Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Lectio Divina - Mark 5:21-43

It was my privilege to preach this sermon on Sunday, July, 2018, at The Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco.  Thanks to them for their gracious welcome, and to our Berkeley Associates, Tom and Nancy Bickley, for the hospitality that made my visit there possible.

The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco
Sunday, July 1, 2018
Adam D. McCoy, OHC

Pentecost 6B, Proper 8: Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24
Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

    What a joy it is to be with you in this beautiful historic church!  It shows such care and love in both its buildings and in your ministries. In an earlier time I spent five years of my life off and on in the Bay Area, at Incarnation Priory, the monastery of the Order of the Holy Cross in Berkeley, and at CDSP, in both the 1970s and 1990s. It is so good to be back.  Thank you for inviting me.

    One of the reasons I’m here this morning is to bring you the message of monastic life in our Church, and I thought, what better way to introduce monastic ways to you than to share our experience of today’s gospel with an ancient monastic practice called lectio divina. Lectio divina means divine or spiritual reading. Using this practice monks, and many other persons as well, approach scripture not simply as a text to engage the intellect, but as the living word of God. The expectation is that we will encounter the text as it is and incorporate it into ourselves as God’s word. And in that process we will meet God’s living message to us now, today, as we are in this moment. Lectio divina has four simple steps: studying the text, meditating on it, praying through it and in contemplation letting it act on us. It converts and transforms and transfigures us as we enter into it and it enters into us.

    In what follows I will be using a stream of consciousness approach. As I tell you what happened to me, let yourself imagine yourself into lectio.

    First we read and study the sacred text just as it is, without editing it to fit our own preconceptions, using whatever resources we possess to gain a better understanding. As we do so, what do we notice? What jumped out at me was this: In today’s gospel there are two intertwined stories. A little girl is dying and a woman is afflicted with unstoppable bleeding.  These are both life and death situations. But some differences also leap out at me. The girl’s father is a person of importance, standing in the community -  and unlike most of the people Jesus meets in his public ministry he is given a name - Jairus. The woman is not given a name. Also, unlike Jairus’s daughter, she seems to be of little or no consequence. Jairus approaches Jesus with social propriety, man to man, as that culture would expect. But the woman does not stand on ceremony. Jairus is decorous, while the woman is not. He politely invites Jesus into his social space, asks him to come to his house. The woman perhaps has no social space, and in her need seizes the opportunity of the moment. She violates Jesus’s personal space by grabbing his cloak.

    As I studied the passage, I learned that there are some cultural issues here which I knew about but was not aware of at first. In first century Palestine respectable women do not interact with men outside their kinship group in public. But this woman does, and this suggests that she lives outside normal social structures. Mark tells us that she has lost everything in her search for health.  Perhaps she has no home to invite Jesus into. In Jewish ritual codes, to have physical contact with a menstruating woman renders a person unclean. As does touching a corpse. But then I notice that Jesus neither makes an issue of the gender rules of his day, nor does he rebuke the woman for the purity code violation when she touches his cloak. Jesus simply asks who did it, and why, and then instead of condemning her, he praises her for her faith. And likewise he does not draw back from the dead girl’s body, which would also render him ritually unclean..

    And finally, study reveals how Jesus reacts to the two situations. When he raises the little girl he doesn’t do anything very special.  He deflects miracle talk, even downplays what has happened, by saying she isn’t dead but sleeping, and endures the laughing scorn of the people around him. But his reaction to the healing of the desperate woman is quite different.  Here we are in the presence of something strange, eery, mysterious. Jesus feels power going out of him, an almost physical experience. The raising of the girl is played down, but the healing of the desperate woman is the occasion of a most wonderful public demonstration of miracle craft!

    So, in lectio, we let the text encounter us in its own integrity. We read it to understand what it itself tells us. We let its uniqueness jump out at us. I have given you what I noticed this time. As you read it you perhaps noticed other things, and so very likely so will I the next time I encounter it. But from what we notice in this moment will come the surprising Word.

    The next step is to meditate on the text. What comes to us when we let these two intertwined stories, and what we have noticed in them, play in our mind? What does it bring us to think? For me: These are two contrasting women, one safely hidden in the home of her respectable family, the other out on her own. But Jesus is not bothered by the gender stereotypes of his time. Nor is he bothered by the violations of convention they present to him. Nor is he bothered by the difference in their social status.  Jesus moves with confidence through both situations. He is equal to the needs of both of them. Maybe these are good news Mark wants us to hear. If the point of these stories is not simply reporting an event, or inviting us to think that in similar situations we can assuredly expect the same result, what is the point?  The first is simply information, and the second will likely not happen.  Jesus did not come to change the natural laws of the created universe.  Maybe this story is presenting some marks of the kingdom of God: It doesn’t matter who we are. God is not confined or restricted by our conventions and boundaries.  God recognizes our faith when we act from our deepest needs. God does not seem to mind when we get too close. God is not deterred when people make fun of what is going on or even refuse to see what is happening.  God is compassionate. God invites us to bring our needs to him. 

    And so these meditations lead to the third step: prayer. Jesus, let me see my needs and bring them to you. Jesus, what is dying in my life? Can it come to life again? Can that little daughter of my soul grow again? Can a future come from what seems lost, over, finished, done, dead? Jesus, help, me make room for that desperate person inside me. Let her lose her inhibitions so she can reach out and touch your healing power. Jesus, help me not be ashamed to admit that I too am desperate, that I also may have invested too much in what doesn’t work.  Jesus, help me get over being embarrassed that I am in some ways, perhaps in many ways, hopeless, homeless, destitute, bleeding out my life, looking for your power to heal me. Jesus, help me know that I too am that little girl, that father, those jeering bystanders, that crowd following you through town, that desperate woman. I am one with them. Let me touch you. Touch me.  Look at me.  Talk to me.  Raise me up.  Give me my life again.

    And finally, contemplation. Resting from the text, from its images and questions and patterns, resting from the mind’s work, resting from the words sent from the heart.  Resting quietly in the Word as we have experienced it. Sitting quietly as it does what it will. Who am I now that I have lived into this text, this meditation, this prayer? Am I the same as I was before? I hope not.  Quiet down now.   Let that ineffable something be in me. Let me be in it. The daughter, the father, the crowds, the woman, Jesus in the middle of it all.... Hush for a moment.  What do I feel? Is something new in my heart? Can I just sit still for a moment and let it be?

    But often these four processes, studying the text, meditating on it, prayer, contemplation, do not always happen in sequence. Suddenly something elbows its way in, out of the art of the sequence that I am now in:  The daughter, the daughter, the daughter:  That dying little girl has a family, a home, a father. She is by definition a daughter. But the woman has lost everything, has risked everything. And so what does Jesus call her? He calls the dying girl simply talitha, little girl. But he calls the desperate woman Daughter, something he calls no one else in the whole Gospel of Mark: Daughter, your faith has made you well. Daughter. Your faith has not only made you well, but gives you a new father, a new family, a new home.

    What is it like to have Jesus look at you and say, Daughter?  Jesus, may I be your daughter?  May I be your son?  May I join your family?  May I come home with you?

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Good Shepherd[s]

Preached at St. Edmund's Episcopal Church, San Marino, CA
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2018

John 10:11-18, Psalm 23

Available to listen to at the St. Edmund's website:
St. Edmund's Sermons

    As perhaps you have gathered by now, today is Good Shepherd Sunday.  It is, among other things, a day on which Christians are called to reflect on ourselves both as followers and as leaders, both as sheep and as shepherds in Christ’s flock, because as adults we understand that sometimes we are called to lead and sometimes we are called to follow.  And each of us in the course of our lives will be called to both.

    The problem with the image of sheep and shepherd, however, is that we are not sheep.  Sheep are kept for their economic benefits: wool, milk which can be made into cheese, and meat.  Fleecing people, milking them, devouring them, is exploitation.  Right thinking people don’t admire human exploitation or the people who practice it.  But of course it happens all the time.  The news is full of examples every day.  So maybe the image is more apt than we think it is.  People can be gullible.  They can be tricked.  They can be drained of their resources and left by the side of the hard pathways of a not very tender world.  It can be dangerous to be a sheep without a shepherd.

    One of our culture’s ideals is the independently successful person.  Who does not admire the woman or man whose intelligence, dedication to education and to learning their craft, whose hard work and honesty create prosperity and respect, who makes wise choices, builds a stable family and home, and is a dependable, trustworthy and generous member of the wider community?  Isn’t that what we all want to be, what we want our children to become?  Is that not the hope of a serene and secure old age?  Not all of us succeed completely.  In fact, very few if any of us do.  The truth is, none of us is as self-sufficient as we think we would like to be.

    Sheep, at least the domesticated kind, cannot survive all by themselves.  They need help finding water, pasture, sheltered places for the night.  They need to be defended when hungry predators come looking for them.  They need guidance and protection.  And in this respect people and sheep are very similar.  Most of us do not always see the path in front of us clearly.  Most of us need help finding our way in the world, learning what is truly worthwhile.  We all need protection from the dangers of life.  And when we are young all of us, and when we are old, most of us, need to trust the goodness, wisdom and kindness of others.  The general job description of shepherd has many faces and takes many forms.  There is a constant demand for good shepherds.

    If we have been fortunate we have been blessed by many good shepherds in our lives.  In our early years we have needed caring parents and relatives, teachers, youth and activity leaders, mentors who made the time to introduce us into a wider world.  Then as adults we look for spouses, friends, colleagues and guides to help us through the intricacies of our complicated world.  We need people who will spend their energies to establish and strengthen the institutions we value and depend on.  We need generous souls who spend countless hours at unseen tasks to build up what is good for the benefit of others, as well as people whose positive public lives are plain for all to see.  I am sure each of us can make a list of such people, and if we let our imaginations drift a bit, as they sometimes do during sermons, perhaps we can recapture their unique presences in our lives: not only what they did but who they were, what they looked like, sounded like, even smelled like.  They helped create the world for us and we are who we are because of them.

   One of mine was my grandmother, my mother’s mother.  She was from a family that arrived on these shores in 1705 but among themselves still spoke a form of Swiss German well into the twentieth century.  They were Calvinists of the firm backbone sort, who favored  plain churches and plainer worship, who had serious ideas about what was right and what was not, who had a Bible by the bed that was read as the day ended and as the next day began.  My grandmother was formal, always wore a dress, even in the kitchen, and never seemed to break a sweat, no matter how hot a Western Pennsylvania summer day might be.   On special occasions she seemed a bit like a battleship in full sail.  But never an unkind word from her about anyone. She was all smiles and sugar cookies and a safe and understanding something I could always return to.  She was a rock for an awkward little boy who needed one.  From her I learned to trust that the somewhat scary righteous goodness, the solidity of God, was also the kindness, the gentleness, the generosity of God.

    Good sheep need good shepherds, and we have all found ourselves in their care at different times of our lives.  But good shepherds also depend on their sheep.  Think of that other good shepherd story, the one where the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the lost sheep.  We tend to pay attention to that one wandering sheep and forget that the shepherd trusted the rest of them to carry on while he went searching.  There is a wonderful interchange going on in that story, one in which the integrity, the good character of the flock allows an unusual event to occur without dispersing it.  What is it like to be in a flock like that, to be known, cared for and protected, to realize the essential goodness of that special relationship, to enter into the mutual love between shepherd and flock?  It gives us a sense of belonging, of solidarity, of security and confidence in what is happening now and in what the future will bring.  I imagine that when he told his good shepherd stories, Jesus was inviting the people who were listening to him into a new kind of relationship with God through himself: goodness of every sort overflowing from God’s righteousness, flowing into still waters of a refreshing stream in the midst of green pastures where we can lie down, not in want any more, but in abundance, security and peace.

   Because I believe that is what God wants for us: the Good Shepherd, his beloved Son, leading us to the right pathways, pathways that lead to the beautiful place.  Those pathways will indeed also take us into the valley of the shadow of death, but we need fear no evil.

    For us there always have been and always will be such valleys.  Life is defined by them: we enter life in one dangerous place and leave it in another, and in between there are many more.  We need rods and staffs and good shepherds who know how to use them along the way.  But God’s promise is that we will never lack them if the Lord is our shepherd.

    And more than that.  So much more: banquets of delight, tables of abundance, even in the face of our anxieties, troubles, dangers and distress.   Along the way our shepherds sometimes face danger for us, sometimes danger costly to themselves.  But we are promised: God is with us, it is God’s work the shepherds of our lives are doing.  And we need to love them for it.

    And to what end?  The magnificent banquet, the oil on the head, the overflowing cup, goodness and mercy following us, every day, every day.  The promise given to each of us is that if we enter the great journey together, following and then leading and then following again as we are called, both sheep and shepherds and sheep again together, we will come to that great home of warmth and love and generous smiles and overflowing tins of sugar cookies, and the love of God, which has been leading us and feeding us and protecting us and waiting for us the whole time, in a thousand ways and with a thousand faces, each of them single and irreplaceable facets of the vast illuminated mosaic of the overflowing, inexhaustibly abounding love of God.