Tagged with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


Mark 9:38-50

Jesus is talking with his disciples, and John has an announcement to make: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  It sounds like John is really proud of himself. He expects to get a gold star from his teacher. Someone was claiming the Jesus brand for their exorcisms, without proper authenticity! Don’t worry, Jesus. We’ve got your back.

Unfortunately for John, Jesus is not pleased. “Do not stop him,” Jesus says. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Instead of checking the credentials of other healers, Jesus says, the disciples should be examining themselves. Are they putting stumbling blocks before others? Is some essential part of them causing them to stumble (a hand, a foot, an eye)?

Jesus concludes, enigmatically: “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

I can imagine the disciples finding Jesus’ speech somewhat jarring. This is supposed to be a report about someone else’s mistake. Suddenly Jesus is talking about everything they themselves may have done wrong, and the extreme methods that must be taken to address their mistakes.

Jesus says: If you cause someone else to stumble, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. Jesus says, if a part of yourself causes you to stumble, you should perform an amputation rather than be thrown into hell. Jesus says, everyone will be salted with fire. Back up, Jesus! Who said that I did anything wrong?

It’s never fun to examine our own flaws. And listening to this instruction from Jesus — to examine my own faults, rather than pointing out the faults of others — has been especially difficult this week. I have had so many ideas about what other people are doing wrong as I listened to the news. I’m sure that even if we may disagree on this week’s events, we all have this experience of being assured that someone else is terribly wrong in what they are doing and saying.

But Jesus says: focus first on your own flaws.  Not – this is important – not to wallow in them. Not to get lost in them, and fall into despair, and give up.  Jesus wants us to know how we are hurting others, and hurting ourselves, so that we can change.

Change yourself, Jesus tells us. Allow the parts of yourself that harm you to be stripped away. Become salted with fire: refined like a precious metal. We often think of God’s presence as a comfort.  But contact with truth, with justice, with grace, can also feel like a knife; it can feel like fire.  Something hot enough to melt away prejudice and indifference. Something sharp enough to remove impurities of intention and action.

If we allow God to work on us, we will become more essential, more flavorful: saltier; more ourselves.  A salty person has less concern over the faults of others. If we are salty in ourselves, we will not get distracted by other people, whether their faults are petty or grave. Our focus will remain on our calling in the world.

So if you have been angry this week: good. I have been angry. I have been so angry at times that it is hard to breathe. The problem is not in being angry, but in what we do with that anger. Do we avoid or repress our anger, as many of us have been taught to do? Do we waste it on actions that achieve nothing? Do we let it fade away? Or do we allow our anger to change us, to refine and empower us for the greatest possible purposes, the holiest aims our souls can lay claim to?

Audre Lorde, in a presentation called “The Uses of Anger”, reflects on her experience as a Black woman. She says that those who have experienced oppression have “a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change…anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies. Anger is loaded with information and energy.”

When we notice something going wrong in the world around us, what shall we do?  Jesus says: first, tend to yourself. See what information your anger can give you. See what change your anger can make in you, to bring out the best of what you are.

When you are centered in yourself, salty and flavorful, you will focus less on the faults of others. Instead, your attention will turn to the strength for good that is within and around you. Join hands with the person doing similar work: they are an ally. Bear witness to those who speak the truth, especially from a place of oppression, for theirs is a voice that deserves to be amplified.  Any injustice that you witness, let that burn away your indifference, incinerate your attachment to privilege, fuel your determination to make God’s peace and justice real here among us.

God gives us anger as a gift. Let us not waste the fire that flares within us.  Instead, we can allow anger to make us more ourselves, more the person that God is creating us to be. We can allow anger to draw us into larger and larger groups of allies: with grave differences, perhaps, but an even greater common purpose. We can allow anger to carry us all forward together with its truth and energy, towards a new hope and possibility.  May it be so.

Who is the Greatest?

Proverbs 31:10-31
Mark 9:30-37

I wonder sometimes how Jesus chose his disciples.

Jesus was kind of a big deal. He was a fascinating speaker, an extraordinarily gifted healer. His presence communicated charisma and compassion. There were plenty of wandering reforming rabbis in the ancient near east, but Jesus got some of the biggest crowds.

Jesus could have chosen anyone to be part of the twelve. The most highly educated, the wealthiest, even the wisest. Instead, he chose a bunch of tradespeople. They rarely understand what he’s saying.  They are too afraid to ask questions when things get real. And in in today’s gospel, they spend their travel time arguing about which one of them is the greatest.

Apparently, Jesus hears some of the conversation that his disciples have. When they get to Capernaum, he asks them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But the disciples won’t own up to what they’ve been doing. I imagine them avoiding his gaze and glaring at one another, while Jesus looks on with equal parts love and exasperation.

Jesus calls the twelve to come over have a talk with him. He tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He invites over a small child, who has probably been watching them from a distance. Jesus takes the child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It’s fun to laugh at the disciples, but let’s be honest; all of us know how to play the game “who is the greatest.” It’s a game we learn early on.  Who will be picked first when the T-Ball teams are formed?  Who will rank first on the GPA list? Who is the funniest, the wealthiest, the most beautiful, the most popular?

We start ranking one another early in life, and the lists just keep going as we grow up. We compare ourselves to family members and coworkers and friends and people on the news and even the random person we see on the street. Is that person or more or less attractive than me? Is that person more or less important than me? Is that person more or less loved than me?  How do we compare? Who is coming out ahead?

Comparisons are famously odious, and yet we compete and compare over and over and over again. Even the bible has passages that give lists of qualifications to live up to.  The most egregious is found in the book of Proverbs, a passage detailing the attributes of a capable wife.  Apparently, the best of wives must achieve at least 25 awe-inspiring tasks and personal virtues in order to earn the praise of her husband, and prove her love of God. If only it were possible. But can a woman rise before dawn, fill her days with labor for others and words of wisdom, stay up all night, and not collapse in exhaustion?  Is this really a good yardstick for a human being?

What’s more, it seems suspicious that wives are the only ones chosen for such detailed job descriptions. What about husbands? Single people? Scripture writers?

Our human desire to rank ourselves and one another is damaging: and not only to our own individual senses of worth.  Ranking is a building block of racism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice and oppression.  We invent classification systems whole groups of people in which some people are more important, and some people are less important, and some people are not even really considered human.

It is this basic instinct that leads us to have different rules for different people. Who deserves citizenship? Who deserves clean air, or a park in their neighborhood?  Who is allowed to speak in the board room? Who can express anger on the tennis court? Who may seek justice for a crime committed against them?  Who is held accountable for their actions? More often than not, it depends on how we rank on the list.

Ranking hurts everyone. Most profoundly it hurts people perceived to be on the bottom, whose lives and health are at risk. Rank also hurts people on the top, who live in safety while their souls grow twisted. Wherever we end up on society’s list of power players, ranking gets inside our hearts, and denies us our ability to see ourselves and one another as we truly are.

But Jesus hears us as we keep going on and on about who is the greatest.  He calls us over, invites us to have a good talk. It doesn’t have to be this way, Jesus tells us. Follow me to freedom.

Choose to be last instead of first, Jesus says — if you have the choice. Choose to be servants instead of masters. Shake up the pile, scramble the list, align yourself with the disempowered, and welcome even children: those little ones who make messes, and ask inconvenient questions, and offer hugs, sometimes to strangers.

Jesus’ message is even more powerful because we know what he chose.  Jesus aligned himself with the poor, and with prostitutes, and with tax collectors, and with sinners of every kind.  Jesus chose to live a life that would demote him to the very bottom of the list, and he paid for it.

I invite you, as you are comfortable, to close your eyes for a moment….take some deep breaths… and imagine a person who has, to the best of their ability, known who you really are. Loved you, just as you are. Treasured you.  Remember the feeling that you have gotten from being known and love and treasured. Make room to receive that feeling, accept that feeling, as if they were right here with you.

Now imagine that this is how God feels about you.  This is how God knows, and loves, and treasures you. Despite all your mistakes and limitations, God is head-over-heels in love with you.

Now imagine that this is how God feels about the person sitting next to you. God knows, and loves, and treasures them. God feels this way about that person right next to you; and the person next to them; and the person next to them. God feels this way about everyone in this room; and everyone we have ever known; and everyone they have ever known. God feels this way about people in every time, and every place: knowing all of us, loving all of us, treasuring all of us.

We are, each and everyone one of us, God’s beloved children. This is the most true thing we can know about ourselves, or anyone else.  In the end, all the ranking systems and stacking hierarchies crumble to nothing in the face of this enormous truth. All we need to do is breathe, and let that love in.

Please pray with me.

God, relieve me of the cruel thoughts I tell myself, as I measure myself against the world. God, relieve me of the cruel thoughts I have of others, as I measure them. Free me instead to experience the world as you experience it: Full of beautiful imperfect creations that you know, love, and treasure. Amen.


Wisdom in Speech and Silence

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1
James 3:1-12

I wonder if you all would be willing to take part in an informal poll this morning. How many of you have ever left a conversation thinking, “I can’t believe I said that?” Or, “WHY did I SAY that?”  Or, “I really wish I hadn’t said that?”

Beloved, you are not alone if you regret things that you have said. It is for me a daily occurrence. You will find good company among others in this room.  You would also find plenty of company in the early Christian community. There is wisdom about how we should speak throughout the bible, but perhaps nowhere more than in the letters that were sent from city to city, instructing the followers of Jesus about how to live faithfully. It seems that reckless and harmful speech was a habitual problem.

The letter we hear from this morning is written by a person named James. In case you are curious, this James is not either of the two James who were among the original 12 disciples of Jesus. This James is known instead as the brother of Jesus, or the cousin of Jesus — there is debate on that point. Perhaps it is easier simply to say, he is another leader in the early church.

James’ letter is full of advice for his companions in faith.  Much of it echoes the teachings of Jesus found in the gospels, and a lot of it is helpful.  Occasionally, however, James comes across a little bit strong. Consider the opening to his letter: Kindred, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (1:2-4)

It may be true that hard experiences produce endurance, and that endurance produces maturity, and that endurance and maturity are worth having. Still, do we really need to consider our  trials as “nothing but joy,” especially when we are right in the middle of them?

James also uses strong language when he addresses the issue of speech. Our tongue, James writes, is small but powerful. It can be used for blessings, and to praise God.  It can also be used for curses, and it can be as destructive as fire. What’s more, it’s incredibly hard to control: “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed … but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

“A restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Surely, whether we speak with our tongue, or write or type or sign with our hands, our communications are not so very bad, so very dangerous.  But I bet all of us can recall a time when we have caused pain, given offense, spread rumors, or expressed lies. It is a powerful tool, communication, and easily misused.  (more…)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Mark 7:24-30

According to Jesus, the most important thing we can do is to love God with all that we are, and our neighbor as ourselves.  But who is our neighbor?  Which neighbors was he talking about? Our next-door neighbors? People within a one-block radius? Folks who feel like neighbors, because we have a lot in common with them? Who are we supposed to love as well as we love ourselves?

Jesus treats almost everyone he meets as his neighbor.  Strangers from far-away towns are his neighbor. Folks who are sick are his neighbor. He is neighborly to the poor, and to tax collectors, and to prostitutes. That’s why it comes as such a surprise, the story we hear today, when Jesus meets the Syrophoenician woman.

Jesus is tired that day. He’s been teaching and healing to great crowds, and he’s hoping to escape notice when he enters the house in Tyre.  No such luck. A gentile woman, a Syrophonecian woman – a foreigner – finds him. She begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. And Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words: you are not my neighbor. You have no claim on me. You and your child are no better than dogs.

These words are heart-rending to read.  Amazingly, the woman is not daunted. With the desperation of a parent with a sick child to care for, she replies: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Degrade me, she says, but even dogs deserve compassion. Call me anything you want, but help my daughter.

Jesus seems to realize he’s made a mistake.  Immediately, he changes his mind, and cures the woman’s daughter. Apparently, they are neighbors after all.

This summer a documentary came out about another man who turned strangers and enemies into neighbors and friends. I bet many of you saw it. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about Mr. Rogers. If you haven’t seen the documentary about his show, I highly recommend it. Bring lots of tissues.

Clergy are fond of informing people that Mr. Rogers was one of us: a Presbyterian pastor. He said, “Love is at the root of everything: love or the lack of it.” He was called to the work of offering love and unconditional acceptance to hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom he would never meet: children on the other side of a television screen.

It’s good to remember, as this documentary reminds us, that Mr. Rogers wasn’t simply sweet, and he definitely wasn’t naive. He tackled difficult topics, racism and assassination and disability and war and death.  He allowed his characters to express difficult emotions, to face conflict, and to struggle with their identity and abilities. Like any good pastor, Fred Rogers addressed what was really going on for his congregation, and he brought an honest, compassionate, and hopeful message in the midst of those realities.  Still, now, whenever something horrible happens in the world, I hear people quoting him, reminding us to “look for the helpers.”  Mr. Rogers points us towards whoever is doing works of love and courage amidst tragedy or hate.

I was a member of Mr. Rogers’ congregation as a child in the 80s. Maybe some of you also joined in the congregation as children or parents or grandparents.  Mr. Rogers wanted to help us deal with our feelings, encouraging us to notice them, value them, find words and ways to express them.  He also wanted us to recognize ourselves as beloved children of God, telling us: “I see you, I like you just as you are, and there’s nobody else exactly like you.”  Put that one on your bathroom mirror, for everyday encouragement.

Mr. Rogers gave us the gift of slowness, and the gift of silence. While television programs were speeding up, adding special affects and violence, on Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood you could watch a tortoise take a slow walk across the floor, or see him patiently feeding his fish, and watching them swim.  When Mr. Rogers interviewed famous people, he would ask a simple question and then wait… and keep waiting, until the person had offered not one, but several interesting thoughts. Try it the next time to really want to hear from someone.

In reaching out to the world with radical kindness, Fred Rogers was not so different from Jesus. He invited us to be his neighbors, teaching us that we were loved, and capable of loving others.  Fred Rogers learned a lot from Jesus and, from what I can tell, he lived closer to Jesus than many of us do. But he wasn’t perfect. He doubted himself: whether he was worthy, whether he was loveable, whether he was good at what he did, and whether what he did was making a difference. He also made mistakes.  When he found out one of his cast members had been spending time at a gay bar, he told him: You can’t go back there.  It’s not clear if it was homosexuality that was the problem, or whether he wasn’t willing to risk his corporate sponsorships. It wasn’t until years later that Mr. Rogers was able to accept this cast member fully, to love him just the way he was, and to tell him that clearly – just as he had told so many of us that we are special just the way we are.

As we gather here this fall, together again in greater numbers, it’s good to remember why we’re here. This local church is a place that we can come to remember that the most important thing we can do is to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves.  This church is also a place where we can practice being good neighbors, and form a neighborhood with folks we might otherwise never get to know.

It can be easy to get discouraged while we’re making a neighborhood together.  There are disagreements here among us.  We make mistakes, get hurt, and hurt one another in turn.  It may be possible to love God, but can we really love each other, or ourselves?

We’ll continue to talk about the art of being a neighbor as the month goes on.  But for today, let’s receive the gift both Jesus and Fred Rogers offer us in the example of a beautiful, holy life lived imperfectly.  It’s not possible for anyone, it seems, to get neighbor-love right every time. Still, if we keep showing up, and trying, and listening, and learning: we’ll have an awful lot more love in our lives than if we gave up on neighbors and neighborhoods altogether.

I’m so grateful to be in a neighborhood with all of you beautiful people of West Concord Union Church.  I love the imperfect and precious love we are working on together.  I wonder if we can share in that song that Fred Rogers sang at the beginning of each episode: as he came into his TV home, traded his coat for a sweater, traded his dress shoes for sneakers, and prepared for a good visit with us.

Take a look at the piece of paper; Listen to Mr. Rogers, and sing along to your neighbors in the room, if you like.


Let’s pray:  Holy God, help us learn that we are your beloved children, just the way we are. Help us learn how to be good neighbors, so that we might all share in love together. Amen.