Proper 8 2018, Year B

July 1, 2018

Last Thursday a gunman attacked the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. He killed 5 people and terrorized the rest of the staff by his actions. Friday morning, the paper was published as usual. But as you may have heard, the editorial page was unusual that day. Beneath the masthead was white space. In the center of the white space were these words: “Today, we are speechless. This page is intentionally left blank to commemorate victims of Thursday’s shootings at our office.” Publishing as usual was a declaration that as they grieve and begin to heal from this experience, what had happened will not define them.

Healing is a complicated business. The word itself means “the process of making or becoming sound or healthy again.” In this sense, “sound” means: “in good condition; (of a person) healthy, or (of a thing) not broken or damaged.”

In our Gospel reading, the woman who touched Jesus’ garment had gone 12 years with her seemingly incurable condition. No one had been able to heal her, but she had not allowed “no” to be the final word. Since her condition was a constant flow of blood, she was ritually unclean. This left her in a shadowy existence, not able to have direct contact with most of her society.

Then she heard that Jesus was in town and she sought him out. This meant she should not allow a “clean” person to have physical contact with her. So she grazed the edge of Jesus’ clothing, which I suppose was technically not touching him, himself. Immediately, Jesus asked, “who touched me?” Imagine the scene. He was in the middle of a crowed, being buffeted, bumped, and prodded by people all over the place. “Who touched me?” It’s a ludicrous question; who didn’t touch him? But Jesus knew that healing power had been drawn from him when that woman risked touching his garment. When she admits she had been the one, Jesus reassures her that her faith has healed her.

In telling this story of Jesus’ ministry, Mark is not promising that if we have enough faith, we’ll be healed as that woman was. We all have known situations when many people were praying for one person’s healing and it did not result in a cure. God offers healing, helping us become sound, but not always with a miraculous physical cure.

We each take a different path to healing. That path will vary because of our personalities but also with respect to the circumstances we face. Remember, healing means the process of making or becoming sound or healthy again. For that woman, becoming sound meant not just stopping that flow of blood but being declared “clean” and ending her shadowy existence, fully restored to society, at least as much as women were allowed in that time and place.

Perhaps, “becoming sound” means gaining an acceptance of new circumstances in our lives – adjusting to new limitations, learning to use an artificial limb, accepting a medically mandated diet and so on. Perhaps “becoming sound” means restoring damaged relationships. Or perhaps “becoming sound” means death for the patient. Yet those who are left behind, no matter how relieved they are to see their loved one’s suffering end, now need their own healing as they grieve their loss. In time the grief recedes, but it doesn’t ever go away.

Through His incarnation, Jesus has experienced or witnessed all of these and other situations calling for healing. Jesus promises to be with us no matter what happens. He is our companion on the way and gives us grace and strength while we seek ways to “become sound.”

Proper 7 2018, Year B

June 29, 2018

There are times when current events make it imperative for us to consider political matters in the pulpit. I believe we in midst of one of those times. While the conclusions I have reached are mine alone, the conversations I have had suggest that my concerns are widely shared in this congregation and community.

I think most of have been reflecting a lot on the immigration crisis. There are 2 distinct aspects: the over-all immigration issue itself and the forced separation of children from their parents resulting from the “zero tolerance” policy. I am addressing the latter. There are many options to deal with the overall immigration system which do not require that children be taken away from their parents. Last Wednesday, the President signed an executive order stopping those actions but more than one news outlet pointed out that over 2300 children already separated will not necessarily be reunited with their parents. That is, those children already taken away have been placed in even worse limbo. No one can say when, how, or if they can be reunited, especially if their parents have already been deported.

Prior to Wednesday’s new executive order, the administration had offered various justifications for the policy but from my perspective one of the most detestable was Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ invocation of the Letter to the Romans. The Attorney General said: “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government, because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” In offering this spurious application of Paul’s teachings, Attorney General Sessions was violating the first amendment by applying a religious rather than a secular explanation for the policy. I’m not sure there is a reasonable secular justification for the policy but even if laws and policies could be explicitly religiously based, AG Sessions has misapplied Paul’s teachings.

Micah J. Watson, Associate Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, is quoted in a blog saying this:

I have no reason to think that Attorney General Sessions wasn’t sincere in his appeal to Romans 13. The most charitable read of his statement is that he’s defending the overall legitimacy of American immigration law. Such a reading, however, seems strained (to put it mildly) given the deterrence element that has been linked to the entirely discretionary choice to separate children from parents. Moreover, sincerity doesn’t make his understanding or use correct. Lincoln noted in his majestic Second Inaugural that Americans in the North and the South “both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” yet they could not both have been correct in how they understood the lessons of scripture to apply to the issues of their day.

[Professor Watson added a bit later]:The Bible does indeed teach that government authority has its place, not only in Romans 13 but in 1 Peter 2 and 1 Timothy 2. ... But that’s a far cry from the notion that whatever the government does is somehow right, or God’s will, or irresistible.

In the same chapter of Romans the AG alluded to, Paul says: “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Rom 13:9-10)

One sentence stands out in those verses: “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” Yet those 2300 children have already been harmed and the harm is continuing, by our government and in our name. The zero tolerance immigration policy, tearing children from parents and keeping them far apart, shows no love of neighbor. It shows only contempt. The policy is unjust and inhumane, and quite contrary to God’s central commandment: Love – love of God and love of neighbor.

Proper 5 2018, Year B

June 15, 2018

Many people are familiar with this section of Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 speech accepting the Republican nomination for Senator from Illinois (spoiler alert: he lost that election):

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

I first encountered Lincoln’s words as a kid in school, although I don’t recall anyone pointing out that Lincoln was actually referencing Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel passage. In the reading, some of the scribes and pharisees were using a new argument against Jesus: “He drives out demons by the prince of demons” Jesus points out that this is logically incredible. How could he be driving out Satan and yet be on Satan’s side? In our terms, it’d be like North Korea attacking North Korea, that is attacking itself. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

The temple leaders must have felt they were facing a crisis. Jesus was teaching things in opposition to what the religious authorities were saying and the people were paying attention. Jesus didn’t see himself being against the scribes and pharisees as such, but he was concerned that they had unintentionally allowed their social and political interests to skew their religious teachings. As leaders of the faith community, their job was to help the people strengthen and live out their relationship with God. But instead they were burdening their people with impossible demands which only alienated them from God.

Those leaders had serious blind spots. They emphasized the people’s strict observance of surface behaviors yet they made notable exceptions for themselves and people of privilege. The house of God was being divided because all of this was blinding them to the rot beneath the surface.

Jesus tried to restore the balance. He called for the people to return to God, to return to the spirit of love and justice that was the underlining purpose behind the Law and the prophets, rather than to continue their slavish obedience to seemingly arbitrary rules.

In the American Christian world, we have divisions among and between ourselves and our house is as divided in its way as the Temple community was. As I was pondering all of these thoughts, a Facebook friend shared a quote which seems to be related. It is from Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann:

“The crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”

To put it another way, many American Christians have unconsciously substituted their political, social, economic identity for their Christian identity, losing Jesus and his teachings in the process. The church’s house is divided because its foundation in Christ has been lost in the shuffle.