Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Biblical House of Cards

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

 This summer Stephen and I decided that we would use the Lectionary to guide the themes and topics of our summer services. Throughout most of the year, we work with the Worship Ministry to choose themes that are meaningful and relevant to the congregation and I then find scripture readings that are most appropriate for the themes. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to just pick up a predetermined schedule and choose from one of the four readings on any given Sunday to use for the basis of our sermons. The Lectionary was designed so that dedicated followers would make their way through the Bible every three years. One of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is the focus for one of the three years with the Gospel of John sprinkled throughout the more high holy times. This year, Year B, we are making our way through Mark. Two weeks ago we looked at the end of chapter five and, last week, we read the beginning of chapter six. Obviously, this week I chose not to stick with the Gospel reading but, rather, I went with the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scripture reading instead. The order of the readings is so that from Advent to Pentecost—December until about June—is arranged as Narrative Time which tell of how God has dealt, is dealing, and will deal with God’s people, with us. Ordinary Time, the time after Pentecost and back to Advent—so, June to November—tells us, then, how we should respond.
If you pay attention each week during the periods that we use the Lectionary, you will notice that, frequently, the readings do not follow directly from one to the other. From week to week, even within the reading itself as happens today, there are breaks in the verses read. Some portions of scripture are consistently skipped year after year. We highlighted this last fall when we used a reading or two from the Song of Songs—a rather detailed love poem that is supposedly an allegory describing God’s love for Israel. Stephen and I led a short bible study on a number of rather serious stories that are ignored altogether by the Lectionary designers and would never be read out loud in any sanctuary if a preacher only ever followed the Lectionary.
Today you can see that the reading is from chapter six of 2 Samuel. And for some reason some verses early it the chapter are left out as is the final bit of the chapter. Some might say that these verses were left out to make the reading a reasonable length. But let me tell you what’s missing and you might have a better sense of why the powers that be decided to set them aside. So, to give you the setting for the story, you need to know that just in chapter five David was anointed as king over all of Israel and had recently conquered Jerusalem, calling it the City of David. Remember King David was completely human and, as such, possessed an ego and desire for power. His ego and his want for power drove him to decide that God needed to reside within the gates of his city. Chapter six begins with David gathering his men—thirty thousand altogether. This vast number of people sets the tone of what’s about to happen—this shows how powerful David was to have had thirty thousand men at his beck and call. So, he gathers the thirty thousand men and he arranges for the ark of the covenant, the ark of God to be settled in Jerusalem. For those of you who will remember your Sunday School lessons, you will remember that the Ark is not filled with sand and angels of death as it was in the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark but rather, the Ark of God was a small box which contained the stone tablets that had the Ten Commandments inscribed upon them. It had rings at each corner and four men carried it by placing two poles through the rings on either side. This was the proper way of carrying the Ark—these were the instructions from God to Moses—no human was to touch the Ark itself.  The Ark was carried by the Israelites as they wandered through the desert for the forty years. Wherever they set up camp, it was put in a special tent called the Tabernacle. When the Israelites crossed over to the Promised Land and they were trying to conquer Jericho, they carried the Ark around the city once each day for seven days until the walls of the city came tumbling down. The Ark of God was central to the faith of the Israelites. Wherever the Ark was, so was God.
And so, fast forward hundreds of years…David has been anointed king and now wants it to be clear that he is God’s chosen leader so he declares that the Ark will be moved to Jerusalem. As it begins it move, David and the whole house of Israel celebrate by singing and dancing before the Ark along its route. And then there is a break the reading. What happens between verse six and the beginning of verse twelve is astonishing. Amongst this celebration, something devasting occurs. One of men in charge of moving the Ark dies a terrible death. You see, David did not follow the proper protocol of transporting the Ark. He had it placed on a cart pulled by oxen. It was carried by poles through the rings at each of the four corners. But the ox stumbled at one point and it looked like the Ark was going to fall off the cart. A guy named Uzzah placed his hand on the Ark to prevent it falling and he was immediately struck dead by God. Shocking! Just shocking. So, now, at this point, David and God have a falling out and, David is suddenly afraid of doing anything more to annoy God so he parks the Ark in a house nearby.
For three months the household finds itself suddenly blessed in all manners of being. This is where our reading picks up. David noticed the blessings bestowed upon the house and decided to give God another try. This time, as the Ark is being carried to Jerusalem, there is no mention of oxen or carts so its likely being carried in the proper fashion. But, David really upped his game. He sacrificed a bull and a fatted calf—something that normally only the priests would do. And he does so while wearing a priestly garment—an ephod. Which is kinda like an apron that you might see an employee wearing at Lowes Home Depot. Its significant here that he is wearing the vestments and performing the rites that are normally for priests only. But I’ll get to that in a moment. It seems that he was wearing the ephod and nothing else. We don’t realize just how indiscreet David was in his choice of garment when the Lectionary is read as is but for now we will carry on,  I’ll tell you more in moment. So, we have David wearing a priestly aprong and he dances with great enthusiasm as the Ark enters Jerusalem. The Ark is settled and there is a feast. The preaching for this scripture reading, without mention of Uzzah’s death of course, usually involves exhortations to celebrate God’s presence, that dancing is okay—a serious concern for some Christians—so dancing is alright and, just as importantly, we must remember to be joyful before God.
So, that’s the end of the reading but not the end of the chapter. It is in the last four verses is when we find out not only about David’s lack of underwear and we find out how David is working on his own House of Cards. We learn how his political machinations are as well considered as those of Francis Underwood. You see, in the last four verses, David returns home and gets bawled out by his wife. Do you remember that a woman named Michal was observing David’s entrance into Jerusalem and she despised him in heart? Well, not only was Michal the daughter of Saul, the first King of Israel, who by the way had put out a hit on David but, in a crazy turn of events, was himself killed and David was lifted up to take the throne. Michal as David’s wife helped him evade being found and killed. But, that love aside, she is very, very annoyed with David. She lays right into when he gets home. HOW DARE YOU embarrass me!! How poorly the King of Israel distinguished himself, disrobing himself as any vulgar fellow would. That’s actually what she says. So, here we know that’s David’s altogether was on display as he danced his way through town. But then the significance of all that’s happened is revealed. We find out the motivation behind David’s actions. He tells Michal, it is before God, who chose ME not your father, that I dance. And it is before the commoner that I reveal myself. THEY will hold me in honour. And, just before we leave Michal, I’ll let you know the chapter ends with these words: Michal, the daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her deat. In other words, lived her life without worth. Either she was barren, or David set her aside, it makes no matter, her criticism mattered not.
David’s words to Michal towards the end of the chapter puts a different spin on the story than just one of celebration and joy. David is telling Michal of how important it is that his ascension to the throne needs to be recognized, accepted and celebrated not only by the powerful of the country—both the political leaders but also the religious leaders. And so we know why he insisted on behaving as a priest would—sacrificing animals and wearing vestments—or rather, one vestment. His bawdy nature appealed to those who lined the roadways as the Ark the Covenant, as God’s very self, made its way to take up residence in Jerusalem, the City of David. Make no mistake, this is a story of politics, of power, of ego, of dominance. Even poor Uzzah’s death cannot be overlooked. David’s arrogance allowed him to think he could set God aside when God’s wrath came down upon his plans. I don’t know why Uzzah was killed—maybe there was an accident and the poor man died along the way. Perhaps in an effort to explain why, it was realized that the Ark was not being respected and so its mistreatment was attributed to God. But’s placement in this story is necessary because it reminds of us David’s humanity—he is scared of God. He had been behaving as if it was all him that made his successful possible, as if God wasn’t involved at all. His feeling chastised doesn’t last long but he’s brought down a notch amongst his self-celebratory travels to Jerusalem.
I don’t know really how I feel about this story about King David. On one hand, the full story, the whole of chapter six, shows how deft David was in the political arena and gives us a rare glimpse of what little humility David possessed. On the other hand, unless we read the whole chapter together, we are left with an impression of David only as a man of faith. The edited scripture reading doesn’t show us David’s political manipulations and hidden agenda. The loss of Uzzah is forgotten, the fate of Michal is ignored. I find it frustrating when we don’t acknowledge the whole of the Bible. Its stories tells us so much about the early days of God’s people. I think that it would be easy for us to ignore the pieces of scripture that make us squirm. I understand sometimes storytellers want to leave out certain details because the wholeness of the story might make some uncomfortable. Picking and choosing only those pieces of scripture and those pieces of narrative in our lives that make us comfortable, acknowledging only the ‘good’ pieces of the story allow for us to overlook those who are hurting or those who are suffering or those whose humanity is being denied, overlooking the uncomfortable so that we may remain blissfully in our own comfort is not how our world will be healed. And remember, Jesus did not worry for a minute about the comfort of those who followed him or those who challenged him. Our scriptures call us to remember and know the uncomfortable so that we can learn and grow. And maybe use them to help figure out how to deal with what makes us uncomfortable in our world today. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

You Don't Know Everything I Know

Mark 6:1-13

A couple of years ago, when I was on sabbatical, I went to Amsterdam with my spouse and my Dad. We had a few days there before we started a river cruise through Germany. We took a bike tour through the city and one of the stopping points was in a rather large courtyard that had small little fenced in yards in front of doorways in the surrounding buildings. In some yards there were woman sitting reading or working in small flower beds. There was a small chapel in the middle of it all. The guide was telling us about the place—he was speaking German, French and English. He saved the English for last because the three of us were the only English speakers on the tour. I had heard him say the word Beguine when he was speaking to the others. When he came to the English, he described how this courtyard was for a group of women doing God’s work, the group of them were called, and he interrupted himself here, I don’t know the English for Beguine. And I suddenly realized where we were. We were amongst a cloister of faithful women who devote themselves to service in God’s name by doing the work of Christ for the surrounding community. I spoke up and said—there is no translation—they are the Beguine in English too. My spouse and Dad looked at me, confused. Why would I know that? I then explained to them who the Beguine were and what they did. Why do you know this they asked? Because these are my people I replied. The Order of the Beguine was one of the precursors to diakonia re-emerging in Europe.

When we were on another bike tour, this time in Germany, we found ourselves looking up in the hills to the Abbey of St. Hildegard. The tour guide was uncertain what the Abbey was about and I told him that I knew. Again, I caught my spouse and my dad off-guard as I gave a history of Hildegard von Bingen and the significant role she had in religion and in science in the 12th century. They didn’t know that I knew all that information. I remembered these two funny moments when I read this week’s scripture about a prophet not being respected in their own hometown. It’s not that my dear spouse and dad do not respect me here at home in Calgary, but I think, as with is often the case with people that we’ve known for a long time, they thought they knew everything I knew. They have debated and discussed with me over the years about all manner of things, but I had never really talked to them about these bits of historical knowledge that I’ve gained over the years since being called in diaconal ministry with the church.

I think this is what happened to Jesus when he returned to Nazareth. ‘What are you talking about?’ the neighbours and childhood acquaintances would have said. This IS Jesus, son of Mary, we’re talking about, right? The carpenter? Brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? What do you mean he can heal people? WHAT DO YOU MEAN he knows something new about God that hasn’t been said a thousand times already in the synagogue? WHEN did that all happen? You see, all those who knew Jesus when he was growing up and working in Nazareth before he went to be baptized by his cousin John and headed out to the desert, all those who knew him since he was a young, wee thing, thought they knew all what he knew. And, why wouldn’t they? They grew up side-by-side, with the same people around them as they went about learning a trade and going to synagogue each day. They figured they knew everything he knew. Also, social status was a fixed thing in those days. You couldn’t or even dare to try rise above your station. Before Jesus left town to find John the Baptist, he wasn’t a rabbi, a teacher, a learned leader of any sort. He was simply a carpenter. The son of Mary. Notice his earthly father Joseph is not even mentioned although Joseph is named in similar stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The biblical scholars take this omission of Joseph as further proof that the people of Nazareth would have had little consideration of Jesus as someone significant—he was fatherless—without lineage or ancestry.

We have, with today’s scripture, the realization of Jesus and his disciples, that they had to leave, had to go beyond their family and friends to create a wider community of faithful people who could work towards the kingdom of God. Jesus was able to heal just a few people in Nazareth. Last week we read from the chapter just before this one and explored how the healing amongst people requires not only the desire of the one who has caused the damage or hurt amongst but also requires the willingness of those who have been damaged or hurt toparticipate in the healing process. The example I used last week was that just because I, as a descendent from folks who immigrated to Canada years and years ago, just because I want reconciliation and healing to happen with the indigenous people who are living with the impact and consequences of signing the treaties and the creation of residential schools across Canada, just because I want healing to occur, it can’t happen until those who have been hurt are, themselves, ready to enter into the healing process. Such as it was in Nazareth so long ago. Jesus healed those people who were willing and able to participate in the healing. The bleeding woman told him the whole truth. The little girl got up and walked after he raised her back to life. They were not passive receptacles of Jesus’ healing touch. Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, was not open to healing of Jesus, whether it was by touch or by teaching. And so, he and his disciples left, going from village to village, offering the love of God’s word.

Jesus sends the Twelve disciples out in pairs. They are to take nothing but a staff and the clothes they are wearing. They take no other burden as they travel, sharing what they have heard and witnessed and experienced along the way as they followed their leader and teacher. Jesus tells them that if those they visit do not welcome them, they are to shake the dust off their sandals and carry on. If they are unwilling to hear the loving words of God, they are not prepared for the healing that comes with the message. It takes full participation in the healing of ourselves and in the healing of that which is needed by others so that the kingdom of God can break through into our world in the here and the now. People of southern Africa have given us a phrase for this healing—unbuntu. It means—I am not whole until the world is whole, the world is not whoel until I am whole. The world is not healed until I am healed, I am not healed untilt the world is healed. Full participation for God’s kingdom is required. But our time is limited and so Jesus says, don’t waste your time. If a household is resistant to hearing the Word of God, then move on. Move on and don’t fret and linger over what you cannot change. The Serenity Prayer by Rheinhold Niebuhr comes to mind in this dusting off one’s sandals. This is how he wrote the first stanza—it’s been altered slightly over the years, but here’s how he wrote it:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

What happens though when we discover that it is, us, ourselves, who are resistant? It’s all well and good to lay the refusal to heal, to change, to improve, to work towards God’s kingdom, at the feet of the other. Using their unwillingness to participate in the healing of God’s world as reason to not, yourself, participate in living out the teaching of Jesus? What happens when there is some area, some regret we can’t get over, some grudge we can’t let go of, some hurt that has come to define us, some addiction that imprisons us, some anger that has taken ahold of us that we are we are having difficulty entrusting to God? What happens we are the people of Nazareth, refusing to see Jesus for who he was, for who he is—the one who offers the love of God to all, to each and every person, regardless of their status, their occupation, regardless of who they love or who loves them, regardless of how they look, how much they weigh, how tall they are or how able they are. Some might call that salvation. I call that healed. In the knowing that all are worthy of the love of God, and in the knowing that we are to love one another as we would love ourselves, what is holding us back from making that real for each and every one we meet? Healing is not a passive event. Healing does not happen simply because you will it into being nor does it happen in isolation. Healing happens because you work to make it happen. Healing happens in community, in loving one another and allowing yourself to be loved in return. Healing happens when you are willing to hear the other and to allow that they might know and understand something that you didn’t know they knew. Healing happens when we don’t restrict the other to who they were years, months, days ago. Healing happens when we acknowledge that others could have grown and learned and had their eyes opened just we, ourselves, are attempting to do. Healing happens when we recognize the work that is being done by others as they participate in the coming of God’s kingdom. Healing happens when we know we are not alone working towards making heaven happen right here on earth. We live in God’s world. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Celebrating Canada's 150th & Healing Ourselves

Mark 5:21-43

Last year I spent Canada Day in Chicago, Illinois. It was an odd thing, being out of the country for Canada’s birthday. Particularly since my family wasn’t with me on a day that we usually spend together and because it was a special year. It was Canada’s 150th. I was in Chicago, and I say that like I was touring Chicago, which I wasn’t as I barely left the university for the entire ten days I was there but I was there because I was attending a world gathering of the diaconate from the many different denominations of Jesus’ church. It was an incredible feeling being in the States because as a Canadian I had freedom of movement—I had crossed the border with no issues and did not worry about needing to carry my travel documents with me, because, back then the United States still considered Canada its friendly neighbour to the north, not some milk-subsidizing national security threat with a highly offensive and duplicitous prime minister. I had no problems traveling to Chicago unlike serval others of the conference who were not permitted to enter the country because of their nationality—people from Asia and Africa. We left their name tags on empty seats throughout the conference to remind us of who was missing that week.

Anyway, the Diakonia World Federation had gathered in Chicago. Diakonia is a greek word that means ‘service among others’. The diaconate was created in the very early days of the emerging church when it was realized there was a need to share what was happening at the gatherings of God’s people that were taking place in each other’s homes. After Jesus was resurrected and then ascended to the heavens, the followers of Jesus began meeting together. They realized, due to illness or other serious matters, there were others who could not make it to the gatherings and it was decided that a certain style of people would take food and the good news from the meetings out into the community as well as stand at the door to the homes where the gatherings took place and welcomed everyone into the meeting. They welcomed people in and they took that welcome out to those in need.

With certain culture influences on the church, the role of the diaconate fell by the wayside until the 1800s when a desperate need emerged for care and attention to given to those who could not manage for themselves—particularly for prisoners who were not fed or given basic necessities unless the church or families provided for them, those folks who were too sick to work or to care for their families—remember, in the 1800s people were imprisoned not necessarily because they did something heinous but because they were too poor to pay their debts or they had committed some small infraction. There was no social safety net back then in any form. If you were destitute, you had no assistance outside what the church and your family could provide. And so, the diaconate was revived to help serve those who were oppressed, poor, ill or widowed. You might be familiar with the more modern terms of deacon or deaconess. Depending on the denomination, the diaconate’s responsibilities range from reading the gospel during the worship service, taking consecrated elements from communion out to the sick following worship, offering pastoral care, leading children and youth programs, working as parish nurses, as teachers at community schools of all sorts, as organizers of food banks and shelters for women and children, as allies for the LGTBQ community and for those working towards reconciliation with indigenous communities.

The diaconate is by and far made up of lay professionals. People who have been trained in specific professions and then use their gifts and skills to serve the church. The United Church of Canada is the only denomination that recognizes the diaconate as paid accountable clergy and as such, the diaconate also serve and lead congregations in the same capacity as ordained ministers. In the United Church, as a diaconal minister, I am called to social justice, Christian education and pastoral care. Stephen, as an ordained minister, is called to the word, sacrament and pastoral care. When I became a minister I was gifted with a bowl and towel to represent that it is service that I am called and Stephen was gifted with a chalice and plate, representing his call to sacraments. We are both trained in all aspects of ministry but the focus of our education has been slightly different.

So, now knowing all this about the diaconate, you can appreciate when I say that our Canada Day celebrations last year in Chicago were, at times, somewhat uncomfortable because of our calling to social justice—we could not ignore the growing awareness that was sweeping across Canada last spring of the juxtaposition that the nation of Canada was created at the expense of the First Nations of people who were living on this land before the settlers arrived. We were celebrating our nation being 150 years old but the indigenous people had been on the land for much longer than the settlers. Many Canadians were feeling uncomfortable with celebrations that were predicated on the attempted destruction of culture and way of living. In discussions that were taking place at the time at home and in Chicago, I heard it said and I likely said it myself, why can’t it just be done? Why can’t the damage and hurt that was done just be fixed and we move forward? Why can’t the healing be as simple and quick as it was for both the woman and the girl in today’s scripture? Jesus made it look so easy. 

The healings that take place in today’s scripture reading are twofold. The first, the woman, an individual, who in her own personal suffering reaches out and, without seeking permission, is healed. Can you imagine how terrible it would be to menstruate for twelve years—cause make no mistake, this is what’s happening in this story. As a man you may not fully appreciate what that might mean. You may have to reach a bit to find yourself somewhere in this story but in the famous words of Matthew Taylor-Kerr, suck it up princess because women, for years, have had to find themselves in the stories of men. So, men, today I invite you to find yourself in the story of this individual woman. Can you imagine her discomfort and pain and the inconvenience she might have been experiencing, and it lasting weeks, and months and years? It would have been a horrible thing. And to top it off, not only would she have been feeling miserable all the time, she would not have been permitted to do most normal daily activities because she would have been in a constant state of uncleanliness. So, this woman risks everything to venture out to see the famed healer Jesus. Not considering herself worthy, she just touches the hem of his robe, hoping his power is strong enough to work through the slightest of contact. And it does. And from there Jesus goes to raise a recently deceased young girl—did you notice that she was twelve years old, the same length of time the woman had been bleeding? The storyteller wants there to be no mistake that the stories of these two are connected. Anyway, the family of the girl seek Jesus out to make their daughter well again. She dies but then is resurrected by Jesus, which he seems to do with very little effort, with very little cost to himself. Of course, it is the girl herself who is healed, however it is the gathered family who is amazed. The girl rises, the family rejoices.

Certain Christians tell anyone who would listen that, if only they knew Jesus, healing and blessings would be heaped upon their heads. Like it is a simple thing. Like it is an easy as a thing as the healing of this woman and this girl. But we know this is misleading. We know that just because we wish for something to happen, life doesn’t work that way. Jesus does not work that way. God does not work that way. The work of Jesus was not one-directional. While it may seem that it was easy for Jesus to heal or perform miracles but we must remember that Jesus very often required something from those he healed. He demanded they walk to him, to have faith, to explain themselves, to get up, to tell him the whole truth. The little girl was not brought back to life and had no expectation put upon her but she was to immediately get up. She was to walk despite just having been bedridden. The bleeding woman came forward to confess it was her who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe and, did you notice this, she then told him the whole truth. Jesus offered healing but the healing needed to be received. This demonstrates that healing the hurt, the pain, fixing the broken and damaged requires not only the desire to be healed but also requires an ability to offer a healing path forward. And both of those things together require a lot of work. Because humanity is perfectly imperfect, it is not easy to be completely open ourselves to healing in any given moment or to assist another down a path—whether through apology or reparations or offering another form of justice—and having that path that is free and clear of any other personal agenda.

In Chicago last year, there were a plethora of discussions about what justice might look like for many different groups of people. Those denied the fullness of humanity because they are black or brown or because they find themselves with the LGTBQ spectrum, or because they are differently abled or because cultures and ways of living have been denigrated or because they live with any sort of mental illness. And God knows, we wish that justice for everyone was as simple as Jesus telling the young girl to get up. That we could reconcile with the people who make up the First Nations of this country for all the pain and damage created in the systemic racist policies of our various incarnations of government and for the ongoing missteps we collectively take in trying to sort out the many different layers of discrimination and bias that affect relationship between all citizens of this peace-loving and polite nation of ours. However, we know that healing does not happen with the touch of hem. It happens when the whole truth of a matter is revealed. And, at any time relationships are broken, the whole truth can be hard to find. Hard to acknowledge. Hard to admit. And it is not just our desire to fix what’s broken, those who have been hurt need, themselves, to be in a place that will allow for healing to happen. And some hurt runs so deep and ragged, it’s difficult to get to a place that one can hear the other telling their truth. It can be overwhelming to know where even to start in the fixing that the relationships and situations that are hurting or broken is some significant way. Maybe the place to start is simply with leaving the chair empty when someone does not show up because they are not permitted, or welcomed, or physically able, or were not invited or forgotten, or ignored, or not even considered. Healing involves being made welcomed AND being welcoming. And healing involves being prepared to be open to hearing the truth and telling the truth. The whole truth. May it be so.