September 6, 2015

A simple and good thing

Sermon for Year B, Proper 18
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 1, 2015
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Mission, Kansas

In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning!
My name is Torey Lightcap.
I serve on Bishop Wolfe’s staff as the Canon to the Ordinary,
 And I am just so pleased to join you today.

There’s a radio show that has a segment called
 “Things You Would Have Learned In School (Had You Been Paying Attention).”
And I have to confess that when it comes to reading the Bible
 And trying to live out of this particular section of Mark,
 I always feel like I’m playing this game –
   That I still haven’t quite paid sufficient attention, and am still having to go back
     And study and re-learn the life and the teaching of Jesus,
     Only to forget it,
       Before picking it back up again,
         And on and on and on.

But there’s another lesson, too, that comes along with Jesus,
 And that is this: that it’s hard;
   That what Jesus does and what he then turns around and demands of us to do as well
     Is incredibly difficult work.
His yoke may be light, his burden may be easy,
 But sometimes it seems God is busily asking us to do the impossible.
No wonder we don’t want to learn, and therefore do not really pay attention.

And so just what is it that Jesus is teaching us and asking us to do today?
This impossible thing?
I believe it is something that’s just so stunningly simple and pure
 That it would be easy for us to corrupt and misunderstand it;
   But by God’s grace we still have it before us anyway.
By Jesus’ behavior, and with his words, he is giving us a mandate.

It’s a mandate well expressed in the words of the American poet Edwin Markham:
 He drew a circle that shut me out –
   Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
 But Love and I had the wit to win:
   We drew a circle that took him in!

Jesus is keenly aware of the differences of his day
 With respect to Who’s In and Who’s Out,
But he just keeps expanding the circle
 So that no one is out.
The Scripture teaches us that this is just infuriating behavior to his enemies
 As well as some of his closest people, his disciples,
   That have been following him around from the beginning.

He steps over every boundary that his society, his family, his religion have placed upon him.
Boundaries, walls, dividing lines, fences and borders –
 Control Mechanisms erected in order to keep clear track of who is in and who is out,
   By virtue of race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, and so on –
 Boundaries meant to carve order out of chaos and to make sense of a senseless world –
 Walls gone up, about who is qualified to receive God’s favor and who is not,
   About who gets the royal treatment, and who gets passed over.
And Jesus very deliberately, very systematically reaches through and past those boundaries
 In ways that are labeled as suppressive, dangerous, and theologically suspect.
And – can we say this enough? – he doesn’t seem to give even a moment’s pause
 To what his detractors think about his behavior.
He is the key leader of a transformative reform movement.
He has an incredible work ahead of him.
Yes, he will stop and teach you what he thinks,
 And he will show you his logic about how he got there.
But in the main, he just doesn’t really have time to care how others see his behavior.

 He drew a circle that shut me out –
   Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
 But Love and I had the wit to win:
   We drew a circle that took him in!

In Christ Jesus, thanks be to God, the circle that determines Who’s In just grows and grows.
Surely it gums up all our machinery, befuddles our systems and our working definitions,
 Blinds us in our capacity to be what we think is discerning.
That doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Jesus heals a Greek man, supposedly an outsider to him –
 “Outsider,” meaning Do Not Touch or Talk To This Person Under Any Circumstances –
 An outsider, deaf, with a speech impediment.
Puts his spit into his mouth – spit! that great defiler, according to Leviticus.
The thing that spreads impurity.
Jesus touches his tonuge in the process – more spit! more defilement!
Lord knows what this man just ate: Defilement, out running loose in the world.
The result? Not disease, but cure.
And the man walks away, speaking plainly. The circle easily expanded.

Jesus heals a pagan child.
Lets her mother argue him into doing it;
 She wins the fight, and he supposedly loses his honor, shamefully,
   All for the sake of including her and her child
   In the rapdily advancing, all-consuming Kingdom of God
   In which everything, down to the smallest assumptio, gets turned upside-down.
How many smashed societal barriers and religious barriers and family and purity barriers –
 How many barriers lie around in pieces on the back side of these two small stories from Mark?
Too many to tally.
The circle expands faster than our ability to name and control it.

Jesus does all these things while making a big tour of all the places around his homeland,
 Near and far,
   Where foreigners live and work, where impurity lurks.
He goes out to them, a deliberate, unhalting movement foward;
 He steps over the clear boundaries that are supposedly kept for his own good
   And he risks and spurns every kind of defilement.

And anyway.
Last week we heard what he thinks on the whole subject of purity, didn’t we? Remember?
From earlier in Mark chapter seven:
 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said to them,
   “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:
     There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,
     But the things that come out are what defile.
   For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come:
     Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness,
     Deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Who and what is impure in Jesus’ world?
It’s much simpler than a series of tests about who you touched or talked to,
 Or where you traveled or what you ate, or how you ate it.
What is impure to Jesus
 Is simply the human heart, impure when it’s an instrument of evil.
But even that – even our propensity to do and to think terrible things –
 Even that is within the reaching of God’s saving embrace.
The circle just keeps getting wider and wider.
And that’s really good news for an old sinner like me.
It’s good news because I’m in that circle,
 And it’s good news because you’re in it, too.
No distinction we try to create about Who’s In and Who’s Out
 Is really ever going to cut it.
This man Jesus has taught us as much. Taught us with his life, in this wonderful story.

It means we can say something amazing,
 And we can mean it with every last little bit of our being:
 That God is love, and God loves you, no exceptions.
If there were some kind of little asterisk or hesitation next to that,
 Then I’d put down the plow and walk away,
   Because life’s too short to play games about who God loves or doesn’t love.

But there are no asterisks; there is no hesitation.

Just a fine, true statement.

God loves you; anything else is just a fiction, and false religion.

So we have much to celebrate this day.
May our hearts and minds be glad with this news.


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