On being sent out: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year B, 2015

By now, most if not all of you have heard the news coming out of the just-concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Among many other resolutions passed and the election of a new presiding bishop, the items that got the most attention outside of the church from the mainstream media, were the resolutions concerning marriage—the change in the canons, removing the reference to man and woman in the definition of marriage, and the approval for trial usage of new rites for marriage.

We are not of one mind on these issues. Some of view these changes positively, as signs the church is responding to cultural change, embracing and welcoming diversity. Others are much more cautious, even opposed, struggling to understand how these changes fit in with scripture and tradition. While Bishop Miller has suggested that congregations may use these rites when they become available on the first Sunday of Advent this year, as a congregation we will have to discern where we are and how we might move forward together as the body of Christ.

If you are interested in this issue, I encourage you to stick around after service today and join me in the library for a conversation. Bring your questions and concerns as we talk together about the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church as well as marriage equality. This conversation is not just about gender and sexuality, it is about hospitality and mission, two themes that find resonance in today’s gospel.

Jesus comes home in the first section of today’s reading and isn’t welcomed with open arms. Remember that he has been on the road, visiting the towns and villages of Galilee, but also crossing the lake and working in Gentile territory as well. He has healed people, raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, cast out demons, and taught crowds. Now he’s home, enters the synagogue on the Sabbath and preaches. The response from the community is astonishment. They know this guy, he’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary. They know his family and wonder where he gets off talking with such authority and performing the mighty acts they’ve heard about. Their response of astonishment and offense seem to limit Jesus’ ability; instead of performing “deeds of power” similar to those he has done elsewhere, in his hometown, he only heals a few people by laying hands on them.

Jesus resumes his itinerant ministry, teaching and healing, and as he does, he commissions the twelve to share in that ministry. Like Jesus, they traveled about, healing the sick, casting unclean spirits, and preaching repentance. Indeed, these are precisely the same activities that Mark shows Jesus doing in the preceding chapters. The disciples become an extension of Jesus’ himself, proclaiming the coming of the reign of God, and in their actions, offering a foretaste of that reign.

But there’s more. In addition to sending them out and empowering them, Jesus gives them instructions on what to take with them and what to do. They’re to take no provisions with them, no bread or money, to wear sandals and not even carry a change of clothes. In fact, so puzzling are these instructions that when telling the story, Matthew and Luke change the details. In Mark they are to carry a staff and wear sandals; in Matthew and Luke, they are forbidden either sandals or a staff. But all three agree that if they come to a place that rejects them, they are to leave, and as they leave, shake the dust off of their sandals, symbolically demonstrating their rejection of that place.

On one level, these instructions reflect a central concern in the first century or so of Christianity, the local community or congregation responsibility to provide for its leaders, especially for itinerant evangelists. Paul addresses such issues in his letters, stressing at times that he was paying his own way; and in Christian sources outside the New Testament, we see similar instructions for the lifestyle of evangelists. And over the centuries, these instructions have provided inspiration for movements like that led by St. Francis of Assisi, who sent his followers out two by two, and instructed them to wear sandals, no belt, and take no money with them.

We may get caught up in the specificity and simplicity of Jesus’ instructions as well as the dramatic image of disciples shaking the dust from their sandals as they leave a place that rejected them. These details reflect two larger themes that deserve our attention. First, mission. The very word comes from the Latin word, “to send.” Here Jesus sends the twelve out. They are doing the very things that Jesus has done; they are extending his ministry, his proclamation, his presence, and his healing, in places where he cannot go. They are expanding his influence and message.

The second theme is hospitality. Jesus is not welcomed back home—they take offense at him—and apparently because of this response, he is unable to do in his hometown all of the things he can do elsewhere. Jesus instructs the twelve on how to receive hospitality, and what to do if they don’t receive it. It’s that aspect of hospitality that we don’t often think about.

When we talk about hospitality, we tend to emphasize how open or welcoming we are or should be. We think about how we greet newcomers, how we embrace people unlike ourselves. All of that is important, of course but it comes from a position of privilege. We are the ones to whom guests come, we are the ones opening our doors, inviting others in. That’s not what Jesus was talking about here. He was giving instructions on how to receive hospitality.

The disciples he sent out had almost nothing—no food or money, nothing by the clothes on their back, their staff and sandals. They were dependent on the kindness of strangers, for shelter and for food. As recipients of hospitality, they were vulnerable. It’s not a comfortable place in which to find oneself, as anyone who has ever had to ask for help can tell you.

Can our hospitality embody such vulnerability and openness? Can we let go of our privilege and comfort and welcome the possibility of change when we welcome the stranger? Can we be open to their gifts and experiences, open to relationship based on vulnerability and openness, rather than requiring them to conform to our expectations?

We have talked a great deal about hospitality here at Grace; we are talking about issues of diversity and welcome, of reaching out to our neighbors, but most of those conversations are one-sided. We are talking to each other, but not to people beyond our congregation. We are thinking about how we might be more welcoming and do more outreach in our neighborhood and the community but what we are not asking people outside our doors what their needs, and gifts, are. Can we receive what they have to tell us?

Hospitality and mission; there’s something else we ought to reflect on in all of this. We see Jesus rejected because apparently his preaching offended the townspeople. We see Jesus telling his disciples what to do if they’re rejected when they come in his name. Can we imagine ourselves offending others in Jesus’ name? Can we imagine being rejected because we have said, or done things, that make our neighbors uncomfortable?

The most discomfort we might have is hearing these words of Jesus, as he tells his disciples, tells us, to go out and do his work, to travel lightly, to receive what others have to offer, to be ready to receive rejection. It may be uncomfortable, but Jesus is sending us out. When we say the prayer after communion, we accept that responsibility, “Send us now into the world in peace … to love and serve you.” May we accept that mission, may we do his work.

Update on Marriage in the Episcopal Church: Bishop Miller’s statement

Yesterday, the House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops’ approval of the previous day, changing the canons (law) of the Church, and approving trial rites for marriage. My previous post on the topic links to the relevant documents and some of the discussion.

Today, Bishop Miller shared some of his thoughts and suggested how this might play out in the Diocese of Milwaukee:

While I have yet to work out the details, I anticipate I will authorize the use of the trial rites under guidelines similar to those set forth when I authorized clergy to bless civil marriages. As the new rites are marriage rites, clergy will be able to act as agents of the state should they so choose.

Jesus was hungry, not hospitable

I’m working on my sermon for Sunday. The Gospel is Mark 6:1-13. The passage includes Jesus’ visit to his hometown where he was unable to do any “deeds of power” but did heal some people. It also includes Mark’s version of the sending out of the twelve. Jesus instructs them on how to receive hospitality and how to respond if they are not welcomed in a village.

“Hospitality” is one of the key values of contemporary progressive Christianity, especially as mainline, mainly-white churches seek to welcome and include people of color, members of the LGBT community, as well as people of different socio-economic background. Often, such praiseworthy goals are connected with Jesus’ own practice of radical inclusion. Progressive Christians love to say things like, “Jesus practiced radical hospitality” or “Jesus welcomed all to the table.” Such arguments are made not just in our efforts toward great diversity and inclusivity, but also in the Episcopal Church in the ongoing controversy over inviting the unbaptized to receive communion.

Such statements may reflect central values in contemporary progressive worship and theology but as Andrew McGowan notes in a blog post, they don’t correspond to the gospel records of Jesus.

 the welcoming, inclusive, festive Jesus may be a common feature of many scholarly portraits; he is not, however, a strongly-based historical one. Jesus was most clearly someone willing to eat with diverse company, less an inclusive host than an undiscriminating guest. Jesus appears as host only in quite different and more historically contentious material, relative to that where he is depicted as keeping bad company or being a wine-bibber. The “guest” traditions about him are generally defensible; the “host” traditions tend to be more influenced by later reflection than material that scholars in general would actually attribute to the historical Jesus.

He concludes:

Meals were important to ancient Mediterranean society, Jewish and Greco-Roman alike, as venues for the expression and creation of social relationships—not just among families, but for professional guilds, interest groups and, of course, for religious purposes, too. Meals were venues for politics as well as piety, business as well as pleasure.

It is hardly surprising that we find Jesus actively participating in this meal-culture. It was the most obvious means for many types of social interaction, and the carefully-crafted Gospel pictures of Jesus sharing others’ tables certainly have a reliable core.

Nor should we forget the even more basic reality of physical need. Jesus was apparently an itinerant without direct means of support, and his willingness or even desire to be included indiscriminately is not really so surprising in itself. Hunger makes for interesting and diverse table fellowship.

In our gospel for this week, Jesus’ instructions to the disciples help them to receive hospitality, not give it. In many ways, that is more difficult for us. Offering hospitality, especially in the Church, comes from a place of privilege. Receiving hospitality requires vulnerability. That’s true in our worship and in our outreach programs.

The Marriage Mess in the Episcopal Church

I haven’t blogged on issues around marriage and same sex blessings in the run-up to General Convention, for a couple of reasons. First, I found it difficult to wade through all of the materials and the extensive discussion around the various proposals. Second, knowing that the Supreme Court would weigh in on the issue of gay marriage in June, I suspected that its decision would have some impact on General Convention’s deliberations and I thought it best to wait and see.

Well, the Supreme Court has weighed in and yesterday, the House of Bishops weighed in as well. Yesterday, the bishops approved a number of things. They removed from the canons (church law) references to marriage that specified it is between a man and woman and they also approved for trial use beginning the First Sunday of Advent in 2015, two new marriage liturgies. Because they are “trial use,” they can only be used with the approval of the diocesan bishop. More details on the bishops’ actions are available here.

All of these resolutions will need to pass the House of Deputies, and the canonical changes will require approval at the next General Convention 2018. In the meantime, we’re left with at least two different liturgies, the possibility that dioceses will make different decisions about the use of those liturgies, and further strained relations within the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and with many other Christians.

Still, the bishops’ actions are significant. Given the speed with which gay marriage has become legal and accepted in our country, and given the extent to which it diverges from practice in the Christian tradition and traditional biblical interpretation, it’s worth considering carefully what affect these changes might have on the world-wide Anglican Communion and our relations with other Christians.  I’m even more concerned about the precedent this might set for how we will go about our theological and ethical reflection in the future; especially how all this might affect any future prayer book revision (an idea that seems to be getting increasing traction in the church). No doubt wiser minds than I have considered all this and have put their minds at ease.

Jordan Hylden wrote an insightful commentary that explores how the Episcopal Church might continue to make room for dioceses and bishops who oppose same-sex marriage in the church, and leaves us with the question whether the Episcopal Church can develop a way forward that will embrace diversity in doctrine, worship, and discipline.

The liturgies as proposed and other materials related to marriage from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music are available here:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has weighed on the House of Bishops’ votes:

Archbishop Justin Welby said that its decision will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships.

At a time of such suffering around the world, he stated that this was a moment for the church to be looking outwards.

An interesting back and forth hosted by The Anglican Theological Review provides theological perspective and is worth reading, for the way the issues are articulated and clarified.

Get to know our new Presiding Bishop

A video introduction made when he was nominated: http://www.generalconvention.org/pbelect/curry

Video of the press conference he held after the election:

Bishop Curry is a powerful preacher. I encourage you to watch some or all of these sermons

From General Convention 2012:

From last year’s gathering of Episcopal Youth (EYE):

He’s published two books recently: Crazy Christians (2013) and Songs my Grandma Sang (2015)

David Remnick on the last ten days and Obama

“I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person,” Obama told me. “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that, if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that, at the end of the day, things will be better rather than worse.”

Read it all here

  

Who has reached for the hem of our garments and we didn’t notice? A Sermon for Proper 8, Year B

By now, all of you have at least heard about President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney on Friday. If you’ve not taken the time to read or listen to it, I urge you to do so. It’s a powerful reflection from the first African-American president of the US on racism, American history. It’s also a powerful theological reflection on the nature of grace.

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