A New Way of Living: Integrity Eucharist, NYC

21 09 2009

If anyone is interested, below is the sermon I preached at the Integrity Eucharist in NYC yesterday … After a brief word of welcome, I dived right in …

Text:  Mark 9:30-37; James 3:16 – 4:8

Anyone who has been following the news will note there is quite a rather large power struggle going on within our society.  A sizeable portion of our nation laments that the country they grew up in is not the country they’re living in today.  On many levels, they’re right. The United States today is certainly not the United States from 50s or 60s, or even 70s 80s or 90s!  Change is inevitable as history marches on.  Speaking of change, another sizeable portion of the country is saying that the change they supposedly voted for almost a year ago is not happening.  Depending on how certain bills get through Congress, they could be proven right as well. What these two sides have in common is that, rightly so or wrongly so, they are giving each other a large dose of bad press in no small part because we live in a world of instant communication, tweets, blog posts and a 24 hour news cycle. We live in a world where civil discourse has been thrown out the window, where anything can be said and anything goes.  It seems that any chance of intelligent discussion has been discarded in favor of sound bites, talking points, and over-the-top rhetoric.

The disciples get quite a bit of bad press in the Gospels.  They are shown saying inappropriate things, shooing people away from Jesus, and constantly misunderstand what Jesus is trying to tell them.  Sometimes we can see quite a bit of ourselves in the disciples.  Much too often for our liking, we can be rather slow to get the point of what Jesus is talking about or what he is doing.  The Good News, however is that if we read through to the end of the Gospels, we learn the disciples are restored, redeemed and reclaimed following the Resurrection of Christ.  Reading further into the book of Acts, we witness the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all sorts of different cultures and tribes and nations.  So then, we shouldn’t lose hope as we look at what is going on in the world.  Consider the place of African Americans, who once were required to sit in balconies during church services so as to be out of site of their white masters.  Consider the place of women, who only gained access to the discernment process and the sacrament of Holy Orders within our lifetime, and could not even vote a century ago.   And now, consider the place of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Christians and the road we are on today.  Slowly but steadily, the Church has expanded its embrace to include everyone who Jesus has already included.  It is a long road, and at times it is a hard road.  Quite frankly, I’m sure many of us have just wanted to give up and get off the road altogether!  But in the end, just like the disciples, we all get caught up in the radical welcome of grace and peace that comes of living in relationship with God.  This is a precious gift, and one that is given freely.  But, like many things worth having, it is a gift that, while it is given freely, does not come cheaply.

Our reading in the Gospel today starts off with the second of the Passion predictions in Mark then it is followed by a series of sayings in discipleship.  Jesus is seeking to travel unnoticed through the land at this particular moment so he can spend quality time with his disciples.  Even though they constantly misunderstand him and cause him no end of frustration, they are still bound together as a community which Jesus has called and commissioned.  Even so, as Jesus predicts what awaits him in Jerusalem, the disciples are baffled.  Earlier in the chapter, the disciples were chastised for their failure to cast out an unclean spirit and squabbling with the religious authorities. They are so intimidated by their lack of understanding, they do not ask any questions about what Jesus is talking about.  To top it all off, Jesus calls them out on conversations they were having on the way about who would be the greatest among them.  Shamed with embarrassment, they can only be silent.  You can almost hear the sound of feet shuffling or crickets chirping.

But what is striking here is Jesus’ response to their embarrassment.  He does not issue a reprimand for their jockeying for positions of power and greatness; rather, he puts the notion of what it means to be great in an entirely new perspective.  He says that in order to be first, we have to be willing to become the last and be the servant of all.  To be first in the eyes of the world, you have to embark on a way of self-promotion so you lift yourself up over others.  The higher you go up the ladder, the more power you gain.  Jesus’ example is the opposite of that.  He says that in order to be great in the Kingdom of God you have to lift up those beneath you.  You have to continue to draw the circle ever wider to reach out to those who are not part of the club, and to welcome the powerless into your midst and be their servant.

James, to change gears for a moment, talks about what it means to be wise in his epistle.  How does wisdom manifest itself?  We associate wisdom with intellect, and while they may be related, they are not dependent upon each other.  Wisdom is more like a certain type of maturity gifted with discerning insight.  But James goes even further to say that possessing wisdom has a great deal to with a way of living being and how what you say is consistent with how you act.  As we say in the Anglican Tradition, “As we pray, so we believe.”  This can also be summed up by quoting the name of particular blog that is of interest to this group, “Walking With Integrity,” the official blog of Integrity USA. We can see two types of wisdom in today’s epistle. One is marked by envy, selfishness, deceit and greed.  The other is marked with peacefulness, gentleness, mercy and yes … integrity!  Wisdom from above calls us to lead lives free of hypocrisy where there is no conflict between thought and action.

For all of that, there are some things in a larger reading of epistle outside of the lesson which may cause offense to our sensibilities.  We are told there are two kinds of wisdom; we are told that if we are a friend of the world, then we are an enemy of God; and we are also told to submit ourselves to God.  Historically, our tradition prefers a “both/and” approach instead of an “either/or” point of view.  It appears that there is no middle ground upon which to stand here.  It is either all or nothing, one way or another.  The word “submission” causes offense in no small part because of where the word turns up in other parts of the Bible.  Women are exhorted to submit to their husbands and slaves to their masters.  Indeed we are right to view this passage with suspicion because of what has been done over the course of history and how the Bible has been used to put people down when really we are called to lift people up.

The phrase “a friend of the world is an enemy of God” then may be received in light of the wisdom that comes from above versus the wisdom that does not.  This verse, too, sadly has a sad history.  It leads us to be more insular, disconnected or dispassionate about what happens outside our parish or our communities.  What James is talking about here, I would say, is that friendship of world means the world value system of dog-eat-dog, of getting ahead and accumulating power and riches for its own sake, and the powerful is elevated over the powerless.  The wisdom from above, however, says that just because we are not to be friends with the world, that does not mean we cannot be friends with the world’s people.  Likewise, I would also go as far to say that in this context, submission is not about the world’s definition of submission and the structures of hierarchy or authority, but it’s more about trust.  We can trust God because God is the one being we can totally depend on.  We can trust him because of his faithfulness and of those who do the work of Christ.  In fact, one reason we are here today, at this particular moment in space and time is because of the faithfulness of God and especially those who have gone before us to lay the groundwork for what we can do today and into the future.

Returning to the Gospel of Mark and the incident where the disciples could not cast out an unclean spirit, we can get and idea of what this kind of trust looks like.  The man whose boy had an unclean spirit says to Jesus, after his disciples had failed to help, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,” which I think could be the greatest cry of faith and trust in all of Scripture.  In one moment, when faced with the possibility of his son’s healing, he is seized by hope. The father is seized by life. It is a cry of total and complete honesty and trust. This man, of whom we know nothing of his religious devotion or spiritual walk, totally puts himself and his son in the hands of Jesus. This is not a sentimental faith, like a belief in Santa Claus, or the belief in the “inherent goodness of humanity.” This is not even some intellectual assent to some theological construct or doctrine such as the Trinity. This is nothing less than radical trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who “called into existence the things that do not exist.”  And because of that trust, we can live into a new way apart from the power plays and value system of the world.  Indeed, we are actually called to do it.

We are called to pay attention and give of ourselves to those outside of our comfortable existence in such as way that we will enrich their lives so much they become greater than us.  The little child who enters the scene at the end of our Gospel reading is a case in point.  If we lay aside such connotations as naiveté or innocence for the moment, a child is always under someone else’s authority and in first century Palestine had no rights or privileges of their own.  They are truly powerless.  But when we welcome the powerless, Jesus is saying that we are doing nothing less than welcoming God.

Following this new way of living, of welcoming everyone and lifting up the powerless is only the beginning.  Today we celebrate the faithfulness and hard work of those at General Convention, but we should also be mindful this isn’t just about us.   Once we do gain our goal of “all the sacraments for all the baptized,” we will still have to struggle against homophobia just as women struggle with sexism and people of color struggle with racism.  What about the person who shows up in our community and we discover she has just learned she has HIV and is getting her mind around how her life is forever changed?  What about the two young men who show up at a soup kitchen or food pantry and we learn they have been turned out of their respective homes because their parents discovered their relationship?  What about the LGBT youth who can be found right outside on Christopher Street, some of them having resorted to prostitution or are ensnared by drug addiction?  St. Luke in the Fields has a wonderful ministry for those same youth, where on Saturday nights they can be directed to where to get a hot meal, a place to stay, or just someone to talk to. At our last diocesan LGBT concerns meeting, one of the things we discussed was how could get we more women and people of color on board?  A constant refrain for the Integrity NYC steering committee is how to get more people involved.  And at our Diocesan Convention last year, the rector of a parish in Westchester County came up to me wanting to know how could her parish be more welcoming and how can they be known as a welcoming parish.  What would happen if we began to see the world’s people as Jesus sees us?  How can we truly embrace Jesus’ radical welcome of everyone and of lifting up those on the outside?

The Good News I have for you today is that we have a great foundation from which we can work, a foundation that was laid by those who have gone before us and by what was done on the Cross, “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who on the first day of the week overcame death and the grave,” as it says in the prayer book.  And as it also says, “In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” The powers of sin and death have been overthrown and we can be assured that one day they will no longer hold any sway over Creation.  Our challenge is to live as if that day is already here, and present to those who participate in the power struggles of the world that there is another way.  It is a long road, and at times it will be hard and bumpy and there will be times when we just want to give up, but if we continue to trust God and live like we trust God to do God’s part as we do our part, we will absolutely get to where we are called to live and to be, a place where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one.”   We will absolutely get to that place where the words of former Presiding Bishop Ed Browning are a concrete reality, “there will be no outcasts in this church.”




4 responses

21 09 2009

I preached on this too (on blog). I love to see the different approaches people take. I’d like to have been there.

22 09 2009

I really enjoyed reading this (on the subway this morning). It’s comforting to know that the disciples often didn’t get it, since I frequently don’t either-there are flashes of clarity, but then the fog drifts in again… The themes of hope, trust, inclusion, and equality stood out. You’ve definitely been formed in the Anglican tradition, since this sermon feels Episcopalian. Great job.

23 09 2009
Reverend boy

Thanks, Jeffrey! At times during the delivery, though, I felt like I was channeling my inner baptist!

22 10 2009

Great sermon! Thank you so much for posting!!

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