This is the Gospel reflection I shared at worship on Sunday, June 3, 2018 before stepping down from my staff position at St. Mary's and taking some sabbatical time. It's longer than a usual blog post but folks requested a transcript so here you go. MARK 2:23-3:6
I love this Gospel so much. Jesus and his friends are hungry on the Sabbath and they start plucking heads of grain to eat. Leaving part of your fields unharvested for the poor and the alien was something the Jews had been practicing for generations. So the disciples weren’t stealing but the Pharisees were still mad. Mad because this could be considered working on the Sabbath.
And Jesus responds by saying – did you never read about David going into the house of God and eating the food that was supposed to be only for the priests and then giving some to his friends? The sabbath was made for humans – not the other way around. And by the way, I’m Lord of the Sabbath.
So when Jesus enters the synagogue and sees the man with the withered hand, especially after this very in-your-face comment, the Pharisees are watching. And he asks them what is lawful. Basically, is it right to let someone suffer for the sake of the rules? They stay silent. This should have been an easy answer but their hearts were hard. They would rather cling to their rules than relieve someone’s suffering. Jesus would rather, in their eyes, break the rules than miss an opportunity to heal. To love. They had made the Sabbath a burden and it was supposed to be a gift. Jesus was fully divine but he was also an earthly rebel, a radical, and a realist.
About half of the new people that walk through our doors at St. Mary’s have been wounded in some way at the hands of Christians. And most of that wounding has been the result of faith based on rule-following. It’s like we forgot that Jesus came to show us love is the way. That love is more important than anything else. Literally anything else. He was in the real world – seeing the real suffering – and the real value of each person.
Some of you may know that in addition to helping newcomers here find their way at St. Mary’s, I also help people across the country who have been wounded by their church experiences return to Christian community. These folks never stopped believing – they stopped belonging. But they long for the community of support found within a church. They are limping along and still looking. So bravely.
Hearing the stories of people who are seeking God is my most precious honor. And these journeys are as unique as snowflakes. Some come here and are singing in the choir on their second visit like our precious Strow family… Some visit and it takes two years for them to come back and jump in… Our precious Kirkpatrick family with little Eloise – that baptism on Pentecost was two years in the making. The great thing about St. Mary’s is that we value both of those journeys equally. Some are so afraid that they email, FB message, and meet before they step foot in this church.
Being able to introduce these seekers to the Episcopal Church is the best. You may not be aware of the jewel of Christian community that we have to offer to the world. As I hear the stories of church experiences that were based on rule following and the fear and judgment that goes with that – it is heartbreaking.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “whenever people aim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page become more vital than defending the neighbor. As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.”
I call these folks my tenders. They are taking off some of their armor to come to church and there are tender places exposed. It is truly a miracle and a response to the Holy Spirit.
But when they say: I never knew church could be like this. That is the BEST. and when they say, I just want to be able to ponder scripture. God isn’t in a box for me anymore and I need a community where I can explore that. And I think I can do that in the Episcopal Church. The BEST. I had one person tell me that a website for an Episcopal Church said that if you don’t know what you believe, come on in. If you have doubts, come on in. She said, I think these are my people! When they say, I feel so much love in this church. That is the BEST. These are resurrection stories - life from death.
Because you see, the Episcopal Church has never been about doctrine. It’s about right relationship. It’s about the fruit of the Spirit manifesting in right relationship with others. We certainly have our rules to guide our common life together, most of which are there to help us treat each other well and safely. But how well we follow rules is not the expression of our faith. It is not the test of our worthiness.
And Jesus shows us this today in this Gospel and over and over, that loving is more important than rule-following. He is a rebel because he questions those in power who lack compassion. He is a radical because he always sides with the marginalized. He is a realist because he sees the suffering and does not ignore it. And this way of living was counter cultural then and it’s counter cultural now.
And it’s right there in our Baptismal Covenant. Did you know that we have THE most demanding Baptismal Covenant of any denomination that has one? We view Baptism as the start of a lifelong journey and not a one-time event of conversion. Episcopal Baptism is, for one thing, baptism into the Body of Christ (not the Episcopal Church) and isn’t just an admission pass to Heaven. The Baptized in the Episcopal Church promise to be in relationship with each other through study, fellowship, breaking of the bread, and praying. We promise to repent and return to the Lord whenever (not if) we sin, share the Good News, seek and serve Christ in all people (no other baptismal covenant has this), love our neighbor as ourselves, and strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being (no other covenant requires this respect).
The other thing that the Baptismal Covenant does by expecting our baptism to mean something beyond the one day is that it gives us permission. It gives us permission and qualifies us to do all those things I just named. We are qualified to share the Good News. We are qualified to see Christ in others, we are qualified to strive for justice and peace. We are qualified to be, do, and say in the name of Jesus.
In my own life, I sometimes feel very unqualified and I have to remind myself that degrees, licenses, success, popularity don’t qualify me to share the Gospel of Jesus. The only credential that matters is that I’m sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
So as I transition from staff at St. Mary’s, I want to encourage you. You are a part of community – here at St. Mary’s – and the larger Episcopal Church – that the world is hungry to experience. The reason why Bishop Curry’s sermon on love at the Royal Wedding is so popular? The world is hungry to know that Christian community can be about love. That it can be about imperfect people who aren’t sure about all they believe, who make mistakes, who struggle, and can still belong. People are still looking for the Jesus they read about in the Bible. They are still looking for the Jesus-Loves-Me Jesus.
And you are the ones to light the way. Don’t underestimate what you have built here by your love. The reason people say that there is a special warmth and spirit here is because of you. You are the ones who are completely qualified to share your story of the community you have found that welcomes all without exception. That loves recklessly.
You are completely qualified to share the story of what God has done in your life. I don’t have a gift for evangelism. I have the gift of exhortation – an old fashioned word for encouragement. Evangelism isn’t for the gifted. We are ALL called to do the work of an evangelist and share the Gospel. In the Baptismal Covenant we promise to do so and we are commanded by the Great Commission to go to all nations (again a radical concept) and make disciples.
Everyone has a personal perception if not relationship with God already- before they ever get here. Each guest to St. Mary’s has an experience of God. When they enter these doors, you either reinforce or challenge their idea of God. Each of you by your presence, your words, because you embody the church. The Gospel. Jesus.
You are stepping into a miracle when you welcome someone. You are part of a response to the Holy Spirit and that’s huge! Getting up and ready, out of the house, and walking across the threshold of a church you’ve been driving by for years, is a miracle. (If you’ve got young kids, you’re thinking NO KIDDING it’s a miracle!) It’s a miracle not because it’s so unlikely but because the spirit has sent them.
The good new is it is not your job to get them to stay or come back or join. Thank God! It is your job to welcome them as if Christ himself walked in your door. This is not an intellectual activity. We owe these seekers a welcome like we would give Jesus Christ. Because Jesus walks through our doors every week.
When I come back in August, I want to hear your stories of sharing your faith, of inviting people to church (when they say both yes and no), of listening to others who are seeking God, and what you are doing outside these walls to be Christ to all you meet. I can’t wait.
Don’t hide this light under a bush. Don’t bury this jewel. Don’t keep it to yourself. You don’t have to be successful – only faithful. Keep going.
There are no rules as to how far you can spread this love. You are completely qualified to be a witness for Jesus. You are qualified to see the suffering and choose love no matter what the powerful say. When we ask God what he is doing about the suffering in the world, he replies, “I made you.” Amen.