Category Archives: Sermons

Sunday, December 9, 2018 – Advent 2, Year C

Advent 2, Year C, 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Last Sunday we started our movement into Advent.  We began to think about hope and what that means in terms of the already and not-yet dual nature that Advent offers.  Our Gospel lesson was another vignette by Jesus of what to expect at the end of times, another small apocalypse.  Today though we have readings in many ways more characteristic of that expectation that comes with Advent.  Readings that drop us into the beginning of the story, not quite the very beginning, but close enough to feel more like we are leading up to Christmas.  The words of Zechariah we heard in the Benedictus that takes the place of a Psalm today are about his joy in the birth of his son, John, who will become known as the Baptist.  Zechariah has a vision and prophecy that leads him to understand that his son will herald the coming of the Messiah.  Which is why that canticle is paired very neatly with the Gospel reading from the third chapter of Luke.  We have skipped over the birth of Jesus, and over his growing up as a refugee in another country, after his family has fled the murderous and insane Herod the Great.  We hear today of John the Baptist, the voice calling in the wilderness, heralding the coming Messiah, right before Jesus’ ministry begins.

Luke introduces the third chapter with something that might often be glossed over, but there is, I promise, a very good reason for how this reading starts.  Unlike so many gods, demi-gods, or mythological heroes of old, Luke tells us exactly when this was by telling us about who was ruling the land.  Not only does this place the events very clearly into a historical context, but it also says something about the fractured and divisive nature of the area.  We know that this really happened because we know when it happened.  This isn’t a long time ago in a kingdom far far away.  This was the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee.  That means we know this is, historically speaking, year 29 of the Common Era.  Now of course, that’s all a bit convoluted since history has been marked and years numbered more recently based around the birth of Jesus Christ.  But, that doesn’t diminish how important it is for Luke and should be for us that this is something we can actually point to as a historical event.

Now at this point in the story, the Herod we are talking about is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.  He is the one we’ve talked about before.  A megalomaniac who is starving his people while feasting in his palace.  Who is constantly assassinating or getting rid of people in his court who he thinks are scheming against him. And of course, divorced his first wife to marry Herodias, the former wife of his brother.  Enter John the Baptist.  He’s in the wilderness, which is not a nice place to say the least.  I’ve been there.  It’s dry, dusty, there’s very little shade.  It’s very rocky.  When it rains there are flash floods.  There is very little to subsist on.  Against the opulence of the insane King Herod, feasting in his halls and filling his court with all sorts of hedonism, stands John the Baptist.  Dirty, wandering in the desert, perhaps we would think of him as homeless or vagrant in modern terms, though that might be a stretch.  Wearing camel’s hair…I promise you not a comfortable or popular fashion statement.  Eating honey and locusts, as opposed to royal feasts.  In the history of salvation John the Baptist plays a very important role for the Hebrews.  The last prophet of God before John was Malachi, and he lived approximately five hundred years before John.  So having the Baptist showing up wandering the land, repeating the words of a very well know prophet, Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Is a momentous occasion in the wider narrative of the Hebrew faith.  Luke says that John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness with these words, but what exactly does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?

This last week I have spent countless hours cleaning my apartment.  Annie arrives this coming Friday morning and she hasn’t been here since July.  So, for five months I have been left to my own devices in what is essentially a bachelor pad.  Now, I’m generally a tidy person, but I also spend a lot of time working so I don’t pay as much attention to upkeep as I should.  There was a lot of cleaning out old mail, vacuuming, mopping, and even unpacking a few more boxes that I hadn’t gotten to.   I am preparing for the arrival of someone important to me.  Don’t we usually go the extra mile to make sure that a special person arriving feels welcome and at home?  Wouldn’t we do even more to prepare for a visit from a dignitary?  Imagine what we might do if the Presiding Bishop was going to visit us here at St. Andrew’s!  Now the imagery that Isaiah is invoking is on an ever greater scale.  At the time that Isaiah says, “Prepare the way of the Lord” the royalty didn’t visit anywhere without bringing their entourage.  Usually they were either pulled in large comfortable carriages or carried by slaves in palanquins.  As you can image that sort of travel doesn’t do well with hills or twisting roads.  Quite literally they would level the roads, make the paths straight, they would prepare the way of the royal caraven to be able to traverse the path.

History lesson aside, what does this then mean for us?  It sort of reminds me of those bumper stickers, “Jesus is coming!  Look busy!”  Really, we shouldn’t just look busy.  We have a lot of work to do.  A call to repentance and salvation, by making the paths straight.  We have a lot of hills and valleys in our lives.  We have twists and turns.  We have all sorts of obstacles that are always distracting us from living out our call to follow the path of Christ.  Our world doesn’t really work in our favor or support us in living out the values of the Kingdom of God.  There is always a distraction, whether electronic or not.  Our hobbies, our families, our 24 hour news cycles, every aspect of our modern lives are designed to make us constant consumers of all manner of goods.  Where do we take the time to pray?  Where do we take the time to listen for God’s call?  Where do we take the time to just be in the presence of the one who created us and loves us?

John the Baptist stands outside of everything that wealth, power, and busyness does to make sense of its existence.  He stands near the Kingdom of God, calling people into right relationship as the ministry of Jesus approaches.  I’m not saying we need to put on camel’s hair shirts and eat locusts just to make the metaphorical path straight.  But you might find turning your phone off to be as uncomfortable as that camel hair shirt; carving out precious time in your schedule for reflection and prayer to feel as ascetic as subsisting on locusts and honey.

As a brother of the Anamchara Fellowship, one of the vows that I take is of Simplicity.   It is often expressed in the idea of living simply so others can simply live.  It is existing without a spirit of accumulation, but it’s not necessarily all about financial simplicity.  It’s also simplicity in how we harmonize with all of Creation.  Slowing down the pace of life.   It is divesting ourselves of the clutter that is both physical and spiritual to prepare the way of the Lord. One of my favorite expressions of this in Celtic traditions is ‘Listening for the heartbeat of God’.  It is the idea that in every moment of our day, in every bit of Creation that we encounter, in every person we talk to, in every moment that tests us, we are listening for the heartbeat of God, we are seeking the Spirit, discerning the way.  Personally, I find it to be a very helpful reminder to slow down, to consider my day, my life, to reflect on the choices made and the paths taken.  I don’t always succeed at this, but I’m often reminded that I need to do try.

The whole point of divesting ourselves, of clearing the paths of our hearts and minds is for the coming Christ; for the one that was, and is, and is to come.  The one who tells us the Kingdom of God is in our midst.  We know that failure to live up to this will be often, and should never be a discouragement.  I like to say that practicing our faith is like trying to learn to ride a bicycle you will never really master.  You will fall, and every time you fall, you have to get up and start again.   But the whole reason we do what we do is to indwell in the Spirit of God, to seek our relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ, and to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives that we might catch a glimpse of that glorious Kingdom of God wherein our salvation and the salvation of the whole world has been fulfilled.

 

Sunday, November 25, 2018 – Proper 29

Proper 29, Year B, 2018 (Christ the King)
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

In the Autumn of last year I was serving as a field ed intern at Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church in the Mission District of San Francisco.  I was also living at my seminary, CDSP, in the middle of Berkeley.  A stone’s throw from the north edge of the UC Berkeley campus.  It was a volatile year, with protests, minor riots, and clashes between white supremacists trying to march through town and students refusing to let that sort of hatred find any welcome.  During all of this a white supremacist from England, Milo Yiannopoulos had attempted to hold rallies on the UC Berkeley campus and a conversation ensued about free speech.  Cal has always upheld itself, from the earliest days, through the Vietnam war, to today as a bastion of free speech.  But, when they canceled the visits of someone who incites violence and hatred towards people of color and women, people questioned whether this was hindering free speech or much like not being able to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, was not allowed as it posed a threat.  During all of this I had a conversation with a congregant at Holy Innocents I will never forget.  She was struggling to make sense of the situation, on one hand knowing that what this person wanted to proclaim from a stage was hate speech, was horridly racist vitriol that would serve only to buoy up the most hateful of people, and on the other hand she thought it was very important that free speech be preserved.  She asked me how I saw a way through this conundrum and my answer was simple:  the confusion comes because we are straddling two very different value sets.  As Americans, we grow up being told that freedom of speech is an inalienable right, core to the values of this country.  But what we never stop to acknowledge is that it isn’t a Christian value.  In fact most of our rights, laws, and what are drilled into us as inalienable as part of this man-made government have absolutely nothing to do with Christian values, and they aren’t supposed to.  I suggested to this person that her struggle was not in figuring out what is and isn’t acceptable free speech, but rather the values of empire were conflicting with the values of the Kingdom of God, and honestly I’m not sure there are any easy answers to that conflict.   Which brings us to our feast observed today.

Today is the Feast of the Reign of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost.  It is the end of the Church year, and marks the triumphal end of the narratives around the ministry of Jesus that we’ve heard through the summer.  Soon we begin anew, moving into Advent and anticipating the birth of the Messiah.  But first, today, we celebrate Jesus as sovereign King.  The Reign of Christ the King sounds like a grand, medieval tradition that one observes in concert with countless throngs of Christians for centuries before us.  A quick search on the internet will show you that in fact the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe as it was first called, was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius the eleventh.  Not so much the ancient observance one would think.  It was instituted at a time when the world was changing, and in the eyes of the Roman Church, not for the better.  Post World War I there was an increase in secularism, nationalism, and Benito Mussolini had been ruling as Prime Minister of Italy for three years.  This feast was instituted with the hope that it would encourage people to turn more towards seeing Jesus Christ as their supreme head, the one to whom they were to be most obedient above all others and away from the growing shadow that was spreading across an already war torn Europe.

While I think we could certainly go down the road of comparing the values of the Kingdom of God and following Jesus Christ to our own current political climate, and which path we should probably be choosing, it occurs to me that there is something far deeper here to reflect on.  Something that can help us think about how we approach (or whether we approach at all) calling this the Feast of Christ the King.

Let’s stop for a minute to really think about the way we live.  How many times have you done what Jesus commands of us throughout the Gospels?  We’ve all done something, we’ve fed the hungry, we’ve donated clothing, and we’ve reached out to those in need and tried to help as best we could.  We do what we can to live as subjects under the rule of Christ the King.  But I suspect we’ve also walked past the person on the street and not offered our kindness.  I suspect many of us haven’t spent a lot of time visiting those in prisons.  We often put the values of a capitalist market or the worship of the Empire above the Kingdom of God.  We also fail sometimes to be faithful subjects.  What matters is how we try to live our lives, knowing that perhaps we are going to have to decide from time to time what we are going to follow.  The point here is that if you want to live outside of the Kingdom and serve the Empire all the time, if you are going to consistently turn your back on those in need, then you will build up for yourself a place that feels separated from the Love of God.  And I’ll let you in on something.  I personally do not believe for a minute that we are ever actually separated from or beyond the Love of God.  We are only unable to experience that which we turn ourselves from.  It is turning ourselves away from sharing that love with others, it is disconnecting ourselves from our human condition with each other that brings us to a punishment, albeit self imposed.  God is always there ready to extend the Love which is asked of us, when we are ready to embrace it, whether that is now or in some unimaginable future.

Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  To me this statement makes clear that to be of the Kingdom of God one is removed from the kingdoms of the Earth.  It’s not an easy task, or one that is even fully possible.  I cannot, as an example, refuse to pay my taxes because I do not wish to contribute to the Empire.  I will not cease to vote, whether it feels pointless or not, because influencing government is not a Christian value.  I will strive to exemplify the values of the Kingdom of God, and how I live as a subject of Christ the King above any other fealty I might be expected to swear.

This passage allows us the open door to ponder what our image of God is, especially when coupled with the idea of ‘Christ the King’.  Do we see God as Christ the King?  What even is a king to us?  Do we see God as Queen?  Do we see God as punisher, as healer, as parent, or perhaps as a feeling or an emotion? I want to invite you to take this question and spend some time, perhaps this week, really thinking about how you see God.  What is God to you?  Because I promise you that whatever you come up with for God will be in some way what you either want to or are reflecting out into the world as your best self.  We strive to be of the Kingdom of God, to live into those values as much as possible, and yes sometimes those are going to conflict with the values of the Empire we have been taught to uphold.  In those times we must ask ourselves what the cost of discipleship is, what is God’s Kingdom, and how are we to proceed?

What is God to you and how do you live into that truth and serve that Kingdom?  That is your work.  Do not squander the knowledge of God’s Love, or forget to remind the world to what we are all called and to who’s Kingdom we ultimately belong.  Some days we will serve the Empire.  Some days we will do better at serving Christ the King.  But every single day for the rest of eternity you are held in the Love of a God that has already come to cast down the power of every earthly empire and ruler, the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty, and invites you into their embrace.

Sunday, November 18, 2018 – Proper 28

Proper 28 Year B 2018
Kevin Gore – St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

As many of you know I grew up attending a non-denominational evangelical sort of Baptist but we aren’t going to prohibit drinking and dancing just judge you a lot when you do things we don’t like church.  I obviously have some opinions about that tradition, but it ultimately was my first experience of Christianity.  One of the focuses in a lot of mainline evangelical Protestantism is the concern for being saved.  You have to actively give God permission to save you, and you need to do it soon because the end of the world, what we would call the eschaton, what they might call ‘the rapture’ or ‘end times’ could be in the next blink of an eye.  I still remember as a teenager being subjected to a movie called ‘A Thief in the Night’, a 1972 film not unlike the more recent and popular ‘Left Behind’ books and movies.  They are an attempt to use that particular theological approach to the Book of Revelation to interpret it through a modern lens, and show people what it could look like if their beliefs came to be.  Interestingly, all these movies are classified as ‘Fantasy Thrillers’.

I mention this because today in our reading from the Gospel of Mark, we hear what is referred to as the ‘little apocalypse’.  Jesus describes the destruction of the Temple, and this leads into a mention of the end of times with wars, earthquakes, famines, and how the disciples are to act in such times.   In fact there are many apocalyptic writings outside of the piece in Mark and the Book of Revelation.  Apocalyptic literature is its own genre that comes out of a post-Exile Jewish culture, and is most commonly identified by containing strange descriptions of beasts and creatures like in Daniel, usually seems shrouded in symbolism, and is actually far more prolific than just the Revelation of John.  But a funny thing has happened for us in Christian tradition.  As the centuries have rolled past and so much has changed from the early church, such writings have lost their original purpose and meaning, and instead have become the imagination of a ruling class bent on seeing those they deem unworthy to get their comeuppance.

Such writings have to be taken in their own context, and understood by acknowledging the time and place in which they are intended to be heard.  In general, Apocalyptic literature is written for a people who have reason to have a pessimistic world view due to their own oppression.  It offers a vision of a future crisis that often mirrors the current situation of the author, and usually contains visions of cosmic upheaval which parallel the physical world.  I have mentioned previously that dating the writing of Mark is something that is often contested among biblical scholars.  One reason is that this particular passage raises some questions.  Jesus mentions earthquakes, famines, and nation against nation.  Well, interestingly enough, in 50 CE there was a devastating famine in Palestine.  Between 61 and 62 CE earthquakes and volcanoes were particularly volatile, including the destruction of Lodicia and Pompeii.  And, if the general state of things wasn’t enough nation against nation, in 67 CE Rome’s armies began to falter at the Parthian invasion.  So the scholarly question here is whether the author of the Gospel of Mark already knew of these events and foreshadowed them in Jesus words, or whether this is written down before any of the fulfillment takes place.  Regardless of that, Jesus here instructs the disciples:  do not be alarmed.  Chapter 13 continues on with much more of Jesus teaching the disciples what will happen to them, and it continues with more apocalyptic prediction and instruction.  The disciples are not to take part in what is to come.

Jesus tells the disciples that many will come and try to lead them astray.  Jesus has set a path for the disciples, and for us, and it is our task to be aware of sticking to it.  These events aren’t really the end itself either, but the events that point to it drawing near.  The end doesn’t come until Jesus returns, and even Jesus himself says that only God the Father, one of the three personas of the Trinity, knows when that is to take place.  That hasn’t of course stopped us from trying to figure it out.  After a quick googling of apocalyptic predictions, I found too many to count having been recorded from as early as the 600s and as recent as April 2018, with many more ‘revised predictions’ from those who have failed to get it right the first three or four times.  The take away here is that we have an interesting fascination with apocalypse and wanting to know when it’s going to happen.  As a people, especially Christians in the Western world, we don’t suffer really that much.  We aren’t under threat of being conquered or subjugated.  So our apocalyptic story telling focuses on the things we do fear.  We have movies about massive earthquakes, global climate disaster, and biochemical epidemics.  Zombies created by viruses and aliens from outer space gaining untold power to wipe out life as we know it.  We still have apocalyptic literature not unlike what we read from Jesus’ time, it’s just colored with a very different brush than what we read in the Gospel of Mark.

As we come to the end of our Church year, this being the last reading from Mark for awhile and look to the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King and our time of preparation in Advent, Jesus calls us as he calls the disciples to watch.  As followers of Jesus Christ we are to bear witness to the continued strife of the world, with its corrupt temples on the verge of collapse, its warring nations, its false prophets.  We bear witness and we call out to a hurting world to offer a vision of hope in the end.  We work with a sense of duty and mission that honors our sense of stewardship of God’s creation, and our faith that the Kingdom of God is at hand.  As I’ve said before, just because we are reconciled in the end, doesn’t mean we get a pass on working towards all that we can accomplish in that now.  Jesus tells the disciples to hope for the coming of the Son of Man, and that the struggles will be but signs to a much greater time.

While chapter 13 is where we finish reading Mark in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, it of course is not the end of the narrative of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.  There are a few more chapters that go into the end of the story, and we’ll of course get to that when we work our way to Easter.  But this place in Chapter 13 seems like such a poetic stopping point for our mission as followers of Christ.  In this passage today Jesus is offering hope, the good news, to his disciples for the hard times to come ahead.  It actually reminds me very much of the first verse of the Gospel of Mark, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”  Every day we reflect on Christ’s ministry is the beginning of the good news.  Every day we decide that our discipleship means more than the allures of the world we offer that good news out.  We are called to watch, to not be a part of the mobs that would seek to tear down the temple or the mobs that would seek to defend it.  Our Kingdom is not built by hands on this earth, but is to come at the end in the full reconciliation of all God’s creation.  That is the only Kingdom we truly belong to, and the one we should wait for with great anticipation and joy in our hearts.  We have no need to trudge about with sour faces and sandwich boards exclaiming, “The end is near”.  Instead, let us offer the vision of the Kingdom we can to those who need it most, and trust that God truly will call us all in when the time comes.

Sunday, November 11, 2018 – Proper 27

Proper 27, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Kevin Gore

Today’s Gospel offers so much in terms of imagery, subtext, condemnation, and maybe even a little Good News.  Of course, as clergy, one might be tempted to forgo vestments or the prayer of humble access on a day with such readings, but in all fairness this passage offers us much to think about today.  We have just begun our stewardship campaign, our national mid-term elections have just recently passed, today marks the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end of World War I …the, “War to End all Wars”, and of course we draw very near to the close of the Church year.  Jesus is now in Jerusalem, well after his triumphal entry, and he is teaching in the temple.  And by teaching I mean completely provoking the religious institution.

Before we reflect on what the Gospel has to say, there is a small piece of context I think is important for this particular passage.  In verse 40 as Jesus is talking about the scribes he says, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”  This is a piece of the Gospel that might be easy to gloss over, as it is a detail to a much more brilliant mosaic, but a cultural context makes the story of the widows mite even more striking.  In First Century Palestine, as I’m sure you’ve heard before from myself and other preachers, women had very little standing socially, and virtually none legally.  When a man died, though his estate was legally his widow’s, she was not deemed fit or capable of managing it.  So legally, the estate had to be put into a trust, and managed by none other than the scribes.  This detail, which of course would have been obvious to First Century listeners, but isn’t necessarily something that jumps out to us puts in even greater contrast these scribes with the long robes and demands of high status, skimming off the estates of the widows and the widow herself, putting in two small copper coins.  The widow who is giving all she has to live on, very possibly due to the scribes in their fancy robes.

So with that in mind, as we look again at this passage, it makes the criticism of the institution…the criticism of the legal system which feeds off the widow, a system intricately tied to the grandiose temple, to which the widow is devoted, a far sharper criticism.  Chapters 11 through 13 are the most critical on Jesus’ part of the religious institution of the Temple, and this is the last teachings Jesus will offer before being arrested.  It is all a larger final act of teaching and pointing directly at the religious institution of the time and how it has completely fallen away from the point of its existence.  Today’s discussion about scribes, widows, and who is giving how much to the temple ties to Jesus’ driving the money changers from the temple, it ties to the other criticisms in chapters 11 and 12 about the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and it is the broader truth to the fig tree which Jesus curses and will no longer bear fruit.

All of this condemnation and pointing out the failings of very human institutions could certainly feel like there is very little we can find about this that is the Good News.  It would be too easy to say that this is only a condemnation, and that’s where it ends.  Jesus is just pointing out the failures of the structure and poking fun at the officials for good measure.  But that’s not all Jesus does and it’s not the end of the conversation about the temple.  Next week we will hear more about the destruction of the temple, but for now I see Jesus very much inviting us to reflect on the systems in which we find ourselves today.

Stewardship season is a great time to offer us space for contemplating why the church exists.  Where do we place our value, and how do we show that?  Many denominations especially have started acting more like organizations.  We hire consultants to talk to us about trends, we survey people to understand what keeps people coming back, we worry about relevancy, and membership, and income streams, and Twitter trending, and while none of this information is inherently bad, it’s the concern for existence that will put a church or denomination onto the wrong path.  That’s not to say I’d ever want the Episcopal Church to stop existing.  In fact I’d probably take that pretty hard if it happened.  But my commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God has to be bigger than our structures.  And yet I also think structure is important.  It helps us organize our resources into ways that allow us to be the most effective at reaching those in need, living out the values of the Kingdom, and doing the work that Christ has commanded us to do.  It is how the resources are managed, how the values are lived out, how we as the church seek and serve the least that makes the institution worth existing.

When we talk about taking up our cross and following Jesus, I think the sort of images we usually have are of torn, dingy robes, a begging bowl, always on the verge of starvation to ensure everyone else has enough.  I think we often forget that taking up our cross also looks like Jesus taking his belt off and using it to drive the animals out of the temple and flipping over the tables of the money changers. It looks like questioning authorities who fail the integrity of the Kingdom of God, it looks like setting in sharp relief the failings of institutions when they cease to do good.  This is the final acts of ministry Jesus does while in Jerusalem, and they are important not to forget alongside the more marketable acts like feeding the five thousand or walking on water.

This isn’t meant to be an advertisement for pledging, or a rallying cry for membership for St. Andrew’s.  I think this is the perfect time to ask ourselves what fruits are we bearing?  St. Andrew’s for its average Sunday attendance, or ASA, does a lot.  We work hard, we give of ourselves, and we do so because that is what we believe we are called to do.  As full time clergy you send me out into the community to make connections with other institutions, to help those in need, to invite in those who are seeking something more, to call those in authority to task when they lose sight of the greater good.  So the question is what fruits are we bearing together here and what new seeds do you want to see planted?  I would certainly hope that no one sees us as that cursed fig tree, but rather fertile ground in which there is much more to come.

Sunday, October 28, 2018 – Proper 25

Proper 25, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home
Kevin Gore

The Gospel according to Mark is the oldest of the four canonical Gospels.  The oldest written fragments we have date to around 150 to 175 CE.  Mark is also the shortest of the Gospels, and modern scholarship now dates its origin to roughly 65 CE.  The reason it’s so short and the reason why we think now that it’s the oldest is that it would have been an oral tradition.  This Gospel would not have started out written down on scrolls, but passed from one elder to the next, used to regale people sitting around the fires at night, or gathered in the catacombs where the earliest Christians hid.  In fact there are people today who have begun memorizing the entire Gospel and reciting it as story tellers of old would have, and it takes only about an hour and a half to recite Mark.  The reason this is so important is that there are so many themes, arcs, and clearly defined sections in the life and ministry of Jesus that offer us reflections on our own lives.  But often when we experience scripture portioned out through devices like the Revised Common Lectionary, we lose the ability to appreciate the broader brush.

Today’s reading is actually meant to be an endcap to a particular section of Mark.  The healing of Bartimaeus is the last public healing in the ministry of Jesus.  From here he will triumphantly enter Jerusalem, and the events that unfold next will lead to Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death.  This healing of a blind man is the closing of an entire narrative of blindness.  It all begins back in the 8th chapter of Mark, verses twenty two to twenty six, where Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida.  That’s the one where the first healing doesn’t quite seem to take, and he says the people look like trees, so Jesus gives him a second dose and all is well.  Oddly, these verses were skipped over in our journey through Mark during this Season after Pentecost, and honestly I haven’t the slightest idea why.  What follows after the healing at Bethsaida are several conversations with the disciples, public acts of ministry, the Transfiguration, and more conversations with the disciples.  In all of this, Jesus several times talks with the disciples about what is going to happen. He tells them time and time again how things will end in Jerusalem; he teaches them over and over that you have to be ready to let go of everything in this life, to let go of possessions, wealth, status, and power to follow.  Just as Jesus will.  Jesus is teaching them that the messiah is not what so many want to imagine…a warlord who comes to rule over the Kingdom of Israel.  God is incarnate in the powerless, beaten, victim of Empire.  That is the way of Jesus.

And how do the disciples react?  They squabble about who gets the seat of honor on the right and left, they try to build a dwelling place for the transfigured Jesus to spend time with Elijah and Moses, Peter actually rebukes Jesus for laying out the events that will take place in Jerusalem.  They are, in essence, blind to the truth of the Messiah, to the truth of what the way of Jesus will mean in the time ahead.  Between the healings of two blind men are multiple encounters of the disciples blind to the truth Jesus lays before them.  It is no accident or small thing that Bartimaeus, the blind beggar along the side of the road knows who Jesus is, has faith in his ability, and calls out to him.  It is also no minor matter of story writing that after Jesus has called Bartimaeus over through the crowd that had tried to silence him, Jesus asks him the same question he asked the Sons of Zebedee.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus says, “Rabbi, Teacher, I want to see.”  He doesn’t say please cure my blindness, he asks for sight.  After Jesus heals him, he isn’t sent away like so many others Jesus has healed.  Jesus doesn’t tell him to go home and tell no one.  Bartimaeus is given sight and joins the followers of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.  There isn’t a lot of time left in this story of Jesus, as they walk the road to Jerusalem, but now near the end, Jesus allows this man who can truly see to join the followers.

I think there is a stark difference we need to hear in the two answers Jesus has given after asking his petitioners, “What do you want me to do for you?”  To the Sons of Zebedee he questions their resolve, knowing that what they are asking for is far more terrible than they understand.  Bartimaeus, already sees in a metaphorical sense who Jesus is, and his faith is the vehicle, as Jesus says, through which he is healed.

It offers us much to ponder in terms of what we ask of God, what we desire, and then where we come to kneel on Sundays.  Do we foster a faith like that of Bartimaeus, or do we hope and expect for the social recognition of the Sons of Zebedee?  But just like last week, when Jesus warns the brothers that what they ask for may be more than they can handle, do we really think we are prepared to see fully when we ask Jesus for sight?  When faced with the truths of our faith and tradition, can we actually see it for what it is, or do we turn away to that which is more comfortable and convenient.  Jesus tells the rich man to give away everything he owns.  The rich man truly sees the depth and importance of this command and leaves grieving for he knows the road ahead is difficult, perhaps even impossible.  We live in a world that fails en masse at those basic commands Jesus gives us, the summary of the law, and yet do we stand up and speak out, or do we huddle with the blind masses?  Do we unwaveringly live for the Kingdom of God or do we draw nearer the comfort of anonymity and deny Jesus as Peter did?

God loves us, and like any good parent will continue to love us no matter what we do.  This is never about our salvation, but about our integrity as followers of Jesus Christ.  This last week has seen incredible highs and incredible lows.  The martyr Matthew Shephard was finally laid to rest in the Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, twenty years after his brutal murder.  It was a moment for the Church to put our values center stage for this country to see.  And yet, this week has seen terrible lows, attempted bombings and two prominent racially motivated attacks, the last being the slaying of eleven beloved children of God at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday as they prayed.  To truly see as Jesus would, the suffering, the evil, the pain, and the joy that this world is capable of is no easy thing to ask for.  To place before us the lens of the Kingdom of God and to respond to our world might seem like more than we can endure.  But yet, we must be up to the task.  We have asked to see, and we have claimed our faith and our Messiah, and now finding our way to maintain integrity to the call of Jesus Christ to take up our cross is our work.  Our faith is about more than prayer, about more than mass, about more than being in or out.  It is about a life lived unflinching with eyes wide open to a world in desperate need for the Love of the Kingdom of God and the Good News – the Gospel – that was first recited nearly two thousand years ago, by story tellers huddled around fires and Christians subverting the Empire by daring to follow in the way of Christ.

Sunday, October 21, 2018 – Proper 24

Proper 24, Year B, 2018
Kevin Gore – St Andrew’s, Mountain Home

Imagine a very different scene than the one in today’s Gospel.  The planet Dagobah, a lush planet covered in swamps and forests, and home to the former Grand Master of the Jedi Order, Yoda.  A young Luke Skywalker has been sent there to find Yoda and train in the ways of the Force.  After meeting Luke for the first time, Yoda refuses to teach him.  Luke is too old to start the training, too impulsive, too full of fear.  Yoda is trying to spare Luke from a path of suffering, even if it is the one he has to walk.  Finally Luke exclaims, “I won’t fail you.  I’m not afraid.”  Yoda replies, “You will be.  You will be.”  That my friends is foreshadowing.  Yoda knows that Luke will face trials and fear greater than anything Luke can presently imagine, especially in facing Darth Vader.  That scene is the first thing that came to mind when I was reading our Gospel lesson this week.  It was the foreshadowing of trials to come, as Jesus is talking to these Sons of Zebedee that made me think of it.  It’s a situation where the apprentice, the disciple, is asking for something they think will be a great honor, but they don’t realize the trial they are actually asking for.

Today’s reading comes almost directly after last week’s Gospel.  There are four verses left out, and they are probably left out because they are redundant.  Jesus is on the road with the disciples and he tells them what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem.  Again.  The Son of Man is to be handed over, to be condemned to death, to be spit upon and flogged, to be killed and three days later to rise again.  That is the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel.  It’s almost too incredulous to think that after Jesus tells them all this, up walk James and John and say, “That’s great Jesus, look, we have a favor to ask of you once you’re all super powerful.  Can we sit next to you so people know how important we are?”  Yes that is a very unflattering synopsis, but basically is why they are asking him.  In the culture of the time, powerful people invited the most important, the most trusted to join them for any function, and would be seated closest to this powerful person.  The problem is that the sons of Zebedee, just like the other disciples, still don’t understand what it means to walk with Jesus.  In fact Jesus’ response, “You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” clearly indicates he knows they don’t get it.  He’s referring to his crucifixion, the agonizing and brutal death that awaits him.  So when James and John ask to be on Jesus’ left and right in Jesus’ glory, and then tell Jesus they absolutely can drink the cup he will drink from, Jesus responds with, “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  There are already two who are destined to be at Jesus’ right and left in that most pivotal moment.  From Mark, chapter 15, verses 25-27: “It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.  The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”   And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.”  Those two bandits weren’t the sons of Zebedee, but they would indeed be baptized in the same way, with blood and violence.  The martyrdom of James, the son of Zebedee, is the only death of the apostles recorded in the bible.  In the Acts of the Apostles, it is recounted how Herod Agrippa, different of course from Herod Antipas, has James executed by sword.  This happened sometime between the year 40 to year 50.  There are different accounts of John’s death, some by Christian persecutions and others say he lived to an old age.  Either way he would have been subjected to the suppressions of the early church and knew what it meant to suffer.  Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink;”

So you may be wondering as I pass about the half-way point in my sermon what exactly Star Wars or the martyrdom of the disciples has to do with us here today.  That is a reasonable question.  The answer is quite simple.  When we walk through those doors every Sunday, when we kneel at the altar rail to receive communion, when we choose to be baptized or to reaffirm our baptismal vows, we are inviting that same cup.  Christianity was never meant to be a dominant religion, or to have great power in the world.  Those are not values of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who subjugate the heretics, for they will inherit a homogenous kingdom.”  No, the path of Jesus, following the values set forth in the Gospel, still to this day will not be taken kindly by most.  But we are lured by ages past when Christian membership was used as the mainstream litmus test of Western Society, when it was used to mean you were part of the good people.  That is not Jesus’ teaching, but it was the way society worked for many centuries.  If we stop to look at the life of Jesus Christ, the teachings, the parables he tried time and again to teach the disciples with, we see a life that we should not invite lightly.  Make no mistake: we should indeed invite it.  It is the way we absolutely should be living.  But invoking our God the way we do should be a far more sobering activity than we often find it to be.  In the realm of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for”, modern author Annie Dillard writes pertaining to people in church, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? […] It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

In truth, that should be our hope.  We pray, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.”  We should want for God’s Kingdom and we should pray for the will of God to be done.  But we must also understand that this is probably not that we are the most powerful, or that we are the most popular.  Perhaps, following in the example of Christ, ‘thy will be done’ refers to how society treats those who insist on caring for the least of these.  How judges fine and imprison those who dare feed the unhoused.  How home owner associations react to the idea of low income or rehabilitation housing near them.  Humanity is broken, it has been for a very very long time.  Jesus knew that, and Jesus also knew that living out the values of the Kingdom of God is not going to make a lot of friends at the head of the wolf pack.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is praying in the Garden at Gethsemane,  Chapter 26, verse 42, “Again Jesus went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  Jesus prayed ‘Thy will be done’ even knowing fully what it meant.  We have asked for the cup to be held to our lips, we have heard the words, “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation” and we have drank from it.  So what does that really mean to us in living out the life of one who follows Christ?  Where is our discipleship?  Where in our lives do we continue to exemplify, to the best of our ability, the values of the Kingdom of God, regardless of the consequences?

In his work The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonheoffer had a lot to say about living out the values of the kingdom of God.  He writes, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  That is the ultimate cost of discipleship, and the one that so many have paid for refusing to abandon those values.  Bonheoffer writes, “Every moment and every situation challenges us to action and to obedience. We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not. We must get into action and obey — we must behave like a neighbor to him. But perhaps this shocks you. Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that, there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.”  Dietrich Bonheoffer was martyred on April 9th, 1945 by Nazis for conspiring against them.  He had refused to leave his native Germany, and instead chose to stay and stand as a witness to the values of the Kingdom.  He drank from the cup that Christ drank from.

I’m sure you hear it a lot from me, but knowing why we are here, why we chose this life and this faith is so incredibly important.  If we are called to take up our cross, if as Jesus says we will save our life by losing it for his sake, then that gives us a lot to think about.  We cannot be like the sons of Zebedee, hoping to sit at the head table because we are Jesus’ friends.  The cup that is offered us, the baptism that we undertake is not one of comfort, but one that asks everything of us.  But that’s ok, because we also know it is worth it.  Make sure there is time in your life to reflect on that.  Spend time in prayer and listening for God’s call.  We must always look deep within ourselves as we approach this table, and decide if we are ready to pay the cost of that cup that is offered to us every week.  It is no small thing to believe what we believe, or to follow Christ, but it is the life that is most worth living.

Sunday, October 14, 2018 – Proper 23

Proper 23, October 14, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home
Kevin Gore

I have often talked about the grand mystery that is the Revised Common Lectionary.  Today’s readings sparked no less a thread of thought for me upon a first glance.  Why it amused me, and why I sometimes wonder about the people who intentionally set the RCL is that all too often we seem to be challenged by Gospel readings that make a particular season or feast day more complicated.  Or maybe that is exactly what we need when we approach biblical study.  This is the Autumn, and in most Episcopal churches especially, now that ‘home coming’ or ‘Rally Sunday’ to kick off the program year has passed we often turn our attention to stewardship.  So what better to do with Gospel readings than toss in this passage!  But then again, I think this does have a lot to offer us in reflections on stewardship, and of course on discipleship as a whole.

Let me first tell another story.  There are many accounts of the experiences of the Desert Mothers and Fathers.  Wise and dedicated Christians in the early Church who withdrew into the deserts to pray and meditate.  They wanted to be away from society, from comfort, from the annoyance of people coming to them for advice.  So naturally after becoming hermits in the desert, small communities sprung up around them so people could seek their counsel on spiritual matters.  One particular story has been told in Christian traditions for centuries, and it goes like this:

Abba (which means Father) Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?’ then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

This story is very similar to the encounter in the Gospel lesson today.  Jesus is approached by a man who wants to know the key to Heaven.  After responding with commandments, which I don’t necessarily think is meant to dismiss the guy, but certainly seems like a rote answer; Jesus then drops the unreachable challenge for this particular person.  Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.  The man was shocked and went away grieving.  That’s quite a response.  This man goes away thinking he might not be able to attain this.  Much like Abba Lot, more has been asked of him than he believes can ever be done.  Living into the reality of God, the Presence of the Divine always seems like more than we can achieve ourselves.  Jesus affirms this as he continues talking to the disciples.  He tells them how hard entering the Kingdom of God is, especially for a rich person, because that particular persona is one who is expected to be holding on tightly to this broken world we all inhabit.

Now this might be a good time to pause and completely dismantle a very popular myth.  (because when isn’t?) There is no evidence of a gate called the ‘needle gate’ in Jerusalem.  Often this is referenced as meaning a camel can still get through, just stripped of its packs and on its knees.  A popular image especially in Prosperity Gospel followings trying to harmonize their teaching with the Gospel.  Sorry.  The truth is this is Jesus at his hyperbolic best.  Not everything Jesus says is meant to be taken literally and not everything Jesus says is meant to be taken as hyperbole.  It’s almost as if he’s talking as any human does, using a blend of both.  Jesus is extremely exaggerating here.  I’d like to think there was some nervous laughter from the disciples when Jesus says this, while they wonder if he is exaggerating on such a ridiculous level or whether they just found out that entering into Heaven is more impossible than they realize.

But the truth behind what Jesus is saying is found in the subtleties of this narrative.  How many of you noticed what it says about Jesus right before he tells the rich man how to enter the Kingdom?  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said…”  Jesus, the incarnate God, loved this human who has its own failings, its own struggles, its own reasons for feeling like the Kingdom is just out of reach.  Jesus loved him.  That right there points us to a great truth in all of this.  This passage isn’t really about whether money is good or evil, whether it is more of a blessing to be rich or to give all your riches away, this passage is about understanding the kingdom of God to be a way of life that is more difficult than you can achieve by yourself.  That living the kingdom values requires you to let go of attachment to the ‘stuff’ of life.  Now there are plenty of times Jesus talks about giving of your first fruits and tithing as a religious practice.  It was something the Jews did and was carried into the earliest Christian communities.  We’ll definitely have more to talk about regarding that as our own community’s time to reflect on stewardship and pledging for the year begins later this month.

This passage is really about our frailty as humans and our inability to reach the Kingdom of God by our own hand.  Jesus doesn’t call after the man who leaves grieving to remind him that he isn’t going to Heaven.  Jesus doesn’t say that to God it’s impossible to fit a camel through the eye of a needle.  When the disciples clearly think Jesus has ruled out so many from the Kingdom and ask ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  As Christians we believe there are ways in which you should live.  We believe there are rules or guides or sometimes signposts to what sort of life one should strive for.  We don’t all agree on every piece of it, and that’s because we all have our own struggles.  We all have the ‘stuff’ that we need to struggle to let go of.  We all have reasons that make us just as difficult to fit through the eye of a needle than the metaphorical camel.  It is our duty and our joy as Christians to walk a very different life than the rest of the world though.  We are called to a path that is not popular with the consumerist individualistic masses.  We are stilled called to strive for a perfect life we know we cannot attain by ourselves.  We also know that God will not abandon us, that God will not turn us away even if we are imperfect.

This passage ends not like some other difficult sayings of Jesus about sheep and goats, or wheat and chaff, but with a clear indicator that while for the rich man it will be impossible to enter the Kingdom of God by himself, it is not impossible with God.  Jesus does not end by saying ‘for damned are the rich and they shall be cast into the darkness.”  What Jesus says makes all the difference and points to an understanding of the Kingdom of God that really shows through God all things are possible.  So Peter of course first pipes up to assure Jesus the disciples have given up everything and look how much better they are!  Jesus assures him, again I imagine a very parental ‘yes I know you’re doing your best’ tone of voice.  What Jesus says at the end is, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  Those words could easily be an entirely different sermon, so I’ll save pulling it all apart for another time.  The point I want to make about this statement is you have to be there to be first or last.  Jesus doesn’t say ‘those that are first will never make it to the Kingdom of God’, but rather that they will be last.  Last still means you get there.  Trust me, I’ve been to Disneyland.  You might be in line for a LONG time, but you’re still getting in.

Jesus doesn’t exclude the rich man, or anyone else for that matter, from the Kingdom of God.  Jesus acknowledges that all things are possible with God, even when it seems absurdly impossible, which includes the salvation of so many we may or may not doubt are worthy.  We are all saved.  Everyone is invited into the Kingdom of God, and the salvific acts of Jesus Christ are not bound to just those who pray special prayers or those that have merits for sunday school attendance.  It is for everyone.  The Christian life, following Christ is the work we do to maintain and improve our relationship with God and with those around us.  That is the root of our faith.  Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.  You don’t have to worry about the end because God has figured that out.  What you need to focus on is living a life that reflects the values of the Kingdom, of not hiding your light under a bushel, and in by your witness helping to spread the good news of the Kingdom at hand.  What is it that Jesus would invite you to let go of to enter the Kingdom?  Ponder that in your hearts and offer it up to the God that created you and loves you more than you can ever comprehend.

Sunday, September 30, 2018 – Proper 21

Proper 21, Year B, 2018
Kevin Gore
St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

If you have been watching the news or following social media, you’ll know this week has been one that will not be long forgotten.  This week has seen pain, anger, fear, and hurt glaring illuminated in the national spotlight, and has highlighted how we as a people collectively continue to fail the most vulnerable in our midst.  It has also proven yet again that living the values of the Kingdom of God seems a nearly impossible task.  I have said before that you will not hear me preach on politics, and that is true.  I will absolutely never preach on anything if it holds no relevance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I will not take partisan sides from this pulpit, and I certainly won’t be telling you, as the clerical authority in this community, how to vote.  That does not mean that I will fail to call to attention what I see around us, or that I will shy away from applying the values of the kingdom of God to our current situations when I truly believe it to be appropriate and necessary.

There is an often used quote that has been attributed to 20th Century theologian Karl Barth, but has also been attributed to Billy Graham, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Lincoln, and even Martin Luther.  The quote itself is that a good preacher should preach, “with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”  What Barth does actually say is that as people of faith, living in the world, we need both the bible and the newspaper, but to interpret our newspapers from our bible.

I would argue further that our newspapers give us context to apply many of the teachings of Jesus Christ to the world around us.  The reason we so value the Gospel, the reason that we are so focused on it, why we have a special book just for reading the Gospel and why we make such a to do about it in the service is that the Gospels of Jesus Christ are the only objective experience of God we have.  Everything else in the Bible, the prophets, the letters, histories of the Jewish people, the Revelation, it is all subjective experience of God by prophets, apostles, historians.  The Gospel is different because Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God in our midst, is speaking.  What the Word incarnate, the Logos, has to say is the objective experience of God because anyone standing next to him at the time could hear what Jesus says.  So these words spoken by the incarnate God ring through all of eternity, and whether Jesus is talking to a crowd of five thousand on the plains near Bethsaida or speaking privately to his disciples, they are for us to apply to our lives and the world around us after prayer and discernment.

Now with all that lead up, I can only imagine how nervous you are to hear what I’m about to say next.  Rest assured that now, acknowledging that the world around us is dark and full of turmoil, not unlike many many times in our past and future, we turn to our Gospel lesson to see what it has for us.  Recall last week Jesus is teaching the disciples about those like children, the vulnerable people in society who have no standing, and that in order to be the greatest, one must serve the least of these.  We are still in the midst of this encounter where Jesus is holding the child and speaking to his disciples.  Then John offers more context about the discussions they were having.  I can only imagine that John is patting himself on the back as he is telling Jesus what the disciples have done.  There was someone else doing the work of the disciples but refusing, as John puts it, to follow them.  John doesn’t say this other person is refusing to follow Jesus, quite the opposite, but he doesn’t want to join up with the disciples and that’s what they don’t like.  Jesus of course corrects them, because what matters is the work, what matters is pointing people towards Jesus and towards the Kingdom of God, not whether you’ve got the membership card to prove it.  It isn’t important what tribe you belong to, what group you work with, or whether you are willing to follow the disciples.  Jesus is clear that proclaiming the Gospel, doing good in the name of Jesus is far more important than anything else.  And that is why, in a nation that seems so divided, in a current situation that has drawn such severe battle lines based on clan and not on the Good News, we can look at our newspaper and look at our bible and begin to see that we are called to something very different.  Jesus offers us an alternative if we instead decide that the weak, that the ones who need healing, and that the values of the Kingdom of God are more important to us than what man made political party is in power.  That is also why it is so important for us to be ecumenical partners with those who would also proclaim the Gospel and seek the truth.  We are blessed to have Holy Cross, the Lutheran Church here in Mountain Home, as those who we can work with, and I continue to make contacts with local clergy, congregations, and social organizations that can partner with us.  When we work with these partners it’s important for us to recognize that we come from different angles, that we do not have the same experiences, or that we will not all agree on every aspect of life.  As long as we are proclaiming the Gospel, as long as we are working to exemplify the values of the Kingdom of God, then we are doing that important work in following Jesus.  That is how we take up our cross.  That is how we stand together to shield the least of these from the vileness, the inhumane treatment from the most base of humans, from the onslaught of power hungry villains for who money and prestige matter more than human life.

Then Jesus continues…“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  Jesus is really good at imagery.  I was listening to a podcast on this week’s lectionary readings and the commentators joked about finding a millstone to use as an illustrative object.  Well, they are not easy to come by these days, and in fact it would take several of the strongest of us to carry it in to the church.  So you can see the image Jesus is evoking here by putting a millstone around the neck and thrown into the sea.  That’s how serious Jesus takes this next piece of the Gospel.  It is a grave error to cause those who need our support the most to stumble, to stand in the way of those who have no privilege or standing and keep them from the Good News, or worse, lead them from it.  And then if any part of you causes this, Jesus says, you should remove it.  Now folks, this is metaphor.  Let’s not be like the early church father Origen of Alexandria who decided to remove a certain part of his body he deemed causing him to stumble…

Though it is metaphor, it is still a strong and useful image.  If your eye causes you to stumble, it’s not the fault of what you’re looking at.  It’s you.  If your facebook perusing causes you to stumble, cut it out.  If your political leanings cause you to stumble, cut it out.  If 24 hour streaming news cycles cause you to stumble, cut it out.  If anything in your life causes you to stumble, that is your opportunity to let go of those things and return to the loving arms of Christ.

We are right now in a vicious cycle that has highlighted one of the many deep-rooted cultural sins in this country.  I know I focus on us here, but please understand that I find that to be far more relevant than, like John does, to pat ourselves on the back for casting aspersions on others.  We cannot afford to support narratives that cause survivors of assault to stumble.  There are few fellow humans, I would wager, that feel more powerless at times than such survivors.  Do not mistake my meaning: this has nothing to do with the outcomes of investigations, nothing to do with the outcomes of political posturing or games of controlling the sand castle.  This has to do with extremely vulnerable people, hurting beloved children of God that need us to stand for nothing more than the values of the Kingdom.  They are simply one example of the many ‘least of these’ we encounter in life.  One could spend hours listing all the ‘isms’ that seek to rob the children of God of their humanity.  What matters is that we step away from the mobs, that we do not join in the chanting of, “Crucify him!” but rather welcome those who have no power as though we welcome Christ.

In a preaching conference I attended during my time in seminary, I took a breakout session entitled, “Preaching the Gospel without being Political”.  When the session began, the first thing the teacher said was, “I’m sorry if the title of this session is misleading.  I want you to all understand that if you preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, people will accuse you of being political.”  It is important to be willing to not fit in, to be denounced for going against the grain if we are truly to follow in the footsteps of Christ.    It is not political.  It is not posturing.  It is not virtue signaling.  It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the God we follow and are called to give our very lives for.  Nothing can come before that, or we have lost our way.  Stand for those who have had their dignity taken from them.  Stand for the weak, for the sick, for those who society has cast aside or worse.  Jesus did.

Sunday, September 23, 2018 – Proper 20

Kevin Gore
Proper 20, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home

I remember when I was a child, when I was in elementary school, there was one thing more important than anything else.  Only one aspect of my time truly mattered, truly had the power to make or break any day I was there.  It was always the fateful few seconds right after the teacher told us to line up for whatever journey we were about to take…and who she would name as ‘line leader’.  Oh to be the first, the line leader, the one with all the power and prestige…or so I thought.  I’m sure it’s part of the cosmic humor of humanity that I can remember that feeling of desire, but I certainly can’t remember if I did ever get to be the line leader, or what that was like.  Now before any of you with training in psychology start diagnosing me, let me assure you that I wasn’t the only one!  We all wanted to be the line leader.  If the teacher didn’t choose quickly enough, it was sure to result in contestation of the throne, elbows, jabs, not-so-subtle pushing for the crown.  Though more subtle than when the sons of Zebedee get their mother to ask Jesus who is going to sit at his right hand, this is in part what the disciples are doing in the Gospel lesson for today.

Imagine, you are the incarnate deity, you are explaining to your disciples how things are going to happen when it comes to your end, you are trying to teach them what comes next, to make sure that they aren’t going to hide and scatter and collapse when you are captured, tortured, and executed, but they just don’t seem to be getting it.  You heard them talking a lot on the walk to Capernaum, sometimes very heatedly, so you want to know what part of the future they are trying to figure out.  Nope.  It turns out they are arguing about who is the greatest amongst them.  Nothing more than that.  Jesus doesn’t throw his hands up and pick out another batch of disciples to train, he doesn’t even chide them for trying to determine who’s highest ranked.  Instead he offers a very poignant object lesson.  He’s good at those.

Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first, to be the greatest, or considered the wisest, must be servant of all.  This person must lift up others.  Much later of course Jesus will exemplify this in the washing the feet of his disciples.  In order to drive home the point Jesus takes a child, who happens to be waiting around to be used as a prop for Christ’s messianic teachings, and tells them that they should welcome, or treat this child as though the child is Christ.  One important point that adds depth to this passage in Mark is understanding how this would have been heard by the First Century, Greek speaking audience that this was intended for.  The Greek word being used for child in this passage has its root in the same word as servant.  This is very intentional.  In the societal norms of the time, children have less value and say than most servants or women.  They are property, and not very valuable property at that.  Now, I’m sure they are valued more than say a leper, but the point here is that this child was probably serving the guests of the house, and is seen more like furniture than a valued person, so Jesus takes the child to illustrate the reversal of power that the way of Christ demands of us.

When it comes to what you are supposed to do as a follower of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark is very clear:  follow.  While arguably the Gospel of John is more about believing, the Gospel of Mark wants action.  Mark is about taking up your cross, living out the values of the Kingdom of God, doing as Jesus did…even if that means to the very end of what he endured.  Knowing that the point is to act, and having Jesus tell his disciples to welcome this child as they would Jesus or even God in their midst, then it becomes clear what Jesus is fully saying here.  These disciples, these men who are vested with a moderate amount of worth, who as men in this first century society get to have a voice and opinion, to take action, and to expect to be listened to, are being told to use their privilege to turn the values of society on its head.  The values of the kingdom of God are clear: those that others regard as most low, those that society deems as more a burden than a value, those who have been denied a voice or the benefit of the doubt are the ones we should be most using our own position to uplift, as we would if they were Jesus himself.

There is a lot that can be said about sociological conditioning, about intersectionality, about systemic racism and sexism, about dominant cultures that attempt to cover up their own atrocities by pointing to the horrors of others.  These things are not just an issue here, but everywhere.  This is a part of the human story across the Earth, and that is why the words, the work, the life, and ministry of Jesus Christ is so incredibly radical, even today.  We are called as Christians to speak up for those who are refused a voice.  It is our duty to welcome any who walk through those doors, or any doors in our life as though they were Christ.  We are called, through the values of the Kingdom of God to lift up the least of these and show the world by our own example that these are not JUST children, or servants, or people who have been deemed to be less because of their race, or their education, or their economic standing, or their gender identity, but in them all are the face of Christ.

There is no glory in being the line leader, there is no greatest disciple.  Jesus sets an impossible goal with the important work of welcoming the most vulnerable as Christ.  What God offers in the values of the Kingdom, what we will all one day come to in the reconciling moment of the eschaton, is that moment of grace where we are all as welcomed as Christ.  Notice the little people in your life.  Who are the least of these around your days and weeks?  How are the servers at your favorite drive-through treated?  How are the wait staff at your favorite restaurant received and treated by their customers?  What about the folks struggling to work enough hours at Walmart to achieve a coveted status of full time with benefits?  There are a lot of people out there in this world who are constantly on the edge of losing hope that it can be a better place.  Take the Good News out to them.  Show them who we are, as followers of Jesus Christ.  It’s true what that hymn written in the 1960s says, they will know we are Christians by our love.

 

 

Sunday, September 16, 2018 – Proper 19

Kevin Gore
Proper 19, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home

We live in what can best be described as the post-post-modern era.  We exist at a time when technology often far surpasses our wildest dreams, but also somehow fails to solve our biggest dilemmas.  Just yesterday I was at the Baxter County Fair, and inside the commercial booth section was a man who asked me, “Have you ever had your identity stolen?”  I told him I had not, to which he then proceeded to give me information about his company that protects your identity, and not in the existential way.  We are always reminded by financial institutions that we should be checking our credit scores and our credit reports.  When you are applying for jobs it is recommended that you search for yourself on Google or other search websites to make sure there isn’t anything negative or questionable to be found.  Teachers, doctors, lawyers, any business or employee in a service industry job, can be rated online.  Your reputation can be ruined in an instant by one disgruntled customer.  There is great power in what Google tells you about someone. When I typed into the Google search bar, “Who is Jesus Christ?” I received two hundred fifty two million results in less than a half second.  (ask Siri who Jesus Christ is)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  Jesus has been actively working his ministry now for some time, so there is bound to be some talk of him.  Recall also he is always telling people not to talk about the miracles he performs or the revelation he teaches.  But people, being human, are going to talk.  So Jesus wants to know…who do people say that he is?  The answer is not surprising really.  Some people say he is Elijah, some say he is John the Baptist, and others say that he is a prophet of God, the likes of which have not been seen for nearly 500 years, since the death of the prophet Malachi.  Each of these responses also carries with it certain expectations.  If you recall your Hebrew Bible, Elijah was a prophet who stood against the worshippers of Ba’al, who founded a school of prophets, and who never died, but was taken up into Heaven by fire.  In Jewish tradition, Elijah is very much a candidate because he is still whole in body and could be brought back into play by God at any time.  In fact the prophet Malachi says the Elijah will return before the great and terrible day of the Lord, making him a harbinger of the Messiah and the eschaton.  The expectations people have about Jesus being Elijah is that he is signaling the entrance of the messiah, that a powerful servant of God is walking the earth, and that in the dark times of subjugation under the Roman Empire and the insane ruler Herod, a figure has emerged to lead them to greatness.  But Jesus is not Elijah.  If anything John the Baptist, played the figurative role of Elijah, as the herald of the messiah to come.  So what about people thinking Jesus is John the Baptist?  At this point in the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist is dead, killed by Herod, and everyone knows it.  The disciples know it; the people saying that Jesus is really John the Baptist know it.  So this would mean that God has returned John the Baptist from the dead, and ideally now John the Baptist will become a powerful prophet or leader of the people.

I have a fairly active imagination and often times I like to visualize these sorts of scenes. I can absolutely see this, Jesus and the disciples walking down the road, and he asks this question.  After hearing the responses hi s eyebrow lifts, either out of surprise or amusement, and then with a sort of squint asks his disciples, “well, who do YOU say that I am?”  Good old Peter.  He jumps right in.  God bless Peter.  Sometimes he gets it really right, and sometimes he gets it really wrong.  Well, in this instance it’s a bit of both.  He says, “you are the Messiah.”  Correct Peter.  Well done.  The problem is what Peter and the rest of the Jewish people expect out of a Messiah is not what they are going to get with Jesus.  That’s why when Jesus, who again tells them not to say anything about him being the messiah to anyone else, explains what will happen to him, Peter speaks up.  The Messiah is supposed to be this figure of strength, another king or emperor to lead the armies of the righteous into a great triumph over those that would enslave or subjugate the chosen of God.  The messiah is militant, war-like, not unlike those prophets of old but a lot more muscle…at least according to Jewish tradition.  That is not what the Messiah truly is and it is not what Jesus is.  So when Jesus explains to the disciples what will happen, what must happen with his persecution and death, this violates everything they know about who the messiah is supposed to be.  In steps Peter again, bless his little heart.  Peter tries to convince Jesus not to go that route, but Jesus knows what must happen.  Regardless of how you believe our salvation comes about through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, there is nothing if there is no death, resurrection, and ascension.  So Jesus rebukes Peter for telling him to take a different path.  Peter here is not evil, he is not trying to stop the salvation of humanity, he just can’t reconcile the image of a triumphant messiah with one who is persecuted and dies.  Peter cannot imagine a messiah that looks weak, that does not fight back, that does not strike first, that does not crush the enemies of God.

So who do YOU say Jesus is?  How do you talk to people about Jesus.  Yes I know you’ve probably internally chuckled and said, ‘that assumes I talk to people at all about Jesus.’  So setting aside all the baggage that comes with words like evangelism or all the uncomfortable seat shifting that happens when I start suggesting we go out into the community and talk about our faith, let’s start simple.  How do you talk to your children about Jesus?  Your grandchildren?  Your neighbors?  I don’t mean that we sit down for coffee and say, “well Gladys, I’m glad you invited me over because I want to talk to you about Jesus.”  There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think that’s in the purview of most Episcopalians.  The thing is though we have so much to offer a world full of self-centered, money worshipping, Herod following sycophants who are in desperate need of hearing the Good News.  This place we live in also has a desperate need of letting everyone know they are welcome, that they are loved by God, that all sin has been forgiven and what God asks for us to live according to simple rules.  Love others, love God, love yourself.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked.  We should be standing on every street corner sharing a message like that right?  That is our message here, and yet, it’s hard, it’s really really hard to even tell our friends about it.  We fear what they will think.  We fear how we will be treated.  We even fear sometimes for our well being.  That’s completely understandable.  Peter fears what will happen to Jesus.  But Jesus offers us an invitation to something greater.  Our ultimate goal should always be to lose ourselves for the sake of the Gospel.  What good is any of this otherwise?

I have not been here very long, but I am beginning to see ways in which this community of committed believers already does show who they believe Jesus is, and I can see places where we could get the word out even more.  It isn’t always easy, it isn’t always comfortable, but you know, I find that it always feels pretty good once you take a chance.  We have to be the ones to tell everyone else out there about, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls it, the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.  We should never expect they will find us because we are listed in the phone book, or have a website, or have facebook.  Some people will find us that way, those are helpful tools, but it doesn’t reach everyone.  Nothing substitutes a genuine, loving, honest conversation about what this sort of faithful life has to offer.  Our words, our actions, our lives are always testimony to something.  Do your best to make sure that testimony reflects the Good News of Jesus Christ, the salvation of humanity, and the glory of the Kingdom of God.  Who do you say Jesus is?