Sunday, October 21, 2012

Good news from Jesus the Radical: "Be healed!"

Sermon for Sunday, October 21, 2012

In the Gospel narrative today, Jesus has just returned from the desert where he was tempted by Satan, and this is his coming-out-party of sorts: he goes to the synagogue and reads a passage from Isaiah that is, for the Lukan Jesus, the absolute definition of his ministry: 

'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 

This is good news—it says it right there in the text. But in the context of bringing this good news something interesting happens to the people who hear it. At first hearing, they love it. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth,” says the very next verse of the Gospel. The people heard the good news and they loved it! They loved Jesus! Amazing! Remarkable! 

Seven verses later, those very same people are trying to throw him off a cliff. Because the news that they thought was good news turned out to be hard news. It’s not bad news for anyone… but it is harder news for some than it is for others. 

Warning. The Gospel is a radical document. Jesus is a radical—probably dangerous to say that on the Upper East Side, but it’s true. And nowhere is this so evident as in today’s gospel. We, as a congregation, might have a response similar to the congregation in Nazareth… at first things are great, then when the news sinks in, we want to throw the preacher off a cliff. Listen to what Jesus is really proclaiming via Isaiah.

Jesus says he has been anointed in order to bring good news to the poor. Well, what is good news to the poor? Good news to the poor is to not be poor any more. Good news for the poor is to have work, and money, and food and a roof over your head. And in Luke’s gospel, perhaps more so than any of the other gospels, Luke preaches the reality that if you’re going to bring some of the people on the bottom up, that means that some of the people on the top are going to come down. Listen to these verses from the Magnificat, the song Mary sings, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Luke’s Jesus preaches a great economic flattening of society—far more so than any politician in America will ever say out loud. In Luke’s Beatitudes, it’s not “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” it is “Blessed are the poor.” And “Blessed are the poor” is followed up just a few verses later with “Woe to you who are rich.” The Gospel good news to the poor is going to be hard news to the rich. But it’s still good. Hard choices can lead to health and healing—just ask a physician. 

Ready to throw me off a cliff yet? 

Next Jesus says he has come to proclaim release to the captives. Now, if you think about the release of someone like Aung San Suu Kyi, we’d probably all say that was great news, and not very hard—at least for us. But throughout Luke and Acts, which Luke also wrote, you have stories of prisoners being released through their faith in God. Luke is the Gospel where the criminal who is crucified next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” and is assured of his place in paradise by Jesus as he dies. So what about people who are less nobly imprisoned? What about everyone in Riker’s? What about the 50 to 60 to even 70% of prisoners who are re-arrested because they have neither the skills nor the opportunities to find legal work when they’re set free? To be released from the cycles of poverty and lack of opportunity that put so many in captivity would require money and work and time on all of our parts. Is that good news? Yes! A thousand times, yes. But it’s hard news, too. It’s easier to keep people in prison and out of sight than it is to acknowledge our complicity in the system that has held them captive, and change that system. Proclaiming release to the captives today would mean starting before they’re captive—improving education and family lives and giving role models; it would mean rectifying a system where the accused are given poor legal counsel because they can’t afford anything better; it would mean reforming laws that punish minor offenses disproprotionately while letting white collar criminals walk free.  

Is that cliff getting closer?

Recovery of sight to the blind… hard to hear bad news in that in the literal sense. But what about metaphorically? To what are we deliberately blind? IF we could see everything, if we could see that system that keeps people captive, that keeps people poor, might we be so overwhelmed we couldn’t go on? Or might we be significantly changed? Might it be that the hard news that comes with vision brings us closer to the Kingdom? I believe so.

How can you argue with “let the oppressed go free”? Well, because to let the oppressed go free, someone has to stop being the oppressor… the oppressed don’t just magically “go free” without anything or anyone changing around them, and the hones recognition of oneself as an oppressor is a dangerous and unflattering piece of self-knowledge. Jesus constantly goes to people in the Gospels and calls them on their oppression—even people who would consider themselves to be the oppressed. Jews in the 1st Century were in a Roman-occupied state. But instead of encouraging them to throw off their own oppressors, Jesus goes to the Jewish leaders and the wealthy and the tax collectors and points out the poor, the lepers, the old, the lame, and say, “Gee, I know you feel like you’re the oppressed, but what are you doing about them?” There is not a person in this room that has not benefited from the oppression of someone else in this world, including the person in this pulpit right now. So how on earth do we stop oppressing people? First, we acknowledge that we do. We acknowledge that we might not want to, but that we do benefit from systems that keep us up and other people down. And then we pray. And we work to cross those lines, break those systems, and give up privileges that we have been given for no other reason than that we’re the right ethnicity or gender or sexuality or nationality or have the right diploma on our wall—even if it means that we feel like we’re jumping off a cliff… because we know that God will provide the parachute. That people who give grace receive grace. 

And finally we get to the year of the Lord’s favor. According to Leviticus, every seventh year was a Sabbath year, when the land would lie fallow, but every fiftieth year—so once in a lifetime, maybe—came the Jubilee year. And during the Jubilee year, the year of the Lord’s favor, there is liberty—slaves are freed, debts are forgiven, land that had been sold is returned to its owners… society is restarted. It’s like people are liberated from all the bad things that have happened over the past fifty years. And that year is what Jesus is here to fulfill. To restart our lives—to throw off our past, our debts, our servitude, and to give us freedom and hope for the future. Jesus says every year now, with him, is the Jubilee year. Renewal and new life are always possible now—not just once a lifetime.  

The purpose of all this radical good news is to heal us and to heal the world. I mentioned in the blurb at the beginning of the bulletin about my son Nathan and my husband Jonathan playing their little Pentecostal “Be healed” game, where Jonathan bonks Nathan on the forehead and Nathan collapses. “Be healed.” Healing isn’t that easy—I don’t think—but sometimes the proclamation makes it so. There is power in the Word. Sometimes you need to hear someone say “be healed” in order to believe that healing is actually possible. 

We need different types of healing. Some of us need the healing like the rich young man we heard about in the Gospel last week, who really wanted to follow Jesus, but loved his possessions more. It that’s you, be healed! Some of us need physical healing. Be healed! Some of us need to be healed by being freed from oppression…. Some of us need to be healed from being oppressors. Be healed! Some of us need to be healed from our blindness.. and some of us need to be healed from blinding others. Be healed! Some of us need to be healed from time in captivity and others of us need to be healed from our systemic need to put people in captivity. Be healed! And we all need the healing that comes from being in the year of the Lord’s favor—the year of the restart—of returning what has been given to us, and receiving what we have lost. A new life, a new start. Be healed, be healed, be healed! 

Hard news. But so good. So good for our world, for our city, for ourselves. So healthy. But let’s get there with the confidence of Paul, who writes to Timothy from his final imprisonment, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.” Let us fight the good fight. Let us continue the race. Let us keep the faith. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

St. Francis and the Sultan, Christians and Muslims together

My sermon for St. Francis Day, 2012

Blessed Francis. I grew up and was baptized, confirmed, and ordained at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes, California, and so I love this Saint. Like here, we blessed animals every year, like here we had a statue of St. Francis gazing lovingly at a bird on his arm. We even, as a junior choir when I was about 12, performed the musical, “Francis, Little Man of God” and I played Brother Leo, one of his companions. Francis was the icon for me—and is for many of us—of the perfect human way to love creation, to embrace all creatures of our God and King, and brother sun and sister moon. 

But there’s a lot more to Francis’ story that can speak to us today than just his love of creation—he spent a year as a prisoner of war, his life of deliberate poverty might really challenge us today in our love of things, his raising up of women in his movement under the leadership of his friend, Clare. But the aspect of Francis’ life that has been calling out to me most this week is his encounter with the Muslim world.  

In his vocation as a monk, St. Francis felt this passion to go and convert Muslims. He tried twice in his life to get to Arab areas and preach, but shipwreck and illness turned him back both times. Finally in 1219, ten years after he first tried to make such a journey, Francis made it to Egypt in the midst of a Crusade, during a standoff in battle between the Christians and Muslims. Somehow, Francis talked his way behind enemy lines into an audience with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al Kamil.  

What actually happened between Francis and the Sultan is anybody’s guess. The stories range from a meeting where nothing happened and no one was affected, to Francis offering to walk through fire as proof of Jesus’ divinity. In some versions of the story, the Sultan changes how he treats his Christian prisoners—give them better treatment and more dignity because of his respect for Francis. Still others say that Francis and the Sultan had an intellectual dispute that lasted for days and became great friends, though they still did not share a faith. Still others have Francis as this sort of modern day peacemaker, trying through nonviolence to stop the crusades.  

Regardless of what actually transpired—and the stories get more and more dramatic and serving the idea of Francis as saintly and orthodox Christian the later they originate, Francis spent several days as the Sultan’s honored guest, and they were both affected by their encounter—if not as greatly as either of them might have wanted. The crusade didn’t stop. Francis didn’t convert to Islam. The Sultan didn’t convert to Christianity. But Francis’ order was allowed to go to Jerusalem without paying tributes, which led to their presence—even today—as the order in charge of the Roman Catholic section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchure; Francis emphasized the need for all Christians to pray at the sound of church bells, in a nod to Islamic prayer practice of responding to the call of the muezzin. And He greeted everyone by saying “Peace be upon this house”—a similar greeting to the Salaam Aleikum of Islam. 

We can define the opposing sides of our present day conflicts in a number of ways—but certainly religious differences are one of the several causes for the violence we see in the world today—most obviously in the recent violent protests in the Muslim world about the movie that was perceived to slander the Prophet, and in the subsequent bafflement in the West about why even a blasphemous movie could be perceived to be a valid cause for violence. 

Which leaves us with asking: how does Jesus want us to live in an inter-faith world? The world in which Jesus lived was certainly no different from our own as far as having people of differing religious beliefs living on top of one another. Jews were never a majority population; neither were Christians until the 4th Century. Jesus expected us—it would seem—to live, work, and interact with people of different beliefs all the time. So are we supposed to be like the story of Francis where his aim in engaging people of different faiths is their conversion? Or are we supposed to learn and be changed by the experience ourselves?  

What would Jesus do or say? In the Gospel today—the Gospel appointed to remember St. Francis, there is a strong emphasis upon the mystery of God’s self-revelation. God is revealed in Jesus, to those who are neither wise nor intelligent, but like infants, and God is STILL a mystery. We only know God insofar as we are like infants, insofar as we admit that we know nothing and can do nothing, and rely entirely upon God for our lives. Not until we are entirely humble, entirely giving up of ourselves, until we give up the burdens of the world and take on the burden of the yoke of following Christ can we begin to know God. Therefore, speaking about other people’s understanding of God is something we must do cautiously, particularly if it is a criticism. 

Paul, in writing the letter to the Galatians—a Church with whom he was very very angry, writes strongly tonight against our pride in ourselves: don’t boast about anything except the cross, he says. In other words, don’t boast about your religion or yourself, boast about what Jesus did, who Jesus is.  

If many forms and centuries of Islam, including the present, can be characterized by violence, so can many forms and centuries of Christianity, including the present. Jesus had a lot more to say about his own religion—Judaism—than he ever did about anyone else’s. For Jesus, religious criticism went inward, not outward. Self-reflection is the best antidote to violence—to ask ourselves why we are lashing out… and who the real object of our anger is… and if we are complicit in an upward spiral of conflict. Francis and the Sultan met during a crusade informed by religion and power and money and ethnic and tribal and historical conflict. How familiar that sounds. But they were able to talk during all that conflict. 

We need to be like Francis and the Sultan—clear about our own faith; open to learning about the other; and open to fellowship across our divisions. Because a real hope of interfaith dialogue is not—necessarily—change in the other. It’s change in ourselves. It’s that in learning more about my neighbor’s faith, my own faith may be clearer; my own compassion may be deepened; my own heart and mind and soul stretched. Not by leaving my own faith behind and taking on the other faith—that’s just religion shopping—but because through greater knowledge, we can grow closer to God. And it’s taking a very long view—because our dialogue may not end this crusade; but it may lay groundwork to prevent the next one.  

What happens when we read the famous Prayer of St. Francis with interfaith relations in mind? To remember that its author wrote it out of his experience that included those days with the Sultan. To me, it takes on different meanings, and becomes even more apropos for our situation today. Because in our world religions today there is hatred; there is injury; there is doubt, despair, darkness, and sadness. To seek to understand rather than be understood. 

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.