Category: Dialog

Blog posts, op eds, articles, and anything else that contributes to our evolving understanding of ministry in Higher Ed.

Law and Order: Biblical Victims Unit

I promised in my sermon last week that I would preach on Job this week, so I felt honor-bound to do it.  Job is one of my favorite books in the Hebrew Bible, ever since I took an entire class in undergrad on it.  (The professor of which now lives in Ithaca, which means I […]

Trust, Entitlement, & the Terrifying Possibility of the Second-Best Taco

Dev and Arnold are friends in a Netflix series I enjoy called Master of None. In an early episode, the two friends are shown wondering what to do next. Tacos, they decide. They’re going to go eat tacos for lunch. But there’s a big problem. An exasperated Dev explains the situation: “There’re so many taco places, we’ve gotta make sure we go to the best one! Let’s research.”

“Great,” says Arnold. “I’ll sit here and do nothing.”

Hours pass in a dramatic, condensed time-lapse scene in which we see a series of images from the “research”: Yelp reviews, Instagram posts, photos and hashtags, desperate texts to friends, “Yo! Where the best tacos at?” The agony is palpable and real. Dez cannot imagine not eating the best taco for lunch. Finally, satisfied that he’s found it, Dev wakes his napping friend to announce the verdict.

“Great, let’s do it,” says Arnold.

But tragically, by the time the friends arrive, the taco truck is closed.

Dev protests to the food cart owner who is in the process of closing up shop: “What are we supposed to do, huh? Eat the second best tacos in New York?

The struggle is real.

And not just for Arnold and Dev.

It’s seemingly part and parcel of the information age: that you and I can see and know and potentially have the best, like never before in history. There’s an app for everything, true, and, more specifically, most of the apps exist to help us purchase different aspects of our lives more efficiently. There are even websites that allow students to scope out and rate the best professors, maximizing experience, living your best life, your perfect life. Because what else are you supposed to do? Enjoy the second best taco? And if you can’t enjoy the second best taco, if you can’t be sure there’s not a better taco truck than the one you’re at, how can you be expected to be present, really present, to anything at all?

Poor Dev and Arnold. Poor us. But also, poor rich man today in Mark’s gospel; rich man who is in a lot of ways a prototype of our ourselves; rich man who is our forbearer in following and all its difficulties; rich man who is our ancestor in acquisition and all its attending anxieties. He’s asking Jesus about eternal life, but from the get go we sense that something about the conversation is off. He’s asking about eternal life, but the conversation reads like a checklist confirmation, like he’s providing appropriate documentation at the DMV in order to receive a license he plans to pick up on the way home from work or proving his qualifications to the bank, in order to secure the mortgage to finance his next venture, operating under the assumption that there is some combination of deeds or depository of reputation and respectability that would make him deserving of eternal life. That is, he’s bringing his righteousness with the expectation of a successful transaction. Now, he’s open to the possibility that he might not have enough (yet), but he is also confident that there’s nothing out there that Jesus might add that he can’t yet acquire and later contribute to the equation. But what combination of deeds is equal to life with God? It’s not just that the math won’t square, but also that the rich man’s attempts to solve the puzzle this way reveal that he can’t imagine eternal life as anything other than yet another material good to add to the ones he already has. Conceiving of life with God this way, as a prize to win from God for behavior, rather than a life to live with God, and – God forbid – supposing he’s denied this transaction, what’s the man supposed to do? Live his second best life now?  

But what if eternal life, life with God, is not something acquired by grasping?

Jesus looks at the man, loves him in the midst of all that’s rattling on inside him, and invites him to acquire the one thing he doesn’t have: awareness of his own lacking or, put better, a sense of God’s overwhelming goodness. Trust this, Jesus says, and live your trust in God toward your neighbor by a generosity that is a kind of grateful echo of God’s own. Let your gratitude be manifest in generosity and so make space in yourself, in your soul, for the possibility of a living trust of the Kingdom of God.

Give away what you have. Not just the things, but with them the admiration and affirmation of others who conflate your wealth with your deserving. Give up your standing. Hold nothing tightly. Forsake false guarantees that isolate you from other members and other parts of the Body of Christ. Be generous, and be open. Risk needing help and risk being helped, both by God and those around you in the community of faith. Make room to be loved, even on the days you are sure you are a fraud. Do not be afraid to celebrate the riches and gifts of others, for they do not condemn you. Eternal life is not a game to win or lose but a gift to be received.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “Namely, you don’t lack anything yet. There’s no room for gifts or grace or surprises of God in you. But wait, I have an idea: go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The rich man’s response is uncomfortably predictable. All silence. “How terribly shocking,” observes Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “to discover that, after all, you love [something] more than you love eternal life.”

How difficult to discover that the thing you lack is all you have.

The man is crestfallen, and the disciples are terrified. Once they’ve gotten out of earshot of the rich man they ask Jesus, “If not this dude, Lord, who can be saved?” Jesus’ answer gives hope, but it’s not a hope that backs away from the difficulty presented by wealth and his earlier invitation to leave it: “With God all things are possible.” Trust God, then, and not these other things. Trust God, then, and live your trust in God toward your neighbor by a generosity that is a kind of grateful echo of God’s own. Let your gratitude be manifest in generosity. Let your love be sourced in God’s. Rest in the love of him who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself. Breathe this love. Receive this love. Let it be your balm and greatest confidence, that this love is for you. Walk in this love. St. Paul puts the invitation this way, in words so familiar you know them by heart: Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard liked to tell the story of a man who owned a shop, like a general store. One day, it’s late, and the shopkeeper puts things in order and calls it a day. He closes shop and goes home. But sometime that evening, or maybe even deeper into the night, some thieves break into the shopkeeper’s store. Bizarrely, the thieves don’t steal anything. Instead, they meticulously rearrange all the labels, the price labels, on every item in the store. So cheap things now have four digit tags. And really precious things are made to look cheap. The next day, the shopkeeper arrives at the store and doesn’t notice the hoax. Nothing appears any less in order than it had the night before. From the shopkeeper’s perspective, protected from critical reflection by the mundaneness, the ordinariness, of the rhythms of life, it’s just another day. Then the customers start arriving. They, too, don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Instead, all of them begin interacting, shopping, purchasing, exactly as they had on the previous day, but with the labels as they now are, as if the mislabeled labels reflect the true values of things. And they’re still doing this thing, misjudging the true worth of things, to this very day, still shopping in the store not knowing that none of the labels are true.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Amen.


The Marx Brothers would not have done this to Margaret Dumont

Beloved, it has been a bit of a week. Rather, it has been a bit of two years.  Which felt like it all arose this past week and walloped many of us this past week.   I belong to a Facebook group of young clergywomen, which has been invaluable on so many occasions throughout my […]

Clinging to Control (On Suffering, Entitlement, and Job)

Sunday’s readings. Can I be honest? The book of Job makes me nervous. I don’t like the idea that God would allow suffering in order to win an ill-conceived parlor bet with the devil. What’s the over-under on how long Jonathan would last? (Don’t let the Satan get wind of it!) God takes the over with Job. In a more traditional gambling format, I’d like to think I’d be given a significant point spread to cover, making allowances for the effects of parenting-related sleep deprivation. But then again, Job starts off with ten kids! On just those grounds, Vegas should give me better odds than Job. But I know better. I also know that suffering like Job’s hurts like hell. The sores and potsherds of today’s reading are just the beginning of his pain and the loneliness that comes with it.

Of course, the parlor bet need not be literal. It’s hard to imagine God having anything to win back from the devil, anyway. Instead, the exchange that begins the book of Job serves to identify the central question relevant for all that follows. Disappointingly, the book isn’t primarily interested in why people suffer. Instead, as John Walton observes, the book asks from the divine perspective if there’s such a thing as disinterested righteousness, that is, righteousness that isn’t in it for what I might get out of it; you know, righteousness that has its beginning and roots in God; righteous in which we sometimes by the grace of God find ourselves, like the old hymn says, lost in wonder, love, and praise.

My family and I are Calvin and Hobbes junkies, and there’s a favorite strip in which Calvin asks his teacher, Ms. Wormwood (named after the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters), what guarantee she can give him that the education he’s receiving will set him up for success in life. “Calvin,” she replies, “What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” To which a visibly deflated Calvin despairs, “Well, in that case forget it.”

This strikes me as exactly how most of us imagine life with God and what it’s like. Like Calvin, sure, we might grumble at the elbow grease required of us, but we console and motivate ourselves (or don’t) with assurances of the payoff. As the life of faith goes, what we get out of it will more or less equate to what we put into it. We think.

It’s good news, bad news, right? Bad news, because we’ve got our work cut out for us, good news because at least we are in control of our fates. But it’s exactly that last part – the assumption that deserving is how God relates to God’s children – to which the book of Job makes its singular and strongest objection.

The book of Job means to shatter the idea that certain inputs will result in particular outputs when it comes to matters of faith or, put more crassly, that God is an object for our manipulation, that if you input faith and piety, God will output favor of a particular shape on you. You know the line. It’s the way of thinking that says that if things look grim for you, it’s because you messed up or haven’t prayed hard enough, your faith isn’t great enough. And, lest we dismiss that line of thinking as ridiculous, a few chapters from now, Job’s friends will suggest exactly that, in order to account for his suffering. It’s amazing the stupid things people will say in the attempt to regain control of terrifying things. If you suffer, you have brought it on yourself. If you prosper, you have likewise brought it on yourself. Neither inherently true. The attractiveness of this logic is that it locates you in the driver’s seat of your life. Everything that happens to you becomes a manifestation of your self-expression and unique identity and, along with these, your faith. One challenge to this logic, aside from the way it simultaneously creates a breeding ground for potential self-loathing and unfounded boasting, is that none of us decided to be in the first place, so the process of expressing one’s unique identity becomes a game of catch-up from the get-go.

If people have sometimes made habits of thinking about the life of faith in this way, give x, get y, the bad news is that the situation is not any better outside of, nor is it limited to, the life of faith. Consider the observation of professor Kate Bowler when she writes that

Fairness is one of the most compelling claims of the American Dream, a vision of success propelled by hard work, determination, and maybe the occasional pair of bootstraps. Wherever I have lived in North America, I have been sold a story about an unlimited horizon and the personal characteristics that are required to waltz toward it. It is the language of entitlements. It is the careful math of deserving, meted out painstakingly as my sister and I used to inventory and trade our Halloween candy. In this world, I deserve what I get. I earn my keep and keep my share. In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away.

In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away. As everything begins to slip away, this is Job’s dilemma. It is also Kate Bowler’s dilemma: as a newly appointed professor with a husband she loves and just-born child, Kate was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at the age of 35. She writes

The treatment at Emory begins at the end of October. I am tired most of the time, but I feel driven to catalog everything and wring every bit of time for all it’s worth. I start to write. In bed, in chemo chairs, in waiting rooms, I try to say something about dying in a world where everything happens for a reason. Whenever there is a clarifying moment of grief, I jot it down. And then, in a flurry, I shoot it off to The New York Times, not thinking too much about whether it’s any good, but sending it because I have been infected by the urgency of death. Then an editor there sees it, and puts it on the front page of the Sunday Review. Millions of people read it. Thousands share it and start writing to me. And most begin with the same words, “I’m afraid.” Me too, me too.

“I’m afraid of the loss of my parents,” writes a young man. “I know I will lose them someday soon, and I can’t bear the thought.” “I’m afraid for my son,” says a father from Arkansas. “He has been diagnosed with a brain tumor at forty-four, which would have been devastating enough if he had not already lost his identical twin brother to the same disease a few years ago.” These letters sing with unspeakable love in the face of the Great Separation. Don’t go, don’t go, you anchor my life.

In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away. Evidently, Job’s, Kate’s, and ours is not a world of fair. And yet God is with us. If it sounds like too much, or not enough, we maybe have a better handle on the disciples’ confusion, disappointment, even anger these last few weeks as Jesus repeatedly predicts his own betrayal, death, and resurrection; his disciples insisting that a future so out of control cannot be saving. Or, maybe more honestly, that a future so out of control is just too scary to follow.  Of course, the news that we do not in a real sense control either God or our lives does not mean the end of our hope, but it does mean the necessity of trust; in a real way, the surrender of certainty creates the possibility of trust.

Which is maybe why Jesus keeps pointing his disciples to children and the poor, human beings beloved of God who do not need to be told that their lives are many times not their own; that they are left to the whims, and at the mercy, of others. As if to sharpen the point of this pencil further, Jesus will next encounter a rich man in search of salvation and, though their exchange, invite the whole Church to surrender whatever may remain of our sense of entitlement and control – for what can the possession of these mean in the hands of those who follow the crucified Christ? – inviting us to forsake our clinging and, with outstretched arms, discover with our lives generosity, trust, and the capacity to be surprised beyond the modest scripting of our imaginations.

After recounting in painful detail letter after letter from strangers happy to explain exactly why she was facing what she was facing, Kate Bowler writes to name the exceptions:

But many people write to me like family. “As a father, I am truly sorry.” “I’m a mother and I wish I could give you a hug right now.” They want to comfort me, but their experiences tell them that life is never fair. “I want you to know how much I’m praying for you and grateful for your faith. I’m sorry that we must say, like Job, ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’” Yes, yes, yes. Yet will I trust in Him. I don’t know what the word “trust” means anymore, except there are moments when I realize that it feels a lot like love.

Yet will I trust in Him. I don’t know what the word “trust” means anymore, except there are moments when I realize that it feels a lot like love.

Amen.

Regarding Reputations

I have been trying to sort out my feelings about the notion of reputation for the past several years, since I first learned of the ‘ugly rumor canon’. This canon, if you are not aware, allows the clergy person to request the bishop investigate any rumor that the clergy person deems slanderous, and then announce […]

No gods that we know

We have now entered the one-month period wherein I will be installed officially as the rector of St. John’s (hooray!) and then get married (also hooray!).  I figured out today that this series of events is the equivalent to an out-of-season Christmas/Holy Week scenario–copiers will run out of ink, computers will die, the building will […]

Discerning the Good after Conversation with the Philosopher Barber



Sunday’s readings.  My barber is a philosopher. (I know, I know, aren’t they all?) At least he struck me as particularly philosophical the day I sat down in his chair and asked for his help with my beard. This was a couple of years ago and I’d grown what was my first significant beard for charity. Charitably, I didn’t know what I was doing and desperately needed help. Now that the money had been raised, the parameters of the agreement followed for the allotted length of time (namely abiding an alarming degree of hygienic negligence), I needed the beard trimmed into respectability. The barber nodded knowingly as he listened, taking in my situation. When he finally picked up his scissors and began to go to work, he broke a thoughtful silence with this truth:

“Beards,” he said, “are remarkable achievements of inaction. You did a thing by not doing a thing, am I right? People gave you money not to shave. But,” he went on, “the verb is active. That’s the madness. We say you grew a beard because of this thing you stopped doing. And we notice. We say to people with beards, ‘I see you grew a beard.’ But we never say to the clean-shaven folks, ‘I see you decided not to grow a beard today.’ Every day we should say to the clean-shaven folks, ‘I see you opted yet again not to grow a beard. How interesting. Well done.’ They’re the ones day in and day out giving honest time to their invisible decisions.”

There was no judgment in my barber’s words, although had they been intended to communicate humility to me, they certainly would have been effective.

I marveled at the barber/philosopher’s consideration of the matter, but then decided that this was not really that surprising. Hair and hair cutting are kind of his thing. Still, as a good Episcopalian, his words stayed with me. After all, in the list of all-time favorite and famous phrases of the liturgy, right up there with “The Lord be with you” and maybe also “Guide us waking, O Lord,” from Compline, is that line from the corporate confession of sin. We name “things done and left undone.” That line has always struck me as beautiful and true, calling me to a more fulsome imagination for what might have been done and how I might have lived. Now, though, post conversation with the philosopher barber, I was haunted. While not a sin, maybe, which was a beard? A thing done or left undone? Was it both? And what about other similarly ambiguous acts of inaction? When someone talks about turning the other cheek, for example, the cheek may have been turned, but the real accomplishment was the retaliatory punch not thrown. Similarly, to make space for another’s pain is a very active thing facilitated, in large part, by certain words not spoken. When John the Baptist looked at Jesus and said, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” we can recognize decreasing as an action that definitionally doesn’t take much action, even if in a peculiar sense John’s is a difficult and intentional action to take.

An especially relevant contemporary application appears in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s remarkable book, “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion,” in which he astutely observes that “‘Just shut up and listen’ might be the most important instruction for anyone committed to unlearning whiteness.” Sometimes to act is to roll up your sleeves and throw your hat the ring. Sometimes to act is to grow the beard.

The complication is that it’s not enough to fall back on sayings like, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” because, the line between action and non-action is difficult to spot, if it exists at all. If I say that to you – “Don’t just stand there, do something!” – it’s actually not possible for me to know that you were not doing something by standing there. It would probably be more honest then for me to say, “I don’t like what you’re doing. Do something else.” In other words, many times we call on people to act when we simply don’t like how they are acting. But precisely for all its reliance on these arbitrary judgments, parsing action from non-action is an insufficient and reductive way to tell if we’re doing the right thing.

Was the thing I did done or left undone? It depends on what you’re trying to do and therefore also on what you recognize as the good for which you’re aiming. For Christians, the good is not an abstract judgment made for the purposes of filling out the scorecard of faith. Ten points and you’re in. For Christians, goodness has to do with discerning where God is, what God is doing, and tending to God’s presence with our own. So Christians gather around the table to discern the Body. Having been gathered by God in this way, we continue from this place in the baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, with God’s help. In this way, our worship of God and our care for one another are inextricably bound up in each other. So in the letter that bears his name James can ask a question that appears to blur moral and theological categories, the question he asked in his letter last week, “Do you, by your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” James can question his hearers’ belief in our Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of their treatment of each other and the stranger because James sees that goodness is not a dry application of an arbitrary assessment but has everything to do with where and in whom they believe the living God will show up. Goodness has everything to do with employing the discernment they receive as gifts of this table as they leave from this table and encounter all of those who bear the image of God.

In today’s lesson, James is still talking favoritism, partiality, that thing that God does not have that makes God so generous, but he’s writing about speech and the ways people sometimes talk poorly about the ones who are not their favorites. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” James writes. “And the tongue is a fire…a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My sisters and brothers, it should not be so.” Now, if it sounds to you like James is channeling Ralphie from A Christmas Story, threatening to wash our mouths out with soap until we go blind if we don’t watch our speech, you can be forgiven the impression. “Only I didn’t say fudge,” Ralphie memorably confesses some decades later. But the context is more insidious than bad words; the context is cursing others; the context is the tendency in followers of Jesus to separate love of God from love of those God also loves; the context is an indefensible separation of the discernment of Body at the table from the care with which we speak of about people we have learned to despise and in whom we do not acknowledge the image of God. James doesn’t say what Dorothy Day would later say, but you get the sense he would have very much approved when she confessed, “I only really love God as much as the person I love least.”

It is really easy to imagine morality as the things we do to impress God apart from God for the approval of God. James will have none of it. Instead, James presents a sacramental world in which goodness only finds substance and direction and meaning as it attends to the presence of God and in which the people who fill our ordinary days bear the image of God, as we give one another by our being opportunities to honor the goodness of the God we have discerned in worship here. So James invites us to consider that the mouths that sing God’s praises here might well consider these prayers and praises to be our mouths’ true vocations for all the other days as well. In other words, how might the ways we have learned to speak to God and, maybe most importantly, the ways we have heard God speak to us, inform the ways we speak to one another? I think for myself that works like gratitude, encouragement, generosity, and forgiveness might find new prominence in my day to day vocabulary. In any case, this is James’ question for us. Our answers are free to take the shape of words and silence, both, because the answer is not in the words alone. Remember, there is no logic to things done or left undone apart from God’s first call to us and the good work of tending to where and with whom God is. Our answer to James lies in the discernment that is God’s loving gift, in the discernment of where God is, what God is doing, and, with God’s good help, tending to God’s gracious presence there, and here, with our own.

Amen.


Funny story…

Hey Megan, why isn’t last week’s sermon up on the website yet? Oooooh, funny story.   See, last week, I made it back to Ithaca around 11:30pm on Saturday night.  I had been in Kansas City, finishing up wedding planning (pies ordered, BBQ selected, all set!) and I wrote my sermon on the plane.  I […]

Rambling Obvservations about Passing Period

It’s so quietIf not for the traffic of skateboardWheels and cars, almost silent.Today, any and all conversational laughterHas inexplicably chosen the other sideOf the road, no exceptions.It comes and goes with a Staggered unpredictability, almostL…

"Don’t Wash Your Hands!" And Other Things My Kids Are Delighted Jesus Said

A homily for Proper 17, Year B. These are the scriptures appointed for the day. When asked why his disciples do not wash their hands before eating, Jesus replies to his accusers, quoting Isaiah, “Don’t you see how you have abandoned the commandment of God to hold on to a human tradition?”

One way to hear what Jesus says this morning is that it’s not what you do that matters. As long as your heart is clean, you don’t need to wash your hands. To make this interpretation of Jesus’ words the basis of your regular hygienic practice at public restrooms and highway rest stops across the country would be really, really gross. Candidly, you might lose friends. You would almost certainly contract myriad of otherwise completely avoidable diseases. This is not what Jesus has in mind.

Jesus is talking about what makes people unclean in the ritual sense and, even beyond that, in the “worthy to stand before God” sense. The traditions of Jesus’ day had a long list ready of things that would make you unclean for admittance in the worship of God’s people. Some uncleanliness could be remedied. Some couldn’t. This is why the story, for example, of the good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel is so powerful and poignant: the religious leaders literally step over the body of a traveler left for dead, in part because to have touched him would have made them unclean and unable to perform their duties in worship. Interestingly, interaction with a Samaritan was also on the list of things that would make a person unclean. And yet is is from the Samaritan traveler that the broken body on the road finds reception, love, and healing.

You and I live in an age that, to put it mildly, does not like to be commanded, and so it is easy, perhaps, to hear the whole struggle over commandments and cleanliness as the maybe necessary, but embarrassingly rudimentary, progress of an archaic, ancient time. How sad, we think, that once upon a time people believed those kinds of things. How unfortunate, we think, that people ever allowed themselves to be commanded. A bit like watching somebody else rescued from a trap we know better than to step in. But that is also to miss the point that Jesus is making. The point is that Jesus is drawing a line of distinction between the commandments and the tradition, clearly delineating them as separate realities, alleging conflation and abuses by religious authorities, and, finally, Jesus is remembering for the whole people of Israel that these commandments had been given by God in order to shape the people as a people, to keep them ordered, connected, aware of the ways they belonged to God and, belonging to God, to keep them mindful of the ways they therefore belonged to each other. The point is that invoking the commandments that connect the people of God to God and each other in order to divide the people into the haves and have nots is maybe the worst abuse of the commandments, to Jesus’ mind, imaginable. All while pointing to themselves as exemplars of holiness. Like the churchgoers in Corinth, showing up to the feast, gorging themselves, not noticing that some at the table have nothing to eat, the Pharisees who take offense that the disciples don’t wash their hands cannot see how what they believe to be their saving grace is actually their sin, because it turns out there’s not much grace at all in ritual purity that requires distance from the dirty ones. The point is the calling out of an emerging market, even a religious market, for being well regarded by others, a piety production line that skips over the hassle and mess of actually belonging to one another. So, for example, in the verses that immediately follow this passage, Jesus observes that adult children are using the law in ways that allow them to shirk their responsibilities to their aging parents.

Twenty-first century western culture may no longer stress cleanliness in the same sorts of ways as ancient Judaism (though, to be sure, our society possesses its own modern variations on the theme), but we do very much share the plight of people who would like to do life without belonging to others, without living life in such a way that others can make claims on us. Conversations about how to care – and who should care – for aging parents or children with exceptionalities or those without homes are still difficult conversations to have. What’s worse, like the ones Jesus calls hypocrites this morning, we sometimes use religion to protect ourselves from, and turn a blind eye to, the claims other people might make on our lives, our money, our time.

Now, to be clear, to use religion in this way – in such a way as to protect oneself from the claims of other people, to make it look as if love of God and love of neighbor play for opposite teams or, maybe better, to somehow communicate that the two are different sports entirely – you have to twist it some. Almost to the point of breaking. But it can be done. And there are plenty of examples from which to learn this dreadful art, plenty of examples from history in which Christians have exchanged belonging to each other as one Body for the appearance of individual goodness, over against or sometimes simply indifferent to the unclean, even the unclean we are subsequently happy to help. In describing what he calls “the insufficiency of goodness,” Rowan Williams puts it this way:

So much work and (even) ministry…had been predicated on the assumption that it was about good people doing good for other people. Goodness is the problem. We do things in order to be good, or perhaps to seem to be good. We do things knowing who we are to those we define as different from us. And the result very often with the best and most generous will in the world is that people’s sense of isolation, powerlessness, and rejection is intensified rather than healed.

Nevermind the problem of evil, the religious leaders in Mark’s gospel confront us with the problem of goodness, of reputation and self-regard, and it is a problem, a dynamic, with which people in our time are more than familiar, even if, in a particularly challenging moment, that the problem is goodness sometimes escapes us. Of course we want to be good. It’s what good people do! Goodness, though, can be a way by which we assure ourselves that we are doing this thing called life in a way that matters. But playing for goodness, so understood, underwrites the lie, the fiction, that our lives are games to win.

Do you remember that time in the gospels when Jesus and his disciples are watching people put their money in the box outside the temple? Rich folks dropping bank. A widow with a coin. And some preacher one time shared that story as the basis for understanding God’s preference for percentile giving. It might have been stewardship season. But that only makes sense if our lives are games to win, if holiness comes in points to accrue and hold over others. Record high scores. But did you ever notice in that story that Jesus never calls the widow the winner? He simply makes the observation of what transpires and lets the irony that the money box outside the temple had been instituted to support the widow and orphan hang in the air like a stench with the potential to wake people up.

It’s like the smugness I sometimes feel when I take my extra clothes to Good Will, proud of my generosity, when I’ve forgotten the words of saints like Basil who say that, when I find myself with coats to give it’s only because I have stolen the extra coat in my closet from the one who has none that I have some to give. Because life is not a game to win. Because belonging, for the faithful, comes first.

But it’s tricky, right? Tricky because it’s as easy to become self-righteous about belonging as it is to be self-righteous about anything else. It’s very, very easy to find oneself perpetually wondering out loud why the other guy didn’t wash his or her hands or do the right thing. But the belonging doesn’t come from the washing of hands, yours, mine, or others. It comes from the love of the One who, on the night before he died, washed the feet of his friends, and whose love for us, as well as his love for the ones we despise, remains the truest thing about us all. This belonging names the truth about God’s love. This One feeds us here at this table; this One who is the food we are fed. And so we who are many are one body, we belong to each other, for we all partake of the one bread.

Amen.