had any idea how useful this improvised toy would become.  Those discoveries would come later.

The Gospel about Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman, is like one lens of a pair being held up to the eye first, and a second lens being held up immediately thereafter. These are not glass lenses for the literal eyes in our faces, but the inner eye of the heart.  The first lens is drawn from the canon of scripture; but the second is something else.  it is a situation drawn from our contemporary world. That lens could be of anything, but the best materials are like sharp stones that stub our toes along the path of life, troubling our hearts, making us both to bleed, and then to cry in aguish, Why this?  It was such a nice walk! Needless to say the media is full of these stony events in our path through life.  They are upsetting; they make us look for someone to blame for their presence as they are a cause for experiences of sorrow and anxiety that seem to be meaningless, with no potential to add goodness to the world.

I believe that Christians in ministry and those especially who are called to teach and preach have a mandate to do something like what the kids in the lens grinder’s shop did — Pick up these sharp pieces, let the lens grinder polish them off and then hold them up with scripture to make a distant truth jump forward — but in this case not something on a spire near the horizon, but something further out — in the mind of God, out of the closer-to-self view of the unaided eye.  But through the two lenses held up, God enables us to see a glimpse of how God hopes we will respond to an act of sinful evil.  If successful, Christian ministry will enable the eyes of the heart and spirit to see things far beyond the limits of their carnal nature.

The bloody martyrdom of nine African American souls in Charleston, South Carolina about twelve days ago was the cause of hemorrhaging in the hearts of compassionate people all over the world.  It will continue for years after these first few days.  So what specifically do the two lenses make us see? That minority groups of any type are still too often forced to shed their life-blood, the gift of God.

The miracle of God is that there is a possibility that in the bleeding process, the martyrs’ blood will fertilize the growth of a new consciousness not only on the grounds of Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, but far beyond. The more our consciousness is elevated by the hemorrhaging that is pouring now, the more compassionate we also will become as improved bearers of God’s image.   I believe that as the days roll on from the seventeenth of June, we will find an answer to the simple question asked of Evangelist Charles Hembree, who put the answer as well as anybody I know.  We must “live by [the new] law of Christ,  [the law of love, and then]” empowered by the blood of martyrs “turn a giant floodlight of hope into our valleys of trouble”.

The survivors at Mother Emmanuel will continue to abide by the law of Christ, and as they do so, their floodlight of hope will become an essential ingredient in a new American recipe. It is a recipe that we have seen used many times before.  We, the Body of Christ already know that good is the leaven of martyr’s blood.  Without it there could be no continuing of the history of our salvation for future generations.  We, who are in Christ, will continue to bleed in compassion. That is because we are alive and conscious. Sometimes that hurts. But thanks be to God!

___________________

Note to the reader: I use an excellent source without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

SummerDave@aol.com

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Should I be Sleeping on the Job?

A Reflection

on the Gospel

for June 21

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

by David Somerville

American essayist, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once remarked that “The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear.

Emerson’s remark is a great start point for a reflection on next Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Mark 4:35-41:

When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them .… A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

One day several years ago when I was on the staff of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I was making rounds on a ward assigned for my coverage.  A nurse, called out.

“Chaplain, Mrs. Williams’* pneumonia has gotten a lot worse.  Would you please look in on her?”

“Sure, “ I said.  I walked into room 701 where Mrs. Williams had been dealing with a recurring infection for about six weeks. She did not appear to know that I was there.  She was writhing in panicky agony, struggling for air but drowning in her own lung fluid. It was as if she were being held down by a millstone at the bottom of a lake, but the lake was a hospital bed, and I was at the waters’ edge.  The only things I had were an abbreviated prayerbook, a pocket-sized purple stole, and an oil stock.  I put the stole around my neck, read the passage from Mark, anointed her, and prayed. I put the stole and stock away, and continued making my rounds, saddened by the helplessness of watching someone drown.  I was less than five rooms further down the hall when the nurse called me back.

“Chaplain, the doctor is coming to have Mrs. Williams pronounced.  Would you please stick around and pray with us and give her those ‘last rites’ or whatever it is you chaplains do?

I did what I was asked to do. Later, on my way home from work, I kept getting this sinking feeling that I had somehow euthanized Mrs. Williams! I believe that the uncomfortable experience I had with the dying patient had something to do with a mistake expositors often make that Bishop Benhase discussed in his eCrozier article of Friday, June 12th.  In Mark’s parables and other stories, we tend to see our selves reflected as the responsible agent in charge of making the goodness of God’s Kingdom come into being. Apparently our culture of rugged individualism, our bishop observes, sets us up to do this.

Another problem we “moderns” have with parables comes from our tendency to analyze them rather than just absorb their impressions.  Although some parables, and other stories, like Jesus calming of the sea, have simple allegorical components, we tend to break them down into more components because that is what we have been taught by our culture to do — parse and analyze. Then we begin to see what we are looking for — like parts 1, 2, and 3 in the the parable or miracle account as being about A, B, and C with me being analogous to A as I make some kind of effect on B and C! When this kind of thing is done, an essential trait of the Gospel is obscured.  I loose sight of the fact that A is about something larger than anything comparable to me.  The only thing analogous to me, and my life as it should be is that I should pray to be more like the sower who does what he is called to do, and  then when he is done,  goes home in time for dinner, be good company to his spouse, and finally retire for the night, leaving his cares of the day past.  He does not spiral into “analysis paralysis” over what he said or did with any particular individual piece of grain. But look at what I did when I left Mrs. Williams the day she died:  I went home from my job, taking with me some queasiness, a narcissistic anxiety about what I may, or may not have done in room 701.  I had a poor appetite for dinner, and was lousy company to my wife at the beginning of the same week that saw Mrs. Williams’ family members with their pastor, preparing to celebrate her victory in life and resurrection in Christ. Had I taken into account what an inspired piece of work the whole of Mark’s simply-styled gospel really is, a spiritual masterpiece, I might have had an easier, more graceful night.

I am now seeing a better way toward spiritual health and good service by realizing that I am not required to “transubstantiate” the dying process into its true, unseen reality, the beatific bringing of Mrs. Williams into the blessedness of life eternal.  Instead, I felt flattered.  What was I taking credit for? The blessedness that happened at Mrs. Williams’ bedside. By doing that, I had become one of the “knuckleheads” our bishop wrote about when the nursing staff was expressing thankfulness for a special moment. They marveled at how Mrs. Williams immediately relaxed, seemed to smile peacefully and then died in peace.  I was a knucklehead because I failed to apprehend the fact that  my ego had nothing to do with the event in room 701. Was it a miracle? I don’t know. I saw no more than anyone else did in the room — maybe less.  My real place of responsibility was something I did not attend to at all. When I went home, I was not good company to my wife, and I did not sleep well that night. …And that was my real job! It was simply to spend the day doing what I am called to do as best I can, and then let go for the gifts of fellowship with my wife, nourishment and healthy sleep.

The commentaries I read about the this up-coming gospel lesson discussed the possibility that this was a believably historical event buried under layers of hyperbole and allegory. O. K.  So does the story have to be exactly as it happened historically? I doubt it.  One commentator I read on the subject described in detail how the remains of a boat found in the Sea of Galilee in 1985 was carbon dated to the time of Jesus.  He showed that the boat had a deck over its bow, sort of primitive  forecastle and a compartment in the stern under a small poop deck.  That would account for space available for a sleep cushion.  All of that is interesting, perhaps, but does it really matter?  I don’t think so.

What does matter brings me back to a new appreciation of Emerson’s remark about storms:  “The wise man … prays to God, not for safety for deliverance from fear. It is the storm within … which endangers him, not the storm without.

I had nothing to do with Mrs. Williams’ storm, except to let my irrelevant preoccupations distract me from another storm God also probably wanted to calm — if I would have just gotten out of God’s way. That was my storm, the one that blinded me from beholding what really was important, and what really was  going on.

___________________

*Not her real name

Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/

SummerDave@aol.com

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A Mustard Seed? Is that all God needs? Well Maybe Things Are Not So Bad After All!

A Reflection on the Gospel

for  Sunday, June 14,

the Third Sunday after Pentecost

by David Somerville

Tubingen University’s distinguished Professor of systematics, Jurgen Multmann has developed a theology of salvation that comes from his way of understanding history. Controversial to some Christians, it is Multmann’s contention that it is through history that God reveals his presence with us.  God is present both in the lows of our painful times and the highs in the moments of our pleasure.  As we suffer and die, as this Sunday’s mustard seed parable implies, so does God suffer with us.  From this we can infer that our God is neither  immutable nor invulnerable.

Our God is not the God of Plato and Aristotle, whom the Greeks believed was the immutable unmoved mover, and above the passions of humanity.  The Judeo-Christian God of our spiritual ancestors, by way of contrast, is the mysteriousYHWH, the breathing I am, who is author of our continuing history as a spiritual people.

The Hebrew Bible — especially next Sunday’s reading from Ezekiel — suggests that God expresses feelings of frustration, punishes in wrath or disappointment, but also repents of his indignation when his people return their focuses from their misguided idolatries to making their true God the center of their vision once again.

God, then, is one who gives of himself, and as God does that, he shapes the events of time into our story of salvation.  It is the story of how we, his people, who are mustard seeds now, will inherit a destiny to become larger than just another lonely seed in its miserable, existential isolation.

Our world despises things of a small or shrinking nature.  After all, how can one see a positive future in anything that somehow appears to be less today than it was the day before? To talk of ourselves as “little mustard seeds” is not flattering to the ego; and, of course, not to flatter the ego is one of the central points of the parable.

To obsess on the declining numbers in our church may undermine our faith and hope. What good would that do? None.

The 1990’s was declared by the Lambeth conference of 1988 to be the Decade of Evangelism.  The Executive Council’s officer in charge of the commission on Evangelism at the time, A. Wayne Schwab, initiated several programs to implement the American portion of Lambeth’s vision. His programs included the Partners in Evangelism training and the E-Share publications.

  Were there some other growth designers attempting to  “engineer” additional programs to reverse the trend of declining numbers in church attendance, and if so,  were they motivated by the unconditional love in the gospel, or was the motivation instead bound up with a created goal of measurable achievement?  To put the question in other words, what were the expectations of some church leaders, and more personally, what performance expectations do we, the baptized continue to have for our church? How do we as a denominational community feel about the outcome of our evangelism ministries in the recent past?   Have ambitious programs been developed that were out of sync with something larger in scope that led to moments of disappointing surprise at the continuing drop in statistics despite our efforts to counteract the trend?

As far as the Decade of Evangelism is concerned, I really don’t know how the original expectations on January 1, 1990 looked in the minds of our leaders.  Nor do I know how the outcomes matched the original hopes by the turn of the present millennium. But I do know, albeit anecdotally,  that some of us in ministry were both cynical and discouraged in attitude in the aftermath of it all.

In addition to the declining numbers, there are some other things going on today that are scary.  Not only is the global climate changing once familiar weather patterns, but the cultural climate is very different from the way it was only a generation ago.  And even then the 1960’s and 70’s were already going in directions that could not be discerned clearly with the guidance we were given by our teachers from earlier generations.

I remember as a young seminary student the confusion of the late 1960’s.  Parents of former patriotic boy scouts were welcoming their sons home in coffins from a meaningless war while other young people were frying their brains with toxic chemicals in such places as the Haight Asbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Remember the flower children?  To this day, I cannot be sure whether they were pioneers blazing a new trail, or simply running away from the terrors of postmodern civilization.

In today’s world, I find myself  trying to sort  out not only who or what I am in today’s climate of anxiety, but also in another changing climate — the changing climate within myself, where the body/soul continues to evolve.  My body is aging, and it is not as strong as it was when I lived within the ivy walls of a 1950’s seminary building made to exude an English gothic look . (My room was of modern, economical cinder block and poured concrete. But the exterior had been dressed to Romanticize the Age of medieval Faith.  That was then. What was once the  Philadelphia Divinity School is now an abandoned ruin in West Philadelphia.

There are plenty of reasons in the first decades of the millennium that lies ahead to feel deep estrangement and lonely isolation.  In this time also are many lives that are in a barren, spiritual wilderness.  As I see it, this is our new mission field toward which God calls us,  assuming that we have done the first thing first, the work of mutual encouragement to one another. There is a multitude of mustard seeds now unable to live to their full potential because they can neither live nor die, being isolated from a creation intended to nurture the seed’s metamorphosis without which the first and necessary “death” could not occur, so the new birth in Christ cold never be known.

We, who dare to be ministers of the Gospel have a growing field of seeds in need of cultivation.  We can embark on this enterprise if only we remember again what we learned long ago from our family of faith — That the history of human life is God’s revelation that, as his Christ is within the mustard seed of ourselves, we are saved by him when we stop denying what we truly are —mustard seeds. We need not strive to put on airs, or try to make false impressions to our colleagues in ministry. No one among us is any larger than just that — a mustard seed! That in a nut shell, or rather, the shell of a seed is the end of all of our individual mortal lives as we know them in both senses of the word, end: Our bodies will end as ashes and dust, but hopefully not before the other kind of  end, namely  God’s merciful revealing of his purpose for us onetime mustard seeds to be a people in his larger, resurrection stature.

The implication is that God is quietly crying out to us to stop killing him by denying the truth of what we are.  We do that by a life in service to others, who are also mustard seeds —  not with the intention of obtaining for our own ends power over others, of course, but by bettering the circumstances of our neighbors through the generosity of our companionship with them. By doing that, we begin to relinquish some of our smallness to become something larger.  I believe that the mustard seed is one good way to picture what Jurgan Multmann had in mind when he wrote that “We find the Kingdom of God with Jesus when we enter into community with the poor, the sick, the sorrowing, and the guilty, recognizing them as fellow members of the Kingdom”. In other words, mustard seeds.

___________________

Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/

SummerDave@aol.com

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When the Point is Made, the CounterPoint is Ready.

A Reflection on the Gospel for

May 31, Trinity Sunday

by David Somerville+

Recently I delved into the study of the musical form, the Fugue, developed by J. S. Bach. I took a second, third, and several more listens to portions of his Well Tempered Clavier.  I began to appreciate the organic interplays of distinct melodies, short pieces of music that function as “subjects”.  There are generally three of them, soprano, alto, and tenor. They are sung by three individuals or groups in choir, or played instrumentally. The first, typically the alto, begins, and then the soprano and bass “chime in” before the preceding subject melody concludes in such a manor that at intervals a chord “happens” with the delightful experience for the listener as “harmony”.  Harmonies become more complex and exciting as the three parts continue.  They “imitate,” or compliment, each other. Each has its own character; no one of the three is dominant.  There is a quality of development and progress in the togetherness of the the parts, contributing to something wonderfully holistic.  Such is the lyrical magic of Bach’s genius.

So what has this musical form, the Fugue got to do with Trinity Sunday?  It helps to make the largeness and wholeness in the theme of Trinity manageable.  It  can guide the pulpit minister away from attempting the impossible— to preach about everything, and that is good because any time a preacher plans to address everything is a good day to stay home from church!

Fortunately, though, Trinity can be the good recapitulation of all that has gone on since Advent that it is supposed to be.  It is a day to celebrate our potential to be a people of differences, having encountered the full story of the person and work of Christ, and yet be one people in textured harmoniousness as the continuing body of Christ in the image of God. It is what makes us into a well tempered community in readiness to confront something well put by Edward Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother).  He spoke of  the Christian call to service, writing that “Great changes do not begin on the surface of society, but in [the] prepared hearts [of God’s people]:  So what then is the message of Trinity Sunday?  It is of the God-power given to the community of the baptized, staying together to do what Beecher describes.

Does our society need “great changes”?  The recent acquittal of an Ohio police officer of criminality in the shooting of two defenseless African American people did not bring peace and closure with regard to the tragic, violent death of this couple of people two years ago to a community that had already been troubled with a long history of distrust in the Cleveland judicial process.  Protests followed.

I could not help noticing in the protesting crowd a woman wearing a cassock, surplice and tippet, arm in arm with other protest march leaders. The organized presence of these community leaders discouraged the kind of enraged looting and burning that hit the city of Baltimore earlier this month on the one hand, while validating the neighborhood’s perception that their oppression by the police was something they had lived with for years.  Cleveland’s black community obviously was feeling the pain once again of there being no justice in yet another verdict.  The rational analysis on how the thirty-one year old white officer was acquitted was perceived as merely a rationalization of institutional bias.

I was not in Cleveland, and know only what the press has told the American public at large,  so my suspicions or comments about the verdict are really nothing new. But the fact of the matter is that Cleveland became the site of a familiar bad atmosphere: the toxic fog of anger, anxiety, and fear on the part of both the civilian public, and a people employed to maintain public safety. The atmosphere was threatening the health and well  being of a neighborhood.  Have the battle-helmeted police, mostly young white men, been adequateky educated in such things as black cultural history, urban sociology, and the psychology of fear?

Trials and their outcomes are supposed to send a message to the public that denounces lawless violence, and that those who engage in such activities will bear the consequences of the law, thus leaving the citizens with the motivation to abide by it. So goes the theory.  The Cleveland verdict has had no such affect on anybody in Cleveland — especially the African American community, who have grown to both fear and hate the uniformed professionals— who are really not the reassuring symbols of public safety that they should be for the people they serve.

The administration of law and the oppression of a minority group comes from generations of cultural habit.  A heavy-handed police force, decked out in combat field gear only worsens the situation with aggravated fear-based oppression. But one woman, visibly a priest, was in the company of others. She with the diversity of fellow Christians and conscientious believers of various creeds with a common value for bigotry-free justice and good will had their arms locked together, believing in Henry Beecher’s conviction that, as noted above, holds that “Great changes” cannot be imposed on the surface of society. Real change happens in peoples’ hearts. It comes from their communion with a really present God.  This God comes from the priesthood — not the one of liturgical formality, important as that may be, but from a people who bear a community reality too large to be borne by any one prophet alone.

As a people of faith, we all, who have lived the Great story of God, the point, so to speak from Advent to Pentecost , would do well to support one another by repeating Beecher’s truth in order to keep the memory fresh.

Beecher completes his thought by adding more thing: “People in communion with God [have within them the power to rise above the apathy of the age, and speak with living, vital energy, and give life to the community and tone to the public mind. [Italics mine]

Trinity Sunday is a day that brings us to celebrate the truth that the wholeness and diversity of the many parts of our faith, and the diversity of souls who bear them, can do what the oppressiveness of martial law cannot do – Bring the dynamic peace of the creator/redeemer/spirit to one of several troubled cities and more.

Until we succeed in actualizing Beecher’s vision, we will only hear the world’s noise, not the music where differing melodies greet each other, building up to the dynamic unity of both the transformed world, and the holiness  of God.

___________________

Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/

SummerDave@aol.com

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The Good News Behind Declining Numbers

A Reflection on the Gospel for

May 24, 2015

The Feast of Pentecost

by David Somerville

One of the two Collects that begins the liturgy for this coming Sunday commemorating the birth of the Church lets us know that we are gifted with a higher consciousness, “the light of [God’s] Holy Spirit”.  It is this firelight of God, the Advocate, who came first to the original witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. It has been carried through time by generations of believers that remind me of successive torch bearers with the Olympic fire, making their way through countries, many of which may be on the verge of war with each other, to the site of the traditional games.  The olympic vision? To celebrate excellence through competition not by war, but playing hard at peaceful games. In like manner, the firelight of God is passed down to us not through space, but through generations of time. It has gone hand to hand from the original apostles, empowered on the first Christian Pentecost, down through the ages to the hands of our sponsors, who brought us to the waters of baptism. Through the work of their common sainthood, we received the laying on of hands.

Is there a need for us who have received the fire to work at passing it on? The answer, of course, is yes! But are some of us in the contemporary church familiar with discouragement about the state of the church today? Many of us probably are. It is hard not to wonder about our efforts in ministry with a beloved church that is smaller in size than it was a generation ago.

Our world continues to change — especially in the fields of communication and information management technology.  We have access to so much changing information about so many peoples and cultures that there never seems to be enough time to manage it.  The foreigner, whose folkways and language remains unintelligible, but seems to be crowding our borders gives rise to anxiety. Some people, because they don’t like anxiety, begin to resent the foreigner and what he sounds like when he (or she) begins to speak. What can this lead to? Situations with innocent refugees being rejected in over-crowded, abandoned boats on the high seas off the shores of Bangladesh. As I write this, I am aware that politicians exploit their more fortunate constituents with the belief that hoards of refugees will undermine their standard of living. So, then, people are troubled by their scary world. They are not poor; and yet they are not blessed. What is the effect of all this on the Church?

A recent CNN poll conducted by researchers from Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, came up with some findings that would concern anybody with interests in the future of Christianity in American society.  In 1990,  86 percent of the people polled reported that they were “Christian”.  Between then and 2014, the number had dropped to 75 percent.  The so-called “mainline” denominations, which includes Lutherans and Episcopalians,  have been reporting since the early 1960’s significant membership declines.   Concurrently the percentage of the general population that state that they have “no religious preference” has increased.  This is not news to most Episcopalians I know.  The trend has been monitored for years by the statisticians at our national headquarters, and is currently being responded to by our leaders who are designing a leaner central administration for our organization, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

As membership declines in the mainline churches, the mega churches, which are generally independent and conservative, have exploded from less than 200,000 members to more than 8 million! Their interest is not in faith community development to nurture the individual, but to display impressive crowds, the size of which is intended to “save” individuals from their fears of personal insignificance by making them feel like they are a part of something too big to be insignificant.

About six months ago, I had a conversation with a man in his late thirties. He told me about his family’s involvement with a non-denominational group. He and his church were quite heady over its expansion. He felt that he understood what the mainline problem was.  He said to me. “The trouble with your traditional, ‘brand name’ churches is that they don’t give straight answers to the questions people ask.  …And that’s what they want — answers, not more discussion and debate with all the confusion that comes from such activity.  They want the simple down-to-earth truth.  They want it from the Bible — like, for instance,  homosexuality. It is a sin, pure and simple.  And the other thing is racism.  Too much is being made of it.  I’m not a racist.  I just know that if the blacks would pull themselves up by their bootstraps — just like the way my great grandfather did after he came to America through Ellis Island— they would not need any more welfare than we do.  My church has a philosophy:  Read the Bible, and work hard while believing that Jesus saves. Then tithe, and God will reward you with material signs of his favor.”

When I finally let the talk between this man’s mouth, and my ear, die, I wondered to myself, Is this what the “No religious preference” people consider typical  when they think of Christians?  The compilers of the Trinity College poll suggested that the rise in the number of the unaffiliated was not about rejecting religion per se, but a reaction against the kind of exclusive, self-serving activism that began with the the Moral Majority movement back in the 1970’s with such allies as the Colorado-based group, Focus on the Family.

Some purveyors of Christianity with a political agenda package their pitches to appeal to the spiritually hungry, people who struggle to understand a technologically advanced world, but one that has the spiritual landscape of a hurricane. I suspect that there is a significant population of people who are as spiritually hungry as they are anxious. They are hungry enough to try anything — even if it comes from an alpha style personality whose message is “ I know Jesus loves you because I have Jesus in my heart, and he wants you to be more like me!”  The Trinity pollsters entertained some suspicions that the rise in the “no preference” choice does not have so much to do with the rejection of religion as it does with rejecting a product that is designed to bilk the gullible. But not everybody is gullible.

There is another class of people, the thoughtful skeptics — those whose minds can see the profit-motive in snake oil-religion sales made by media-savvy broadcasters.  It is neither spirituality nor interest in God that is rejected by the “nones” as the pollsters call them.  It is the rejection of scams that are disguised as Christianity by their purveyors in their quest for wealth and power over others.

I cannot believe that God’s authorship of our spiritual history is finished — not in this current state of affairs.  It cannot be complete without our uncovering the true meaning of our existence as a people reclaimed by our heavenly father in his Son, Jesus Christ,  We do this by succeeding at what we alone cannot do —build an effective church which is more than a spiritual amusement park.  We must face up to the reality that if there is to be a real church, then it will be a place where suffering still happens. Without it, there can be no real presence of the compassionate Savior. If it ends up having some inspiring new buildings with a garden (not out of the question), then the garden needs to have a Gethsemane element in it.  The authentic church cannot anesthetize suffering, if it is to be the redemptive body that transforms its members, leading them to receive the firelight that gives them a vision of a true reality to rejoice about. Does that make sense? No, It is both mystery and paradox.  (As I write this I am bemused at what a flop this essay would be if I were using it to  compete for a call to the pulpit of one of the more impressive megachurches that dot our nation’s countryside).

For life in such a mystery as his Church, God has given us a new friend,  his Spirit, the Advocate.  Now, perhaps, we who are in baptized ministry need to keep, figuratively speaking,  suppling the ink so that God may continue authoring the story of us in our growth in his Son’s stature.  After all there does appear to be a population out there.  To quote the beloved Jane Borthwick hymn of 1859, we all know, there may well be a new “… harvest plain [where] all around us waves the golden grain….”

As I take another look at the prayer that is “proper” for next Sunday I feel challenged to cast discouragement aside by its petition to develop, keep, and, by implication, share the gift of having “a right judgment in all things, [in order to] evermore rejoice in [the Advocate’s] holy comfort.

I believe that Pentecost 2015 brings into view the next big task of the great season of the green, growing life of Ordinary Time (with its extraordinary hope). And what is that? To complete our mourning over the departure of the larger church of yesteryear.  Perhaps we could demythologize some of its inflation by asking some questions like this one: How many of its “disciples” were of the fair-weather kind, who joined their large post-war churches because  membership was part of the inventory of American respectability  — along with a new station wagon in the garage of a Levittown House in neighborhoods where mortgage money was available, (but it was discretely understood in those days that for such mortgages “Negros need not apply”*).

I am looking at two mistakes I have made that have left me demoralized more recently than I would care to admit:  1) Remembering the past with unrealistic rosiness.  Maybe it wasn’t so great after all, and 2) Maybe the present and the future is not so bad either.  It is simply a little stranger and less certain than we sometimes wish it were.

Clearly I have a bone to pick with the man that I conversed with six months ago.  But we all have bones like that to pick.  So does God.  Just check out the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)  lesson for this upcoming day of Pentecost, Ezekiel 37:1-14.

 _________________

Note to the reader:

* The disturbing remark about “Negros” was brought to my attention by Richard Rothstein, a guest on Terry’ Gross’s National Public Radio program, Fresh Air, last Tuesday.  His Book, The Making of Ferguson, Public Policy at the Root of its Troubles described the common practice in the North and South among Levittown’s financing banks of “redlining” that systematically kept the African American people restricted to designated, over crowded neighborhoods.

I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/

SummerDave@aol.com

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When Does Our Adolescence Truly End?

A Reflection on the Gospel

for  May 17, 2015,

The Sunday after the Ascension

by David Somerville+

Founder of the fashion brand that modernized the woman’s look in the years after World War I, Coco Chanel, had an idea that she called “elegance”.  Judging from what she said about this ineffable quality, it is a fair guess that Chanel’s idea is pretty close to what we would call “spiritual maturity”. So what did she say about this quality?  “[It] is not the prerogative of those who have just escaped  from adolescence….”

So, What else is new?

One thing about adolescence that I find striking is this:  When I feel like I have finally escaped from it, that is strong evidence that I have not, because being over-confident is one of its more prominent traits.

Adolescence is as confusing as it is dynamic.  Any parent of young adults will tell you this, and many of them will roll their eyes in thanksgiving for not having to go through the trials of guiding an adolescent to adulthood again.  It is a time of rapid changes all over a young person’s body and mind. It involves upheavals in hormonal  chemistry that are not generally comfortable.  Boys get acne; girls worry about whether their bodies will develop the right features soon enough so that they will be attractive during Spring break.  Moods and emotions go through upheavals. Young people don’t generally understand what is happening to them, and they have periods of anxiety over whether they are normal or freaky.

Neurologists tell us that the adolescent brain is not yet equipped to control impulses.  They make mistakes as they struggle with choices — What they want to do immediately must wait until the things that must be done are done first.  They want to be popular among their peers, but oftentimes they find themselves struggling to get “one up” on their peers.

The list of issues that challenge adolescents could go on forever.  That is the bad news.  The good news is that the roiling storm of adolescence does not go on for ever. It levels out — for the most part.  But one thing to remember about this bothersome condition: It is one of God’s favorite raw materials.  In God’s creative work with his children, God molds and perfects their nature. (As parents, we often find God to be really slow at this, and that is frustrating.  It is also a sign of our own post-adolescence issues).

Adolescence is like the white hot metal between the black smith’s hammer and anvil. It involves the steady, but uncomfortable heat tolerated by the smith who is confident both in himself and his tools. There is more heat than light in this process to the human observer, but the smith knows what he is doing.

Tradition calls the season that climaxes with the ten days from the Ascension to Pentecost “the Great Fifty Days of Easter.”  It has a different character from the weeks after Pentecost. The Green days of Spring to late Fall is the season of the living, adult church in action; its symbols are about a church in the youthful prime of her life.

As we anticipate the season of stable fecundity all the way from next week until Advent, it will be helpful to take a retrospective look at the seven weeks after the day of our Lord’s resurrection before they recede into the past once again without notice.  What special role can the fifty days of Easter play as a “chapter” in the ongoing story that is both the church year, and also a parable of our growth in the risen Lord’s stature?

One answer to that question is to call the season by another name, “The Lesser Fifty Days”.  Things get greater and better after after the coming of the Strengthener, the Holy Spirit.

This upcoming Sunday after the Ascension marks the end of a grand season of joy to be sure.  But for the original twelve,  there was much healing to work through as the community recovered from the brokenness of shattered dreams.

The fellowship of the surviving eleven, plus Matthias, was not yet up to the task of functional ministry. They were like a person who woke up from an accident with amputation, blood loss, and paralysis.    The story from the upcoming lesson in the Book of Acts is about how this injured embryo of the new Israel, eleven spiritually traumatized  individuals, needed the wholeness of a replacement, a twelfth.  They had become aware that  their Lord lives, but they had not totally integrated this new reality to themselves; their transformation from it had only just begun. It was slow, a jerky-jerky series of mistakes and learnings. The survivors’ life in the flesh continued to be ravaged by their struggle to live in a world ignorant of its redemption. Except for a few, the word had not yet gotten out.  These proto-evangelists were not at the spiritual competence level required by the task.   They, as their “lesser” selves, had not yet come to terms with the new reality — that death had lost its upper hand. The new Israel was still recovering from all the injuries of Holy Week; so it had not grown to anywhere near its full maturity.

The Great Fifty Days, then,  is like the adolescence of a  community that had lost a lot, but not its future potential.  It clearly needed to do something — something like a recovery in strength and healing so as to be able move out from the closed doors of fear, and go back to work with confidence. This is what the spiritually mature church needs. We know this is also what the Church got.  That is why we are here today.

___________________

Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/

SummerDave@aol.com

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