Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sermon: One Thing

Summer internship sermon four out of five has been preached.  Finally got around to the New Testament.  May not have blown up anything major in tiptoeing through this particular minefield.  And I'm rather sad to have only one sermon left to preach this summer.

Ashland Presbyterian Church
21 July 2013 (Ordinary 16C)
Charles S. Freeman

One Thing

Before I begin I am going to admit to you that I am will break two of the significant “unwritten rules” of sermon writing and preaching today.  Actually, admitting this is probably a third such rule-breaking, but I do believe in being as open and transparent with you as possible in these last few weeks of my time here at Ashland, and I want to be up front about what I am preaching here.
One of the rules I am breaking involves actually using and discussing a Greek word from the text in my sermon, but that’s later.  First I am going to admit to you that initially, I really didn’t want to preach on this text.
This is a very familiar story, this one of Martha and Mary.  Too familiar.  The story is often told and preached with particular “tweaks” added and unexamined presumptions included without even thinking about it.  And, with its two female protagonists face-to-face with Jesus, it is a major, major trap for any preacher who falls into the mistake of “choosing sides” with either industrious Martha or contemplative Mary, or even of reducing the two characters to stereotypes of (female) Christian discipleship.  Given the (hopefully) evident fact that I am not female and the potential questions of gender roles and restrictions embedded like tripwires in this story, it’s too easy to get in trouble preaching this text.  Try to defend Martha, and you’re reinforcing old gender stereotypes about a woman’s place being in the kitchen – and only in the kitchen.  But, endorse Mary and her breaking out of that stereotype, and you’re still in trouble; now you’re endorsing the passive, submissive role of a woman sitting at the feet of a (male) authority figure.  Really, you can’t win.
Before negotiating this particular theological minefield, it is helpful to remind ourselves of where we are and how we got to this place.  The tenth chapter of Luke is part of this gospel’s travel narrative, the story of the teachings, confrontations, and other events that are recounted as part of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem.  The narrative actually is initiated towards the end of chapter nine, when the text notes that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.”[1] 
So far on the journey the primary events have included an unpleasant encounter with a Samaritan village, in which the disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans in return for not receiving them (Jesus had to rebuke them for that); the “mission of the seventy,” in which Jesus sends out pairs of disciples to preach, teach, and heal across the region, and from which those disciples return rejoicing that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us![2]; and, finally, the story heard in last week’s sermon, in which a lawyer who challenges Jesus on the law ends up getting a lesson in being a neighbor. 
We do need to keep this background in mind, because it offers us the chance to break out of some of the assumptions and stereotypes that have clung to this story over the generations, and might allow us to hear in it a warning that is not at all gender-bound or stereotyped.
Jesus enters a village.  Our subconscious ears, accustomed to the Mary-and-Martha background supplied in the Gospel of John, probably want to fill in the name “Bethany” for that village, but that isn’t supplied here; just “a village.”  Jesus is greeted by a woman named Martha who welcomes him into her home.  Catch that?  Her home.  Interestingly, the scene described here looks very much like the kind of scene that might have awaited those seventy disciples sent out by Jesus earlier in chapter ten, given the very specific instructions Jesus gave those disciples about their travel and receiving the welcome of those in the villages they visited.  
In the next verse sister Mary is introduced, sitting at Jesus’s feet as Jesus teaches.  Unlike the richly narrative account of the Good Samaritan incident, we get only bullet points here, and barely that – Jesus arrives; welcomed by Martha, etc.  Also, where’s Lazarus?  Don’t these two have a brother who dies and is raised by Christ?  In the Gospel of John, yes, but there is no mention of Lazarus here. 
Back to the bullet points; Mary sits at feet, Martha distracted by tasks.  Now here’s the most fertile place in the story for readers over the ages to start “filling in” unmentioned details.  Think about it:  in your own hearing and reading of this story, what “tasks” is Martha distracted with?  Be honest – you don’t learn when you cheat. 
How many of you were picturing Martha distracted with “kitchen” tasks – cooking, or otherwise preparing a meal?  Or perhaps “cleaning” tasks? 
Now would we have conjured such images if the folks welcoming Jesus were two brothers named Samuel and Simon?
Over the years many, many scholars, commentators, preachers and others have presumptively “filled in the blank” about Martha’s tasks with the stereotyped “women’s work” of their own ages, so you’re hardly alone – you’ve been well conditioned.  But here’s where that other bit of sermon rule-breaking comes in, the one about quoting Greek in your sermon.  Where the New Revised Standard Version translation uses the word “tasks,” the Greek texts have a form of the word διακονια.  It might sound familiar, or perhaps sound like the English word “deacon,” which indeed is related to that Greek word. 
Now διακονια has a wide range of meanings, centered around the concept of serving.  The kind of kitchen tasks we were just considering can be included but are hardly exhaustive of the full definition.  In fact, as biblical scholar Warren Carter points out, the overwhelming majority of the times when this author uses the word, either in the Gospel of Luke or the book of Acts, these domestic tasks are not what the author has in mind; rather, the tasks are those of service as in a “church” or church-like body, tasks that might include caring for the needy, distributing gifts given for the poor, or possibly even including proclamation (that would be preaching).[3]  Hmm.  Thinking of Martha and Mary as house preachers certainly puts a different spin on this story, doesn’t it?
At any rate I hope that such a consideration allows us to lay aside questions about “women’s work” and get to the thing that seems, to me, to be the vital word of warning to any follower of Christ, of any gender, who hears this passage today. 
In the movie City Slickers, one of the title characters, played by Billy Crystal, comes under the scrutiny of Curly, a crusty but enigmatic cowboy played by Jack Palance.  Crystal’s character is one of a handful of urban folk who have signed up for an authentic old-fashioned cattle drive; these folks are to Curly a confused and messed-up lot.  They come out to do a cattle drive thinking it will suddenly straighten out their confused and messed-up lives, when in fact those same confused and messed-up lives will just be waiting for them when they return.  Curly continues to suggest that folks don’t take time to know what’s important; too many things get in the way.  To Curly the secret of life is: “this,” as he holds up one finger.  “One thing.”  Crystal’s character asks what the “one thing” is, and Curly answers, “That’s what you have to find out.”
The virtue of Mary in today’s scripture lesson is that, in that moment, she chose “the better part,” or as most Greek texts would really translate, the “good part” or “good thing.”  Such passive sitting is not always the right thing to do.  But in that moment, with Jesus in the house teaching, Mary figured out what the “better part,” the “good thing,” even the “one thing” was and fixed on it.  Martha, on the other hand, got distracted or disturbed by many things when the “one thing” was sitting right in her living room. 
The tasks of ministry are needed, now more than ever.  But without the “one thing,” the teaching, the life, the very presence of Christ at the center of our doing and serving, it can too easily become distraction, disturbance, even uproar.  And we don’t have time for that. 
We live in a world where society is too willing, gleeful even, to enshrine injustice into law, and to enshrine poverty as a necessary condition of a thriving economy.  For example: McDonald’s has launched a new program for employees to teach them how to live on the $8.25 an hour the typical full-time employee makes.  The worksheet immediately tells you the first thing you need to do for that to work is…get a second job.  Seriously.  The budget worksheet includes “second job” income.[4]  Poverty enshrined as necessary for others to prosper?  Check.
You all heard about the Trayvon Martin verdict, I know.  Did you hear that just the day before, also in Florida, a black woman was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing warning shots in an attempt to prevent her abusive husband from beating her again.  Black woman shoots no one: twenty years.  Unarmed black youth killed: no crime.  Injustice enshrined into law?  Check.
In this world we do not have time to get caught up in sniping over who’s not doing what, and we certainly can’t get cut off from the One Thing.  We must take the time, as counterintuitive as it feels, to stop.  Stop and listen for the Word that gives meaning to our doing, that is the motivation and source of strength for all of the tasks that await us as a church.  When we fail to do so, we get distracted, disturbed, in an uproar over many things without recourse to the One Thing that makes them matter.  On that day, that one time, Mary got it right, and as Jesus said, it wouldn’t be taken away from her.  Neither will it be taken from us to sit and listen at Jesus’s feet.  At least, not until it’s time to get back to work. 
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Hymns: When Morning Gilds the Skies (PH #487), This One Thing Only, Loving God (new hymn in insert), Blest Be the Tie That Binds (#438)

[1] Luke 9:51
[2] Luke 10:17
[3] Warren Carter, “Getting Martha Out Of the Kitchen,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (1996), 264-280.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A hymn, or the beginning of one, maybe?

In starting to peek ahead for a sermon on July 21, I couldn't help but be frustrated at the seeming lack of good hymns, particularly where the last verse of the gospel passage (Luke 10:38-42) was concerned.  So of course something happened that I thought I had dismissed from my life: I apparently wrote a hymn.  It's rather slight and perhaps a bit obvious, and I don't have an obvious tune to go with it (though it falls in common meter and there are a kajillion options).

Anyway, here it is, and make of it what you will.

This one thing only, loving God, plant firmly in my heart;
Amidst our work, to hear your word and choose the better part;

Lord, teach us when to labor on and when to stop and rest,
To hear your voice and, so restored, to serve you at our best.

O give this gift, our loving God, and this one grace please give:
To know one thing above all else and in this one thing live.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sermon: The Anonymous Evangelists

The third sermon of my summer internship is in the books.  And now it's online.  As always, your mileage may vary.

The Anonymous Evangelists

7 July 2013
Ashland Presbyterian Church
2 Kings 5:1-14

A few weeks ago I made my way out to lunch, seeking food and drink but mostly in need of wi-fi, since I had a whole lot of emails that I needed to answer.  As I settled in with my club sandwich and set about answering emails, I couldn’t help but notice the conversation at the table behind me; just loud enough that I could not ignore it or block it out completely, but not so loud that I could actually follow most of it.  Short bits of the conversation would burst in against my concentration.
One of those short bits clued me in to what was going on; the conversation was between a staff member for one of this year’s gubernatorial candidates and a potential local operative.  While the conversation suddenly seemed much juicier and more potentially provocative, I still had my emails to finish. 
Finally, my concentration was broken when the subject of “religious outreach” came up.  The operative mentioned that the candidate would seek to attend services at churches generally around the Richmond area; the local offered the opinion that it was distasteful and ugly when preachers started politicking for candidates, to which the operative agreed; the local suggested some other events of a religious nature at which the candidate might appear.  The most striking moment came when the operative stated that the churches or other events would need to be of “at least” a particular size; going to an event with too few people in attendance, the operative said, would be a waste of the campaign’s resources and take away time from reaching the largest audience possible, a statement with which the local agreed as well.
Based on that conversation, I’m going to take the wild guess that neither Ken Cuccinelli nor Terry McAuliffe is likely to show up for a Sunday morning service here in the next several months.  While it might be easy to joke that this is a good thing for Ashland Presbyterian Church, I’d say it’s probably not a good sign for the people of Virginia.  The people suffer when leaders only listen to those from whom they can get something, or to those of equal power or prestige, and shut out those who do not carry sufficient power, status, money, or other tokens of influence.  Lest you think I’ve gone politicking myself, I will point out that this is even more so outside of the political realm; religious leaders who lose touch with the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden are even more culpable, given how many passages of scripture tell us that these are the very people for whom God advocates and demands that we do likewise.
Today’s scripture from 2 Kings contains two different types of characters.  One type is the powerful: figures such as Naaman, the foreign general and protagonist of the story; the king of Aram (or Syria) and the king of Israel; and Elisha, who though not politically powerful can claim at least the power of being God’s prophet. 
If there are powerful people, we might expect there are some powerless people as well, even if we might miss them at first.  In this case, there are some servants.  As far as our author is concerned, that says just about everything that needs to be said.  Naaman and Elisha get names, and also are identified by titles that suggest their significance.  Curiously, the kings in this story are not named, but when you call someone a king you’re pretty clearly indicating they are kind of a big deal. 
Not so for these servants.  One of them, the young girl serving Naaman’s wife, is identified as being a captive Israelite, but that is all.  The other servants are given no other differentiation whatsoever.  Just anonymous, faceless servants, speaking one line of dialogue.
And yet, as happens in other stories in scripture, it is these otherwise anonymous servants who play perhaps the most pivotal roles in this story and in the carrying out of what strangely has to be regarded as God’s work in this narrative; the healing of a foreign general, a man who possibly represented the gravest threat to the nation of Israel at the time.  Perhaps we should spend some time with these anonymous evangelists, unnamed bearers of a good word.
First, the slave girl.  We know she is an Israelite; she was apparently captured, possibly after some large battle or maybe in a smaller raid against Israel; and after her capture she was assigned to serve Naaman’s wife (another figure who is not given a name in this story).  We have nothing else to go by, no other information by which to understand this young woman.  All we know of her in all of scripture is what we are given in verses 2 and 3; beyond what we know above, she tells Naaman’s wife of a prophet back in her home land, who would be able to cure her mistress’s husband of his particular ailment, which the text calls leprosy. 
This term in scripture is a bit vague, and does not necessarily refer to the modern disease of that name.  That illness would, however, have been enough to bring at least some social ostracism upon Naaman, even if he was a great warrior and favorite of the king.  The text doesn’t make it entirely clear whether this was a long-standing issue for Naaman, or something new and getting worse.  If the latter, one can imagine Naaman’s desperation to hold on to his position, to find some way of stopping the disease from ruining his standing.
The Israelite girl sees all this.  She knows that Naaman is a threat to her own people in Israel.  One might imagine that, if her fellow Israelites could have spoken to her at that point, they might have told her to keep silent about that prophet.  He’s our enemy, they might say.  If he’s gone, we don’t have to worry about the Arameans anymore.  We can win.  They might even suggest to her that letting Naaman fall in his leprosy would be the patriotic thing to do. 
The young woman might have had those thoughts herself.  If she did, she gave them no heed.  She knew that the Lord had a prophet in Israel, a man touched by the power of the Lord Most High; she knew that her mistress’s husband could be cured of his disease if only he could see that prophet.  She had good news to share, and she shared it, without regard to national politics or “security interests” or whatever term you choose.  Her love, her allegiance was clear; hers was a God Who told her not to hold back her good news.  She shared it, and thus was set in motion Naaman’s healing.
It is a surprise that Naaman was willing to take the word of a slave girl.  Perhaps it is a sign of just how desperate he was.  At any rate he appealed to his king, and in turn his king sent Naaman with a considerable entourage to the only person he could conceive of being able to accomplish such a thing; naturally, his counterpart the king of Israel.  In turn, that king, suspicious of Arameans bearing gifts, assumes a trap is being sprung – Aram will punish Israel for failing to heal Aram’s best general.  The king of Israel panics, and only word from Elisha, that difficult prophet out in the city of Samaria, prevents a full-fledged meltdown. 
Naaman and his entourage arrive at Elisha’s home for a healing.  Quite possibly Naaman was looking for a big, ceremonious event; after all, Naaman was, in modern slang, kind of a big deal – certainly a healing for such an important man would call for a serious demonstration of the power of this prophet and the God he served.  Flashing lights, grand incantations, spells, potions, … who knows?
Nope.  No spells, no potions, no big displays.  Not even the prophet himself – just another anonymous servant with a good word; go dunk yourself in the Jordan River seven times and you will be clean. 
Naaman goes nuts.  Are you kidding me?  I get some servant telling me to go take a bath?  And in that podunk creek they call a river?  We’ve got way better rivers at home.  A man like me shouldn’t have to take this kind of insult.  The man who was desperate enough to listen to the suggestion of a slave girl seems to have been overcome by the more powerful Naaman, or the prideful Naaman, the one accustomed to being the king’s favorite and to conquering other armies and nations in battle. 
But, once again, he is saved by his servants.  We know even less about these servants than we know about the Israelite slave girl.  They are simply “his servants”; captive or not, native or not, we will never know.  Yet again it is the servants who talk sense.  “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?”  If he’d told you to capture a thousand wild animals, or cross the great sea, or ascend the highest mountain, you’d have done it.  Why resist when you have been told to do something easy?  The desperate Naaman, or the sensible Naaman, comes to his senses and heads for the Jordan.  He washes himself seven times, just as Elisha had instructed; and lo and behold, he is not only healed of leprosy but his skin was made “like the flesh of a young boy.”  It wasn’t just the Jordan River, it was a virtual Fountain of Youth. 
So much about this story might well offend our sensitivities these days.  The Lord, the God of Israel, brings about the healing of the great military leader of Israel’s great enemy.  Translate that into a modern setting and imagine just what kind of reception that would receive today.  We have to acknowledge that our God is a God who will not be bound by the borders we draw today, whether between nations or individuals or religions or churches.  God will heal whom God will heal; God will touch whom God will touch; God will use whomever God will use.  And the only thing we better be caught saying about that is Amen. Praise the Lord.  Even Jesus knew how offensive this story could be; remember that in the fourth chapter of Luke, when preaching to his hometown folk in Nazareth, he nearly gets himself killed by reminding them that in a time when there were many lepers in Israel, Elisha only heals Naaman – or as Jesus points out, “Naaman the Syrian.”[1]
What strikes me most, though, is that the good in this story is not accomplished by the people in power.  The king of Aram is clueless; the king of Israel is even more useless.  But a servant girl from Israel, an unknown messenger from a prophet, and a handful of the general’s servants – anonymous, all of them – point Naaman to a source of healing, give him instructions on how to be healed, and pull him back from the worst impulses of his pride.  Had Naaman not heeded those voices, those words from the powerless, the captive, the underlings, no healing could have taken place.
I don’t think anyone here will try to claim that this is anyone’s contemporary idea of a “powerful” church.  Neither of the gubernatorial candidates will be coming by to sit in our pews hoping to sway your vote.  We most likely won’t see any celebrities flocking to our doors.  We don’t control a huge “worship center” with theater seats and the hottest praise band around, or a choir that can knock off Handel’s Messiah every Christmas with a full orchestra.  We won’t even be hosting the Presbytery of the James meeting any time soon, most likely.  I hate to tell you this, but there are people right here in Ashland who don’t even know we exist. 
But we have a good word.  We have good news.  We know of a God in the land, one who heals, one who restores those who are broken, hurting, desperate.  We know a God who knows the names of the anonymous, hears the voices of the voiceless, shows power through the powerless.  God is not necessarily calling us to be a megachurch, or to control the balance of power on the Ashland Town Council.  But we have a voice that needs to be heard, we have good news that all of our town needs to hear, we have a word of hope in a culture that calls hope foolishness, we have a word of healing and restoration and reconciliation that those who deny it most need to hear the most, even if they might happen to look like enemies and not friends.  We may be small but we have a good word.  Let it never be said we were afraid to speak it.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Hymns: “God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand” (PH #263); “Come Sing to God” (Psalm 30, #181); “Lord, You Give the Great Commission” (#429); “Rejoice, the Lord is King” (#155)

[1] See Luke 4:16-30

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

An experiment, just for the few faithful NoaFE readers...

A couple of years ago when I started this blog, one of my goals (not necessarily stated out loud) was to work myself away from the academic mode of writing and towards one that was more suitable for the task ahead of me in my newly-pursued vocation, where preaching would probably me my primary outlet for writing.  Preaching has its forms, to be sure, and its forms are not necessarily less rigorous than your basic academic paper or encyclopedia article, but they are different, and they call upon a different character of language.  Even as informal as I was in academic mode, that was still a different tack than preaching, and I wanted at the minimum to start to loosen up my writing from my accustomed academic habits and patterns and begin to adapt to something different. Feel free to pass your own judgment on my success or failure at that task to whatever degree you care.

At this point, given the limited circumstances of being a seminary student currently in a parish internship, I have a moderate to reasonable degree of confidence that I can write a sermon.  No, I'm not in the position of grinding one out every week, but it is a task for which I have the capability.  There will be stinkers along the way, to be sure, and I'll be stuck with no option but to throw it out there and trust the grace of God to be ready to make something useful or at least harmless out of it.

I seem to have mastered the art of the rant, in a few cases here and there.  I'm not entirely sure of the value of those things, but they do seem to touch a chord with the handful of folks who read them.  I guess there's some value in being willing or able to put a face on feelings that many folks can't find a way to make real and viable to others, and I'm not complaining, but it's not the kind of thing one can do all that often.  It has a limited shelf life, so to speak.  And frankly, I hope not to be in the position of needing to rant those health-related rants, or at least to do so less often.  Mind you, there are plenty of things in the world to rant about, but if I took on all of those I'm pretty sure I'd have jumped off a building by now, and there are plenty of other writers and bloggers out there who can tackle those subjects far more effectively than I.

The hymn writing urge is low at the moment.  I have put up one or two of those along the way here, but the news of needing chemo back in February put me in a state of rebellion, of sorts, in which I am not attuned to that particular frequency of creativity/devotion.  I can't truly say if it will return.

Still, I feel the need (urge? passion?  dare I speculate, calling?) to try something different.  There was one post, quite some time ago, I did toss a monologue up here.  The faithful few of you who actually read this blog are going to see a few more such things pop up here.

Of late I have been troubled/plagued/motivated by the challenge of identifying those things that stand in the way of full-fledged following of Christ.  I'm not talking about what keeps people from being a Christian; that's a different kettle of fish.  I am talking about people who identify themselves as Christians, who practice that devotion as a part of their everyday lives, who by every evidence are what we humans would call "good people" who truly do seek to follow, but there's that one thing, that one petty grievance, that one long-embedded hatred, that one fear, great or small, that stands in the way.  We can't, or won't, let go of it; we convince ourselves it is part of us, irreplaceable; we believe that it is in fact The Truth, the Real Christianity, perhaps; for whatever reason we choose it when we should be looking for that better thing to which Christ calls us.

What I am hoping is that by approaching the question via drama, I will be forced to approach the question with some level of empathy, at least some attempt to understand and feel for (if not agree with) the motivations behind that fear, or hatred, or refusal.  A sermon is, well, preachy; may not be beneficial for understanding.  Essays can get cold and clinical and, frankly, even more preachy than sermons in some places.  Maybe the drama device will help.  And yes, perhaps it becomes a means to identify that one thing (or things) in my own life.

I'm frankly a little scared of the idea.  This could go to some very dark places.  C. S. Lewis once acknowledged that the hardest thing about writing The Screwtape Letters was having to think, on a regular basis, like a devil.  Hopefully I'm not going into that level of darkness, but these characters aren't going to be living in sweetness and light necessarily.

Anyway, since this is drama and not documentary, I'm allowing myself a setup that may offer some freedom that a straightforward "realistic" monologue might not offer.  These little monologues will be offered to you, dear reader, under the title Sketches from the Heavensgate Boardinghouses.  Our characters will be just outside the Pearly Gates, a nice comfy familiar metaphor for our goal of full discipleship and union with the will of Christ.  I'm no Dante, folks, so don't look for anything that elaborate.  I'm not going to try for anything even so detailed as, say, Lewis's The Great Divorce.  It's a useful metaphor, that's all; I'm not trying to make any statements about the Afterlife or Heaven or the Holy City or whatever you choose to name (I've never been there, how would I know?).  As our folks approach those gates, they are confronted by that one thing; it is, literally in the context of the story, standing in the way.  Thus our protagonists are forced to confront, unavoidably and honestly, that one thing.  The boardinghouses are just a metaphorical place to get out of the heat.

Why am I doing this intro?  Partly to force myself forward.  A few of you will read it and maybe hold me accountable.  Partly to save myself the trouble of explaining myself when I put up the first one.  Partly as a means of laying out the plan in my head onto a slightly more durable medium.  I have some ideas, some of which will sound Law and Order-esque ("ripped from the headlines"), and others perhaps will be a little more obscure.  At any rate, now I'm committed.

To some degree I'm taking advantage of the fact that this isn't a highly trafficked blog.  In the grand scheme of things I'm pretty well anonymous, and there aren't large numbers of people waiting with baited breath for my next blog entry.  The pressure is a little less.  A faithful few readers I can trust to be supportive but honest is a better place for trying out this bizarre little experiment than a more heavily scrutinized medium.  If it doesn't work out very few people will know or care.  If it does work out, well, I'll burn that bridge when I get to it.

I do have other obligations, so this won't necessarily happen quickly.  But now that I've stuck my neck out I guess it has to happen.