Thursday, August 28, 2008

From Charity to Hospitality

This week's scriptures are Matthew 9:10-17 and Revelation 3:14-22.

One of the most scathing indictments brought against Jesus and his ministry was that he would eat with anybody. To share a table with persons who were notorious sinners, who were sick, who were ritually unclean...with all the meaning that Jesus' culture attached to 'table fellowship' was a scandal. As icing on the cake of their accusations, these same persons referred to Jesus as a "glutton and a drunk." That way they could write off the challenge to their ideas of holiness that Jesus' behavior presented....after all, he was just partying with these folks for the food and the booze...probably too bombed to realize the kind of people who were hanging out around him. In fact, in a story we'll be looking at in a few weeks, the people watching Jesus said (my loose translation), "if he was really God's guy, he'd know what kind of woman this is fawning all over him." alms to the poor...that was one thing. You can look down at someone you're giving charity to-in fact that's one of the great temptations about charitable giving. But to do the things (particularly eating with them) that symbolized relationship and equality-that's a whole 'nother ball game.

Some years ago, while living in another city, I passed a man in an alley pulling food from the garbage can. I watched for a moment as he pawed through the scrapes and pulled up a large piece of discarded pizza. At that point I called out to him and motioned him to follow me into the resturant whose garbage can he was rummaging through. I gave the clerk some money and told him to give him whatever food he wanted-but no alcohol-and that the rest was his tip. When the street person looked at me and asked why he couldn't have the change, I said, "do you want to eat or not."

I walked out feeling very, very good about myself. I had feed the hungry. I hadn't contributed to the man's (I thought obvious) addiction. And I'd left a nice tip for the resturant waiter. What a truly fine person I was.

I look back on this incident now with some shame. This wasn't was charity...and an arrogant, contemptous charity at that. I didn't welcome this man into my circle. I related to him as a thing-a homeless addict. I judged his life based on his poverty and the level of need to which he had fallen. I did not-would not/could not-see that in a country where most of us live 3-4 morgage or rent payments (or less) away from homelessness, that this man and I had much more in common than we had different. And to top it off, I just naturally assumed that his condition was the result of an had to be his fault. I have often thought it strange that when you or I or one of our friends comes home from a really rough day and pours a's "taking the edge off a bad day." But when a homeless person drowns their pain with Mogan David 20/20 they put themselves in the catagory of the "undeserving poor."

So I ask myself the famous question, "What would Jesus do?" And I'm not totally sure of the answer...or at least the whole answer. But here's what I believe would have happened in part:

Jesus would have walked up and said, as he stuck out his hand, "hey, I'm Jesus. How about having lunch with me."
And, when he got that 'what do you want in return' look (cause if you've always got to be working an angle to survive, you figure everybody else is too), he'd have just laughed and gone, "just'll be good company...come on."

They'd have walked into the resturant and Jesus would have sat down with this man. They'd have both ordered. Maybe they'd both have a beer-who knows. And Jesus would listen. Maybe the man would tell his story. Maybe he'd want to talk about the Red Sox. Jesus would share the table...his time....himself. No judgement. No distance. Just Jesus.

Now that's hospitality. But you know Jesus....he'll eat with anybody....even you and me.

See you Sunday.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thoughts on Last Sunday

I'm heading out later today on another week's vacation before the Fall sets in with all its demands. But I had some thought about Sunday's meditative service to share before I go.

It seems to me (and I admit that I have a lot of theological bias in this direction anyway) that the things said in our sharing about where we think God is leading us have a lot to do with the ministry and discipline of 'Christian Hospitality,' Over the next few weeks we'll be exploring what that means (you saw that coming didn't you?) and how we might live that out.

The first thing that needs to be said is that this hospitality begins with God. It is God's hospitality toward us that is the model for our hospitality to the world.

I heard two kinds of hospitality mentioned Sunday. The first is a hospitality in which our church becomes (continues to become) a place where people can discover and grow in their gifts, skills, and talents; a place of nurture for what God has planted in each of us. The second is a hospitality that reaches out and welcomes the outsider, the different, the lonely.

Both of these are present in our congregation now. Both are reflective of the hospitality we as individuals and as a congregation have recieved from God. As we move forward together may we nurture this gift and be stretched and challenged as we work to create space for Jesus' great banquet of love to happen over and over here.

See you in two weeks.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Having the Mind of a Servant Jesus

This week's scriptures are Matthew 12:15-21, Romans 12:1-8, and Philippians 2:5-11.

'Be a sacrifice,' 'have the mind of Christ'....all of these are high sounding, noble phrases. So much so that we can lose track of what they are calling us to in some lofty expectation of "perfection" that we know we cannot reach. Then we either give up (often in despair) or-what is perhaps worse-become spiritually arrogant about how good we are.

These scriptures come at the end of a brief sermon series meant to help our congregation explore what our ministry should be in the larger community around us. What are we called to do and be. We started with the story of the Good Samaritan and began asking ourselves to look for the "neighbor beside the road" and to try looking at our community through Christ's eyes.

This Sunday, in a medition and pray type service we will share with each other what we feel God is leading us toward.

In preparation for that I would like to focus on two particular images we find in these scriptures: gentle mercy and servanthood.

The Matthew passage uses a quote from the prophet Isaiah that "the bruised reed he will not break and the smouldering wick he will not snuff out." There are a lot of ways that interpreters have played with these two images, but all of them come down to the idea that Jesus does not do violence to our fragile state. He does not beat us up spiritually or otherwise when we are vulnerable in our shame or our weakness. He sees us as worthy of mercy. If we are to be "transformed by the renewing of our minds" so that we have the "mind of Christ" I believe that it calls for us to be acutely aware of the fragile state of many of the folks we encounter. They don't look fragile at first. They look angry, or violent, or distant and aloof. Jesus looks at them and sees the painful wounds they're trying to protect. Can we learn to do the same?

The next image comes from Philippians. This passage was, most likely, taken from the words of a hymn in the early church. It's theme is the 'servanthood' of Jesus. Now 'servanthood' was a word that got tossed around a lot a few years back (though not so much these days). I sometimes think that two of the reasons it lost popularity was 1) that it got identified with a kind of sickly sweet pious humility (not a pretty picture); and-maybe more important-we (myself included) discovered how difficult a model for living this is!

See it's one thing for me to see myself as a 'servant' to you if you're a clean, upstanding, middleclass person like myself. When 'servanthood' means that I offer you a ride when your car breaks down (that is if I know you and you're not too far out of my way) or some similar 'sacrifice' on my part. I can feel good about engaging in that kind of servanthood.

But what if you're a different ethnic group? An abusive mother? A drunk? A mentally ill person? Or maybe you're just an obnoxious jerk who doesn't think like I do...what then? How am I supposed to be the servant to a wife beating, drug addicted person with PTSD? This is where it gets sticky. Let me make it worse...the best translation of that greek word "doulos" isn't "servant." It's "slave."

Jesus did not pick and chose his servanthood in regard to who he would serve. What I believe he did do was to make himself the servant, the slave, of the Image of God in them. He served what they were created to be. I don't know that trying to follow this example is any easier, but it does give me a way to understand what the goal is without colluding with the worst of behavior. With a drug addict, I can make myself the servant of his/her 'recovering self' and not to his/her addiction.

Nancy told a wonderful story at the Bible study last night that I hope she'll share on Sunday about the difference between 'service' that is what we want to do and being in the service of what the person we're helping has as their goal.

Living out this idea of ministry as a church here in Annapolis won't be easy. It's going to call us to examine our gifts; the needs of the community; and our openness to being led by the Spirit into new and challenging places. Frankly, I'm a little scared...I don't know where it will take us, or how it will change me. But I'm also excited. I hope you are too.

Hope you'll join us Sunday.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Naming-And Claiming-My 'Pigs'

This week's scripture is Mark 5: 1-20.

Well, we're back from vacation. Apparently there were small wagers as to whether I would show up on Sunday (I guess folks thought I'd sleep in), but I fooled them all and actually managed to get there.

Last Sunday's Biblical story was about a gentile woman who came to Jesus asking for help for her daughter. As we 'unwrapped' the story we found that it was also a story about the disciples being confronted with a concrete expression of the wide gulf between their racial/religious bigotries and the love that Jesus was attempting to teach them is a cornerstone of the Kingdom of God.

This week's story from Jesus' life also takes place with a gentile. It goes a step further and occurs in a gentile territory. Jesus gets out of the boat after crossing the lake and is immediately confronted by a man with a serious mental illness. Early Hebrew material listed four characteristics of the mentally ill: walking around at night, tearing one's clothes, giving back things given to you, and hanging out in graveyards. So whether you're working out of an ancient model that say the illness is caused by 'demons', or a modern one that says there is a 'chemical imbalance', there is no argument about the resulting illness. (We'll talk some more about demons on Sunday).

What I'd like to focus on here is the fact that the 'demons' were told they could go into the herd of pigs that was nearby. In The Journeying Self Diarmuid McGann asks us what happens if we look at these pigs as a metyphor for all the things about ourselves that we project onto others. The 'demons' from this man's life are sent/projected into the pigs. That action is so destructive that the herd is destroyed.

Let me explain what I mean. I hate arrogant people. I mean I really, really hate them. They set my teeth on edge. Being in the room with one makes me want to grab them by the collar and punch them. (Some of you who know me can probably see where this is going). The problem is that the arrogance I hate in them is often my projecting my distaste/hatred of my own arrogance onto someone else. The truth is, if I've got that strong a reaction to someone....I probably need to look at what in me is pushing the intensity of this reaction. And in the case of arrogance, I am really put off by the fact that when I am feeling insecure, or scared I use my arrogance as a shield to protect me from those feelings....and from letting you see those feelings in me.

These kinds of projections are truly 'demonic' in that they are life destroying-both our lives and those of the ones we project onto. They seperate us from those we're called by Christ to love and embrace as brothers and sisters. And they block us from looking at the places in our life where we need to examine, change, and grow.

Obviously the man Jesus healed was not in a place to do that kind of self examination as long as he was roaming around the tombs and cutting himself. He needed another kind of healing first. But you and I? Maybe one of the things (not the only thing, but one of them) that this scripture is calling us to do is to 'name and claim' our 'pigs.' Where are the places that I'm blaming others, hating others, judging others that represent things in my life that I need to be exploring in prayer and meditation and bringing to Jesus for healing?

We'll be looking at some other parts of this story on Sunday. I hope you'll be able to join us. If you're away, or live somewhere else, please remember that we're posting the sermons here on our webpage (thanks to Jeremy for all that work) and you can listen to them there. Your responses are always welcome...either here in the comments section; or if you want to email me personally through the link on the home page.

Again, hope to see you Sunday.