Texts for preaching are from 17 Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary
Video version appears below
Well, here we are,
left with Jeremiah’s complaint
and the “Whose the greatest” gospel.
Thank goodness for the “Balm in Gilead” poem
even though it ends with the clear understanding
that it may be the ashes we arise from
but there will be ashes.
The gospel puts it out there:
while Jesus may be concerned about his online profile and how many “Likes” he gets,
his disciples are chasing Mohammad Ali
declaring they are “Greatest.”
It is one more way that Mark makes clear
just who we are — if we, as the readers,
identify with the disciples rather than Jesus.
Mark knows who-we-are
and he doesn’t try to make a silk purse
our of a pigs ear
like some of the other gospels do.
He makes clear we are
spot on/and so far off
who more or less are us,
never fail to try
and often fail when they try.
They love greatly
and sometimes not enough.
They have their eyes on the prize
but it is often the wrong one.
So this gospel story
can be the sleeping dog in the corner
we will let lie there.
Maybe it speaks for itself.
But with that gospel in mind,
I want to do a dangerous thing.
I want to embrace Jeremiah’s God-story
and then…comment on something
I was not here to experience with you.
That is bold, I realize, and maybe arrogant —
If in the process I somehow deny your reality,
I apologize and hope you will forgive me.
Now the Lectionary was not so bold.
It assigned that reading for today from Jeremiah,
and then chickened out.
It left off God’s response.
Here is how God answered Jeremiah’s complaint
about the men of Anathoth who wanted to assassinate Jeremiah:
21-23 Jeremiah (That) sent a signal to God, who spoke up: “Here’s what I’ll do to the men of Anathoth who are trying to murder you, the men who say, ‘Don’t preach to us in God’s name or we’ll kill you.’ Yes, it’s God-of-the-Angel-Armies speaking. Indeed! I’ll call them to account: Their young people will die in battle, their children will die of starvation, and there will be no one left at all, none. I’m visiting the men of Anathoth with doom. Doomsday!”
Our queasy liberal theological tradition,
of which I am a step-son,
gets moralistic about Biblical violence —
especially if it is God doing the violence.
To which I say, check out quasars,
look what black holes do,
and our very own sun?
Talk about violence!
I mean, we are a violent species.
Human beings are one of the few animals
that can become violent just for the sake of violence.
Most other animals require survival
as the predicate for violence.
We will do violence to others of our species
we don’t like them
or what they stand for.
And we are going to get squeamish
about God coming down hard
on a little town?
Just as an aside,
Anathoth did get turned to rubble
at least once.
And it also got restored —
may a rising from the ashes story,
I don’t know.
Personally I have been someone
who spent a lot of time dancing around
such violent-laden biblical readings.
But I have learned that when
I put the anxiety aside
and stand with the passage
and observe it
rather than judge it,
I say to myself, “Yep, that make sense.”
Anathoth was Jeremiah’s home town
and some men from there were trying to kill him.
He’s wants to show them a thing or two.
No home town sentimentalism in Jeremiah.
Call down the angel-armies!
We are only a few days away from the 9/11 anniversary
and stuttering again over that violence.
We are but weeks away from our retreat
from twenty years of calling down drone-armies
to wreak violence on whoever happened
to be in some spot
where Taliban soldiers were rumored to be.
I don’t know what an angel-army looks like
but could they be any more violent
than our armies?
I don’t think so,
and if they are, I shutter to imagine it.
Now something happened here last week
when I was gone
due to the violence in my back.
I imagine that some of you weren’t here either,
so my reflecting on it may seem weird
and like the wrong thing to do.
But as Katy pointed out,
I reflect on other people’s experience every week,
they just happen to have been dead for 2000 years.
The authority of the bible, after all,
is that we are the same people
who gathered around an altar or table of fire
just two and three thousand years later.
They are us
and we are them.
So because I wasn’t here,
and I don’t really know what happened,
and I don’t know what any individual
did or didn’t do,
and like reading Scripture,
I got to just listen,
I got to just observe what people told me –
no dog in the fight —
except of course, my love of you
and this congregation
clouds my perception.
So I have heard several descriptions of last week
when two small violences collided,
but I am pretty sure I do not have an accurate picture
— only a collage of other people’s experiences.
So with that in mind,
I am going to go out on a limb
and talk about it
in the context of Jeremiah, Mark,
and a balm in Gilead.
My understanding of what happened
was that a stranger,
who declared she was unmasked
interrupted the worship last
to throw a word-bomb inside the tent.
There were a variety of reactions as seems natural.
I am guessing that in addition
to some verbal bombs thrown back at her
there were also more than a few thought-bombs
that never got heard.
Surely there was also shock, anger, fear,
confusion, mix-feelings and double-mindedness.
When we are attacked,
and especially when we feel vulnerable,
as most of us would
with an unmasked and unvaccinated evangelist
preaching at us,
we move to protect ourselves. Period.
My experience with such messengers —
and believe me, I’ve know more than a few —
is that she would not have taken a seat
at the edge of the tent
even if it had been offered to her.
In fact, she was offered a bulletin and seat
before she spoke,
but she passed on the offer.
IF she was the kind of messenger
I think she was,
the kind I have experienced in the past,
she was not here
to be part of a community.
She was here to make her pronouncement
Whether she was acting out
a mental health crisis
a political militancy
fighting back against a perceived foe
or an instrument of God’s weird paradoxical nature,
we simply do not know.
But whatever it was
surely she was acting out of her sense of powerlessness —
blasting out and spewing her innards
because otherwise, she felt, no one was listening.
After all, why else
would someone put themselves
through such rejection?
I am told she claimed
to have been rejected by another church already
Well before I go on,
I just want you to know
I have no problem with how the congregation
reacted — some silent, some vociferous,
some simply rejecting what was hurled at them,
some gently marking the boundaries of acceptability
for this community.
Our lovely priest, Michael,
standing between it all
and offering a gentle response
rather than heightening anxieties.
The fact that it came in the midst
of a gospel and sermon
about “who do you say
that I am” is just too juicy of a church happening
not to mention
and not to invite more of our reflections on.
Some have asked what I would have done.
Like you, it would have depended
upon my mood and inner life at the moment.
If my back was hurting
I probably would have been a lot more gruff
and because I am big
it would have come off
a lot more menacing than I meant it.
So I want to tell you a story
about this kind of thing
that I cut my teeth on
and learned a lot from
and I think is how I would like
to frame what happened here last Sunday —
knowing of course, I wasn’t here.
I was the rector of a church
on the campus of Ohio State University —
an urban campus
with 50,000 students
and 25,000 faculty and staff.
In those days the university
had basically abandoned the neighborhoods
and it had become
the most densely populated area in the city,
with often wild and drunken
university student apartments
stacked up alongside crack houses
and intense poverty.
Street people were everywhere —
the 1980s and 1990s
when states shut down their mental hospitals
and abandoned their residents to the streets
in the name of progressive care.
Anyway, the church was and is
the only non-university building on campus.
The campus grew up on three sides
and the main north-south meridian of Columbus
went along the front.
Before I arrived,
they had welcomed the homeless
to sleep in the parish hall —
having installed huge iron gates
on each end to keep them
out of the rest of the building
because there was no supervision.
It was another liberal nightmare —
just to open the place
and offer no structure, no norms of behavior,
and no hosts to provide hospitality.
Well of course someone died,
and I know of at least one woman who was raped.
Mercifully, the church had stopped it
before I came but we were still a hive of homeless characters.
There wasn’t a weekday or a Sunday
that didn’t include our friends of the street.
One wedding in fact,
a smart, enterprising panhandler
waited for the couple to process
and then went up the aisle behind them
hitting up guests
who of course, in order to keep him quiet,
were pulling out tens and twenties
just to get rid of him.
It was a good day for him
and the wedding wasn’t bad either.
Anyway, the church was frequented
by a guy who
alternately called himself
”Mighty Mouse” and “Minnie Mouse”
and Queen somebody — I don’t remember.
I thought of him as my altar ego
because he was my size and even hairier.
(At the time I had a ponytail and big beard).
He often didn’t wear a shirt
and sometimes had something painted on his protruding hairy stomach.
Sometimes he stood outside the front
which was all glass, and looked in.
Sometimes he came in and sat down.
Sometimes he wandered up and down the side aisle.
One time, I walked into the parish hall
before the late worship
where he was standing and considering something.
It was the custom of the congregation’s
seventy and eighty year olds
to sit in a circle of about twenty
and drink coffee together
That day my three-year old daughter
was being passed around lap to lap
as was often the case.
Minnie had a car radio, likely stolen,
strung around his neck with close line.
Attached to that was a piece of wood
on a wire.
I asked him about the radio.
He told me he was interviewing people.
The piece of wood was his microphone.
He asked if he could interview me.
I said I was in a bit of a rush
but he could interview the table.
He walked over as I exited.
When I came back that way
it was obvious he was going
from person to person
interviewing — about what, I do not know.
The table was non-anxious
because Minnie was familiar to them.
He hadn’t always been.
When he was not on his meds
he could be loud and angry.
That is the way he was
the first Sunday he arrived
with a message from God.
Long story short,
because of my time working in a mental health unit,
I knew not to challenge his reality.
Which of course,
none of us want our reality challenged.
I listened to him deliver God’s message
and then I told him if he wanted to stay
HOW he would need to behave.
My experience is that even
in difficult moments for such people,
they can often judge their own limits.
Anyway, what I learned from him,
and the many other street neighbors
who visited us often,
was the importance of being clear
about the boundaries of community.
It is not only okay to have boundaries,
it is mightily important.
Our boundaries say who we are
and what we aspire to be.
I have no doubt
that Jesus had very clear boundaries
in his community.
There is no room for Christian sentimentality
when it comes to being clear
It helps the people both inside
and outside the community
to know what the boundaries are.
Today’s gospel, for example,
Jesus is setting a boundary with his community.
He says that whoever wants to be the greatest
must act like a servant.
We are still failing that one —
a church top-heavy with bishops, priests,
deacons, and wealthy donors.
But having clear boundaries is aspirational
as well as practical.
If you or I are not willing
to live within the expressed boundaries
of the community,
then we need to recognize
we are choosing not to be
part of that community.
For example, we say we are open,
and that we respect the dignity
of every human being.
We probably need to clarify
what those mean,
but we know that being inclusive
does not mean welcoming people
to come in,
We are not hear to be dumped on.
We need to respect one another’s dignity
but we also need to insist
that others respect our dignity.
There is nothing un-Christian
about tending our boundaries.
We likewise need to reflect
on best practices for doing that,
but there is no reason to tolerate
someone not honoring our dignity.
We need to be able to say to one another,
and to anyone who knocks on the door,
here is how we expect to treat one another
and we would love you
to be part of this community
and ask you to live within our norms.
We of course, screw up
from time to time —
we are disciples after all —
but if we can “repent
and return to the norms,” so to speak,
then the rest of us can practice forgiveness.
I really hope you don’t mind
my reflecting on an experience
I was not part of and that you were.
It just seemed too fresh
and, as Michael said last week, important
for us to reflect on.
Who do you say that I am,
who do we say who we are,
and how are we going to practice that
in the very rugged and precarious world
we live in?
All really good things to ponder
in the presence of Jeremiah,
and the balm that comes to us in the ashes of Gilead.