Monday, July 9, 2018

Made perfect in weakness. July 8, 2018 The Rev. David M. Stoddart

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

This past Thursday, it was my turn to make breakfast for the Men’s Bible Study. It’s a tough crowd, so I was up especially early, slaving away over hot griddles. When breakfast was done, and Bible Study was over, and I was finished cleaning the kitchen, I sat down in my office to begin working on this sermon and I read those words from Paul’s second letter to the  Corinthians, and thought, “Yes, this is what I want to talk about” — and then promptly fell asleep. So I am on it: I can preach about weakness.

And I need to. People occasionally talk to me about things they find hard to believe. How can there be a good God when the world has so much suffering in it? Did Jesus bodily rise from the dead? And what about the virgin birth? Those can be tough questions for people, and I can certainly see why they might struggle with them. But let me tell you, those are minor league issues compared to the Big One, the one which people often struggle with the most but have a hard time naming: Does God really love me the way I am, with all my sin and brokenness? Is God’s power truly made perfect in my weakness? Unlike debating some clauses from the Nicene Creed, that hits home: it’s personal and shapes the way we actually live, or fail to live, our faith. And it goes against everything our culture teaches us. We are supposed to be strong, not weak; invincible, not vulnerable. Our icons tend to be super achievers; every summer the most popular movies are superhero movies. We may be taught to pity the weak, but not to emulate them. And the idea that we are weak in very real ways is not at all comfortable to many people, even and especially religious people. Oh, we talk a good game, and we claim to have faith in a God of love and mercy, but scratch the surface, and lots of people don’t actually believe that. They believe that you need to be good to earn God’s love and you need to be super good to get into heaven. God may forgive, BUT for many people there are always strings attached: you better feel bad about your weaknesses, you better not mess up again, you better recite the right religious formulas, you better improve, you better become stronger and more perfect. There are many churchgoers who are practical pagans. I know this because I used to be one of them.

This is why Paul’s witness is so extraordinarily important. He has real gifts and strengths. And he has had profound spiritual experiences, one of of which he alludes to in this passage today, when he was caught up in the “third heaven” (whatever that means) and heard things that no mortal is permitted to repeat. But Paul is just a human being, flawed and imperfect like every human being. We don’t even need him to tell us that: we just need to read his letters! He can be super intense, overbearing, difficult, irascible, and frustrating. And in addition to all of that, he has this mysterious “thorn in the flesh” which afflicts him. We have no idea what that is. Over the centuries, commentators have offered lots of guesses: an eye disease, a speech impediment, epilepsy, addiction, a besetting temptation. I like that we don’t know what it is, because it could be anything. But whatever it is, it’s a big deal and cannot be overlooked. And what Paul says about it matters to us: God does not love him in spite of his weakness: God loves him in his weakness. God is even glad that he’s weak so that God can shower love and mercy on him. Paul grasps the Good News in a way that changes his life: God loves us as we are, even with our weaknesses, even with our sins, and proves it by working through us as we are for the good of the world.

We also have gifts and strengths, and we should use them and rejoice in them. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that they earn us God’s love. For one thing, they come from God: that’s why we call them gifts — we can’t take any credit for them. But more than that, we cannot limit God’s activity to them. God will often work through our weaknesses even more effectively than through our strengths. When I was first ordained, I didn’t really believe that. I thought I had to be super competent and good at everything I did. But I really struggled with that because I messed up so often. Years ago, for example, I preached a really terrible sermon: I got up in the pulpit, and completely lost my train of thought. I stumbled around, trying to improvise, finally had to pause for a few moments and collect my thoughts, and then lurched to some kind of lame conclusion. I sat down hating myself and thinking “I am a piece of garbage,” but after the service, a woman came up to me and told me I had said exactly what she needed to hear that day. And it was like the Holy Spirit gently shook me and said, “Get over yourself. It’s not about you or your perfectionism or your ego. It’s about my love and my grace, and I can make those flow through anyone, even you.” 

What if we really believed that? What if we really lived that? Imagine all the time and energy we would save. After all, we spend monstrous amounts of time and energy trying to be perfect or at least seem perfect, building up our image and boosting our egos, constantly defending and justifying ourselves. What if we could drop all that nonsense and just accept that God really does love us as we are, with our gifts and strengths, our weaknesses and sins? Then maybe we would actually experience the Good News of Christ. And then maybe we could actually understand this Gospel. Forget about the tunics and sandals and other details of first century travel: Jesus sends out his disciples with nothing but the authority of love: no seminary degrees, no credentials, no insurance, no protection, and no expertise. He sends them out into the world as flawed and vulnerable human beings, because he knows his Father will work through them as flawed and vulnerable human beings. His basic message to those disciples: “God loves you as you are. Go show others that God loves them as they are.” All the miracles, the healings, the exorcisms, all the changed lives and transformed people, flow out of that basic truth.

This week I ask you to practice living that truth. Everyday, practice believing that God loves you just the way you are. Everyday, practice believing that the Holy Spirit will move through you just the way you are. We don’t have to be perfect or close to it. We don’t have to achieve anything. We just need to drop our defenses, let down our guard, and trust the Good News: My power is made perfect in weakness.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Church of Our Corn Hole: A Reflection from Emily Rutledge

Installment 1 of the Asheville Mission Trip Reflections

As anyone who works with teenagers will tell you, the most dangerous time is free time.  Free time is when tears come.  Free time is when feelings get hurt.  Free time is when a trip can fall apart and a group can unravel.  This year on our mission trip to Asheville free time was when the magic happened. 

What started as a few games of corn-hole the second night of the trip morphed into a full blown tournament complete with a bracket which consumed every second of free time there was until we drove back to Charlottesville.  Students who were not playing were watching.  Students were cheering.  Students were DJing. Students not interested in playing were staying near and doing work/coloring/hanging out.  Students were practicing in the sleeping rooms (we are a competitive bunch).  Our graduate/chaperone extraordinaire (this is the true beauty of bringing a chaperone who has been on many mission trips and has the energy of a teenager and frontal lobe of an adult) orchestrated what became the most competitive bonding experience I have ever witnessed.

I was approached on day three and asked if Fr. David would consider changing the church name to Church of Our Corn-Hole.

It was a beautiful sight; a group of people together playing a competitive game with love and kindness and only a little bit of hostility when losing.  The grace of it was everyone was part of something bigger.  That's the thing about belonging... when you truly feel like you are a part of something; that you are seen and valued, others' successes don't devalue your own worthiness.  There were times that students felt left out and someone would walk away from a conversation they were engaged in or an opportunity they enjoyed to show up for the person on the outside.  There were moments it was difficult to differentiate between someone feeling exhausted from a long day or unsure if they had a place in the group: their peers would check to see which they were feeling. 

Did they benefit from showing up for the person on the outs?


On some deep and spiritual level, yes, of course, but in that moment... no.  They were missing out on the thing that would have been easier and more enjoyable to help someone else.  The collective belonging was more important than the momentary individual joy.  Knowing that when one person is left out and hurting the community slowly becomes weaker means something on a real level to these kiddos. 

Short-term mission work is a dangerous choice.  Without real thought and intentional planning short-term mission trips can become a group living into the white savior complex instead of a community seeking to understand marginalized groups and both learn from them and respond to our baptismal covenant to 'seek and serve Christ in all person, loving our neighbor as our self'.

Everyday we are faced with both small and large scale marginalization in our lives.  The person without someone to eat lunch with and the refugee without an advocate.  The newcomer in the service that has no one to pass the peace with and the single mom with no one to help her with childcare over the summer.  The mildly annoying coworker who clearly feels left out in the office and the person experiencing homelessness who isn't sure what resources are available in the town they have found themselves in. 

Showing up for the marginalized, it's missional work.  It is what I pray grows from the week long trips we take in the summer and the hundreds of times we get gather over the course of students years in the youth community.  It's big and it's small.  It's a way of life and a choice.

It's almost always uncomfortable.

Creating belonging, creating a safe-space, creating some magical moment like our time in Asheville at Church of Our Corn Hole means a person who is doing just fine has to relinquish something to be sure that those who are not just fine get a little closer to it. 

Something might be time, money, an easy conversation, the comfort of what's natural, pride, or a million other things that we can put aside in order to allow others to feel worthy and seen. 

Being Church.  Being Christ.  Being Love. It means putting ourselves aside to make room for another.  Sometimes it is through advocacy work, by being a voice for the oppressed.  Sometimes it is through feeding or legally representing or giving medical care.  Other times it is through inviting and including and welcoming.

And then there are those times it is through corn hole. 

May the God of love, who we are promised in Ephesians created us to do good works, allow us to see them as they lay before us.  That no opportunity seem too small, too silly, too insignificant to be an opportunity to reveal the beloved nature of God and the innate worthiness of every one of God's people. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Touch goes both ways. July 1, 2018 The Rev. Kathleen M. Sturges

Mark 5:21-43, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Andy was one of the people we met on the youth mission trip we took to Asheville, North Carolina a few weeks ago.  He came to our group to share his story.  Growing up, Andy told us, he struggled to fit in with his peers until he reached his teenage years thought he had found the answer - drugs and alcohol.  They made him feel like he belonged.  Finally, he was one of the cool kids...until he wasn’t.  His peers graduated and moved on in life, but Andy didn’t.  By then he was trapped in addiction which caused him to burn all of his relationships and landed him on the street.  There he lived for years of his life.  And when reflecting on the hardest thing about being homeless Andy said it was loneliness.  “I went years,” he said, “without being touched by anyone.”

Touch, or the lack thereof, plays a big role in our reading today from the gospel of Mark.  As Jesus is on his way to Jarius’ house to heal his daughter, a woman in the crowd reaches out and touches Jesus’ clothes.  Although we don’t know her name, we do know quite a bit about her backstory.  For twelve years this woman suffered with chronic bleeding and she spent those years going from doctor to doctor paying them for their services, enduring countless “cures,” only to find herself broke and in worse shape than when she started.  But her struggle was not limited to the physical realm.  Spiritually she suffered too for her condition made her unclean.  Being unclean meant that no one could touch her or anything she touched.  One can only imagine the sense of isolation she had to bear all those years.  So it’s really no surprise when Jesus comes along that she’s desperate and willing to break any rule for a cure.  Pushing through the crowd she touches Jesus’ cloak and is healed in the fullest sense of the world.  Not only does her bleeding stop but Jesus calls her, “daughter.”   No longer is she unclean and untouchable, but healed and whole, restored to her community.

But there’s another daughter, Jarius’, who has taken a turn for the worse.  Word comes that she is now dead.  But Jesus goes to her anyway.  And upon his arrival, Jesus touches the girl who is now considered unclean due to death, but that is of no matter.  In both cases touch is the means by which healing and wholeness come.  By taking the girl by the hand Jesus calls her back to her life and to her community.   

Touch, however, can take various forms.  There are many ways in both word and deed that we can touch, have an impact on another’s life.  We see an example of this in our reading from 2 Corinthians.  Paul is passionately urging the Corinthians and all the Gentile Christians to give generously to a relief fund.  The money is for Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who are in need. But this collections is not just about addressing physical needs, it also serves as a way of touching the lives of the Jerusalem Christians with a tangible expression of love.  It’s an outward and visible sign of the community, the connection, the belonging they have with one another in Christ even if the various individuals never meet face to face. And just like in the gospel story where touch goes both ways - the woman touches Jesus and Jesus touches the girl - this reaching out by the Gentiles churches is meant to be a reciprocal relationship.  Paul explains that the one who has abundance gives to the other’s need and then, when things change as they always do, it works the other way.  As in any healthy relationship there needs to be both give and take.

And that’s one of the takeaways from our youth mission trip.  Heading down to Asheville we had high hopes that we might touch lives by helping people in need - and we did - community gardens were tended, donated clothes were sorted, hearty food was served.  But that’s only the half of it.  In addition to those acts of service we were encouraged to do something that was, for most of us, much more difficult - allow the people we came to serve, serve us.  For the same good feelings we were getting from helping, well, that should be shared too.  So when part of our group went to a cafe that served delicious, free food to anyone who sat down we were given strict instructions:  spend half of the time doing work and the other half of the time eating with patrons - and be open to what they can give to you. 

“Nice idea,” thought one youth member to herself, “but these people have nothing they can really give to me.”  And that seemed to be true until that young person met Kyla.  Kyla was a mother of three young boys.  No one asked, but it was clear that she didn’t have a lot of resources and perhaps was experiencing homelessness.  When they entered the cafe Kyla and her kids took a seat at a table where the skeptical youth sat.  At first sitting there with a stranger was awkward until the conversation turned to God and Kyla shared her faith.  She said that she knew God to be good and loving.  And that God could be trusted no matter what even when things didn’t make sense.  Now unbeknownst to Kyla, she was talking to someone who really struggled with her faith - who often doubted that God was good or loving or trustworthy no matter how many times Fr. David or I or her family or her friends told her.  But when Kyla shared that Good News it touched this young person’s heart in a significant way and she received a gift that was priceless.     

Whether it’s social barriers, or miles of land, or religious rules, or the like, God is all about crossing boundaries and touching us in unexpected ways through other people.  Each one of us, no matter who we are or what we have or what we don’t have are called to be both givers and receivers of God’s touch - touch that brings healing, wholeness, and connection in the deepest of ways.   So let me tell you about the rest of Andy’s story, the man who told us about his life on the streets.  A few years ago his life changed.  Andy now has a roof over his head.  He fell in love and married.  He’s part of a church community.  And he works as mentor to others who are experiencing homelessness.  All this, he says, happened because a pastor befriended him and touched his life with God’s healing love.  Clearly Jesus is still going about touching lives and making them whole.  As the Body of Christ in this world may our lives be open to that touch and all of its transforming power - both in the giving and receiving. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

To seek and serve Christ in all persons. June 24, 2018 The Rev. David M. Stoddart

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth said that you should preach the Gospel with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. God cares about the whole world, after all, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for the whole world. Well, the newspapers and their digital equivalents have recently been filled with a world of pain. As we all know, for a number of weeks our government has been forcibly separating children from their parents when those parents have tried to enter our country illegally. The images and stories have been heartbreaking, and have included young children, even toddlers and infants, being physically taken from their mothers’ arms; parents hearing the cries of their children and not being allowed to go to them or touch them or comfort them; children being warehoused in detention centers and camps, some of which are disturbingly cage-like; authorities refusing to tell parents where their children are and when or if they will see them again; and some of those authorities, federal workers at the border, breaking down in tears and being overwhelmed by the awfulness of what they are being asked to do. After a huge uproar, an executive order was issued this week, stopping this practice from continuing, at least for now. But there are still some 2,ooo to 3,000 children separated from their parents, with no certainty about when or if they will be reunited with their families. The human pain in all of this is immeasurable.

And the Church of Jesus Christ cannot be silent. As a preacher in that Church, I will not be silent. I hope what I’m about to say is glaringly obvious: systematically separating children from their parents to deter and/or punish people trying to enter the United States is cruel, inhumane, and morally abhorrent. This is an issue that transcends partisan politics, and people of both political parties and all political persuasions have rightly expressed their outrage and horror.

You don’t need a Bible to know this is wrong: just a working heart. But in case it is not abundantly clear, it is incumbent upon me as the Rector of this parish to remind all of us of the compelling and consistent message of Scripture concerning the treatment of aliens and foreigners, a message which runs from the beginning to the end of the Bible. The Law addresses it directly, multiple times, in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Lev. 19:33-34).  And then the Law goes on in numerous passages to flesh that out, saying for example that the Israelites should not gather the gleanings from their harvests but leave them for the aliens among them (e.g., Lev. 23:22; Deut. 24: 19-22). And towards the very end of the Torah, in one of the last things that Moses does before he dies, he sums up the law and says, “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen.” (Deut. 27:19)

And this theme runs throughout the rest of Scripture. The Psalmist affirms it, as in Psalm 146: The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow (v. 9). And the prophets drive the same message home, over and over again: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi — there is no avoiding it. As the prophet Zechariah writes, Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zech. 7: 9-10).

And there is no mistaking Jesus’s teaching here. Matthew records that Jesus himself was a refugee as a child, when his family fled to Egypt for safety. And throughout the Gospels Jesus shows mercy to Romans, Samaritans, and Gentiles all the time. And in the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus insists that the only criterion for judgment is whether people see him in the poor and the needy: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25: 35, 40).

I could go on, but the point is beyond dispute. This is not a minor side note in the Bible; we’re not talking about a few obscure verses we can easily overlook. Dozens of passages strongly state that God cares about how we treat strangers and foreigners. And that message is embedded in our Baptismal Covenant, which we affirm every time we baptize someone and which we will affirm again today. In that covenant, we promise “to seek and serve Christ in all persons” — not some persons, not many persons, all persons — “loving your neighbor as yourself.” And we promise “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” — not some human beings, not many human beings, every human being. This is true regardless of whether we are conservatives or liberals, it is true regardless of what our particular views on immigration policy may be. The people who cross our borders are human beings, many of them desperately seeking a better life for their families. God loves them; Jesus identifies with them; he is on their side. They must be treated humanely, with decency, respect, and charity. Anything less than that is clearly unacceptable to God, and should be unacceptable to us.

In light of that, I have two admonitions for you today, one specific and one general. The specific one: if you have not already done so, please join me in contacting our elected officials. I have called the offices of Congressman Garrett and Senators Warner and Kaine to express my strong feelings on this matter and to urge them to work in a bipartisan way to reunite children with their families as quickly as possible and to fix our immigration system so that such a horrible thing cannot happen again.

But on a more general level, I urge you to keep the faith. We cannot give into cynicism, hatred, or despair. The problems in our world can feel overwhelming: it would be all too easy to hunker down in our various factions and hurl insults at each other; it would be all too easy to give up hope and give up trying. But that is not an option for us. We follow the Crucified and Risen Lord, who met the pain and violence of a broken world with the saving and invincible love of God. We are his Body in the world, and his mission is our mission. So pray fervently and act bravely and love generously — and trust that God’s Holy Spirit, who never grows weary and never gets discouraged, will move through us, even us. Believe it and live it. God knows the world needs it.

Monday, June 18, 2018

More than we can see. June 17, 2018 The Rev. Kathleen M. Sturges

Mark 4:26-36, 2 Corinthians 6-10, 14-17

Have you ever had this arrive at home and realize that you don’t really remember the drive that got you there?  So many times throughout our days there’s a temptation to switch into autopilot because we think we’ve seen it all - that we already know all there is to know about a certain situation.  This is particularly true for me when driving the same streets over and over again, which made me curious so I googled “accidents close to home.”  Turns out that 52% of car accidents occur within a 5 mile radius of home.  So I’m not the only one who tends to zone out.  All to say that a few weeks ago as I was driving home in a quasi-autopilot state I made the usual right turn into my neighborhood and gasped.  Right in front of me was a rainbow.  Now this wasn’t my first rainbow nor was it the prettiest I’d ever seen.  Rather what made the biggest impression on me was how it broke through my state of inattention.  It was an unexpected wonder which ended up completely distracting me on the rest of my drive home.  But did you know that there’s more to a rainbow than meets the eye?  At least the human eye, that is.   

Harken back with me to biology class.  When it comes to color perception the human eye has three types of cones that register particular colors in a certain spectrum.  So we see a rainbow that has seven colors - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.  But that’s not all there is.  If we were blessed with a literal bird’s-eye view - most birds having four different color cones in their eyes rather than three - then we’d really be in for a treat.  We’d see rainbows that would blow our minds with a whole range of colors we had no idea even existed.  But before we feel too sorry for ourselves for missing all of that, let us take into consideration the lot of the humble dog whose eye possess only two types of color cones which means they see rainbows as a dull swath of muted blues, grays, and yellows.  Nothing to get too excited about.  Which makes me wonder...what does a rainbow - or anything else for that matter- really looks like?  Who gets to  say?  Are human beings the best interpreter and arbitrator of what really is?  Is it wise to trust in our own abilities to see is all there is in this world?     

No.  That’s the short and simple answer that our faith gives over and over again.  Relying solely on our vision or our understanding of things does not provide a full enough picture of what’s really going on.   That’s made clear in our reading from I Samuel.  Israel’s first king, Saul, has turned into a disaster, so God instructs the prophet Samuel to go and anoint a successor from the house of Jesse.  Now Jesse has a passel of sons and when Samuel meets them he see seven strapping young men - all who appear to be viable candidates to fill the role of king.  Yet to Samuel’s surprise, God does not choose any of them.  It turns out that the youngest son, David, the one out doing the grunt work of tending the sheep, the one who no one gave a thought to, is the one.  And it’s during this anointing process that God declares to Samuel that, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."  

Clearly human-seeing and God-seeing are on two totally different levels.  Our capabilities to perceive things are limited, not just by the number of color cone receptors we have in our eyes, but by the finite nature of being.  Sure, we are able pick up on the outward and visible appearances of things, but even that skill set is far from perfect.   While the view God has is all-encompassing, taking in not only what we see, but a deeper, fuller, and inner reality that we are unable to know or even imagine.

Jesus drives this point home in our reading from the gospel of Mark when he likens the Kingdom of God to seed sown on the ground.  Days come and days go.  Time passes.  And for all the sower can see NOTHING is happening.  Until one day, without any fanfare, a sprout breaks through the earth and comes into view.  All that time even though it was out of view of the sower something was going on.  Then again, Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is also like a mustard seed which we all know is a very tiny seed.  It’s especially hard to see when scattered on the ground.  Yet that tiny, seemingly insignificant seed takes root without notice and has the power in it to grow into something significant and life-giving. 

It would seem that rainbows are not the only thing in this world that we can’t see in all of its glory.  We humans are simply ill equipped to grasp all there is of God’s life, presence, and power in the world.  That being so, Jesus again and again tries to reassure us that there is always something more going on than what we see.   It’s kind of like if a bird was talking to a dog saying, “Trust me there’s more to this rainbow than what meets your eye.  You may not see it, but I can and it’s really there.”  Jesus proclaims the Good News that the Kingdom of God is really here in this world.  It’s already planted in creation.  And just like seeds in the ground, God is always at work in our lives and in the world even when it appears that nothing is happening.   That means that no act of love, no offer of forgiveness, no word of grace is ever wasted.  No one is ever a lost cause.  And no situation is ever truly hopeless.   With our surface view of things it’s easy to miss but even so there is always more going on than meets the human eye. That more is the light, the love, the life of the kingdom of God taking root in the world. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Set free to love and be whole. June 10, 2018 The Rev. David M. Stoddart

Mark 3:20-35

Today’s Gospel passage comes from just the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel, but a lot has already happened. Let me give you a brief recap: Jesus has driven an unclean spirit out of a man and cured a woman’s fever, which led to him healing many people in Capernaum and casting out many demons. He has cleansed a leper and made a paralyzed man walk after forgiving him his sins. He has restored a man’s withered arm. He has gathered around him close disciples. He has taught with authority and power. He has proclaimed the Good News of God’s Kingdom, and has drawn large crowds to himself, so much so that it is hard for him to to find time and space even to eat. He is changing many lives for the better. So there is much rejoicing, right? Wrong. The Pharisees hate him; the Herodians are already plotting to destroy him. In today’s passage, his family comes to restrain him because they think he has lost his mind. Scribes from Jerusalem also arrive: they don’t just think he’s crazy — they think he’s demonic, possessed by Satan.

I need all of us to pause for a moment and let this percolate in our brains. How can anyone who does so much good possibly be accused of being so messed up and so evil? At stake here is more than just the tragedy of Jesus’ own life: this gets at a tragic feature of all human life, one which the Gospel seeks to expose and to change.

As Mark presents it, the people who despise Jesus are the people with power. It’s their job to enforce the rules, and Jesus breaks the rules by doing things like healing on the Sabbath. They are the people with authority, but Jesus speaks and acts with an authority that does not come from them but with a divine authority, as when he forgives people. They are the people who control access to God, a control which they use to try to limit such access as much as they can, but Jesus makes God fully accessible to everyone, even eating and drinking with tax collectors, traitors, and all sorts of sinners. They are deeply threatened by everything he does, and when they try to call him on it, he always gets the best of them. So in the Gospel today, when they say he must be acting with demonic power when he drives out demons, Jesus easily refutes that by pointing out the obvious: the devil is not going to fight against himself. And then he says something that is crucial: No one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. The strong man in that metaphor is Satan, and Jesus is the one who has come to tie Satan up and plunder Satan’s house, which is the world under demonic oppression. Jesus, in short, has come to set people free from the power of evil.

Some commentators over the years have noted that “binding the strong man” may be the best possible tagline for Mark’s Gospel. All the Gospels show Jesus casting out demons, but Mark especially emphasizes all the ways Jesus has come to free people from demonic oppression. And that means more than just exorcising some individuals who are demon-possessed. It means changing the whole way we are in this world, a world in which, unfortunately, so many people have become so used to oppression of all types, so inured to it,  that they often fail to even see it.

So here’s the crux of the matter: Jesus comes to set people free from all that oppresses them. When they’re sick, he heals them. When they’re hungry, he feeds them. When they are ignorant, he teaches them. When they are demon-possessed, he delivers them. This, Jesus shows, is what God is doing in the world. And when things get in the way of that, including religious rules, he ditches them. The only thing that matters is the love of God setting people free to love and be whole. But the so-called authorities, the people with power, are so invested in an oppressive system that tries to control and subjugate people that they can’t even recognize God anymore. They commit the only unforgivable sin, which is to witness the Holy Spirit at work and call it evil. It’s not that God won’t forgive them: they’ve placed themselves beyond the reach of divine grace, because when God comes to them with forgiveness or anything else, they completely miss him by mistaking God for Satan. It doesn’t get any worse than that. It doesn’t get worse than believing that God’s love, mercy, and compassion are demonic and evil.

We don’t ever want to go there. We are the Body of Christ, and we are still in the business of setting people free. And so we want to further the liberating work of Christ and not obstruct it. We want to be like the crowds who welcome Jesus and not like the people in power who reject him. And that demands that we keep asking the question, “How is Jesus working to set people free?” On one level, that’s a personal question: “What is oppressing me in my life?” That could be an addiction, depression, an abusive relationship, a bad job, hurtful habits, destructive patterns of thought,  or any number of things. We’ll find Jesus in the energy and drive that is working for freedom and healing in our individual lives. But it is also a social question: “What is oppressing people in our world?” Poverty, racism, bigotry, lack of access to health care, and other factors all contribute to binding people. Christians may certainly disagree on the best way to tackle those problems, but we can agree that they are problems. There are forces at work in our world that oppress people and keep them down. And Jesus is always, always going to work against those forces and set people free.

We will, of course, struggle at times to discern and embrace the liberating work of Christ. Sometimes we may even resist it. But we never want to become like the religious authorities in the Gospel today: we don’t want to become so hardened, so calcified, that we don’t even recognize the oppression in our own lives and in the world around us, and then can’t even see God at work to deliver people and let them go. What we heard today is meant to keep as awake and aware. Jesus has come to bind the strong man and unbind us. We never want to be satisfied with the oppression of anyone, we never want to mistake being shackled in any way for the will of God. We want to be with Jesus and for Jesus, rejoicing in and cooperating with his liberating work until, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans, all creation obtains the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

What They Don't Tell You: A Reflection from Emily Rutledge

It's graduation season.

Last night I watched the last of our parish's seniors walk across a stage to receive a diploma and be launched off into the great beyond.  In the past nine years I have heard thousands of names read, listened to countless principals speak, and handed out over one hundred lei to Church of Our Saviour students moving from high school to something else.

Graduation does an amazing job at making someone feel like they have completed the hard stuff and are moving on to greener pastures.  Last night, as one of the adult speakers noted the great achievement that the graduates would 'never have to take another SOL test again' my teacher heart sank at the state of our education system and standardized testing and my minister heart broke open with the knowledge that an SOL test would be a welcome challenge to what lies ahead.

We have somehow convinced ourselves and our children that when we complete 'the thing' or win 'the prize' that we've reached a new level and life will be better/easier/different/more meaningful.  There are two flaws in this logic:

1.  Lots of people who don't complete 'the thing' or win 'the prize' do just fine.  They live full and meaningful lives.  This is for another post another day but I can't not say it.  Some kiddos will never graduate from high school because... LIFE.  Sometimes, barely making it is more of a success than finishing in the top of your class.  If you've ever barely made it, then you know exactly what I'm talking about.  

2.  We never get to a place where the boxes are checked and the road is easy.  While we come to places of transition that are rich with possibilities, each hold their own set of struggles and disappointments.  I remind students this when they are looking at their post-high school options.  There is no right or wrong choice... every choice can be both... it is what you do once you arrive in your choice that matters.

What I really want our graduating/finishing/getting their GED/waiting-to-hear-if-they-made-it seniors to know that no one tells them at graduation is...

No one cares what grades you got.  Sure, if you are my surgeon I'm pretty invested in your success in residency.  If you are my mechanic (who I see far more than my surgeon) I am not really concerned about your 11th grade biology grade.  I have never had someone ask about my high school GPA since high school.  What seems like the biggest thing will someday be a distant memory.

Subsequently, no one cares what you look like.  You may think they do because you hear them commenting on the appearance of others (note: sadly, this never changes) but in reality it is only as a marker of their feelings about their own bodies and their own appearance and not a reflection of how they feel about you.  Taking a flawless senior picture in a wildflower field can not save you from a diagnosis or a layoff.  Finding the ways that you see worth and beauty in yourself when you wake up each morning can change everything.

Things will fall apart. You will fail.  You will let people down.  Someone you love fiercely will die.  The way you thought things would be on some basic and fundamental level will be shattered.  Also, something amazing and surprising will happen that seems to fall out of the sky.  The sheer reality of age and time means that more of life happens.  Your capacity for love and loss grows and the stakes do as well.  It's the difference between failing an SOL and failing to pay the rent.

And each of these things... every single one of them... they are universal.  No diploma or cord will protect you.  You and I have been fed a lie that if we achieve more then we are spared.

Sweet babies, none of us are spared.

Life is hard and cruel and wonderful and amazing to each and every one of us.  For years you have been put into lists.  Ranked.  Chosen.  Not chosen.  Now you are stepping into a space where the units you have been measured by no longer exist.  It's scary and disorienting.  It's also liberating and empowering.  As followers of Christ we know that the Spirit of God is alive in each of us, giving us different and wonderful gifts,

There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts." -1 Corinthians 12:12-14

You are no longer asked to pass the same test, you are invited to be whatever it is that makes the Spirit come alive and flow through you.  There is no finish line or trophy but there is joy in community and connection in the pain and a loving God who appears in Her people everywhere you look.

The best and the worst are yet to come.