Sunday, August 30, 2009

GO WASH YOUR HANDS - My sermon for Pentecost 13 - August 30, 2009 - my last Sunday at St. Matthew's - St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I can remember any number of instances during my childhood where my mother used those words: GO, WASH YOUR HANDS! You are familiar with a similar scene I am sure: the typical kids outside playing, in my case me and my two brothers; mom calls us to supper at which point we would all just rush into the kitchen and sit at the table waiting to be served. GO, WASH YOUR HANDS! we would hear my mother order and we would rush to the bathroom, wash our hands and return for dinner. Now, there was never a sub-plot to this series of actions – as far as I know. It was about hygiene, I am pretty sure. I don’t think there was an undercurrent of “Go wash your hands, or I won’t love you anymore.” In fact, I am pretty sure that what prompted the order was love – I love you, so, Go wash your hands – so you won’t get sick.

Now, having come up with this clever little introduction I should tell you that this text from the Gospel of St. Mark is really not about hand-washing; it references hand-washing – but is completely not about hygiene. However, it is about love – God’s love for all of us, and the clever ways people come up with in order to categorize and qualify this love of God’s.

1st of all I want to point out that this text is pretty much right in the center of the Gospel. St. Mark has 16 chapters – but chapter 16 only has 8 verses. So this exchange with the Pharisees and the story of the Syrophoenician woman are right in the center of the Gospel, which means that this is pretty important to Mark; how Mark and his community sees the Gospel is revealed here. So, then, let’s look at this passage again. Now, the lectionary kind of slices up the story a bit so I will recount the story but put the excised part back in. This passage immediately follows some of the great feeding stories – such as the feeding of the 5,000, and Jesus habit of dining with just about anyone who invited him, no matter who they were. So here we find Jesus with a group of religiously observant men (called Pharisees) and they ask Jesus why it is that he does not require his disciples to follow the purity laws as set forth in scripture and backed up by tradition.

One might have expected Jesus to turn to his disciples and say, HEY, WHAT’S WITH YOU GUYS? GO WASH YOUR HANDS. But instead he turns on the questioners. “You guys are such hypocrites.” He says, “you are so concerned about the rules and being externally pure that you have neglected to consider that inside you are not pure at all!”
I am sure the Pharisees were stunned by this response. “WOW. What is the big deal. It’s just something simple, right? – hand-washing for heaven’s sake…..” ahhh, But it’s not – Jesus continues, and in order to make the point crystal clear he adds an example: “You know the 4th commandment? Honor your mother and father? ---- ok ----- well, instead of honoring your mother and father you have managed to come up with all kinds of clever ways to get around this commandment. You have come up with loop holes, so you can justify treating your elderly parents in questionable ways and still remain technically in compliance with the commandment. And you are on my case about hand-washing?”

In other words, Jesus rejects – categorically rejects putting rules over people – even scriptural rules! He condemns these pious, religious folks for being so concerned about following the rules that they have put people, other human beings as being secondarily important. If it comes down to following the rule – or hurting other people, rejecting other people – well follow the rule, the Pharisees position is. To this Jesus says a strong and unequivocal NO. God’s priorities are people first and if the rules are causing hurt and misery and exclusion, then you either need to reinterpret or throw out the rules!

This is a radical statement! It is no wonder that Jesus made himself lots of enemies. There are vested interests in keeping society divided and maintaining divisions and fear and mistrust and even hate amongst people. Too often, we like to categorize and find ways of putting others down and lifting ourselves up. We human beings like to think that we are the chosen ones, but those others over there – those other Christians who understand and do things differently – well, they are not really one of us; so they are not really Christians. Jesus bluntly rejects this way of thinking – with his usual lack of subtlety.

But not only that, in order to make this point nice and clear Mark follows up this exchange of words between Jesus and the Pharisee with an incident which puts all of this into action. Now, what follows is the Gospel text for next week. I don’t really want to give things away, but I won’t be here next week to deliver part 2 of this sermon – so – here it is: Mark follows up this exchange with the Pharisees about hand-washing with the story of his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus encounters this Gentile woman who begs him to come and heal her daughter who had an unclean spirit. We would expect Jesus to go immediately, right – wrong – he doesn’t; he first engages in this little conversation with her. He tells her that healing this girl would be akin to throwing the children’s food to the dogs since he he Jewish and she is Gentile. Yes, she responds, but even the dogs may eat some of the scrapes that fall from the table. And he heals the girl!

This is a harsh exchange, but it follows directly the exchange over hand-washing. This woman was outside the community, she was unclean, she was unacceptable, she was considered a non-person by these religious folks. Jesus points this out to her (and to his disciples and followers) and then he reaches out to her and touches her and heals her daughter. Jesus is demonstrating through this action that people are God’s first priority! Human beings are the crown of God’s creation and it is people whom God loves. In another part of the Gospel Jesus says: “the Sabbath was made for people; not people for the Sabbath.” We could rephrase this: “the law was made for people, not people for the law;” or even “the liturgy was made for people, not people for the liturgy.” How many of us find ourselves from time to time siding with the Pharisees in exchanges and putting, or being inclined to put rules and tradition above people. How many of us find ourselves from time to time being willing to sacrifice a few people for the sake of our religious convictions? The word of the Gospel today is for you and me and any of us whenever we are tempted in this manner: God loves people; God reaches out to save people; Jesus was crucified for all humanity.

This is my last Sunday among you. You and this parish of St. Matthew’s have been a part of my life for 11 years. I will miss you all very much. But I will tell you that my returning to parish ministry would not have happened without you, as God gave me a renewed sense of call as a result of working here in your midst. I thank you for that. You will all continue in my thoughts and prayers, and I hope and pray the wait for a new rector will come to a happy conclusion very soon.

In closing let me also say that I pray that you will always remember that it is God who saves us by his grace and love and that this grace and love is big enough for all. For, as St. Paul puts it: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord; and all equally heirs according to His promise.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bishop Hanson and other responses

I have been very moved by the beautiful words of our presiding bishop - Mark Hanson. These words were spoken immediately after the vote was concluded on the final resolution. Here is the link:

For those of you who may appreciate an overview - here is a list of the actions taken by the ELCA assembly last week:

1. The Social Statement on Human Sexuality was adopted by 2/3s of the assembly.
The church affirmed that in the future implementation of any changes and commitment adopted, it will make decisions so that all in this church bear the burdens of the other, and respect the bound consciences of all.
This resolution committed the church to finding ways “to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.
The assembly was asked whether, in principle, this church is committed to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as professional leaders of this church.
The last resolution outlined the specifics of how this church can move toward change in a way that respects the bound consciences of all. In our discussions it is important I believe to understand exactly what the content of the resolutions are. I pray that we can proceed with love.

I would also like to share some comments by others:
1st the pastoral letter from our Bishop - Warren Freiheit:
A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Warren Freiheit, of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
The first question that was asked of me during the election process at the 2000 C/SIS Assembly was "What is your favorite Bible verse and why?" It didn't take me long to respond with Psalm 46:10, "Be still and know that I am God." Those words came to me this last week as we met at Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis , following the passage of the Social Statement of Human Sexuality and its implementing resolutions, together with the passage of the four rostering recommendations. That Bible verse has served as an anchor for me through much of my ministry, knowing that when I am overwhelmed it is time for me to be still, and listen to God as well as to others around me.

Many seem to be overwhelmed with questions and emotions following the Assembly as we recall a familiar phrase from Luther's Small Catechism that asks, "What does this mean?" It is my prayer that as we deal with this question and how it pertains to our lives, individually and corporately, that we do so by listening before we make far-reaching decisions. It is my fervent prayer that we proceed with love and respect for one another even though we may react differently to the decisions made by the Churchwide Assembly.

While in Minneapolis , I have been unable to receive e-mails and because of an ordination on Sunday, August 23, I will be unable to return to the office until Tuesday, August 25. I anticipate a great deal of correspondence once I return to the office, and I welcome your input as to how we may engage in effective dialogue in the coming weeks. Even though the resolutions have passed, there will be no immediate changes until after the Church Council meets and acts on these resolutions in November. It is my hope that we can use this time to address what the resolutions say, as well as to what they do not say. And it is my hope that we can also use this time to recommit ourselves to our mission and grow in our understanding of encouraging and loving our neighbors.

In light of Bishop Hanson's emphasis on prayer for the 50 days preceding the Assembly, I would like to encourage prayer for at least these first 50 days following the Assembly. I would encourage your prayer for the ELCA in all of its expressions, and for God's guidance as we proceed in our effort to Glorify God and serve God's people.

Bishop Warren Freiheit

and from Pastor Kay Richter, Minneapolis, MN

Personally, I think it is important for all of us to remain calm amid any storms that might arise. There will be grieving among those who disagree with the decisions. There will be rejoicing among those who feel that they are finally being welcomed after a long period of exile. And for congregations that include both the grieving and the joyous, we need to remember that we are all in this together. This is not "the church" turning against some among us, because we ARE the church. We need to carry one another's burdens and to be gracious and loving to one another in the midst of deep, deep emotional responses.

Because ultimately, we all find ourselves kneeling at the foot of the cross, confessing our own brokenness and begging for love and forgiveness from the one who died to set us free from sin and death. THAT has not changed. The ground at the foot of the cross is and always will be level ground. We are all broken. We are all saved by the one who was willing to be broken in our stead.

One emphasis of the Assembly was that although we disagree about these decisions, we AGREE about many more things! We saw report after report, statistics upon statistics, and videos and speeches that reminded us of the MARVELOUS things that are happening through the ELCA and our partners in ministry. We heard about a typhoon that hit Taiwan (I think) earlier in the week and within 24 hours received a report from Lutheran Disaster Response that help was ALREADY on the ground in that area. Even as a tornado touched down on the building where we were meeting, and damaged the church building where we would have other events during the week, the offerings brought in over $60,000 for the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, and that doesn't count the funds raised by the concert on Friday night. We were reminded of the powerful work being done through the HIV/AIDS initiative. We heard stories of flourishing ministries within ELCA congregations and new mission starts where the Gospel is being preached to those who had never heard it before.

Again and again and again, at the CWA (ELCA Church-Wide Assembly or CWA for those of you who might not be from the ELCA), it was emphasized that those who were debating were ALL being faithful to Scripture and listening for the voice of God calling them to certain actions. We prayed frequently during the debate -- about every 20 minutes. (There are pictures on the ELCA web site of the times of prayer ... some of the Friday pictures even include our ECSW voting members!) We worshiped daily and waited for the Holy Spirit to act among us. It is disconcerting when we disagree on important matters. And yet, we are a family -- brothers and sisters -- children of the same heavenly Father, and we need to find ways to disagree without condemning or despising one another. Jesus prayed that we might be one, as he and the Father are one.

The Holy Spirit can give us unity within diversity. "Unity does not require uniformity." And, considering how many different languages were spoken during worships and plenary sessions -- all from ELCA ministries -- it was easy to see that there is a great deal of diversity within our church body.

I think a very important thing to keep in mind is that for most congregations, in the most practical ways, very little will change. The call process still happens the same way -- no congregation will have a gay or lesbian pastor forced upon them. Congregations have their own choice about welcoming the blessing of a same-gender, committed relationship -- they will not have it forced upon them from "above" or "outside".

The CWA decisions give the congregations who WANT to call a pastor who is open about a gay or lesbian partnership permission to do so without discipline and congregations who CHOOSE to have ceremonies for blessing a same-gender relationship can now do so openly without disciplinary action against them.

And amid the interesting statistics, many synods had sent Memorials to CWA asking for a 2/3 super-majority to pass the Recommendations on Ministry, as was required for the Social Statement to be adopted. Three of the four recommendations passed with a 2/3 or greater majority vote. (The recommendation on ordination was just over 60% of the vote ... which is higher than the 57% received when the ordination of women was approved in the 1960's.) The Social Statement received *EXACTLY* 2/3 of the vote when it was passed.

As the Rev. Dr. Diane Jacobson said about the Book of Faith Jubilee, "We prayed and invited the Holy Spirit to be among us, and wouldn't you know it! The whole Trinity showed up!" I believe the same is true about CWA. When we gather in God's name, God has promised to be present. I believe God came and dwelt among us and within us during the Assembly.

I will post more responses as I find them. I am also writing a pastoral letter to my new congregation which i will post soon. I invite your feedback.