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We're sorry, the full text for this sermon is not available at this time.
“Why me?” Have you ever asked God that question? Have there ever been moments when life seems so bad, you through up your hands and ask “Why me Lord?”
An honest and heartfelt question. The problems we are facing, seem insurmountable.
We want to know - Why my child? My finances? Why my relationship?
Maybe you cannot comprehend your ongoing struggle with your health, your depression, your pain or just simple loneliness. Why me? Maybe you want to be accepted - Why don’t I fit in? Why this disability?
But neither answers nor assurance come easily in the darkness, The only certainty is that sense of being alone. The world goes on it’s merry way, and your are stuck dealing with the pain. Let’s face it; it is hard to open up to others about your problems. How easy is it to admit you are hurting and that you need help?
How easy is it to expose your problems to the world? To tell family and friends that your life is not perfect. So we tend to cover them up, like bandages on a Leper, yet underneath, the wounds are still raw.
There have been times in my life where I felt as if I were trapped in a glass room. My life, my faults exposed to the entire world, everyone could look in and see me and my problems. I felt as if they were pointing at me, and I could not hide. My cries were in vain, no one seemed to listen or understand. I could not get out. Not a good feeling, but loneliness never is.
Your begin badgering God - Hello God are you listening? I am over here? Or the ever popular “What did I do to deserve this?” Sound familiar? But are we too blame? We live in a society that correlates happiness and perfection. Perfection can be attained if - you do this, buy that. Perfection is that moving, temporal, yet unattainable ideal.
And we have little patience in our quest for perfection. Even the little things become important. How many of us have been through a drive-thru and if our order is not right, we do one of those mini-frenzy, clenched fist, under your breath outbursts. All for a “happy meal.” Imperfections are bad, Perfection is good.
I was flipping through the television and came upon a show that basically shamed people into perfecting their body. People yelling and badgering the contestants into submission and the contestants tearfully explaining why they were not perfect.
I wondered, how could we treat each other in this way? who are we to determine perfection?
How do you explain perfection to someone who suffered a physical disability because of a horrific accident, or to a young child in a burn unit. Perfection – When was the last time an amputee graced the cover of Vogue?
What is worse, many cannot deal with imperfections so we ostracize, label or even pity. We relegate people to the shadows and our greatest fear is that we too will be relegated to forgotten bin. We do not like to be broken. So we ask, why me?
Now for one moment, take all those emotions, all those instances when you asked why, all the pain, loneliness, anger, and imagine yourself sitting on some dusty street corner in Galilee. You are truly isolated; no one will come near you, you are pelted with rocks, spit upon, you are a leaper. Told you are punished by God, you cannot come near society, friends, nor family. You are a long way from perfection.
In the distance you hear something, through the crowd, through the smelly bandages covering your face, you catch a glimpse of - him. He turns and looks at you and somehow your eyes meet. He looks at you, as no one ever has. In that instant, you matter. In those eyes you feel truth, honesty and love. He emits holiness and acceptance.
What do you do? Do you divert your eyes, turn away? Do you wallow in pity and sit there. What would you say? Do you yell – “Jesus, Are you listening, I’m over here, what did I do to deserve this” Do you ask him for something? Maybe a do over in life or for him to make everything in your life perfect?
But what if you took a chance, realizing that if you did, that through him and because of him, your life will be truly different, but only if you reach out. What if you sense that because of him, you will never be alone, you will not be forgotten, that he will somehow help you off that dusty corner? What would you do?
While preparing this sermon, I found an article that gave me a glimpse of God’s perfection. It is about a mother and her child - Penny. The author describes the birth, it is a normal delivery. She and her husband have a bottle of champagne in the hospital room to celebrate.
However, two hours later, a nurse calls her husband out of the room. When he returns, he takes his wife’s hand and says, “They think Penny has Down syndrome.” As the words sink into the mother’s subconscious, shouts are heard from the next room. Another child had been born. “She’s perfect!” someone exclaimed about the other baby.
They author and her husband have difficulty in celebrating Penny’s birth. The bottle of champagne is left uncorked; the parents are hesitant to call friends and family. They don’t shout, “She’s perfect.” Inherently the author knows what Penny’s imperfection means in a society that idolizes perfection. “Disabled,” as if Penny were a defective piece of machinery that had been turned off; “retarded,” with all its connotations of stupid and subhuman; “abnormal,” like the unnatural.
She asks - Why me? Was her daughter defective, a mistake? The same honest sincere questions we ask in those hours of darkness: why my marriage? My health? Why me?
The author gently takes us on a beautiful journey with her daughter Penny. Where initially she could only see the imperfection, she discovers the blessing of Penny’s life.
She realizes that she was trying to recreate her daughter according to a cultural standard of normalcy rather than according to a biblical understanding of a full human life. Penny, like each one of us - is no more or less human, no more or less imperfect, no more or less blessed, no more or less in need of redemption.
Penny, like each one of you, is a gift, a precious human being. Each one of us, a child of God created with a purpose. And that realization is one of the most difficult tasks in life. We often forget our special place as beloved children of God, especially when things are bad.
We feel singled out when we hear the diagnosis in the doctors office, when our child is in trouble, or when we cannot make that payment, when we cannot deal with life. We find it difficult to live with the conviction of our purpose. But In Penny’s story, and in today’s Gospel, we learn to look beyond the “why me?” and find the world’s idea of perfection is not necessarily God’s idea of perfection.
How do we know? Jesus. Through him we see the love of God and by him we know that God will always holds us near. You are never alone. Through Jesus, the one thing we are chosen for is the indescribable love God has for each one of us.
In Penny, in the Leper, in the brokenness of each one of our lives, we glimpse the purpose of our creation, and learn to listen for that soft healing voice that says: “I do choose, I am with you.” We are reawakened to the fact that despite our problems and imperfections, we are not alone, unwanted or useless. God is always near. Everyone who reaches out to Christ, is transformed, externally and internally. We are never the same.
I find it amazing that the truth and love of God is seen is a young baby with Down syndrome, a forgotten leper and in each of our life stories. Penny’s mother did not conceive of brokenness either hers or Penny’s as potentially good – gifts from God that enabled both of them to admit their humanity, the need for one another, the need for God’s grace.
However in the silence, in those early, dark hours of Penny’s life, it was her baby’s presence—her smiling face and tiny hands and warm body that brought the mother to the realization that Penny’s was God’s beautiful creation and design. That soft voice of Jesus gently saying – I chose Penny, I choose you, it’s ok.
When Jesus says “I do choose” to the Leper he assures that neither Penny, her mother or any one of us will ever be relegated to the fringes of society in his father’s kingdom.
When Jesus says “I do choose,” to that Leper on the street, he takes away all the isolation, pain and rejection for each us who are not perfect. We are only one outstretched hand away; this is why Jesus came into the world.
The article about Penny concludes with the author describing that she and Penny have started reading a book about Jesus. They read the story of Jesus blessing the little children. Penny is fascinated. At the end, the mom tells Penny that Jesus loves her just like he loves the little children in the story. The mom asks Penny if she knows that she too can talk to Jesus.
Without hesitation, Penny nods her head, folds her hands, and says, “Pray.” Go back to that street in Galilee, it is the morning. Move those dirty rags away from your face. He is looking at you, what are you going to do? Remember, you matter more than you believe.
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday February 8, 2009 Epiphany 5B
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: Mark 1: 29-39
Today we are offered three brief vignettes that make up “a day in the life of Jesus,” and give us a vision of Mark means by the Kingdom of God. After amazing people with his teaching in the synagogue, Jesus moves away from public sphere into a private home, where he heals Simon’s mother-in-law who was with fever. Not much is made of the healing itself but a curious detail is included in this story. The unnamed woman whom Jesus heals, immediately begins to serve the household. One wonders about this sexist detail. “Oh, good Jesus has healed the woman of the house so now she can get busy making dinner.” To be sure there is ample room for feminist critique within in this story. How is a deep understanding of partnership of shared responsibility demonstrated in our social arrangements? But the early church missed this somehow and saw within this story a different message. One’s healing encounter with Jesus was not an end in itself but rather a gateway into active service in the kingdom. All who enter the healing and life-giving waters of baptism, all those who encounter the risen one in their lives are called into active service, loving response. Simon’s mother-in-law is presented as a first servant of the church and in fact the word used for what she does is the same word from which we get our word deacon. The healing ministry and touch of Jesus enables the servant ministry of all those who know and love him.
There doesn’t seem to be much time for dinner or a rest in Mark’s breathless gospel. Jesus’ retreat into the privacy of a friend’s home, turns into a kind of revival meeting at the front door. The spare narrative of Mark does not do justice to the scene. Gathered around the door are the lame and the blind, the leprous and the lonely, the crazy and the wounded, old and young, the manic and the chronically sad, all camped out in search of Jesus’ healing touch. Immediately our modern minds start interrogating the scriptures, “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” We are skeptical of all this miraculous healing talk. We would call a doctor, a psychiatrist, a counselor, a surgeon if asked to help a crowd of sick and troubled people. We would approach it with all the knowledge and skill of our technological therapeutic age, and we would not be wrong for doing so. At the same time we are asked to consider what the gospel writer is proclaiming about the person of Jesus? What is the good news that Mark is trying to communicate? The classic way of describing this passage is to say that Jesus has authority over disease and over possession. Which is to say that in his person, through his relationship to creation, and from within his intimacy with God, Jesus was able to draw people into life, into wholeness, into healing. It does not mean that he cured everyone. In fact the gospel writer makes it clear that he cured many but not all. It is our modern mind, that is so addicted to cure, to finding a technology, an approach that will fix things. In my imagination, I have the wild image of Jesus, just bothering to spend time with each of these wounded and hurting people and their families and loved ones that had brought them. Just getting to know them, understanding some of their struggles, encouraging them, giving them ideas about how to care for one another, how to cope, how to understand themselves as a community of patient suffering with which is the real definition of compassion. For a moment just imagine this handsome, earthy, intelligent, beautiful human being, Jesus, making his way through the crowd: his intense eyes filled with compassion, his hands tenderly touching those that many were afraid to touch, his face alive with laughter and delight at the wonder of life and its resilience, his heart patient and kind, his own strong spirit moving out to restore the wounded spirits of others. This is the vision we are meant to get from this passage: that to be in the presence of Jesus, was to be in the care of a master physician in so many ways. The real presence of Christ is a healing way that cannot be reasoned away. This healing presence is not made obsolete by our technological prowess no matter how much we both need and trust it. To be in the real presence of Christ is to open oneself up to healing, to repair and this places the Eucharist we will share in a few minutes into deep perspective.
The healing-fest at the front door of Simon’s mother-in-law is an image of the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not a private matter. It is meant to be shared to be taken outside the doors of the house, to the world. There is a deep hospitality to the kingdom, all are welcome to approach Jesus. All may seek healing in his presence. Is your soul in need of God? Are you in need of healing? Are there addictions in your life that seem to possess you? Do you need your sense of hope restored? Then Jesus’ kingdom is just right for you. As Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners (Mark 2:17).”
Our last image of Jesus in this day in the life of a messiah is spiritually athletic. He doesn’t sleep-in after an exhausting day. He rises early, a quiet-time superstar, to find the time and space to pray. I must confess that I’ve always found this part of the story fascinating. Once his new disciples had hunted him up, they told him, “Jesus everyone is looking for you, that healing service last night was great, and more folks are asking to see you and listen to your teaching. “
In response, Jesus delivers one of those stunning lines that is hard to get over. Jesus says, “We’re popular, great. Let’s skedaddle, I have more to do in the next town.” Though the text doesn’t report it, I have a hunch that the disciples had a stunned sort of look on their disbelieving faces. What? We’re liked here, the mission is going well and you want to leave?
One of the best ways of understanding this peculiar response of Jesus is realize that Jesus is operating from a different center than his disciples, the crowds and us. We juggle business commitments and family responsibilities. When we are responding to a family need with compassion and care we feel guilty about neglecting our work. It is so easy to let work take over while your family suffers your absence. And whenever we seem to have the balance right there are voices of other opportunities to serve, larger needs crying for our attention. Many of us know the feeling of trying to meet so many demands upon our time. We know what it means to feel scattered, shallow, strained, oppressed by the many good things we are being asked to do. We know how to project an outward image of confidence and control when inwardly we are exhausted and scattered, and unhappy. What we most want and desire is a way of life that is deeper than all this scattered and hurried existence. What we want is to live out of a sense of clear purpose that will give us a sense of peace and power. The fact is that this can only come if we are willing to connect to the divine center.
In the Jewish understanding the day began at sundown which has some very interesting implications for our spiritual life. The first thing one does in the day is go to sleep. The day has begun and you are unconscious. Waking up in the morning is to join the day in progress. God has already been at work while you were sleeping. The day is well underway and our spiritual task is to join the day in progress. God has already been making this day and our invitation is to join God, to become co-creators with God in what is already happening. This is what it means to live in the center, to make God’s activity the divine center of our day, to understand ourselves as partners in what God is already at work doing.
This is what Jesus was up to, rising early to pray, to listen to God, to find the divine center from which to act, to decide, to love. Jesus is not compelled to respond to every call to service, every opportunity to heal. He is connected to God. He has found the deep Center from which to live where the constant calls to action are integrated, where No as well as Yes can be said with confidence, without guilt or remorse. For Jesus it was finding the divine center that allowed him to discern what was really important and what was merely urgent. As the popular saying goes, “Important things are seldom urgent, and urgent things are seldom important.” For Jesus, going out to a deserted place, was essential, if he was to live out of a sense of call, a deep center of understanding who he was and what his mission was to be. Out of this place of stillness, out of this place of quiet, Jesus can shock the disciples with his clarity. “Let’s move on for that is my mission. I cannot allow myself to be distracted by the pressing demands of this one place when I am meant to expand the kingdom.”
Just as Jesus did we too are invited into a life that embraces the divine center. We all need and desire the simplicity of moving from the periphery of the divine into the center. Moving toward the center is a process that requires careful attention, patience, and the courage to say both yes and no with confidence. It is rooted in the understanding that God desires to be at the center of our experience not on the periphery. There is no sure-fire technique for making God the center of your life but there ways of beginning to move in that direction. First, try to understand where God is in your life. If God is on the periphery acknowledge it. Become aware of the kind of movement you need to make to come to God. Give yourself permission to move toward the center, to risk this kind of intimacy. Make time for God gazing, of just being in God’s presence. Take the advice of the spiritual masters and try to bring God into every activity of your day, begin to understand God as a constant companion and confidant not only for yourself but for others as well. Experiment. Try to lift everyone you meet into the light of Christ as you move through your day. Pray for you family as you find breakfast, for the mother in the carpool line, for your co-workers as you enter the office, for the children on the playground. Allow the light of Christ to infuse your day. The truth is that God desires to be not on the outskirts, but at the heart of your life. And all of your life can be drawn into that center, your parenting, your gardening, your work-life, your workouts, your drive-time all can be opportunities for communion with God if we will open ourselves to this loving and guiding presence.
This gospel challenges us to take up a consciously chosen path that will draw us more deeply into ongoing communion with God. It invites us to escape the tyranny of the urgent by embracing what is truly important, the divine center. And from that divine center flows a life of service in the kingdom of God that is not death-dealing but rather life-giving for you and others. May each of us find this good news of the gospel at work in our lives more and more.
February 1, 2009
A new teaching: love
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The people were astounded by Jesus. For he taught and acted as one with authority – not as one with institutional authority, like the scribes – but real authority. He had something to say that was simple and true, and so they listened to him. He demonstrated what he taught by how he lived, and so they followed him. Jesus had no need to demand respect; instead, he attracted it. That’s real authority.
After Jesus spoke in the synagogue on the sabbath, the people of Capernaum asked “What is this? A new teaching!” I wonder what, for them, really was new about what Jesus taught. One way of approaching this is to start with what the “old teachings” of their day were.
If the people in Jesus’ day wanted to know how to best live a good life, they had two main pathways that their culture offered to them. One was the Jewish way of the law. The other was the Greek way of knowledge.
The way of the law is what Jews had been steeped in for centuries. We heard about it in the Hebrew scripture appointed for today, from Deuteronomy. Moses summoned all the people and told them that they would be accountable for whether they listened to and obeyed the word of the Lord as spoken by the prophet. The consequences were life and death, reward and punishment.
The path of law, obedience, punishment, and reward is very much alive today. Parts of every religion, secular nations, even families hold out this promise and threat: obey and you will receive our blessing; disobey and you will be condemned. The way of the law instills fear; it makes us watch over our shoulder constantly. We look anxiously for our parent’s approval, for God’s displeasure, for our boss’ favor, to answer the question “Am I measuring up to the expectations of authority?” Usually the answer is “No,” and so we continue to vainly strive after the mirage that is always out on the horizon. We’re never good enough; as St. Paul said, the law brings death.
The way of knowledge is what the Greeks brought to the world of Jesus and everywhere else they conquered. It was so influential that it dominated a whole section of late Hebrew scriptures called the Wisdom writings: some of the Psalms, the Proverbs, and other books. In this tradition, the answer to the question “How shall a righteous one live well?” is “by rational wisdom, by reason.”
This path is also very much alive today. Some believe that if we could just do enough research, we could fix this old world and all the people in it. If people would just be rational, they would behave. If I could figure out the source of my problems, I’d be happy. There are some very popular forms of spirituality - modern-day Gnostics – that believe that peace of mind and harmony in the world will come if we raise our consciousness, transcend delusion, and think the right thoughts. But as St. Paul said to the Greeks around him in our second reading today, “knowledge puffs up.” Knowledge alone can be a puffed-up bubble – a neat little world in our minds where everything makes sense, but having little effect on life itself. I’ve known some supposedly enlightened spiritual teachers with pretty serious personal problems.
So this was the context of Jesus’ world. These were the available pathways into a good life. Everyone in Jesus’ world was very familiar with these old teachings. Jesus came along with a new teaching that astounded his audience and attracted enormous respect. People left their livelihoods, their life-long habits of mind and style of life, and they followed him. They were even willing to die for what they learned. What it that so affected them?
It was love. The path to a good life was not to be found in measuring up to the demands of an external authority. It was not to be found in gaining right understanding. The path to a good life is found in loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving ourselves. We are saved when we are able to receive and to give love: saved from unhappiness, from fear, from isolation, from all our hurts and all our shortcomings. We are set free when we receive and we give love. This was the radical new message that astounded the people. This is what Jesus taught and this is how he lived.
In our gospel today - on that day in the synagogue in Capernaum, when he was teaching - Jesus was approached by a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit. Today we would call him mentally ill. He suffered terribly, as all who are mentally ill do. What did Jesus do?
He didn’t blame the man for his problems, telling him that he would be healed if he would end his wicked ways and start behaving himself. Neither did Jesus say that his disease was the result of delusion, and attempt to enlighten him on the true nature of his existence.
Jesus reached out to him, touched him, and loved him, this broken and confused man. Jesus had no intellectual insight to offer, no demands to make. All he had was kindness, mercy, and the desire to free. He reached into this poor man’s heart and silenced all that was not love, and cast it out.
In the church, we talk a lot about loving God, and about God’s love for us, but this is not always so easy to live into. What is it to love God? If it is not to fearfully be on our best behavior, if it is not to seek an enlightened mind, what is it?
Well, like any love, it is a relationship. When we love God, we pour out our hearts, we express our needs, we watch for God’s coming. We place our trust in God, we offer our day, our intentions, our life and we say sincerely “Your will be done, your kingdom come, right here on earth.” We sing and we pray with open-hearted devotion, calling upon God as we would call for a lover. We may rarely feel an obvious sense of God’s presence in response, but that doesn’t matter. In loving God, it is the outpouring that matters.
We also say that God loves us. This is not some kind of thought that we convince ourselves of. It is instead a sense of well-being, of being at home in our own skin. It may be the same thing as loving ourselves.
Love of self is not a selfish thing – “Aren’t I wonderful?” – but an appreciation for who we are, just as we appreciate a young child for who they are. We see our uniqueness, our distinct imperfections, our looks and our personality, our gifts and our limitations, and we feel at home, not wishing we were somehow an essentially different kind of person.
We take care of ourselves because this gift of life is precious and fleeting, and it is a wonder to live it. We also feel safe enough to not have to be defended all the time, and we have the capacity to take a hard look at ourselves and change. This, I believe, is accepting God’s love for us, and it saves us. It sets us free to be who we are, to live as God intended us to live.
Jesus also said that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This means that we see the other in this same light, appreciating them for who they are: not wishing they were an essentially different kind of person, but looking for their inherent, God-given goodness, their uniqueness, their gifts and even their limitations. Appreciating the other is like seeing a really good actor in a movie or play. We may not like them, we may not approve of things they do, but we appreciate the unique beauty of who they are.
This is saving too. For when we love others for who they are, they can settle into their own skin and be at home. Around us, they may feel safe enough to see their faults and then change.
There will always be a need for the law. We will always need ethical and legal standards, expectations of right conduct, and consequences for misbehavior. Understanding, too, is a good thing. Wisdom and science help us live better lives. But neither the law nor understanding will save us. Love alone does that.
After all, Jesus told us that this is the summary of all the teachings of their religious tradition. It is the one teaching, the ancient and eternally new teaching that always astonishes us with its simplicity, truth, and power: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.