The sermon for week March 01, 2015
Traveling CompanionsOn Monday evening of this past week, around 11:30 at night, I was struck that one day I will die. It seemed fitting, it is Lent after all. I was reading Gilead, a novel by Marilynne Robinson about a Congregationalist pastor, dying of a heart condition, who writes letters to his young son. The writing in the book is masterful. Maybe it's Jacq Kirkendall's sudden death. I lay there in bed and pictured my wrinkled hands holding a book, wondering where all my life had gone.
So many thoughts came in that instance, and I was struck. I felt empty, like all pretenses dropped and I knew I am a future dead person. This is what theologian St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” I prayed, I said, “Lord, thank you for the gift of my life, for my wife beside me, for my sleeping kids down the hall. I am afraid it is all going too fast, so help me be patient. Help me savor. Help me find you. Jesus, come into my heart. Spirit guide me and make me kind. Thank you for life, still my fear. Teach me how to die. Amen.”
I thought about so many things. One memory came very clear. When I was 17, I worked at the mall in the Sears stockroom. I brought out your washers and dryers and loaded them in your car. I loved this job, and I met a really good friend there. We'd joke around all the time, prank each other. We became really close. One day, I pranked him with the old “put-a-sign-on-his-back-without-his-knowledge.” You know, the old “kick me” one? But mine didn't say “kick me.” I thought I was so clever.
We took our lunch break and headed to the food court. We were waiting in line, when the manager of the local movie theater saw the sign on my friend's back. I knew him pretty well, I was at the movies every other Friday. Sometimes I would ask for the movie posters of films I liked, and sometimes before or after a film, we'd discuss the film, and he'd tell me about other ones to check out. He was a good man.
“Who put this sign on his back?” he asked, very irritated.
“I did,” I said, laughing.
“It's not funny. Not at all. Please take it off and reconsider coming into my theater again.”
The sign came from the bottom of a box. It was the company who made the boxes. It read, “Gaylord.”
“Whoa... what?! It's funny!” I said.
“No. It's not. I'm gay. I am a person, not a slur.”
For years, I thought that there were no gays outside of New York and San Francisco save for rumors about one teacher. I was struck dumb then. I was struck by my ignorance and how guilty I felt having harmed another human being, especially one whom I respected and liked talking to.
I had caused suffering. And more so, I encountered someone who I thought was outside my group, part of a dangerous and insidious class of society. A group of people who weren't like the rest of us, somehow uncivilized and wild, who didn't obey our rules or abide by our morals. I was floored.
Mark chapter 8 might be the most important chapter in the Gospel of Mark for me. It's the middle chapter, as there are 16 chapters; it's a hinge chapter, a turning point. Jesus is out wandering and for some reason, he's in Gentile territory. These are people who aren't like Jesus' people. They are somehow uncivilized and wild, who didn't obey the rules or abide by the standard morals of the day.
Jesus just met the Syrophoenician woman in Chapter 7 while he's in the region of Tyre. This is a prosperous Roman port where no good Jew would go. This woman approaches him and asks him to heal her sick daughter. Jesus says he's for the Children of God, namely the Jews, and calls her a dog, which even now is a rude thing to call someone. She famously retorts, “Even dogs get scraps from the children's table.” Jesus heals the daughter and then heads east to the region known as The Decapolis, which is a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. He's on the wrong side of the Jordan and he heals a man with an unclean spirit. It is in this region our story takes place today. Jesus has compassion on these people and wants to feed them so they don't faint on their walk home. As in chapter 6, he sends the disciples out with a few loaves and some fish and they bring back way more than they sent out.
7 baskets of left overs. In chapter 6, it was 12 baskets of left overs. Numbers are never just numbers in the Bible, they most often mean something. 12 is for the 12 tribes of Israel, the number of the chosen tribes, Jesus' Jewish roots. 7 would be the 7 Gentile kingdoms which surrounded the 12 tribes. Here is the turning point. Jesus thought he was just for the Jewish people, and now he's making it known he's for the Gentiles too. He's for all people. Even the crumbs left by the children will be substantial.
But the disciples didn't get this. So Jesus has to remind them, “Hey, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” It’s like he’s saying, “Do you not get what I'm about? Do you not see what I'm doing? I have drawn the circle wider! All are children of God, all deserve wholeness and restoration. All are gifted with life and shouldn't suffer more than necessary, all are in need of healing and love. Perhaps you’ve been corrupted by the leaven of the Pharisees, always dividing and drawing tiny circles around just you and your friends.”
This is why “All are welcome without exception” is in our mission statement.
I felt God was saying the same thing as I stood in the line in the food court with the movie theater manager. “Do you not know this too is my child with whom I am well pleased?” I unwittingly belittled and called out someone whom I regularly spoke to, talked religion and pop culture with. Someone who I thought was “one of us” was actually one of those who I was taught were “one of them” a Gentile, an “other.” Like the disciples, I didn't get it and had to be reminded. I had it right the first time, there is only “one of us” there is no “other.”
Jesus says in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” How then can I call anyone “other”? How can I be sure Jesus isn't going to feed them as well? Do I still not understand?
I most likely don't. And I will need some reminding, like I was reminded on Monday night that all life is a gift. A gift unasked for, that all of us find ourselves in. A gift that goes too fast, that once we figure out what's going on, it's over or we're not able to do what we need or used to do. I'm struck by the brevity of life and how we all struggle through. I mourn that there are oppressive systems in place, that we treat one another as “dogs” and Gentiles. I mourn that others must march and demand that they be seen as human beings who are worthy of the same rights and basic dignity as those of us who are born with the “right” gender or skin color or sexual orientation or physical or mental capacity. I struggle with the violent reaction like we see in ISIS that leads others to cut people's heads off or burn them alive. I don't understand why someone would cut another's life short.
All life is a gift, one that came unasked for to all of us, one we just happened into and will never fully understand. I hope to be one who leaves more blessing than pain. I hope I am one who can call for fairness, be a voice for the voiceless, and widen the circle of who we'd call kith and kin. For we are all traveling companions on this journey of life. We're all walking a path, and we might have very different understandings of that path, how best to walk it, and where it ultimately leads... but we're all here, together on it. Baffled by finding ourselves here, scratching our heads about this situation we find ourselves in.
We are one. We so are genetically similar we could be considered one. On the TV show, Hit Record, they cover this concept of all humanity being one. The program points out the Pando Forest in the middle of Utah. 40,000 trees there are genetically identical and connected by one giant root structure. They have the exact same DNA, and scientists consider it to be one living organism. It has lived in harmony for over 80,000 years.
But then, there's a larger living organism in Oregon. It's the Honey Mushroom, known as the humongous fungus. It covers 2,200 acres. It has to kill to survive so it's slowly destroying trees. Like the Pando Forest, the mushrooms are genetically identical and are considered one organism. It's like the evil twin to the Pando forest. The show ends by stating that all of humanity is 99.9% genetically identical. We’re not connected by a root system, but we're kind of like one single organism. So what kind are we, the life-sucking poisonous mushroom kind or the harmonious forest kind? (HitRecord)
I think we're a mixed bag. We're taught who our people are, and we define ourselves by who we are not. I'm Irish because I'm not English. I'm Northview because I'm not Southview. I'm a Protestant because I’m not Catholic. I'm Christian because I’m not Muslim. This tribalism spawns all sorts of horrible behavior.
Yet Jesus makes the move away from this thinking. “How many baskets? Who am I feeding here? Who do I care about?” Jesus asks his disciples. He begs us to draw the circle wider and include even our enemies. This sounds more like the Pando Forest. This sounds like the beloved community I want to be a part of.
I don't know how to get there. I just know that my life is short and it will end. It is a gift and I best start treating it like it's special and awesome. This means having more patience for my wife and children. More time for each of you, to listen to your joys and concerns. To walk with you, and help where I can no matter where you are on life's journey. I don't know what you struggle with. I don't know what shame you carry around or who you think are your Gentiles. Maybe it's your crazy cousin, maybe it's yourself. Maybe it's someone who's already in your life who you don't know is part of another group: maybe they're Democrat or Republican or apathetic. Maybe they're gay or lesbian or straight. Maybe they have a secret they feel they can't tell anyone. Like that movie theater manager who came out to a dumb 17-year-old. He was very brave, and I respected him for it. It was only when I came home from college one weekend that I apologized and said how sorry I was. I thanked him for his bravery. He taught me that we're all fed by the same Shepherd, and we all eat from the same basket.
And you do that here too! Church, you don’t know the impact you have. I recently heard of one little boy who has food allergies--he can’t eat processed foods as there’s too much gluten, sugar, and food coloring in it. Yet at the start of the new year, we had fruit and veggies for snacks in the Gathering Area, and he turned to his mom and said, “LOOK! I CAN EAT THIS!” He was included, and it felt like coming home to him. And offering gluten-free communion bread is a sign to others saying, “We see you.” Food allergies and gluten intolerance are only going to be on the rise, so it is good that we’re out in front of it and trying to be in harmony with one another. We all eat from the same basket.
The only response to the gift of living should be one of gratitude. I should do no harm and not add to the burden of others. I should treat my traveling companions how I would like to be treated. This is a simple call, yet it is the call of a lifetime and it is enough. May we bless, may we feed, and may we be blessed to find friends as we gather up all the left overs surprised at the abundance of life we find.
HitRecord. Episode One RE: One. January 6, 2014.