Category Archives: Sermons

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?

Sunday, September 9, 2018 – Proper 18

Proper 18, Year B, 2018
Kevin Gore
St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

If I thought coming up with five different sermons all addressing the bread of life discourse was tough…I should have looked ahead to see what else was coming up in the lectionary.  While this story of two healings by Jesus from the Gospel of Mark is often beloved by many for a multitude of reasons, and has definitely been picked apart in every direction by theologians, preachers, and academics, preaching on it in the real world is not necessarily my favorite activity.   I say that because this is one of those passages that really challenge our Christology.  We don’t get to know the inner workings of Jesus’ mind.  We don’t get inner monologues from Jesus in the Gospels, only what is said and done.  To many the first event in this portion today, referred to usually as the Syrophoenician Woman, is an indication that Jesus is not fully accepting of outsiders.  That in his humanity, the implicit bias of a first century Jew towards non-Jews leads him to initially refuse to help the woman’s daughter.  To me, this takes Jesus’ divinity out of the picture in a way that is not in keeping with a Christology that acknowledges Jesus as both fully human and fully divine.  So, to say that the Syrophoenician woman teaches Jesus to stop being racist is, I think, a bridge too far in the study or preaching of this passage.

The Gospels were not meant to necessarily be broken up in small bites throughout the course of a calendar year, but rather continuous narrative that draws the listener in and lets you see the arcs and themes.  This story comes right after Jesus has had the encounter with the Pharisees about the hand washing.  He has shown them that tradition and God’s law aren’t always the same, and when the traditions do not honor the laws of God then they are not worth following.  So here it almost seems as if Jesus is turning this around and acting the same way the Pharisees do.  He is not acting in accordance with his own teachings, but rather by the laws and customs of Jews regarding others who are ethnically different from them.  What I think is somewhat curious is that Jesus is in the region of Tyre, which is not populated primarily by the Jews, but rather by Hellenized Syrians, people who are ethnically gentiles in Syrian or Middle Eastern heritage, but culturally most resemble Greek society.  Jesus is actually outside his home country when he has this interaction where he is saying that the children of God, in this case the Jewish people, must be the ones to first receive the good news.  In some ways this makes the whole interaction even more incredulous.  Jesus is on the home turf of this woman, telling her she is second class to the Jews.  What is also curious about this is that in the grand scheme of things, Jesus isn’t saying that the Kingdom of God coming to be in this world is never for anyone but the Jews, but rather he has brought it to them first.  Often this is characterized as a flat denial of sharing the kingdom of God, but it isn’t, as Jesus says the children eat first, not singularly.  Now as I’ve said before, this culture is based in whether or not you can win intellectual arguments.  This seems to be another one of those. I’m not sure if Jesus is actually speaking from a standpoint of believing this woman to be a dog, that she and her daughter are not as worthy to receive the power and miracles that he has, or whether he is testing, whether he is trying to get at the root of her faith.  What is abundantly clear though is that how she responds is the catalyst for Jesus to act.  Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”  Jesus heals the daughter by driving out a demon, from an unknown distance instead of going to her house, because this woman has responded to his challenge and she has won.

Paired with this quick interaction, that is less descriptive than most healings in Mark is the healing of a deaf man.  Let’s start first with a little geography.  Jesus was in the region of Tyre, which is far Northwest from the Sea of Galilee.  We don’t know why he was there, but he was in fact a long way from home in Syrophoenician territory.  Now the gospel tells us that he’s returning from the region of Tyre by way of Sidon.  Here’s the thing about that.  It’s like going to Little Rock by way of Branson.  By any map, it doesn’t seem like that’s the way to get from Tyre to Galilee, unless maybe it’s by way of several river boats and land crossings.  What I’m getting at is that Jesus is going a bit out of his way to head deeper into Syrophoenician territory.  Again, some scholars speculate that after the encounter with the woman in the first part, Jesus decides to continue moving deeper into the land.  I’m not entirely sure he’s preaching though, as he is adamant that the man he heals needs to keep it a secret.  Which works as well as any time Jesus tells people not to talk about his miracles.  Jesus sighs, says the Aramaic word ‘Ephphatha’ which means, “Be Open”.  It’s an interesting word choice for the Messiah, heralding the Kingdom of God, wandering deep into Gentile territory, at first telling them that they are not to be first, that he has not come primarily for them, though he then casts out a demon, then to use the words, “Be Open” which are both fitting for the act of healing a deaf man, but also very descriptive of what Jesus is doing.  The Good News, the Messiah is indeed come for all.  For the Jews, for Syrophoenicians, for us, for the whole of Creation, Christ has come to free us from the bonds of death, and to show us the way to live into the Kingdom of God.

That word, Ephphatha, ‘be open’, it reminds me of something those of you who have spent any time in a Methodist church might be familiar with.  There is a campaign in the United Methodist tradition known as ‘Rethinking Church’ and one of its main slogans is, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors’.  While they are certainly putting that to good use, it seems very apropos to this gospel story.  ‘Be open’ says Jesus.  We work to make this an open place.  Our doors stand open on Sunday mornings, much to the chagrin of those who monitor the thermostat.  Our minds and our hearts open to welcome friends and strangers.  Those who have been here for many years, those who have come back after a break, or those who we are meeting for the first time, we are open to all who are seeking the Kingdom of God.  Be open.  There are entire segments of the population in this place, even here in Mountain Home, that don’t know we are here, that don’t know our doors are open on Sunday mornings to all.  You would be surprised at the number of conversations I have had in the last couple of weeks with folks who didn’t know there was a place for them to worship, who didn’t know that we are here with our open hearts, our open minds, and our open doors.

When Jesus commissioned the Apostles, he commanded them to go out and make disciples of all people.  It isn’t just enough for us to be walking in those open doors, it’s our job to be out in the world, in the farthest flung places we know, in the sort of places that make people ask us things like why in the world we went to Branson to get back to Little Rock, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God.  The Gospel, the Messiah, salvation…it is for all, and it always has been.  Let the people you meet out in the world know that God invites them in through these open doors, that they too are worthy of the Good News of the Kingdom of God.  Ephphatha.  Be Open.

Sunday, September 02, 2018 – Proper 17

Proper 17, Year B, 2018 September 2
Kevin Gore – St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Hypocrites.  That’s a word we hear from Jesus quite a few times.  It’s used a little over 20 times throughout the four Gospels, usually directed at the most outwardly pious figures, quite often authorities of the Temple or the Pharisees.  Today’s Gospel is one of those times. It’s rather clear what
Jesus is saying, that these men who are questioning the disciples’ lack of complying with the traditional social norms expected around eating have focused too much on the wrong things.  Jesus is used to being questioned by this point, especially by religious authorities.  The intellectual culture of first century Palestine is one where being challenged and either winning that challenge or losing will continually shape your social standing.  But one can imagine that maybe Jesus expected more out of these guys.  If you’re going to try and challenge Jesus’ knowledge and authority in relation to Torah or the Laws of God, don’t start using customs and human traditions as your foundation.

You see, doing all that washing that is described in the Gospel of Mark is not mandated by God.  There is nothing in the Levitical laws, in the Ten Commandments, or anywhere else provided or inspired by God that dictate this.  The washing is entirely based in culture and probably is something learned over many decades of poor sanitation and disease.  These complex rules of washing probably have some inspiration in the laws of purity, but no matter how much some want them to be, they are not a part of it.  So it seems like Jesus is not having any of this line of questioning when he hearkens back to Isaiah referring to the people that are honoring God with their words and not their deeds, and as it is written, “teaching human precepts as doctrine.”  Now there’s quite the sticky wicket as we sit here today in this church, with vestments, with particular ways of doing things, of ways we approach the table for communion based in doctrine, and how we form our entire worship.

I’ll let you ruminate on that for a minute and return to Jesus and his teachings.  So Jesus continues responding to this inquiry about hand washing by speaking to the crowd at large and saying that nothing that goes into a person can defile them, but it’s what comes out that can defile a person.  I want to pause here and say that I’m 99.9% certain that this is entirely meant to be understood on a deeper level than literal.  We know that if you eat the wrong thing, if you ingest spoiled food or don’t wash your hands after you’ve been working with children or with those who are ill, there is a likelihood you are going to get sick.  So here Jesus is pulling apart two separate concepts that have been mashed together in Jewish practice.  We’re talking about sanitation and hygiene versus spiritual defilement.  The purity laws were taken to mean you were ritually unclean, but many of the purity laws are really formed out of a helpful guide to survive.  Pork, for instance, is forbidden by Jewish dietary laws.  It’s not because pork is spiritually harmful, it’s because in the ancient Middle East when these laws are formed, you have no way of preserving the meat that can absolutely guarantee you won’t get sick from eating it, let alone how difficult it is to raise pigs and not end up with some sort of parasites in the meat at that time.  The point Jesus is driving at here is that you can be the most ritually pure person in the world, but if you are not striving to love other people as God loves, then you are defiled by what you do.  Then Jesus continues to talk about what actions defile, but first….the lectionary omits verses!

I think by now you all know what I’m going to do when the lectionary omits verses!  I didn’t read it during the proclamation of the Gospel but I do want to cover it quickly.  Right after Jesus says, “but the things that come out are what defile”, verses 17 – 20 are omitted.  The author of Mark writes, “When Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.”  Then Jesus goes on to talk about the evils that come from the human heart which defile.  This omission again might make the reading shorter, but it provides more depth to the narrative.  Even the disciples, the ones who weren’t necessarily observing all the accepted norms of washing aren’t quite able to wrap their minds around Jesus’ teaching.   I don’t blame them.  Jesus is pulling away centuries of cultural norm to get at the true meaning of something and sometimes that is hard for people to accept.

We see that so often in our own lives, which brings me back to that comment earlier about vestments and churches.  It was a bit tongue in cheek, because while it does walk a fine line between commandments of God and human tradition, these are not inherently things that stand in the way of following through with loving people, with walking in the way of Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, I dare say, they actually help remind us of that.  But peeling away tradition when it doesn’t conform to Jesus’ teaching, to the values that God calls us to, is actually really hard most of the time.  The basic truth is we fail at it.  We fail at it a lot.  Jesus has set the mark incredibly high and we’re probably never going to attain it.  We see examples of human tradition being idolized over the commandments of God all the time.  When children are torn from their parents, stuffed into cages, and abused by governments and we do nothing to stop it, traditions of nationalism and submitting to human authority has been valued over the commandments of God.  When we allow the hungry, the sick, the needy to die because helping them means giving of our own fruits, we have given up on the commandments of God.  When we don’t sell all of our possessions, give all the money to the poor, and live by the grace of God, we have not followed through with what Jesus commands us.  I’ll be honest with you, I really doubt that last one is ever going to happen for me.  Does that make me a hypocrite?  Well, yeah, kind of.

But kind of not.  A hypocrite is someone who is not genuine to what you see on the outside.  The term hypocrite isn’t appropriate for someone who fails to accomplish an unattainable goal, no matter how hard they try.  That is who we are as children of God.  I think I can be pretty sure that we will never be able to fully live in to the call of Jesus Christ until that end of time when we are all gathered together in the eschaton.  But we don’t get to just sit down and sulk that we aren’t going to accomplish the goal either.  We strive.  We work.  We try our best to tear away human tradition when it conflicts with the Kingdom of God, we acknowledge that human traditions, that denominations, nationalities, borders, corporations, profits, worldly power, that it is all not directly from God but formed through our experience as creation.  Not all of it is bad because not all of it asks us to abandon the way of God.  But not all of it is good either.  There are many things in our lives, in our cultures, in our human traditions that seductively throw stumbling blocks into our path to follow Christ.  If we are constantly striving to do better, to follow better, regardless of how badly we do it, then no, we are not hypocrites.  We are simply imperfect, and yet still we remain beloved by God.

It takes work, often times seemingly insurmountable work, to ensure we are not defiling ourselves with the evil intentions that Jesus lists.  They come in many forms and often it is harder to recognize them from what we think is right.  Just as there are always times we need to reassess if something is of God, when we find things that are not, we also need to step back and ask if it is being valued more than God’s ways.  Pride, slander, and folly are after all on that list.  This is hard work we have, following Jesus Christ and seeking to uphold the commandments of God.  There are so many human things that constantly get in the way.  Our choice must be to work at it even if we know we are ultimately going to fail.  We must hold to the values of the Kingdom of God in face of conflicting tradition.  Otherwise, if we are just here to pay lip service, if we are just hoping that our car is seen in the church parking lot or we are here to show off to our friends, then we are hypocrites and we will be called to account for that one day.  Go out and try your best.  Then try a little harder.  God commands us to love, and shows us through the life of Jesus Christ how to do it best.  God knows we are not going to be experts at it, but God also knows that in our hearts we are not hypocrites.