WHEN WE’VE HEARD IT ALL BEFORE
A sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota
October 18, 2015
Hebrews 5:1-10Mark 10:35-45
I often debate with myself the difference between preaching and nagging. Today is one of those days when the lessons force me to consider this distinction yet again. The Epistle talks about the importance of learning obedience to God; the Gospel finds Jesus telling his disciples that life is not about privilege and status but about service.
You see my problem here.
The thing is, for me at least, I know I’m supposed to be obedient to God and serve other people. I get that generosity is more important than selfishness, compassion more important than indifference, and inclusion more important than exclusion. You get all that, too.
But in the complicated reality in which we live, things interfere with the clarity and urgency of this message: the demands of time, of family, of supporting yourself – – and maybe others, the extent amount of human need, the in-your-face problems of violence and people shooting each other. It’s easy to get disheartened, scared and retreat into survival mode.
So I like the bluntness in this statement by George Bernard Shaw: “The true joy of life is being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish little clot of ailments and grievances, complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
Some days, that’s right where I am.
For a long time, books on Buddhism have been best sellers, right behind those on making money. The reason may be that Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, of prescribed practices, things you do, while Christianity presents itself as a set of beliefs. Islam, too, is a belief system, but also a way of life. For example, the call to prayer rings out from the prayer tower or the cell phone five times a day. A young Muslim explains: “At fixed intervals, no matter how busy you are, all of a sudden you have to take out a few minutes and you’re remembering, OK, why am I really here? And while I was doing whatever I was just doing, was I doing it in a manner pleasing to God?”
Christianity presents itself as a set of beliefs with practices that are pretty “flexible,” in fact most of us would be pressed to name more than one or two.
So how do we as Christians – who often just wing it from day to day with our faith — respond to the call to serve or to give? What really drives us?
One motivator is emotion. This can even happen in church and not only during the highs of Christmas Eve or Easter morning. Two examples:
Bill Plummer’s funeral service held here a couple of weeks ago embodied much of what is best about the church for me: beautiful words and music in a glorious liturgy; heartfelt, personal words from his good friend Malcolm; a visible and attentive community of support for Elizabeth and Christopher; the mystery evoked by the dignified Armenian priest who was present in a golden robe.
You didn’t just sit through this service; you felt something,
whether it was sadness for the pain of loss, amazement at the power of love; hope that life goes on. I left with a heightened sense of gratitude and renewed commitment to pay more attention to the people I care about for however long I have them.
Sitting in church three weeks ago, however, I also felt an emotion, but one less “positive” when the problematic lessons prescribed for that Sunday were read. Although Jered made a valiant attempt in his sermon to acknowledge the pain they caused some of us and put them in a more reasonable context, I was still furious at those who created the lectionary.
The condemnation of divorce by Jesus in that Gospel felt personal to me, and as a divorced person this was difficult enough, but then there was lesson from Genesis
The thing is, there are two creation stories in Genesis, right next to each other and from different sources. In one of them, Adam and Eve are created at the same time out of the dust of the earth. There is an equality presented here. But in the other story, which the lectionary people selected, Eve is created out of Adam’s rib, an afterthought. This is the one of the lessons that has been have used for thousands of years to subjugate women. Why don’t we just celebrate slavery or polygamy? The texts are there….
I own this anger was a lot about my stuff, but I decided the reactions to the negative emotions I felt then would be to share my take on Adam and Eve, in case you didn’t know. It’s important for many reasons.
So besides emotion, what motivates us to become more obedient to what God clearly asks of us? What drives us to generosity and compassion? How do we become the person our dog thinks we are? These questions underlie every stewardship campaign, fund drive, pledge drive, and request for time, energy, commitment.
We may give or serve because it makes us feel good about ourselves and that’s okay. Rabbi Kushner point out that the reason people brought “sin offerings” to the Temple in Jerusalem was not to balance the books, so to speak, but to put themselves back in touch with their better nature. Charity can do that.
We may be motivated by guilt, gratitude, duty, fear, or recognition of our comparative privilege in the world compared to many others. So many things really are “a first world problem,” like the long line at the coffee shop. —oh no, I don’t have time for this! While walking two miles with a pot of water on your head to make breakfast—that takes time. So St John’s financed a well at the clinic in Uganda…. The needs are still there.
We also act because we may be in a unique position to make something happen or keep it from happening; the words that will not be spoken unless we speak them, the deeds that will not be done unless we do them.
We may give our service or resources because someone tells us to, if we value the authority and trustworthiness of the person. Jesus not only asks; he makes it personal. If we wonder how to love God, how to express gratitude to God, here’s the answer: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, my children, you have done it unto me.”
It’s not like we’re all doing terribly with this. I also invite you today to give yourself credit for the many ways in which you already serve: caring for an elderly parent; giving your money to help those in need; listening to your friend speak their heart; planting a tree to clean the air; saying hello to the person who comes across your path.
But let me suggest two other practices or disciplines that can help us grow in faith and makes us more apt to serve.
One of them is talking about it. In a column called “The subtle Sensations of Faith “ David Brooks says, “The process of faith…. seems to involve a lot of reading and talking—as people try to make sense who God is and how holiness should be lived out.” And the writer Christian Wimans says that religion becomes real when you talk about it out loud. I went to a discuss-faith group yesterday only as a favor to a friend and I can’t believe how much I got out of it.
So you’re an extreme introvert? Well, even the most cloistered of religious orders, the thousand-year-old order of Carthusian monks, who are cloistered in individual huts far away from each other and observe what is called “the Great Silence.” But still they are required each week to take an hour walk with another monk and talk with them. May I respectfully nag you into thinking about how you might find a way to talk with someone else about your faith or lack of it. This works….
Another practice or discipline is, well, church.
It’s really easy to stop going to church. Or stop going regularly –more than once a month. There are so many things that we may view as of equal importance – you know what they are.
I don’t think we go to church because God needs us to or to “be good.” Instead we go to place ourselves in what Bishop Mariann Budde calls a force-field” of Scripture, music, sacrament, mystery and community. In church we are with the community of friends and seekers present on a given day, as well as those who have sat in these pews for hundreds of years, asking the same questions, praying the same prayers, singing some of the same hymns. A force-field where those who have died are remembered and babies new to the world are welcomed. We have had so many losses at St. John’s recently; and in a week babies will be baptized. This is a place where our journey is encompassed by the walk from the Baptismal font to the altar and into the arms of God. You can’t avoid the big realities here. You can out there, for a while, until you are in the emergency room frantically trying to find something to believe in.
To put yourself in the presence of these things is a discipline that changes you even when you think it isn’t. Church is a place that makes explicit the rhythms of life and death and life.
Besides church, another important practice is to reframe the mundane and the tedious by paying attention. Saturday I had a lot to do and then remembered I also had to go to the stupid grocery store. I tried to reframe this by remembering that I get to go to the grocery store. I get to drive there in a working car, walk in on my own power, choose pretty much whatever I want to buy, bring it home to a working refrigerator and still have money left to pay for the roof over my head and the multiple screens I use each day. If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of the world. To bring all of these things into the forefront of your consciousness for ten minutes a day can make your head explode with gratitude, often the first step towards changing your actions and your life.
Of course we must pay attention not only to our circumstances but also to each other and be available in a radical, even Christ-like sense, though sometimes our effort fail. She-who-must-be-quoted-in-every sermon, the writer Barbara Brown Taylor, says this, “If you ever loved someone you could not protect then you understand Jesus…All you can do is open your arms, You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable position in the world – wings spread, breast exposed – but if you mean what you way then this is how you stand.”
Go to church; talk about your faith – or lack of it, really pay attention and be prepared to have the gratitude rain down upon your head.
Ranier Maria Wilke answers the question, “But those dark deadly devastating days, how do you bear them, suffer them? I praise.” Amen.