Beggars for Jesus

Proper 8, Year B, July 1, 2018   St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Northport, Michigan

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let me begin, today, with a story: Once upon a time there was a woman, whose name I don’t know. When she got older her periods didn’t stop, and because she was bleeding all the time, she could no longer do the things she wanted and loved to do. She lived in a culture that believed blood and other things, like touching a dead body or even being touched by someone who was having their menstrual cycle, would make you unclean. So, this woman was chronically unclean. For twelve years. She could not cook food for anyone else. She could not make love to her husband.  In fact, she could not touch other people at all, because if she did, she could be executed – stoned to death. Of course, this woman went to the doctors of her day, but even after spending all of her money, none of the physicians were able to help her. She was reduced to poverty and finally, to begging.

Then one day, she heard about a man who could heal people, and she thought, maybe if she could surreptitiously just touch his coat, she might be healed. She wouldn’t let him know that an unclean woman had touched him. So, she fearfully crept up behind him in the middle of a crowd and touched just the hem of his clothes.

But somehow Jesus knew. Was she then stoned to death for making him unclean? NO! Instead, Jesus’ power to heal was given to this woman of deep desperation. He commended her faith. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

Let me tell you another story: Once upon a time there was a leader of a Synagogue, whose daughter was dying. This important man also was reduced to begging – but in this case, he begged for help from a man he had heard about, a Jesus of Nazareth, who could heal people. Yet, Jesus got sidetracked and the little girl died before Jesus could get there. The leader of the Synagogue, her father, was probably angry, and he told Jesus to leave because there was nothing that anyone could do. But Jesus went in and touched the dead body. He didn’t worry about being made unclean. Instead, he cared about the life of this little 12 year old girl. And yes, when Jesus took her hands, and told her to get up, she came back from death and she was healed.

Finally, one more story: Once upon a time there was a man in Zimbabwe, Africa, named Methius, whose face is very disfigured, because when he was six, he fell into a cooking fire. Half his face and scalp is normal and handsome, and half his face, ear, eye, and scalp were destroyed by the fire. It was a miracle that he lived, but he grew up with children ridiculing him and people being afraid of him.

However, God had a plan for his life. As a teenager, Methius met the Lord Jesus in a Church; and he was baptized; and he was healed of his shame. He was able to marry a beautiful woman, and he has two beautiful children. He also is raising the children of his brother and sister, who both died of AIDS.

As a grown man Methius was called by God to become a Christian Pastor. But because he lives in a culture that is repelled by disfigurement, the only jobs he can get are the churches that pay very poorly. But he has a great heart for the poor, because he also is poor. He and his family live precariously, on meager church offerings, and yes, he has been reduced to begging, from me and from others who have been willing to help him, because when my husband and I met Methius more than ten years ago, we asked him if there was anything that we could do to help. We saw his poverty; and we knew our abundance of financial resources. But we also knew our poverty of faith; and we saw his abundance of trusting God.

His Church Synod is now sending Methius to serve the poor in another country – Botswana, a Synod that truly wants him. But he will not be able to take his family with him. The separation will be very difficult, and he will have limited resources to travel back to see them on a regular basis. He will be a migrant worker.

In the meantime, Methius has no income at all, except from financial gifts from our family and friends, and from a plot of land, made possible by previous gifts, where Methius and his wife grow some of the food for their family.

This is what I wrote to him recently about these future changes in his life: “Maybe God needs you to work in the Vineyard of Botswana. When I ask for help from people, now I can tell them that they are supporting your work as a missionary.”

In response to me, Methius wrote:  “God is always a God of order. His plans are forever perfect. Botswana is Hot, but i will survive and with your talk of a missionary, my heart jumps. it has been my passion to do missionary work, but i always lacked support. i will be strong as long as God will go with me.”

Being a Christian means that we allow Jesus to take us where He wants us to go. Today, Jesus has taken us into some places we might not have wanted to go. He has taken us to places of blood, to places of uncleanness, to places of the outcast, to places of sickness, to places of death which can rob us of hope, to places of disfigurement, to places of encounters with the poor, which can cause us to recoil and feed our greed, to places of leaving what makes us comfortable in order to serve others, to places of the migrant worker who must leave his family.

You, see, following Jesus means that he will lead us to difficult places: to places where we may need to break taboos in order to bring healing, to places where we may need to seek justice for the oppressed, to places where we may need to open our lives and our communities to those who have less than we do.

Following Jesus means we may need to befriend migrant workers or a person in hospice care. Following Jesus may mean that we need to lay hands on the sick to pray for their healing and their comfort. Just as Jesus was a refugee, following him may mean that we are called to work for justice for immigrants separated from their children, or to advocate for persons of different color and ethnicity, different cultures and observances, who are discriminated against in the courts, or on their jobs, or at the borders of countries of refuge.

But when Jesus calls us, he also shows us the way. He gives us courage and strength and generosity. When Jesus calls us, we might be given the courage to overcome our fear of those who are different. When Jesus calls us, we might be given strength to ask others to share more generously, like I am doing today. (It is not easy for me to ask.) When we follow Jesus, we might be given the generosity to give time to those who are lonely or sick. We might be given the generosity to give away more of our income and resources, like the people who have contributed to Methius’ work or to the work of others like him.

This past year, David and I began to contribute 2.5% (two and a half percent) of our gross annual income to Episcopal Migration Ministries. Episcopal Migration Ministries is a ministry of the Episcopal Church that Episcopalians have been supporting for at least 70 years. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has said: “It is because we are followers of Jesus, because we follow the way of love, because we follow the way of compassion, becausewe follow the way of human decency and kindness that we must be passionately committed to helping the refugees and the displaced persons of this day.” Following Jesus might also lead you to contribute to this work or to other organizations like it.

David and I also contribute 2.5% of our gross annual income to Episcopal Relief and Development, 5% to the local Episcopal church and another 5% to a whole array of good causes. Following Jesus means we are called to share with others from our abundance, whether it is meager abundance or overwhelming abundance. And it might mean that we sacrifice some of what we already have.

As we heard in today’s reading, St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Christians in Corinth: “And in this matter, I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year, not only to do something but even to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.

“For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has– not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,

“The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.”

So, how do we know, then, where Jesus wants to lead us, and where do we meet Jesus so he can lead us?

  1. Well, first, we meet him in the living Body of Christ – the gathered Community of Jesus Followers. We need the faith community, with all its flaws and broken history going back 2000 years, in order to fully meet the Risen Christ; because it is in the community of faith and love where we encounter the sacramental presence of Jesus – first, in the Sacrament of Baptism, when we are given the Holy Spirit of Jesus to live in of us and in the community, and second, in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the Sacred Communion, when we are reconciled to God, to each other, and to the world.
  2. Next, we meet Jesus in the scriptures. It is in the scriptures that we discover where Jesus wants to lead us. In the scriptures we see where he went: to the sick, to the dying, to the poor, to the outcasts, to those rejected by others, and finally, even to the Cross. These are hard places to go. Sometimes it might even feel impossible, which leads us to our need for the third place to meet Jesus.
  3. We meet him in prayer, in our time spent with him being exactly who we are, with no pretense. It is in prayer that we discover forgiveness for ourselves and for others. It is in prayer that we discover gratitude and generosity. It is in prayer that we discover faith and strength to follow the Lord into the difficult places. It is in prayer that we come to understand that everything we do in Christ’s name is only possible because of God’s love for us.

In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul also wrote:

“As you excel in everything– in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you– so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

“I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

The ultimate focus and the summary of our faith is the Cross. Jesus died on the cross for all and he rose from the dead for all – to destroy death and fear and sin. The Risen Lord is with us today, to forgive us but also to challenge us, to comfort us but also to strengthen us that we will not be afraid. He is with us today, that we might listen to him and grow in the knowledge and love of him and of all creation. He is with us today to take our hands and say to us, “Talitha cum.” He is with us today to raise us up and lead us into LIFE, and that is LIFE with capital letters!

May it be so!

The Reverend Canon Meredith Hunt

 

 

 

 

 

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Keys to the Kingdom

A Proper 21, September 30 & October 1, 2017              Grace, Traverse City

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

These are harsh words for us nice people, living comfortable lives, sitting in a nice church with a nice priest who will hopefully say nice things today!

You see, I cannot help but think that surely it is a good thing I am not a prostitute or an extorter! So, what is Jesus saying to me? To us? What is the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus is talking about, that tax collectors and prostitutes and other rejected persons of humanity are going to enter before us? How can we nice people also get there?

There are at least three things, which may help. Three keys to the Kingdom.

  1. The first key to Kingdom of God is humility.
  2. The second key to Kingdom of God is to accept God’s power and authority over our own power and authority.
  3. The third key to Kingdom of God is compassion and sacrifice.

The first key to the Kingdom of God, or the Reign of God, the βασιλεία θεός, has everything to do with humility, in particular, the humility described in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

He wrote that humility is not selfish or ambitious or conceited. Humility regards others as better than ourselves. Humility does not look to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Humility is love and sharing in the Spirit, and the compassion and sympathy that brings true joy.

Humility is having “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” That is the humility required of Christians.

The second key to entering the Kingdom of God involves accepting God’s power and authority over our own power and authority, i.e. being emptied of our egos and agendas.

Forty-six years ago, I began my education preparation for ordination in the Episcopal Church. I was required to do field work, and I chose to work in a hospital for indigent alcoholics.

The first day that I met my supervisor, an Episcopal priest, he introduced himself by saying, “Hi. My name is Bruce Noyes, and I’m a recovering alcoholic. You don’t know what that means, but you think you do. During the time you are working with me you will stop wondering why alcoholics drink and begin to wonder how anyone ever gets sober. The first thing I want you to do, is to attend an open AA meeting.”

So I went to my first open AA meeting. I arrived late and I didn’t talk to anyone, because I was afraid. I was afraid someone might think I was an alcoholic. To me, that was just like someone thinking I was a prostitute, I suppose. But during the meeting, which took place in an Episcopal church basement, I experienced something I had never experienced in church – I experienced the speakers sharing incredible personal stories of faith and hope and love.

They didn’t always use the word “God”; but they spoke with such authentic trust in a spiritual being or higher power, that I was profoundly moved, in a way that I had never been moved in church worship services. And these people were humble. They did not trust in their own power, but they had the humility to trust only in the power of God.

Humility is about being willing to work for God’s good pleasure, as the Apostle Paul wrote, not simply for my own desires.

Because we are all born as “I want what I want when I want it” people, we need to be “saved” or “healed” from our “original” and persistent selfishness by being baptized or brought into a community of faith that wills and works for God’s good pleasure, so we can become “I want what God wants when God wants it” people. Submitting to God’s will for God’s good pleasure is the second key to the Kingdom.

Finally, the third key to the Kingdom of God is compassion and sacrifice.

When we have the humility to trust in the power and will of God, we will inevitably be drawn into a life of compassion and sacrifice. God is love and God’s will and pleasure for us is to love others as Jesus loved us, with compassion and sacrifice.

The one follows the other. We can only have compassion (which means suffering alongside of – com passio in Latin), when we have experienced or desire to experience what others have experienced.

Then if we are compassionate and choose to suffer alongside of others, we will need to sacrifice our own desires and money and things; we will need to sacrifice our own will and power.

Anne Lamott is an author who writes about both her Christian life and her recovery from addiction to alcohol and drugs. In her most recent book, “Hallelujah, anyway,” she tells about one of her first AA meetings. As she was going up the stairs to the meeting room with her sponsor, there was a man in front of her, who was very drunk. Then he had diarrhea that ran down his legs and into his shoes and on the stairs. Yet when he got into the room, instead of being shunned, he was immediately helped by men who took him next door to get a shower and who washed his clothes and gave him coffee and something to eat.

Each person who helped him had either experienced something similar or knew full well “there but for the grace of God go I.” Each person who helped him had the humility to reach out in compassion and sacrifice. That’s why people sometimes experience the Kingdom of God more fully present in the basement AA meetings of the church than in the worship room upstairs.

Christians are a people of the Eucharistic Table. When we gather for Eucharist, we can be formed in humility to seek the will and good pleasure of God. We can be formed to live lives of compassion and sacrifice. In Eucharistic Prayer D, the words of the prayer are: “Grant that all who share this bread and cup may become one body and one spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ, to the praise of your Name.”

Augustine of Hippo, who was born in 354, said, “It is you who lie upon the altar; it is you, your very life, within the cup.”

You see, the altar is where there are sacrifices, and as Christians, our very lives are to be the sacrifices of thanksgiving to the living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Evelyn Underhill, an Episcopal Christian and mystic, wrote these words: “…the fully Christian life is a Eucharistic life: that is, a natural life conformed to the pattern of Jesus, given in its wholeness to God, laid on His altar as a sacrifice of love, and consecrated, transformed by His inpouring life, to be used to give life and food to other souls.”

Finally, Frank Weston, the Anglican Bishop of Zanzibar in 1908 wrote: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum…in the ragged and the naked, in the oppressed and the sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them and when you have found him, gird yourselves with His towel of fellowship and wash His feet in the person of His [sic] brothers and sisters.”

Humility, the will to work for God’s good pleasure, and compassion and sacrifice – these are the keys to the Kingdom of God.

  1. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might join with people from St. Phillips and the Diocese to go to Texas and help people rebuild from Hurricane Harvey.
  2. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might give money sacrificially to Episcopal Relief and Development so that people in Puerto Rico or Florida will be helped.
  3. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we might speak out against discrimination and injustice like Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the Head of the United States Air Force Academy did this past week.
  4. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might come and help serve the meal on Friday which helps our local poor and elderly.
  5. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might walk or contribute to the CROP Walk next Sunday.
  6. When we use these keys in the face of suffering, we too might seek to give more to the life and work of Grace Church in our stewardship giving in the year to come.

There are uncountable ways we can become the living sacrifice of the altar of Christ. But humility, compassion and sacrifice all require that our lives, as Christians, be disrupted. To will and to work for God’s good pleasure is not always what we want, when we want it, but it is always opens the door to the Kingdom and Rule of God.

Let’s pray that we can all find it together as Christ’s living Body, as Christ’s living sacrifice.

May it be so. [Amen.]

The Reverend Canon Meredith Hunt

 

 

Overcoming Barriers

Sermon Year A Proper 15 August 20, 2017                    St. Christopher’s, Northport, MI

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We are gathered together today as a group of Christians to share worship and to pray together. And maybe even to be edified by the sermon?

For certain, we each come with our own concerns or burdens, with our own thoughts and fears. We may be facing health challenges or we may know friends who are. We may be facing family challenges or we may know friends who are. We might be seeking consolation or hope, or maybe we simply want to give thanks for our blessings.

In any case, we each bring the events of our lives with us, as well as our reactions to the events of the world around us. Today, I bring with me the recent events in this country and in the world, and my profound concern.

Members of my family are Jewish. Members of my family are Chinese. Members of my family are Roman Catholic. There are members of my family who don’t have any religious practice.

Good friends of mine are equally diverse, from many religious, cultural, and ethnic groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, just to name a few.

This past week a young man, who calls me “Mom”, drove three hours to visit with David and me. He is an undocumented immigrant. He came to this country from great poverty in Mexico, as a youth. He is now halfway through college, while working full-time. He lives with the knowledge that he could be deported at any time, with no recourse, regardless of all the contributions he has made to this country, which he now considers his own. I consider him a son.

Just yesterday, a Congregational Church Pastor from Zimbabwe, who also calls me “Mom”, sent me pictures of his battered old truck, which needs about $400 worth of repairs. That’s an entire month’s salary for him, which he often doesn’t get paid in full and sometimes not at all. In addition to his own two children, he is raising the two children of his brother and sister, who both died from AIDS. Daily, I pray for him and seek for ways to support his ministry. I consider him a son.

Another man, who calls me “Mom,” is a Palestinian American, originally from the West Bank of Israel. He is a US citizen, loves this country, and owns a restaurant in Michigan, which serves wonderful Middle Eastern food. But because he is a Muslim, he is vulnerable to discrimination and attacks from other US citizens. I consider him a son.

I have been affected by the events of this week because there are hate groups, neo-Nazi groups, white supremacist groups, armed militia groups, and fundamentalist terrorist groups, not only in other parts of the world, but here in the United States of America. All of them would seek to remove or eliminate from “their world” all of my “sons”, all of my family members, all of my friends who are different than them. I am full of deep sorrow and profound concern, because this is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, this is not the vision for the Kingdom of God.

The Good News for Christians is that Jesus died for all people that we might be reconciled to each other. Reconciliation is the proclamation of today’s Gospel. It is a healing story, which is both difficult and inspiring.

First, imagine the scene. Jesus leaves a place where he has just challenged the religious leaders of his day to understand that righteousness or “right relationship with God” is not merely a matter of following rules or obeying laws, but rather, “right relationship with God” is a matter of what we do that comes from the heart. Jesus explained to his disciples, “…out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”

In other words, what defiles (or redeems) humans is what is in our hearts and the behaviors that follow.

After these challenging words to his followers, Jesus then leaves that place and goes into Gentile territory. Life under Roman occupation was not easy for Jews in Galilee, but in Tyre and Sidon there were even more Gentiles.

So, it might seem a little strange that Jesus would head north. When there were so many of his own countrymen and women who needed him, why would Jesus go there? We don’t know.

Maybe it was actually to get away from the crowds who were pursuing him for healing and teaching. Maybe he wanted to get a rest. However, it seems that his reputation preceded him, for almost as soon as he arrives, we are told that a Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting, imploring, bothering him and his disciples, seeking healing for her daughter. She calls out to Jesus, “Lord, Son of David.” She begs him, “have mercy on me.” But Jesus ignores her.

This is the difficult part of the story for me, because this doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know from other Gospel accounts. For example, the Good Shepherd, who seeks out the lost and the lame. Or, the Jesus who responded to every person who came to him, requesting healing. Matthew tells us earlier in the Gospel: “Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”  (Matthew 4:23)

Yet, here in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus ignores this distressed Canaanite woman, who only wants her daughter healed. He even justifies his silence to his disciples. When they complain about her creating a disturbance and ask Jesus to send her away, he explains that his ministry is only meant for the “lost sheep of Israel,” for his own Hebrew countrymen and women.

This part of the Gospel story is about two different groups of people who did not trust each other, even hated each other: Jews and non-Jews. Jews were a small minority in the region we now call Israel. They worked hard to maintain their unique identity, and they experienced persecution for their differences. They had strict dietary laws. They had specific worship practices that involved animal sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jews worshiped ONE God – Yahweh (or because the Holy Name was never spoken, God was called Elohim or Hashem). There were no images or statues. They did not worship the Roman Gods or eat with Gentiles. Furthermore, Jewish men did not speak to women except those who were family. Jews kept to themselves. Since Jesus was a Jew, he too was raised to stay apart from Gentiles, just like everyone else.

It is natural to want to stay in our own group, and among the people we are most comfortable with. Jesus was reflecting the human condition of all of us, when he ignored those pleas of a Canaanite woman.

What happens next in the story is instructive, because it reveals that God has a bigger plan for the world. A plan which includes everyone.

Both Mark and Matthew wanted the early Christian community to know and remember this story, because this story is essential to the Gospel, the Good News for all people. It is a story of overcoming barriers which divide us. It is a story of humility. It is a story of healing, not just a person, but a healing of attitudes which divide us.

As the story continues, we learn that the woman refuses to be kept away. Instead, she comes and humbles herself in front of Jesus, and asks, “Lord, please help me.”

At this point, of course I expect “my Jesus”, the nice and kind and welcoming Jesus, to respond kindly and compassionately. But no, the very human Jesus rebuffs the poor woman again. He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus is calling this woman, and her daughter, dogs, animals considered unclean in his culture.

This is difficult for me and even repulsive. What is happening here? Well, Jesus is still behaving as a very human Jewish man. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with this woman from a different group. But the rebuffed woman doesn’t go away. Instead, she challenges him back. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

That’s when a remarkable thing happens, almost unimaginable. Jesus, the man, is humbled. The response of this woman opens his eyes. His heart is touched through the persistence of her need and the depth of her faith. Now, the compassionate Jesus, the Son of God, shows up. He says, “Woman, your faith is amazing and you have touched my heart! Let it be done for you as you desire.” The woman’s daughter is healed immediately.

There is both humility and persistent faith in this story, which overcame the divide between these two people, Jesus and the Canaanite woman, and these two groups, Jews and Gentiles. It is what is also required of us, if we are seeking the healing of the world.

We must be humble enough to learn from those who are different from us, like Jesus. And we must be persistent in our faith of God’s plan for healing, like the Gentile woman. Healing from fear, healing from hate, healing from violence. The opposite of fear is love. The opposite of hate is forgiveness. The opposite of violence is peace. It starts with what is in our own hearts.

When we follow Jesus by living lives of forgiveness and love, in all that we do, we then can become the Beloved Community. We can grow into the Body of Christ, which welcomes people different from ourselves, which helps people in need no matter their nationality or culture, which works together to create a better world, and finally which celebrates all life together. We can then become the Eucharist for which we yearn – the Eucharist for the healing of the world. May it be so.

Trees, dead and dying in Michigan

Trees, dead and dying in Michigan

By merdyd

 

Highwayscapes sprouting

acres of aching,

skyward reaching, skeletal arms

 

countless bare,

beseeching wooden fingers,

pleading futile prayer

 

trees, dead and dying in Michigan,

against the summer sky

 

the gods of acid rain

laugh in derision

 

 

8 August 2016