Monday, July 9, 2018

That's a Fine Howdy Do! Mark 6:1-13

It has been an interesting week this week… As I am in the process of finishing up my dissertation on pastoral care with Long term survivors of HIV the church received an email.  It was titled “Read and Heed” very ominous sounding. It really is a chain letter. A piece of mail of ancient fears arising. It warned of a movie due to come out this summer, a movie about Jesus and well let me quote; “The movie "Corpus Christi "is due to be released this June to August. It is a disgusting film set to appear in America later this year which depicts Jesus and his disciples as homosexuals! As a play, this has already been in theaters for a while.   It's called "Corpus Christi" which means "The Body of Christ". It's a revolting mockery of our Lord.  But we Christians can make a difference.”
We Christians can make a difference…yes, we can…but since when is it we Christians Job to spread fear and hatred and lies? 
I debated about addressing this email but sooner or later something about this would come to light, so I thought I better do it.
First a little bit of history from Scopes fact checking…
“This piece about an upcoming “gay Jesus film” is one of those examples that demonstrates a good petition never goes away, even when the issue it addresses has long since been settled (or was never really an issue in the first place). The “gay Jesus film” petition first hit the fan in 1984, and by the end of 1985 more than a million Christians had written protest letters in an attempt to have the non-existent movie it referenced banned.
Yes, non-existent. There never was such a film in production,”[1]
This is the wording form the first petition… “Modern People News has revealed plans for the filming of a movie based on the SEX LIFE OF JESUS in which Jesus is portrayed as a swinging HOMOSEXUAL. This film will be shot in the U.S.A. this year unless the public outcry is great. Already a French Prostitute has been named to play the part of Mary Magdalene, with who Christ has a blatant affair. We CANNOT AFFORD to standby and DO NOTHING about this disgrace.”[2]
That was 1984 and you can hear the fear and outrage this was intended to bring about.
This brings me to 2006, a small church in north Hollywood that welcomes all, including a young man named Nic Arzen…His story is amazing and I want to share his words with you today.
“(RNS) As a Catholic boy growing up in Iowa, I was always drawn to Communion. There was something deeply powerful about the act of rising from our seats together and all taking part in the same ritual. I guess it made me feel safe to be bound, to these other people — that I wasn’t alone in the world.
But by the time I was in my teens, those warm feelings began to sour.
The idea that Jesus was reserved for those who were found worthy enough to receive him was such a contradictory notion to me and felt elitist. I became confused, angry and judgmental — seemingly a perfect Catholic! But I could never be a perfect Catholic. I was hiding that I was gay, and it was made abundantly clear there was no way I was going to heaven.
I was embarrassed for who I was and ashamed that I had failed. Mostly, though, I was sad. I was sad that I let my parents down, and that I learned so many wonderful things about being good, but no matter how hard I tried I could not rid myself of the flaw that would damn me to hell.
I was devastated that I would no longer be allowed to walk down that aisle as a welcomed member of the parish, that I would never walk down that aisle to marry the person I loved.
My relationship with the church was over, for it would not love me as I loved it, or as God made me. I left, feeling that I was no longer a part of this community, and sincerely believed I would never find true love. I would miss both communion and Communion.
I spent my 30s struggling to figure out who I was and why I was so destructive in my relationships. I was lucky enough to find a patient partner and start a family. That was about the time that the play “Corpus Christi” came into my life.
In “Corpus Christi,” playwright Terrence McNally reimagines Jesus as a gay man growing up in 1950s Texas. It opened off-Broadway in 1998 to angry letters, bomb threats, and massive protests. The spectacle drowned out the play’s central message: that the church should be a place where all are welcomed, including gays and lesbians.
In 2006, I launched a new production of the play. The play was scheduled for only nine performances.  Amazingly, our production went on to tour the world for six years and counting, performing everywhere from Ireland to Texas.
Whatever resistance we faced wasn’t enough to impede our performance. Our troupe was taking the kind and powerful words of Scripture to audiences around the world through the very same “gay Jesus play” that so many had rushed to denounce as blasphemy.
The production inspired a documentary, “Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption,” which chronicles the journey of the 108 Productions cast and crew. Yet it also asks two central questions: Where do gay men and women belong at the table of spirituality?  And why would they want to come back to religions that so often pushed them away and made them feel unworthy?
What I didn’t expect, and what turned out to be the greatest gift of all, were the audiences we were privileged to interact with along the way. Every location provided new stories and new healing.  As they healed, we healed. This was where we learned the true lesson of the play: It is by our communion with others that we find ourselves.
When we open to them, and they open to us, and we feel connected to more than just a play. We feel connected to the world, and realize we will never be alone. That’s where Jesus still lives, and why “Corpus Christi” can culminate in a crucifixion but end with hope.
We learned to listen to these strangers and quickly found they were not strangers at all. We returned from every trip with a feeling of connection, a sense of being a part of something bigger than we could imagine or describe. You might even call it communion.
“Corpus Christi” has become much bigger than us. We’re just a part of it, and the people we’ve met along the way are the ones who are truly taking the lead. And that, to me, is the ultimate communion with the Spirit.”[3]
Gay writer James Langreaux, who viewed the play several times, wrote about an event that happened in a performance in Hollywood. He speaks about a heterosexual married friend who believed that Jesus could change your sexual orientation from gay/lesbian to straight. He brought his friend to a performance of Corpus Christi:
…my friend jumped out of his seat and ran to the foot of the stage, (“Oh my God, Ian...what are doing?) With reckless abandon and utter humility, Ian leapt up on the stage and fell on his face where he wept loudly and kissed the actor’s bare feet.[4]
Ian’s dramatic and emotional reaction stunned the cast and audience.  Many started to cry as well as they witnessed the scene. But there were hundreds of profound and less dramatic emotional responses of audiences, who heard the carnal story of Joshua and his troubled relationship with Judas and institutional religion. For eight years, the cast, mostly non-affiliated with institutional religion, became an ecclesial community with a story about same-sex love and fighting against homophobic bullying. They made a documentary “Playing with Redemption,” now on Netflix, detailing their experience and the transformation that they derived from the play. The cast became a post-modern church with a mission to fight for marriage equality and against homophobic bullying.[5]           
Why am I sharing all of this?  Just because of a little email?  Why is this in the sermon? Well Did you hear todays Gospel?  Did you hear the indignation of his home town?
“the power of God at work in Jesus, in the Gospel reading from Mark, is not something the people of his hometown of Nazareth could wrap their minds around. He's just returned from a road trip, a fairly successful tour in the area surrounding his hometown, and they've undoubtedly heard about the spectacular things he's been doing. That sort of news travels fast.”[6]
I get it, I mean who wants to hear from the kid that was raised right there with them?  Who wants to hear from the son of Mary…Notice I said son of Mary not Joseph…Jesus was a bastard and you can bet the whole town knew it! How can a bastard…nothing more than a carpenter, with no theological training be doing all these things? Where does this authority come from, they ask?
“Richard Swanson sees their reaction in a slightly different light than pure disapproval: we should, after all, expect some pushback, some questioning from a people named after Israel, that is, Jacob, "the one who wrestles with God." Swanson actually sees both respect and faithfulness in the synagogue crowd's response: "The congregants honor Jesus with an argument" (Provoking the Gospel of Mark).”[7]
I think that is a bit of a stretch though I do like the concept of being honored with an argument.  Unfortunately, in Jesus home town this quickly turns from argument, to taking offense, to rejection. That’s a fine Howdy do! No home town kid makes good!  No parade!  Not even a dinner thrown in his honor. It is often pointed out that this is the last time that Jesus will preach in a synagogue, at least in Mark.
“Jesus takes his ministry of proclamation out to the people, on the road, so it's no surprise that he instructs his disciples to do the same. (The Reverend Otis Moss III calls this approach "iPod theology"--mobile and more effective than waiting for the people to "come to us.")”[8]
In a sense this is what Terrence McNally did with his play Corpus Christi;
“Corpus Christi is a passion play. The life of Joshua, a young man from south Texas, is told in the theatrical tradition of medieval morality plays. Men Play all the roles. There is no suspense. There is no scenery.  The purpose of the play is htat we begin again the familiar dialogue with ourselves: Do I love my neighbor? Am I contributing good to the society in which I operate or nil? Do I, in fact, matter? Nothing more, nothing less. The play is more a religious ritual than a play. A play teaches us a new insight into0 the human condition. A ritual is an action we perform over and over because we have to.
Otherwise we are still in danger of forgetting the meaning of that ritual, in this case, we must love on one another or die. Christ died for all of our sins because He loved each and every one of us. When we do not remember His great sacrifice, we condemn ourselves to repeating its terrible consequences.
All Corpus Christi asks of you is to “look what they did to Him. Look what they did to Him.” At the same time it asks you to look at what they did to Joshua, it asks that we look at what they did one cold October night to a young man in Wyoming as well. Jesus Christ died again when Matthew Shepard did.
Look. Remember. Weep, if you will, but learn. And don’t let it happen again.”[9] – Terrance McNally 1998
The thing about this play…It does what Jesus does…It takes the story of Gods love for all, the Message of Jesus and moves it out of the churches.  This play reaches those who are marginalized, alienated from the Church, cast out by family and friends and looks them in the eye and says you are Loved and now go out and love some more.
Jesus rejected by the synagogue and religious leaders takes to the streets.  He walks with the outcast.  Jesus heals untouchables.  Jesus moves the hearts of roman guard, tax collector and Samaritan alike.  Jesus sends out fishermen…simple uneducated people and what happens? What Happens?  The redeeming Love of an all loving God reaches more.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
Jesus was indiscriminate in his ministry and very much so visible in contradiction with those in authority. Today’s modern United Church of Christ does the same when juxtaposed to other denominations.  How so you may aske, by being the open and affirming denomination we proclaim God’s love for all.  As Christian we proclaim that we are made in the image of God.
As a congregation you are seeking a pastor… “This minister will be comfortable talking to the young people as well as the 90-year olds. Likewise, they will assist us with reaching out to the Latino community, LGBTQ communities, the homeless communities, homebound community, people suffering with mental illness, and varying ecumenical groups.”
You are describing Jesus’ ministry and why he actually had to leave the synagogues behind.  This is why Jesus’ disciples were itinerant ministers on the road going from town to town because these people were often only reached on the streets through likewise loving and open mined people. 
I am Glad for that email that arrived in our office.  I am happy to have addressed this here today because it so speaks to our Gospel reading. I trust that the email was shared out of concern though perhaps misplaced. I am sure there was no understanding of the pain it could inflict. I hope my words and reflections only offer comfort or the opportunity for argument.
I do not believe there is a need for me to shake the dust from my sandals…. But perhaps, it wouldn’t hurt to remind ourselves who we are called to be as a congregation
The congregation of the United Church of Christ in Petaluma declares itself to be open and affirming of all God's people. We commit ourselves to nurturing a faith community where all people who seek the love and grace of God are welcomed and loved, regardless of race, ethnic or national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities, economic condition or marital status.
We openly welcome and invite all to join in the worship, fellowship, membership, employment and leadership of our congregation, and to participate fully in the life of the church.
In affirming the value of all God's people we:
             Recognize we are all created by, loved and accepted as God's children;
             Believe God's children are gifted by God with unique talents and attributes;
             Believe we are born with God-given dignity, and that all people share the worth that comes from being unique individuals created by God;
             Respect the dignity and self-worth of all persons.

We believe we are called by Jesus' teachings to love our neighbors as ourselves. We commit ourselves to reach out to all who wish to worship and affirm their faith in God. We commit ourselves to respond to the needs of those who have experienced exclusion, prejudice and discrimination in Christian churches as well as society.

[2] ditto
[4]   James Alexand Langreaux, Gay Conversations with God: Straight Talk on Fanaticism Fags, and the God Who loves Us, (Scotland. UK, Finghorn Press, 2012, 136-137.
[5] See: Nic Arnzen and Cast, “Communion: Playing with Redemption,” in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at Table for LGBTQI Folks at Table, ed. Robert Shore-Goss, Patrick S. Cheng, Thomas Bohache, & Mona West, Santa Barbara, Praeger/ ABC-CLIO 229- 249
[7] ditto
[8] ditto
[9] McNally, Terrence. Corpus Christi: A Play. New York: Grove Press, 1999.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Do not be Afraid, Just believe. Mark 5:21-43

A New Testament professor in seminary teaches her students to read the Gospels between the lines and behind the words. There's so much meaning there, she would say, in the text, right before your eyes and yet we quite often miss it entirely. For example, last week’s reading, the crossings over the sea: if we focused more on the small picture, what was happening to people, right then, when Jesus arrived at his destination. There was always plenty to concentrate on, but the bigger picture might escape your attention.

Last week we spoke of the sea being that liminal space, dangerous, full of fear and the unknown.  It was a place of boundaries, so what does it mean that one side of the sea was Jewish territory, and the other Gentile?  Stepping into the unknown there is tension and a risk, maybe even danger. Jesus and the disciples are going somewhere less hospitable, less comfortable, less safe. If you were a first-century Jewish Christian, you probably would not have needed anyone to set the scene for you?

In the hearing of this Gospel you would have felt the tension as you listened to the story. “Think of border crossings into North Korea or Syria or Iran today: the danger they hold and the international crises they provoke. And what about the border crossings on our minds every day, during this most recent immigration crisis?

The storms and the risks are something we understand metaphorically as we face the challenges in our life as the church, taking the risk of opening ourselves up and reaching out to the other. It wasn't an easy crossing for the disciples, either.
“This tension runs underneath the narrative in many of the stories in the Gospel of Mark. After spending time on Jesus' preaching with words, Mark turns to the way Jesus preached with his actions, in a sense, showing, not just telling people what the reign of God looks like. Jesus goes back and forth across the sea, doing many works of wonder and yet not always receiving a warm reception. Another theme that runs throughout these stories is really a way of describing that reception: faith, or no faith. Faith, or fearfulness. Faith, or confusion or hard-headedness or maybe even hard-heartedness.”[1]

The Gospel this week sits on that point between faith and fear, faith and despair and even faith beyond hope. There are two stories in one here, both of them taking place on "this" side of the sea, the familiar side of the sea, you might say Jesus is with his people for he has just returned from Gadarene from Gentile territory where he met and healed the madman. In kind the villagers, perhaps politely but definitely with fear, asked Jesus and his followers to leave. “Fear, not rejoicing, was the response of the people who witnessed the spectacular and very public healing of a man who had unclean spirits; surprisingly, they didn't flock to Jesus in hope of more miracles.”[2]

This week's passage contains two stories. “Both stories involve women in crisis--in fact, we don't know them by their names but by their needs--both "daughters" of Abraham, not outsiders to begin with but now both subject to the taboos around the mysterious power of life (blood) and the even more mysterious (and seemingly unconquerable) power of death. There were those who believed that bleeding women and dead girls should be avoided, at the risk of conveying their uncleanness to others.”[3]

“The number twelve is significant in Jewish thought (for example, the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles), so it's no coincidence that the woman has been bleeding (and therefore cut off from life) for twelve years. Richard Swanson says that blood is "the place that God's first breath is understood to inhabit a human being, the place also from which we give life back." He finds it intriguing that the word "flow" could also be translated as "river," as "this woman's life is swept along by a condition that persists for far too many years" (Provoking the Gospel of Mark).”[4]

In "Faith and the Vulnerability of Children", Brooks Berndt points out that “The theme running throughout this narrative is that of faith: faith in God despite the circumstances. Scholars have suggested that the repeated use of the number twelve for the age of the girl and the duration of the woman's hemorrhaging suggests that this story is ultimately a metaphor for the faith of Israel with its twelve tribes.”[5]

So, we have Jesus landing on the shore, he is mobbed, then Jairus a leader of the synagogue pleads with Jesus to heal his daughter, and then Jesus is on the move form point A, the shore, to point B, Jairus house. It is here in this in between space that Jesus’ cloak is touched.  Not even his physical body but his cloak.  Jesus doesn't permit this touch to go unnoticed, he does not let it remain in an in between space, anonymous, something that just happens in passing.  He stops he scans the crowd and asks, “who touched my clothes?”

 Jesus “lets himself be sidetracked from hurrying to the synagogue leader's home long enough to find the person who has reached out to him with a touch that's more specific, more intentional, than merely jostling him in the crowd. Perhaps the crowd wanted to get near a celebrity, but this woman was reaching for her life. Jesus felt both her weariness and her deep hope. How could he simply walk away?”[6]

Life has been renewed, a miracle has happened and again it happened in that in between space, that liminal space between here and there.  What’s the saying…something about its not the destination but the journey? This liminal space has become a destination, a place of learning, a space of healing, a space of faith beyond hope. It is for that very reason that we need to stop, breathe and take notice.  Mark is telling us where we least expect it…in our rush from point A to point B…miracles happen.

The next nameless woman has just reached adulthood at twelve years old (that means the older woman has been bleeding during this girl's entire lifetime). However, an unknown illness has struck her down. This leads her father, who in the best of ancient fashion does get a name, to seek out Jesus in his desperate search for help.

We know this man is "an important person," a religious leader in the synagogue. “Since first-century synagogues were local communal institutions, it is not surprising that there is no evidence for a centralized group that determined what took place inside of them. Although scholars used to assume that the Pharisees (the likely precursors to the rabbis) were in charge of synagogues, most first-century sources identify elders, priests, and archisynagogoi (Greek for “heads of synagogues”) as the leaders of synagogues (Philo, Hypothetica 7.12-3, Theodotus Inscription, Mark 5:22-23). Rabbinic leadership of synagogues (which is what we are familiar with today) was limited in the first few centuries C.E. and didn’t crystallize until the medieval period.”[7]

So here we have a leader of basically a slightly organized study group.  Since there was no central control over the synagogues Israel often kept an eye on them and tried to keep them in control. Knowing he may have been being watched didn’t matter at this point. “His precious child's illness has reduced him to falling to the ground in front of a traveling folk healer in a last-ditch effort to prevent the worst from happening. This man's name is known to us: Jairus. Megan McKenna tells us that his name (onomati 'Iairos) in Greek is "a clue to what is going to happen": it means "he who will be awakened, or he is enlightened" (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross).”[8]
This man in-spite of risk of being seen as encouraging Jesus’ ministry, in-spite of knowing that anything could take a person’s life and most likely at any given moment something would. This was before Science was able to intervene if oyu got sick more likely than not you died. John Pilch observes that in Jesus' time "60 percent of live births usually died by their mid-teens" (The Cultural World of Jesus Year B) This was just a fact.   Many adults did not want to get too attached ot their children for this very reason and for a man to seem to care so greatly for a daughter in this time is truly amazing.

“The gift of a child must have seemed too precarious to invest in wholeheartedly, yet this man couldn't bear to lose his little girl even, Charles Campbell writes, "at a time when daughters were not valued as much as sons" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). By going to this itinerant preacher-healer who was already in trouble with the authorities (authorities like him, in fact, his colleagues and perhaps even his friends), he risks being ridiculed, and he also risks missing the last few precious moments in his daughter's life.”[9]

This man was on life’s journey from point A to Point B.  He knew what was important. He knew what was right and what was wrong.  He knew the law. He knew that this Jesus was a trouble maker.  He knew the talk against him. But then in the middle of his planned-out life his daughter becomes ill. In this in between time this unplanned time arises fear, arises desperation, arises re-evaluation. This Jesus who was more a trouble make and a nuisance has now become his refuge, his only hope. Then to make it more poignant as they are on their way from the shore to his house even his hop dies. His servants come to tell him don’t bother the master for your daughter has died. “when the news arrives of his daughter's death. Jesus, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, then preaches the "shortest sermon of his career: 'Do not fear,' he says to the grief-besotted man, 'only believe.'"[10]

Now there is a sermon; “do not fear, only believe!” In the midst of unbelievable odds, in the liminal place where fear and confusion reign, do not fear just believe. What ever troubles your soul be it small or be it huge, do not fear, only believe.  When life catches you off guard, when you are just trying to get from point A to point B move forward without fear step boldly in belief.
I do not believe I can add any more to Jesus words here…If you never remember anything I said or anything I said …that is great as long as you do what Jesus has taught us here Do not fear only Believe. And when it is all over, when we have gotten through whatever we need to get through remember the last part of the gospel get up, walk and have something to eat! Yes, that’s all remember top get up, walk have something to eat and do not fear only believe…If you can do that you can do anything…amen!

[2] Ditto
[4] Ditto
[9] Ditto
[10] ditto