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August 29, 2019

Part of this Sunday's Gospel passage seems like a lesson in manners -- it starts out with Jesus noticing how guests chose places of honor for themselves at a dinner party.  It's helpful to remember that in first century Israel, and in the Hellenistic world, dinner parties were huge social occasions: lots of conversation, sharing of news, debates about the important matters of the day. And apparently at this dinner there were seats in the nosebleed section, and then good seats where all the rich and important people sat. At one level Jesus seems to be making a very simple and practical point: if you go sit next to the head table, someone might come along and say, "excuse me, that seat is reserved," and then you have to walk all the way back to that table by the kitchen door. Instead, Jesus says, when you first get to a banquet, come in, take a table over there by the port-a-potties. Then maybe when the host comes, they'll say, "Hey!" what are you doing here? Come on, I've got a place for you up front!" -- and you get the pleasure of being upgraded instead of the humiliation of being downgraded. But of course the passage is more than a lesson in how to avoid embarrassment or achieve recognition in polite society! The rest of the passage pulls it all together and is a lesson about what a faith community whose founder and leader is Jesus should have as its personality and passion. Jesus says "when you give a luncheon or dinner do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, "the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. You will be -and you will experience-a blessing. They won't be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned at the resurrection of God's people." (MSG) Here we have Jesus lifting our eyes to what a faith community - can and should be - what a church that is dedicated to being followers of Jesus can and should look like. Here and throughout scripture, Jesus is painting us a picture: a picture of the heavenly banquet, God's Kingdom come, God's will being done. It is a place where the normal things that we use to define ourselves - nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, politics - just don't make that much difference. That's part of the value of our outreach programs: yes, the people we serve have their lives improved, but just as important -- maybe even more important -- is that those who serve have their lives transformed - the experience of serving the poor changes us. It's also part of reason we try to practice radical welcome and hospitality: we refuse to fall into the trap of dividing up the community.  We "come up higher" -- we upgrade our lives -- when our eyes are lifted to God's desires, and we transform our behaviors accordingly.  See you Sunday, John

August 23, 2019

In this Sunday's Gospel passage, Jesus chooses to prioritize  an "act of mercy" (helping someone in need) above "following the rules" (adhering, to an idolatrous level, to religious regulations regarding what may and may not be done on the Sabbath).

As I'll be unpacking in my sermon on Sunday, Jesus' decision reminds me of the two different stories offered by two different rabbis at the beginning of a Seder dinner.

The first rabbi argues that what was central to the Exodus story was literal (socio-economic) slavery, and the literal liberation of Jews from slavery in Egypt. And therefore, he argues, the way the Passover should begin is with the words, "our ancestors were SLAVES under Pharaoh."  

The people were slaves, literally: unpaid, slave labor: in freedom of association, under cruel and demanding slave-drivers, taskmasters.

What is important, therefore, is the message that 'with a strong hand God delivered them out of that slavery into freedom." That they, as slaves, literally escaped their oppressors, crossed the Red Sea, and when their oppressors chased them, God caused the sea to close in on them and they were drowned -- and it was at that point they were free, free at last. And so they should begin by remembering their ancestors were slaves under Pharaoh.

The other Rabbi disagreed.

He argued that the central and most important point of the Exodus story is not liberation from economic or literal slavery, but liberation from slavery to anyone or anything other than God. And so the Passover Seder should begin, "our ancestors were IDOLATORS."

He argued, essentially, that you can take the slave out of Egypt, but that doesn't guarantee you'll take "Egypt" out of the slave..."Egypt" being the deeply ingrained human habit of turning to someone or something other than God for our source of freedom, meaning, and joy.

What's important, therefore, is to remember the stories of the Jewish people in the desert, after they've crossed the Red Sea. They were, in a literal sense free. But you find an unhappy, discontented, rebellious people: "If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost-also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now [all we have] is this  manna!"

The point of that second account is that the people Israel were not free just because they escaped literal slavery. They were not free until they received the law and are only free when they remember that idolatry in any form leads to slavery.

As we'll explore more on Sunday, then, idolatry is putting anyone -- any political figure, any religious leader, one's self, any friend or family member (even a spouse or child) -- at the center of our heart and life, and in so doing displace God. And idolatry is putting anything -- even good and God-given things like food, work, safety/security, a good cause, acquiring wealth or comfort, or religious practices (even Sabbath rest) -- at the center of our heart and life, and in so doing displace God.

Oh, how we -- so prone to idolatry -- all need to be reminded of that.

See you Sunday,


August 15, 2019

Because the famous quote from the Statute of Liberty is in the news, and because sometimes silence on such challenges to America's (and Christianity's) values is complicity in doing harm, for this week's e-news message, I'm reposting a portion of a sermon I preached in September of 2015.

Most people are familiar with a couple lines of the poem that is written on a tablet within the pedestal on the Statute of Liberty in New York: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

The poem is called "The New Colossus" by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus. 

Here's the whole poem:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

with conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch,

whose flame is the imprisoned lightening,

and her name

Mother of Exiles.

From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she with silent lips.

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

What is the sentiment of the Statute of Liberty?

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp."

Keep, well-established nations of the world, your well-respected, well-established people.

Keep 'em. We don't want 'em!

We don't want well-rested, creative, well-educated immigrants.

No - the statute of liberty -- the statute of freedom, the statute of independence -- cries out,

"Give me your tired, your exhausted.

Give me your poor...give me those who've never heard, and don't care, about the stock market because the only fluctuation they care about is the fluctuation of their empty stomachs.

Keep, ancient land, all your nicely-dressed people who might come over in Business Class.

  Give me those huddled masses in the back of the U-Haul.

     Give me the wretched refuse that is packed onto rafts.

Send them to me: the homeless, the tempest-tossed, the frightened. Here.

Send them here, to America.

That sentiment - that philosophy - of preferring the poor, the lost, the least, has deep roots not only in the human heart, but in the public policy of this country. And that sentiment (in our hearts and in our public policy) finds its roots in the Bible. 

Take, for example, the lessons assigned [for today] --

"If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes come into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, 'have a seat here, please,' while to the poor you say, 'stand there,' or 'sit at my feet,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?"

In [today's] Gospel, someone approaches Jesus and begs him to heal her child. In Jesus' day and age, this person has everything going against her:

  • She's a woman in 1st Century Middle East culture that treated women as little more than property;

  • She's a Gentile - of Syrophoenician (Syrian) origin -- in a world where Jews and Gentiles had strong ethnic and religious reasons to distrust and dislike each other, and they distanced themselves as much as possible from each other.

  • She has a demon-possessed daughter.

  • According to the rules of society at the time in that place, it was shocking and even rude for the two of them to be engaged in conversation.

When she comes to Jesus and asks that her daughter be healed, Jesus tells her that he has come primarily to serve the people of Israel.

His own people come first. His own nation comes first. And (therefore) he tells her, it isn't right to give what is rightfully theirs to others.

Except he says this in a way that is shocking and even insulting: he says "let the children be fed first; it's not right, it's not fair, to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

When she turns this insult around and says, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs," Jesus says to her, "ah...woman...!..."for saying that, you may go"-and pronounces her daughter healed.

In case we didn't get the point in the first part of this passage, the next thing that happens is that a deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to Jesus.

Remember that being deaf in that day and time carried with it all kinds of beliefs that we would now call superstitions or prejudices; the blind and deaf or deformed back then were also at the bottom of the social scale, with little to no status.

So Jesus takes him aside, puts his fingers in his ears, spits and touches his tongue, looks up to heaven and says "Ephphatha" which means, "Be Opened."

Be opened.

When Jesus restores a blind or deaf or maimed person to physical health, he's also opening a door that has been closed: the door to society, the door to hope.

In Deuteronomy [15:7-11], we are reminded that the poor will never cease out of the land--there will always be poor people, always be refugees, always be needy--THEREFORE I command you, God says, you shall open wide your hand to the needy, you shall open wide your hand to the poor.

Politicians and political races cease to be silly, cease to be entertaining, when they slide into demagoguery, which is both anti-American and anti-Judeo-Christian.

Throughout American history, this country has been offered different choices about the posture we will take to refugees, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Throughout Christian history, churches have been offered different choices about the posture we will take to the poor -- which is always a choice between mercy and judgment.

The best posture of this country is the posture that is rooted in the best of our faith:

Ephphatha: be opened. Be open. --The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector, The Falls Church Episcopal 

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