Title: Tearing Down the Fences
Preacher: Meredith Woods Potter
Texts: Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48
When I lived in Evanston, my back deck looked out onto a golf course. I would enjoy my morning cup of coffee as I watched a family of ducks take a morning stroll toward the water hazard, and on summer weekends I would watch the golfers. It was a beautiful golf course, but in all the years I lived there, I never actually set foot on it. There was a tall, green chain-link fence along the back of my property separating my backyard from the adjacent fairway. The golf course was for members only, and so the exclusive club constructed a chain link fence to make sure that those of us who lived along Princeton Avenue would be excluded.
The words exclusive and exclude both have the same root meaning: prohibiting outsiders. And both of today’s Scripture readings have to do with people of God who tried to establish exclusive clubs in order to exclude from their self- defined “inner circles” those whom they considered to be outsiders – those whom they thought should be excluded
During Moses' time God had given the people of Israel ten simple guidelines for living in relationship with each other and with their God. But instead of just living faithfully and enjoying God and God’s blessings, the Israelites soon became consumed with creating more and more rules and structures in an attempt to define and determine who deserved to be blessed. And those rules and structures became human fences that effectively excluded many from access to God.
This morning's lesson from the Book of Numbers is an example of an exclusive club at work. It all began as the Israelites forgot what captivity in Egypt had really been like, and they became absorbed with their nostalgic but somewhat tainted remembrance of Egyptian food. And so they began to complain and whine to Moses, and in turn Moses complained and whined to God. But with divine patience God told Moses to gather together seventy elders for a meeting. God then promised to empower the chosen elders to help Moses lead the people. An exclusive club was about to be formed.
Sixty-eight of the elders gathered at the Tent of Meeting to receive their commission and God’s divine Spirit. But two of the chosen elders, Eldad and Medad, failed to show up. This led the elders who had been at the Tent of Meeting to decide that since those two had not been present, they could not possibly have received God’s divine Spirit. What a surprise for the elders to return to camp and discover Eldad and Medad prophesying. How dare those who had now been excluded exhibit prophetic powers when they hadn’t been at the Tent of Meeting! The 68 elders attempted to erect a fence to exclude those whom they deemed unqualified and undeserving. What a surprise for them to discover that God has no regard for human fences. God’s Divine Spirit was not to be restricted by human objections.
You would think that the disciples would have known the story of Eldad and Medab and the elders’ attempt to form an exclusive “inner circle.” Yet in today’s Gospel the disciples seem to have forgotten that story. When a local exorcist began to cast out demons in Jesus’ name, the disciples begged Jesus to make the man stop. After all, the exorcist wasn’t one of the disciples; he wasn’t a member of Jesus’ “inner circle” - he wasn’t a member of their club! But Jesus tore down the fence the disciples were trying to erect. Jesus told the disciples that God empowers whom God wills. The Kingdom of God was not to be restricted by human criteria.
Since the time of Jesus, Churches and Christian institutions too often have continued to act like exclusive clubs, erecting fences that say, “members only.” When I was growing up, this altar rail seemed like a chain-link fence that said to me "keep out, only male priests and boy acolytes are permitted in the sanctuary." In fact it was only after I began to study church history in seminary that I learned that altar rails had been first erected in the Middle Ages to keep wandering animals away from the altar. But even after cows were no longer a problem in most churches, the rails stayed. And so for many generations those altar rails were a symbol to many women like me that leadership in the Episcopal Church was an exclusive “men’s club” governed quite literally by “man-made” rules.
Fortunately, the Church has systematically been tearing down those fences throughout my lifetime. Gender and sexuality are no longer fences that impose restrictions on leadership or ministry. Churches are trying harder to accommodate the disables, and in many churches worship is offered in another language to welcome immigrants. We have finally begun to learn that we are all meant to live in God’s Kingdom; we are all called to do God’s work in the world. The problem is that we haven’t done a very good job of telling that good news to our neighbors! Even though we have a sign that says, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” each of us needs to become more intentional about extending that welcome. Inclusivity begins with opening one’s doors, but it only becomes a reality when we invite others to come through those doors! (I know that even if the Evanston golf course had torn down its fence, I wouldn’t have presumed that I was welcome, unless a member had crossed into my yard on a golf cart, and invited me: “Hop in. Would you like to play a round of golf? I’ve even got a spare set of clubs.”)
We had a grand turnout last Sunday for Evensong; the potluck was fun and the service itself was a truly joyous and spiritual experience. But we did it for us. We missed the opportunity to invite friends and neighbors to experience that worship and fellowship with us. Perhaps if we were to plan another Evensong or similar event in the future, we might be more intentional about advertising the event to our friends and neighbors. We might appeal to our neighbors if we were to plan a similar evening in which we planned to gather with friends and neighbors to pray for peace or for the unemployed or for the safety of all children.
Fortunately, God gives us many, many chances and there is another opportunity on the horizon. Two thousand pumpkins will soon beckon our neighbors into our midst. What an opportunity for us to share with those who come to buy a pumpkin, not only about our youth programs, but about all of our activities and ministries. When we hand people a pumpkin we might say, we might say to them, “You know, we here at St. Gregory’s have been invited to live in God’s kingdom – but so have you! We’d like to invite you to join us!!
In the September 13, 2015 sermon, Reverend David Jones challenges us to ask "Who are you?" This sermon is 10 minutes long.
Mourning Into Joy
The Second Sunday after Christmas
January 4, 2015
Dcn Scott Elliott
From the Prophesy to Jeremiah, chapter 31, verse 13:
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the Second Sunday After Christmas. It's not every year that we have a Second Sunday after Christmas. It's easy to see why, from the song: Dah dah dahdah dah dah dah / My true love gave to me….
If there are Twelve Days of Christmas – and there are, no matter what the stores with their "after Christmas" sales say; and if there are seven days to the week – and I think there still are: then there will always be a First Sunday after Christmas, but there will only be a Second Sunday if Christmas is on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. And Christmas was on a Thursday this year, so today, it's Pipers Piping.
Now, you will recall that there are four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And you will recall that the Gospels are all the same, in that they tell the story of Jesus, and what happened next; but also that they are all different, in that they were each written by their own separate communities, and each community wrotefrom their own separate experience of Jesus, and each wrote for their own different experience of Jesus, and each wrote for their own distinct purposes.
These differences become clearest, perhaps, in the four Gospels' different accounts of the Birth of Jesus.
The Gospel of John's birth account isn't a story at all – it is a hymn: a restatement, and a recapitulation of the story of Creation in Genesis: In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And the Gospel of Mark doesn't even have a birth story! To the community which gathered around Mark, it just wasn't important. Maybe that group gave rise to the Jehovah's Witnesses.
So really, all our traditions having to do with Jesus's birth come from only two of the Gospels: Matthew, and Luke.
It is in Luke, and only in Luke – which was written by and for a primarily non-Jewishcommunity – that we get the story of
a decree going out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered,
and only in Luke are there
Angels we have heard on high,
and only in Luke do
Shepherds watch their flocks by night
and only in Luke is Jesus
Away in a Manger / no Crib for a Bed.
It is from Matthew, and only from Matthew – which was written by and for a primarily Jewish community of believers – that we get the tradition of a star rising and resting over Bethlehem, and that star being followed
by Three Kings from Orient Are.
Except that they weren't kings – they were priests and astrologers, and there weren't three of them. Oh well.
And in none of the Gospels do we find that
Snow had fallen / snow on snow.
It doesn't snow in Palestine.
In Luke, we find the Emperor Augustus, of Rome; In Matthew, we find King Herod the Great, of Palestine: a Jewish stooge king for the Romans, an ambitious local politician who got in bed with the Emperor, who propped him up as 'King of the Jews," although he was condemned for his brutality by the rulers of the Temple, the Sanhedrin.
He was a horrible person, who would murder his own family, and who would stop at nothing to preserve his tenuous, weakening grip on power, itself derived entirely from the foreign, imperial, hostile power of Rome. He would stop at nothing,
The astrologers visiting from the East paid a courtesy call on his court, and asked about this miraculous birth they had come to celebrate: the birth of – the King of the Jews. This visit, and the title the astrologers used to refer to Jesus, made the insecure, ruthless Herod feel a little more insecure and in response, he became a little more ruthless. He asked them to find this little baby, and then come back and tell him where he might find him.
But the astrologers really were wise men, and weren't born yesterday: they found Jesus all right, but then they went back home by a different route. This made Herod even more insecure, and so he became even more ruthless, and in order to eliminate this infant rival he had all the little babies in the region of Bethlehem murdered.
Let me say that again: The puppet King, who owed his power to the hated, foreign Empire, and feeling like his power was threatened, murdered all the little Jewish babies.
In the church Calendar,
- on December 25, we remember the birth of Jesus;
- on December 26, we remember the life, death, and witness of the first deacon and the first martyr, Stephen;
- on December 27, we remember the life and witness of the Evangelist John, the 'disciple whom Jesus loved;'
- on December 28, we remember the lives and deaths of these Holy Innocents, who died, protecting Our Lord from the ruler of this world; these children murdered by and for those in political power; and with them, all children murdered by or for those in political power.
And on December 29, we remember St Thomas Becket, an archbishop murdered in his own cathedral at the behest of his sometime friend, the King, who thought he was a threat to his political power.
It is not by accident that we have this monumental week of joy and sadness; not by accident that the holy and the damned, are brought together in such startling juxtaposition; not by accident that our noses are rubbed in the worst of the world that Jesus came to save.
The Hopes and Fears of All the Years.
But as we heard in the Gospel snippet today, the angels tipped Joseph off to Herod's plans, and he took his little family to another kingdom, to safety. He took them to Egypt.
This is not the first time Egypt has figured prominently in Jewish-Christian-Islamic history. It was in Egypt that another Joseph, the son of Jacob, the son of Israel, found refuge from his brothers' attempt to kill him.
It was in Egypt that all the children of Israel found food during the famine, thanks to the political connections Joseph had made with the King, the Pharoah.
In response, it was to Egypt that the whole house of Israel moved, following Joseph – and that's pretty much the last several chapters of the Book of Genesis.
And in Egypt, Israel became strong, and numerous, and the King, began to feel they were a threat to his political power, enslaved them; then he ordered that all the male Israelite babies were to be killed at birth.
But Moses was born among the babies of Israel, and Moses's mother snookered the Pharoah's daughter into adopting him, and letting her, his mother, raise him as his nurse. And eventually, after the Passover, when all the babies of Egypt were killed by the angel of the Lord, the King of Egypt finally Let those People Go, and that's pretty much the story of the Book of Exodus.
So you can see that, when Joseph took his family into Egypt, when Joseph's son Jesus was saved from the hands of the king, and when the family returned from Egypt and settled again in Palestine, that Matthew's Gospel has Jesus recapitulating Israel's Passover-and-Exodus experience.
And more than anything else, the Passover -and-Exodus experience, when Israel is released from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, when Israel is given the Law by Moses at Sinai, when Israel is fed by quails send by God, and manna given by God, when Israel wanders in the wilderness for an entire generation, when Israel is restored to the lands promised to them – the land of milk and honey, the land of farms and fruit trees:
The Passover-Exodus experience is the one which has most deeply formed the Jewish understanding of themselves and their relationships with God, with themselves, and with others.
So it is with us.
It becomes easy to see that, just as Jesus is the new Adam, who comes to free us all from the consequences of the Fall, so also Jesus is the new Moses, who comes to free us from the bondage we have created for ourselves, and the bondage others create for us.
There is no human experience: no shame, no fear; no anxiety, no loss; no alienness, no rejection, no pain; that Jesus does not share, even from his infancy, as a political refugee. Perhaps that is why he has so little patience for those who inflict those wounds. Our wounds are his; and because of that, it can be as it must be, that his wounds are ours.
And so another year begins: and we can look forward with crazy hope. We can look forward to the day:
- when Jesus can walk down the street at night wearing a hoodie and not be shot by vigilantes;
- when Jesus can talk on his cell in a toy store or play with his toys in the park and not be shot by the cops;
- when Jesus can sit with his partner in their police car and not be shot by some loony;
- when Jesus can walk North to safety from chaos in Mexico and Central America, and not be hounded by howling mobs who come out as though he were a thief or a bandit;
- when little babies won't be murdered, by Herod or Caesar, or even by other little babies.
We can look forward to the day that we can sing with Jeremiah:
That the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed us from hands too strong for us.
And we shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and we shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
And shall our young women rejoice in the dance,
and our young men and the old shall be merry.
And God turns our mourning into joy,
and comforts us, and give us gladness for sorrow.
(So let us give) Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; Glory to God from generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.
10:00 AM Holy Eucharist with music