Might/Mite: The Power of a Loud Silence

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:38-44

My sermon from the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (November 11, 2018) on Mark 12:38-44. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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One of the fascinating things about World War 1 is that it’s a war we can see – but one we can’t hear. Even though the war was fought after the invention of the film camera, the videos we have are silent. At the time, sound recordings were mechanically produced by a needle making an etching on wax or metal. The machines that could record sound were simply too big and too delicate to bring into a war zone. Unlike today, where the phone in our pocket can share live images and sounds of wars happening all over the world, the war described as the one to end all wars is one we can’t hear. If want to imagine what that war sounded like, we have to rely on our imagination to fill in the details. A veteran could fill in these auditory gaps, using their own experience in combat or in training as a guide. But the rest of us, well, we have to rely on movies, tv shows, and video games to give us a hint of what war might sound like. However, in honor of today being the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War 1, the Imperial War Museum in London found a “recording” of what the last 2 minutes of the war sounded like. Now, it’s not a recording as we understand them to be. It’s more of a series of lines on a chart similar to what we see on a seismometer as it records an earthquake. During World War 1, special military units used microphones and other equipment to find out where enemy artillery fire was coming from. Scouts would watch for the flash from the muzzle of big guns as they fired and then turn on a special machine to record on a filmstrip the intensity of the noise those guns caused. And once that noise was recorded, special computations were done to figure out where those big guns were. Most of these kinds of “recordings” were lost after the end of the war. But at least one piece survived. And that filmstrip recorded the last few moments of World War 1 from the vantage point of the Americans located by the River Moselle. A sound company was commissioned to turn these lines into actual sounds. They researched the guns used in the war, measured the noise intensity labeled by each tick on the lines, and even figured out how the ground would reverberated as each gun went boom. They basically reverse-engineered the sound of the end of a war – and in the minute long clip they posted online, you can hear the artillery guns firing up to the very moment the armistice took effect. Then…silence. And for a bit of drama, the sound company added the chirping of birds to its end.

The clip is pretty powerful. It’s the only audio recording we have of what the battlefield in World War 1 sounded like. But what makes it so intriguing – is its silence. Now, before a sound company reverse-engineered those lines on the filmstrip, we didn’t know what it sounded like. It was, in essence, silent to us. But once those lines were decoded, reworked, and made to speak – what keeps us returning to this recording over and over again is the silence embedded in it. It’s not the sound of the artillery pieces that make this recording interesting. What gives it an emotional boost is what’s on there once the sound of the big guns stop. And it’s a kind of loud silence that helps us discover exactly who we get to be.

Now, there’s some silence in today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark that we don’t always see. And that’s because, even though the reading is short, its words invite us to imagine a very loud and noisy world. Jesus was in Jerusalem, filling his time between Palm Sunday and Good Friday by preaching and teaching in the Temple. The Temple was the heart of the city, full of noise and full of people. They were talking, debating scripture, chanting psalms, and trying to speak up over the hees and haws of the animals waiting to be sacrificed. I’m sure there were moments when the crowd, while participating in religious rituals, were silent – but the sounds of the city would then move in. Jesus, at first, added to the noise by speaking about the flashy kind of scribe who’s style and rich living amped up the volume of whatever space they entered. But then Jesus switched things up. He grew silent. He walked into the outer court, the part of the Temple women could go into, and he sat down opposite the treasury. He watched as the crowd filed past the Temple’s version of a church’s offering plate and he heard the clanking of many metal coins as they landed in the treasury. Scripture doesn’t tell us how long Jesus was silent. But I like to imagine that he sat there for quite awhile. And instead of critiquing what each person offered, he waited until a widow came to the treasury to drop her offering into the plate. We don’t know anything about this widow. We don’t know how old she is, where she comes from, or even why she’s there. She, like Jesus, was silent at this moment in the text. And she’s carrying with her two small copper coins worth a penny. That amount of money couldn’t buy her much of anything. Yet it was all she had. And as she dropped those two coins into the offering plate, they barely clanged, making little noise as they landed.

But Jesus heard them. And he broke his silence to tell his disciples about the widow whose silent actions made an incredible amount of noise. The disciples, as we’ll see in next week’s reading, were focused on the bigness and the noise of it all. The large stones, the fancy robes, and the clang of the many coins tossed into the offering plate drew their notice and attention. But the widow was silent to them because her offering was so small, it appeared to make no noise at all. Yet once the noises around the widow were removed; once she was no longer a person in the crowd but rather a person Jesus saw: she became exactly who she had always been: a person God knew, a person God loved, and a person God saw. Her worth wasn’t defined by the value of what she could put in the offering plate nor by what kind of fancy clothes or places of honor she received while sitting around a dining room table. She was, and always had been, a beloved child of God. And since she didn’t have much of anything, she could only be exactly who she was: a widow who, while in God’s house, gave to God everything she had. Her silent place in the world was, according to God, full of a divine noise that only Jesus chose to hear. And she, owning basically nothing, was still willing to give her whole being to God. We, through the Spirit’s help, can do the same because Jesus Christ, through the Cross, gave his whole self for each of us. We tend to focus on the big noises all around us. We chase after whatever is bigger, brighter, and flashier – looking for stuff, experiences, and other people to fill out life with sound. Yet as baptized and beloved children of God, we already carry within us a divine sound that connects us to the source of all life, hope, and love. We are filled by a divine silence that no earthly sound, experience, doubt, fear, or war can ever drive away or overcome. We, because of Christ, get to be exactly who we are: and you, right now and always, are a beloved child of God.

Amen.

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Saints: You Are Alive

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

John 11:32-44

My sermon from All Saints’ Sunday (November 4, 2018) on John 11:32-44. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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There are a few habits I no longer do that I miss. As a kid, my brother and I would wait until the energy in the air was just right and then we’d setup a board game on our bedroom floor, one that would take us days to complete. Later, in college, there was this one spot, next to the bookstore, that overlooked a small creek. Every time I walked past it, I would stop – letting the sound of the flowing water connect me to a God I did not acknowledge but One who was with me all the same. And for a while, I looked forward to turning on my computer each week, visiting the New York Times’ Style Section, and clicking through a new photo gallery showcasing what Bill Cunningham had seen and photographed. Bill Cunningham was an iconic photographer who you could spot in New York City wearing a bright blue French worker’s jacket and riding a single speed bicycle. A hat designer by trade, Bill knew fashion and he spent decades reporting on what new trends were bubbling up across the world. But what made him unique was the time he spent on the street, trying to find that new and interesting thing that people actually wore. He didn’t spend much time looking at the fancy dresses that an actress might wear on the red carpet for an awards show. Bill was more interested in the shoe or the bag or the silhouette that people wore when they went out. He was, in essence, interested in style – which is not the same as fashion. In Bill Cunningham’s memoir, Hilton Als writes in it’s preface that style is “a certain faith and pride in one’s public persona – ‘the face that I face the world with,’” to quote Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth. Style is how we showcase “the existential mess and brights spots called [our] ‘I’” – and Bill wanted to discover “what you had made of yourself.” What made his photospreads awesome wasn’t only the creative people he photographed who had a sense of style that I could never copy or dreamup. What you could see in his photographs was his sheer joy at discovering you. Bill was a creative person with an incredible talent yet he spent all his energy looking at and engaging with other people. He could have focused only on himself or used the people around him to create whatever narrative about the world he wanted to tell. Instead, he used his gifts to point forward, to point to the people around him, because the people around us, I think, are needed so that we can live our life in Christ more fully.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John ends in an odd spot. Lazarus, who was dead, is now alive. I think we usually imagine this scene as being one where Lazarus walked out of the tomb under his own power. He was sick, he died, Jesus rose him from the dead, and Lazarus left the tomb in better shape than when he first entered it. But when we pay attention to the text, our vision of this scene changes. His walk couldn’t have included his normal strides with one foot in front of the other because his feet were tied together. The best he could do as he exited the tomb was probably shuffle his feet forward. And that shuffle was accomplished almost blindly because a piece of cloth covered his head. And since we hear nothing about Lazarus trying to untie his feet or remove the covering on his head, I imagine his hands were bound to him, removing all freedom of movement. Lazarus exited the tomb but he was still constrained by the burial wrapping for it. Jesus’ words, like the ones spoken in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, have this power to rearrange the cosmos and reorder our expectations of life and death. But that same word, in today’s text, couldn’t remove a piece of cloth from Lazarus’s head or make his walk from the tomb a little easier. It’s possible, I suppose, that a completely wrapped up Lazarus is how Jesus wanted people to verify that Lazarus was once really dead and now was really alive. But if that’s true, once Lazarus stepped out of the tomb and everyone could see who he was, that part of the story should have ended. But it doesn’t. Instead, Jesus leaves Lazarus bound and, while looking at the crowd, he tells all of them to get up – to go to Lazarus – and unbind him. It’s as if this act of God’s resurrection isn’t complete unless those gathered around participate in some way.

Now it’s hard, at first, to imagine how we can do that. Last I checked, very few of us here have ever raised someone from the dead. But we all, I think, have had moments in our life when the people around us have nourished, sustained, or changed our life into something better. We usually don’t define those moments as equal to Jesus rising from the dead. Our small experience of new life feels tiny and inconsequential in comparison. But I bet the people around Lazarus, when told to go and unbind him, thought what they were doing was small and meaningless too. Yet it’s by Jesus’ invitation that we, in whatever way we can, go and do what Jesus did – and that’s give and generate life. Many of us have been given this life – nourishment, housing, knowledge, experience, guidance, love, forgiveness, mercy, and hope – by a long list of mentors, family members, and friends. They, through Jesus, changed us, informed us, and made us better. Some did so in a very intentional ways; others just by being there in our time of need. I bet many of them never realized just how life-giving they were to us. And many of us never realized how life-giving those people were until years later. We will, in a few moments, light candles in memory of those who gave us life. We will place those candles in the sandbox, letting them burn all the way down, because the life they gave us will never be snuffed out. That life is centered, rooted, and grounded in the One who continually, day in and day out, gives us his life – in baptism, in prayer, at the Lord’s table, and in our faith. Jesus’ invitation to the crowd surrounding Lazarus’ tomb was an invitation for all of us to participate with him in the act of giving life. And we can give this life, make it our habit, because we have, through our baptism, been united with Christ’s own eternal life – a life that doesn’t begin only after we die but one that starts right now. Together we are drawn into God’s act of passing on new life by first bearing witness to the many ways life was given to us and those around us. When we see that life, that love, that hope in our neighbor, in our family member, and in the person sitting in the pew next to us, we discover how we can help unbind each other from the hate, evil, violence, and self-centeredness that this world wants to bind us up with. It’s said that “the light that lit Bill [Cunningham] from within…was that of a person who couldn’t believe his good fortune: he was alive.” You, no matter who you are, no matter your doubts, no matter the ways you feel bounded up – you, through Jesus, are alive. You are a vital part of how Jesus is giving, expressing, and sharing His life with the world. And we are invited to work together, to lean on each other, and to trust each other as God resurrects us, this church, and our world by making Jesus’ life and love a habit for all.

Amen.

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Conscious: Holding Onto God When We Can’t

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Mark 10:46-52

My sermon from Reformation Sunday/the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (October 28, 2018) on Mark 10:32-45. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Conscious and conscience are two words I always confuse when writing or speaking. The first one is used when we’re awake, able to respond to our surroundings. A patient in the hospital, when alert and able to respond to our questions, is described as being conscious. Conscience, however, is the word we use to describe the voice or feeling inside us that guides our actions. When we’re counting our calories and then eat an entire plate of cookies – we develop a guilty conscience. These words, conscious and conscience, are different but I’m always mixing them up. In fact, I mixed them up for the title of today’s sermon. Earlier this week, as I pondered the readings for today and the fact that it’s Reformation Sunday, I was drawn to Martin Luther’s use of the word “conscience.” But when I sent the title to Doris, our parish administrator, for inclusion in the bulletin, I unconsciously wrote “conscious.” I didn’t realize it until after the bulletins were printed. But maybe that’s okay. Because, in light of today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark and after yesterday’s brutal violence at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Luther’s understanding of conscience helps us become more conscious to our faith, to our calling, and to the ways we can love the world.

So I want us to begin by imagining it’s the year 1521 and we’re in a large, dark room, illuminated by burning torches. At one end of the room sits the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the Fifth, who is 21 years old, wearing a large flowing robe, and has a very well defined chin. To his left and to his right are imperial advisors and officials representing the Roman Catholic Church. And in front of them is a thin, pale monk / university professor and a pile of his books. For the past 4 years, Martin Luther’s writing went viral, with the printing press being the new technology that spread his words all over Europe. The religious and political unity of the Empire – one that included Mexico, Spain, Germany, and Northern Italy was being tested. Those in power wanted Luther to recant, to turn his back on the words he had written. He had one day to prepare his response. And in a society where “concord, peace, and brotherhood [were] among its highest values,” what Luther said next had the potential to undo the cultural assumptions and expectations that held his society together. Luther started his response by saying he was merely “a man accustomed not to courts but to the cells of monks.” Yet his words were full of confidence. He refused to recant and he ended his speech with a paragraph that has become, for Lutherans, a sort of calling card of who we are. Standing before the most powerful political, military, and religious authorities in Western Europe, Luther said, “unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures by clear reason – for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves – I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” And in words that were either not recorded on the official transcript or were merely added in the days following, Luther ended with, “I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”

It’s… a pretty amazing speech. And on youtube right now, there’s an unrealistically good looking Luther re-enacting this historic scene in dramatic detail. On this Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate our Lutheran identity while pointing to the Spirit’s continuing work of reforming, changing, and inspiring the church, there are few dramatic moments in Luther’s life that can inspire like this one. Most Americans are drawn to this moment because it suggests that Luther, in this act of resistance, was embracing his freedom, supporting the right of all individuals to decide their faith for themselves. Conscience, to us, is about finding that authentic voice inside us that connects us to who we want to be. Our conscience, on one level, is centered on words and thoughts. And that’s because our understanding of conscience is a modern byproduct of psychology and psychoanalysis. We don’t use the word conscience like Luther did. Luther wasn’t saying that his thoughts or his inner voice were captive to the word of God. Instead, for Luther, the conscience was, in the words of Lyndal Roper, “an individual’s internal knowledge of the objective meaning of God’s Word.” Now that sounds a bit abstract but that’s because it describes what’s almost indescribable – the part of us that knows and trusts God. When we talk about our faith with others, it’s easier when we can point to a belief or a writing or a thought or an opinion that says this is why we believe. It’s harder, though, to describe what keeps us with Christ when our world is torn in two. A loss, a tragedy, or an assault on humanity that forces us to ask where was God: during those moments, it’s not our thoughts or opinions that can keep us close to God. Rather, it’s Christ, who pours himself into us with love, grace, and mercy, that holds us when we can’t hold God. And for Luther, that’s conscience. And it’s not abstract. It’s connected to our emotions, our feelings, and our whole being. It can be sad, and weak, and even courageous. Our conscience can make us feel burdened but it can also help us change the world. When Luther said his conscience was captive to the Word of God, he “knew” with his whole-self – with every emotion, every thought, and every fabric of his being, what God’s Word was “and he [couldn’t] deny it.”

Luther, like Bartimaeus, didn’t think his way to Christ. No article or class or study guide provided him the answers to the life he was looking for. Instead, both had an experience of Jesus that changed their world. Bartimaeus, after meeting Jesus outside the city of Jericho, didn’t go off on his own way. Instead, he couldn’t help but follow Jesus. And Luther, once he realized that Jesus, who claimed him in his baptism, would never let him go – he couldn’t help but share with others the Christ he knew. Mercy, hope, and love was at the heart of their experiences. And those experiences fed their faith. Faith isn’t about saying the right prayer, following the right rituals, donating the right amount of money to the church, or doing everything perfect. Faith is about trusting that Jesus will keep his promises and that the old rules of our life are now broken. We are no longer trying to get our beliefs right so that we can keep God on our side. Instead, we get to live our lives knowing that since we’re with Jesus, our world has changed. Through the gift of faith, the gift of Scripture, the gift of worship, prayer, and the Lord’s own table – we are given the tools we need to see the world in a new way. It’s our conscience, when focused on Christ alone, that lets us raise our consciousness so that we can love the world as much as Christ loves us. We get to imagine a world where religious bigotry is replaced with understanding. We get to imagine a world where no synagogue, Hebrew religious school, or Jewish Community Center has to worry about antisemitic or white supremacy acts directed against it. We get to imagine a world where Christianity’s history of antisemitism and Luther’s own antisemitic writings are rightly condemned, repented of, and tossed out. We get to imagine a world where love wins. And, because of Jesus, we do everything we can to live into that kind of world because, in our baptism, in our faith, and through our conscience, Christ helps us stand firm and his way of hope, justice, and love is something we can do.

Amen.

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Listen! The Life of Faith Isn’t About Being an Insider. It’s about listening.

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles;they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:32-45

My sermon from the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (October 21, 2018) on Mark 10:32-45. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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On Friday, I rolled into Bergen Community College wearing my standard Sunday attire – black shirt, white collar, gray slacks, and pointed shoes. I parked my car, got lost, had to get back into my car to find the right parking lot, parked again, and eventually found my way to the Moses Center. I checked in with the two young congressional staffers at the front desk and walked into a large conference room. I and a bunch of other clergy from Bergen County were invited to have a conversation with Representative Josh Gottheimer at his 2nd Faith Leaders Breakfast. In that room were clergy and religious leaders from the many different faiths that call the 5th Federal district of New Jersey home. There were rabbis, imans, jathedar (jat-hey-daar), priests, pastors, deacons, heads of benevolence organizations, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Indian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, White-Americans, African-Americans, immigrants, and native born citizens eating store bought bagels and drinking hot Dunkin Donut coffee while sitting around some large tables. Rep. Gottheimer wanted each of us to share what our communities were currently seeing and experiencing. So that’s what we did. We talked. The issues we covered included refugees, recent hate crimes, immigration, family separation, health care, opioids, the expansion of divisive political rhetoric, and the unaffordability of Bergen county for poor families, recent retirees, and senior citizens. We weren’t there to workshop ideas or find solutions to the problems affecting our communities. Instead, it was a moment to share our story and discover that our different faith communities were experiencing similar issues. We were there to listen and to be listened to.

Now, listening is how community is formed. When we see that we are being heard, we learn to trust one another. We need the people around us to accept the totality of what makes us who we are – our good and our bad. And if they can’t accept that, then we build barriers to keep ourselves apart. Those barriers can, sometimes, keep us safe. But when they are misapplied, these self-generated borders diminish the humanity of the people around us. The listening that builds connection and community involves more than just hearing words. It requires reading body language, understanding histories, and discovering that our assumptions and experiences do not always apply to everyone else. We have to admit the ways we’ve failed to listen and we have to undo the walls that stop us from listening to those around us. Listening is one of the hardest skills our lives require. And it’s a skill that the disciples, in the gospel according to Mark, rarely display.

It’s probably safe to say that James and John were not really listening to what Jesus had to say today. We are still in the long beginning of Jesus’ climatic journey to the Cross and Jesus has, over and over again, tried to tell his innermost circle the truth about what’s going to happen. He is not, as the disciples hoped, going to initiate a political kingdom that would, through power and violence, establish a new Empire that would rival Rome’s. Jesus’ journey was going to be different. So on 3 separate occasions, Jesus shared that he was going to the Cross. And on those 3 separate occasions, the disciples failed to listen to him. At first, Peter tried to rebuke Jesus but Jesus told him to deny himself and take up his cross. Again, Jesus told them about the Cross but the disciples were too afraid to ask Jesus what he meant. Instead, they argued about which one of them was the greatest. So Jesus pulled them aside, brought the most vulnerable person in his cultural context into their community, and told the disciples to welcome them. And now, after this 3rd statement about what will happen in Jerusalem, James and John decide to interrupt Jesus. They want to be placed on Jesus’ right and on his left when Jesus finally comes into his glory. It’s a bit of an odd request since we know how Jesus’ story turned out. In his moment of glory, two crucified criminals will be on his left and on his right. James and John haven’t really listen to what Jesus has been saying. They saw his miracles, his casting out of demons, and his feeding of pretty much everyone – and these two want to stay close to that. But they articulated their request in a way that actually excluded everyone else. In Jesus’ day, power, prestige, and being the ultimate insider was expressed symbolically by saying what was on your right and left. James and John were not only asking to be close to Jesus but they were, at the same time, filling that space only with themselves. Today’s story doesn’t tell us exactly why they wanted that. James and John do not ask for any special power or secret knowledge or anything that would make them into some-kind of “super” follower of Jesus. But it’s possible that what they wanted was to just be “in.” They wanted Jesus to make them part of the in-crowd – the top two disciples at the popular table in Jesus’ lunchroom. This request was maybe not only about seeking power but more about trying to feel like they truly belong. James and John, after following Jesus all over Galilee and Judea, struggled to understand Jesus’ words because those words seemed centered on separation and loss. Death, we believe, is the way we finally lose each other. And that fear encouraged James and John to do whatever they could to keep Jesus by their side.

It’s normal, I think, to worry about losing Jesus. We carry with us certain expectations and assumptions about what a good faith life is supposed to look like. If we believe the right things, handle ourselves in the correct fashion, and make sure to dot our i’s and cross all our t’s – then our faith will always be secure and our spot in “the good life” will be permanently set. This kind of faith is usually not too hard on us, doesn’t really ask much of us, and is supposed to make everything completely manageable. But then real life happens. And we discover that the life we thought our faith secured is a life that doesn’t really exist. We might find ourselves wondering if Jesus left us or we might decide that since nothing is going right, we’re going to leave Jesus. We assume that the Kingdom of God doesn’t actually include us. We stop listening and, in that moment, forget that Jesus is already listening to us. In today’s reading, Jesus used a standard technique to listen: he took James and John’s request, repeated it back to them, and turned it into a question. They hoped to grab onto Jesus by becoming the ultimate insiders but didn’t realize that Jesus already had a hold on them. Every experience you’ve had, every question you’ve asked, every moment when you forgot about God and every time you thought God forgot about you – Jesus did more than just hear you in all those moments; he listened to you. He saw you. And even when you didn’t love yourself, he loved you. Following Jesus isn’t about trying to be the ultimate faith-based insider. Following Jesus is about trusting that he is for you and that he is with you. Our life of faith isn’t supposed to match our expectations. Instead, our faith knows that listening to God is intimately connected to our being able to listen to each other and to our neighbors. Our sense of belonging grows when we step away from the popular table and take a seat at the bigger, more inclusive one, say in a large conference room or at the table set by our Lord. This life of faith, this listening to God and to each other, is how we, together, live into God’s kingdom. And it’s how we finally believe and trust that we are loved.

Amen.

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Jesus’ Stewardship Plan: Giving it all

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Mark 10:17-31

My sermon from the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (October 14, 2018) on Mark 10:17-31. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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What have you loved this week?

Better yet, what have you said “love” to this week?

If a random stranger asked each of us to make a list of every love we said, I’m sure our first attempt would be something presentable. We’d put down the names of our families, our friends, and some random event we saw and enjoyed. The stranger would take a look at our list and probably force us to do it again. We’d have to admit that maybe we didn’t actually say “love” out loud this week and we’d erase the names on the list. Or maybe we’d need to add to it after remembering how many times we said we loved that shirt or song or food or whatever. Some of us hesitate saying the word love while others are a bit more carefree. This inhibition or exuberance around the word love comes from somewhere. In some cultures, boys are told to not say “love” – to reserve it to the point where we might not say it at all. We might have learned this kind of love language from our families, mimicking how often our parents said they loved us or each other. Or we might be very careful with the word love because we’d experienced too much heartbreak. Love is a powerful word. It’s a noun, a verb, an emotion, an action, an experience, a reality, and – according to Scripture – Love is God itself. Yet in the gospel according to Mark, the word “love” appears in only 3 verses. And in two of those verses, Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. So there’s only one place in all this gospel where Mark used the word “love” all on his own. And that happened in our reading today – at verse 21 – when Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him.

I’ve joked in the past that our next church stewardship and funding campaign should be based on these verses from the tenth chapter of Mark. When people ask how much they should give, we could point to verse 21 and then sit down. Instead of asking for a tithe, for just 10% of what we make, Jesus seems to be asking for it all. He continued this theme a few verses later by pointing out how hard it is for those with riches to enter the Kingdom of God. Now, over the centuries, we’ve tried really hard to run away from Jesus’ words in this text. In the middle ages, a theory developed centered on Jesus’ words about a camel and a needle. Some theologians claimed there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem called “the needle,” and that a camel, using funky body positions, could inch its way through it. So if this was right, then those with wealth could enter the kingdom of God but they’d need to be a bit more flexible to make that happen. The problem is that theory is completely work. There was no gate named “the needle” and Jesus really said that it’s easier for a camel – a giant animal – to go through the eye of a sewing needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus’ words here can scare us – so, at times, we’ve turned against the rich young man saying he lied about keeping the law. Or we say he’s too rich, a stand-in for a different wealth class of people we’re not apart of. But that kind of thinking is designed to get us off the hook because we can always imagine someone who is richer than us. My personal trick is to do a close reading of the text, notice that Jesus said to give everything to the poor, and then point to my mortgage and my student loan debt from seminary. We try, as best we can, to manage this text, to make it feel safe. Because, if we have a bed to sleep in, if we know where our next meal is coming from, if we have health insurance, and if we have access to credit, jobs, and other kinds of opportunities – these riches are ones that we don’t want to give to that rich young man. We don’t want to be him. Because we also know that when Jesus showed him, the only person in the entire gospel according to Mark described as being loved – when Jesus showed him how to change his life, he left – sad and full of sorrow.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing Jesus’ love – and then leaving, feeling sad. We don’t want to meet God through prayer, or at Holy Communion, or through the love of our neighbors and have our sense of self torn in two. The rich young man was loved not because he was rich or faithful or because he followed the rules. Jesus just loved him because that’s who Jesus is. That gift of love is something we all want. But it’s a gift that isn’t a commodity that we can store and keep. Rather Jesus’ love is an action, a force, that compels us to discover the truth about who we are. We want to turn Jesus’ love into something we can possess because if we can do that, then we can fit Jesus into the society we’ve already created. People’s worth, we think, is based on what they are allowed to have: whether that’s authority, power, wealth, or status. We’ve defined people by what they possess and those with more are worth more. We act as if life is about accumulating experiences, opportunities, and whatever helps us think we are “self-sufficient.” In other words, we want to earn and grab onto what we imagine eternal life to be. The danger of wealth, of this constant need to possess, is that it can trick us to think we are following God’s rules while we self-justify every divide we create in the world. It’s at that moment when we turn Jesus into a possession instead of a Savior that Jesus finally tells us the truth, undoing the world we’ve built up while showing us something new.

Jesus does more in this passage than tell the rich young man to sell what he owns. Jesus also shows him how to love. We see in Jesus’ own actions and words a formula for what love looks like. In verse 21, Jesus’ response to the rich young man is to look and see him. Jesus, in that moment, sees everything about him – where he comes, where he’s going, and what his entire life looks like. Love can’t be limited to only ourselves. Love compels us to fully see the other – and in that process, connect with them. So after seeing the rich young man, Jesus tells him to sell what he owns so that he can come and follow him. Every one of the actions Jesus highlights points to what love is all about. Love isn’t about gaining a possession. Love is about gaining a relationship with the creator of the universe and, in that process, forming a bond with the world and all the people God loves. We want to split the world and it’s people into groups based on what we think they should possess. Yet Jesus’ love breaks through the dividing lines we draw up, connecting us to each other even though the world wants to keep us apart. Through Christ, we are invited to say “love” to more people than we might, at first, admit. We are called to make that “love” a reality by using the gifts God gave us, including our wealth, to create connections rather than re-entrenching our divisions. And it’s through Jesus where we discover a new way of life that is about more than giving something up. Instead, when we connect with each other, loving people in the same way Jesus first loved us, that’s when we’ll notice that our entire life is finally starting to grow.

Amen.

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But Jesus Said: Jesus and Divorce

[Jesus] left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Mark 10:1-16

My sermon from the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 7, 2018) on Mark 10:1-16. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Start with a pause.

So in the space between when I finished today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark to when I first started speaking, what sermon appeared in your head?

I was reminded this week that there are stories from the Bible that speak to us before the pastor says a word. These stories tend to connect with us on a very personal level. They tug at our heart and our soul, reminding us of personal experiences we’ve had, struggles we’ve overcome, and point to the current shadows that fill our lives. Jesus’ words about divorce is one of those stories. All I had to do was say that word and memories of fear, pain, and sadness bubble up. We might remember sermons in the past that hurt because they used Jesus’ words to condemn us while we went through our divorce. Or we might hold onto a part of what Jesus said and find ourselves struggling to connect or fully empathize with those who have gone through their own separation. Some might hear Jesus’ celebration of the institution of marriage and feel personally attacked because they are single or alone or know they’ll never be married. The wider church has used this passage from Mark to define what our lives through marriage should look like. And if our life doesn’t match up, we’re punished for not being a member of a so-called “biblical” relationship. Now, we know that relationships are not always simple or easy. Our bonds with each other are formed by imperfect people and those connections will never fully match with our “happily-ever-after” expectations. Being married is a calling that not everyone will share. And sometimes ending an unhealthy marriage is the right and Christian and loving thing to do. We know this because we have people in our lives who are incredibly faithful and who are also single or married or divorced or everything else in between. Jesus’ love for us does not depend on our marital status. Instead, Jesus is always with us, whether we’re single, partnered, living together, separated, married, divorced, widowed, re-married, or re-divorced. That’s a promise Jesus gives us in our baptism and our marital status does not change that. So how can we rewrite the sermon that’s already in our head so that we cling to Jesus rather than to the word “divorce?” Well, one way we can do that is by starting at verse 13 with the word “people.”

Now I’ll admit that sometimes the formatting of our Bible trips me up. And for a long time, I saw verse 13 as the start of a separate story. The word “people” seems to mark the beginning of a new scene where families are bringing little children to Jesus so that he might touch them. That touching sounds a little weird but it’s Mark’s way of telling us that these children probably needed healing. So people wanted Jesus to heal their child by gently laying his hands on them. Jesus’ disciples, once again, were not happy that little children were in the room. The children were sick, loud, and annoying everyone who wanted to hear what Jesus had to say. But Jesus, as was his custom, said, “let the little children come.” For the third week in a row, our story from the gospel of Mark has children in it. Children in the ancient world were near the bottom of their society’s social ladder. They were prone to getting sick, were extremely vulnerable, and they needed to be taken care of. Children were loved by their families but the wider society was waiting for them to grow up. But Jesus, like we heard last week and the week before, welcomed them, saying that the ones who are vulnerable, the ones who are weak, and the one who have no authority in their community – they are the ones who are already part of God’s holy family. The little children in that room weren’t supposed to be in Jesus’ presence in the first place. Yet Jesus invited them in because God’s kingdom already included them. It wasn’t the super religious, the super powerful, or the super successful who earned or were entitled to a place in God’s kingdom. Rather, it’s those who find themselves in need, those who are suffering, those who are in pain, and those who have found their lives torn apart – that’s who Jesus goes to. And Jesus promises them that He will never let them go.

The word “people” seems like it starts a new story that’s all good news. But that word and it’s paragraph indention wasn’t supposed to start something new. Rather, in the ancient greek text that our translation is based on, the word “people” is really just “they.” Now that “they” could point to the crowd or the Pharisees or the disciples or whoever else was in that house. But I think that “they” also included those Jesus named in verses 11 and 12. The families bringing children to Jesus included not only married couples but also remarried couples, divorced men, and divorced single women. Now, those divorced women and their children would be in an extremely vulnerable position because, in general, it was the men who had access to wealth, power, and resources. That patriarchy was so ingrained in the culture that it was really only men who could initiative any kind of separation in Jesus’ day. A man could, through divorce, pretend as if their marriage never happened. But the woman didn’t have that option. She would be viewed as almost expendable, without a job or money or any kind of resources to support their children. Yet it’s the ones who had their world torn apart that Jesus welcomes and includes. Because, according to Jesus, the ones who suffer, who are in pain, who were tossed aside and left completely vulnerable – they are the ones for whom the whole kingdom of God belongs.

We do a disservice to ourselves, our church, and our faith when we read Jesus’ words about divorce and we forget “they” who brought their children. This story isn’t meant to be split in two. Rather, we’re supposed to read Jesus’ words about divorce and to use his actions with the children as our guide. As human beings, we are connected to everyone else, and we’re called to welcome, serve, and care for each other. No one is meant to be dismissed, pushed aside, or left vulnerable. No one is meant to be unheard or unseen. Our relationships with each other are supposed to support, guide, and help us be the followers of Jesus – God is calling us to be. But when our most intimate relationships end for the well-being of ourselves, our partners, and our families – then the church God has surrounded us with is called to support, hold, and love those in need. Jesus knew that we needed each other because it takes a community to repair what life has torn a part. It takes a church to help us mourn the end of one relationship while we’re being resurrected into something new. That’s why, in our baptism, we are given more than a personal relationship with Jesus. We’re given a whole body, a whole community filled with people who are called to love each other just like Jesus loves us. Regardless of our marital status, our age, or our gender, we are meant to be for each other. And in the words of Rev. David Lose, “when we recognize our own dependence and vulnerability and see ourselves in those who suffer,” it’s then when we “can …imagine … – and thereby receive – the reign and presence of God.

Amen.

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What You Get: Who Jesus Includes in His community

John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For 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.”

Mark 9:38-50

My sermon from the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (September 30, 2018) on Mark 9:38-50. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Scripture never tells us if Jesus puts the little one down.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark continues the conversation that started last week. Jesus and his disciples have returned to Galilee and are staying in the city of Capernaum. Their journey to Galilee was uneventful but the disciples had a bit of an argument amongst themselves: they argued about which one of them was the greatest. Now, arguing about who’s the greatest is …silly especially when God is literally in the room. But we can excuse the disciples’ behavior because they had experienced a taste of Jesus’ power. Jesus, in chapter 6, sent his disciples to preach, heal, and cast out demons all over Galilee. The disciples did what Jesus asked and they were amazed because people listened. People were healed. And even demons, the evil forces that separate us from God and from one another, – even they were overcome by the power of Jesus’ name. The disciples thought that this was what Jesus was all about. So they argued about which one of them expressed Jesus’ power the most. Jesus, in response, asked a little child to join them. Jesus picked this kid, this little one, up and he welcomed them as a full member of their community. This invitation caught the disciples off guard because children, in Jesus’ day, weren’t valued very much. Parents loved their children but the wider society sort of didn’t because children were vulnerable, weak, and needed to be taken care of. Children had the potential to become contributing members of their society but until that happened, until they grew up, children were at the bottom of their world’s social ladder. Children weren’t full members of…anything. Yet Jesus took this child, put this little one in the middle of their community, and said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The power the disciples experienced wasn’t what Jesus was all about. Jesus’ true power was showing all people, especially those we ignore or push to side, that God sees them, that God loves them, and that God will never let them go.

Now, it’s immediately after this when John first speaks. And it’s like he didn’t hear anything at all. One thing I find helpful and that I encourage you to do as well is: visualize these scenes with Jesus. Imagine the room they’re in. See the disciples sitting or standing. Notice the little one with Jesus, and make that child real. Imagine this whole scene. And then listen as John speaks, admitting they tried to stop someone because they didn’t believe that person was part of their community. I imagine Jesus took a long pause before he responded. I can see Jesus re-enacting almost every animated gif, every animated image, where someone is rolling their eyes or sighing or frustrated or moving their mouth but confused about what they should say next. Because Jesus had just placed a little child in the middle of their community, showing the disciples who was included in God’s family. But John still claimed that there were some who didn’t belong.

That’s why, I think, Jesus’ words sort of snowball in the rest of today’s text. At first, Jesus was kind, giving the disciples another vision of what Jesus’ community looked like. Jesus is putting together a body made up of people that is bigger than the 12 apostles in that city by the Sea of Galilee and bigger than all of us inside this church today. God is calling all kinds of people, the faithful, the sort-of faithful, and even those with no initial faith at all, to be part of what God is doing in the world. Our faith and our experiences – our relationship with Jesus – is not the only kind of relationship someone might have with him. Jesus nurtures, in different ways, the faith the Spirit gives us. We can never be quite sure exactly what the Holy Spirit is doing in those around us – but we can trust that the God who is with us is with them too. And if we can’t see God moving in the people around us, then we are putting barriers around what we think is possible with God. Those barriers are ones we create by saying that Jesus only works in one way and in one place and through one kind of experience. We choose, in those moments, to act as if we ourselves are God, because we get to decide where the building blocks of faith are placed in people’s lives. We encourage those around us to stumble, telling them to look for God in the parts of their lives where their faith will not grow. Because we choose to believe the faith life of others when their life of faith matches our own. But the community Jesus is putting together needs everyone, including those who we think are not as committed or as faithful or who express their life with Jesus in ways that will change what this community of faith does. The little one standing with Jesus and that unknown person casting out demons were not a problem that needed to be overcome. Rather, the disciples were the problem because they couldn’t see the ways they were preventing others from living their faith out loud.

As we visualize the rest of this text, the image of Jesus holding a young child while talking about maiming and hell and unquenchable fire – that’s a pretty harsh vision. These exaggerations make it easy to runaway from this part of the text. We can claim that Jesus is embracing hyperbole and that he doesn’t really mean everything that he says. We do listen to his words, about the ways we put stumbling blocks before others, but we downplay how serious those stumbling blocks are. We assume that any stumbling we cause in others are minor hiccups in someone else’s life. They can, and should, move past them and if they can’t, that’s their problem, not ours. Yet hyperbole [always] points to [a] truth.. [that] must be taken seriously. And in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “the hyperbole points to what is at stake in being the cause of a stumble in faith. It’s not just about standing in another’s way of faith but denying their individual expression of faith. It’s not just that we have somehow prevented someone from having faith, but [we] have prevented a life of faith that they, and only they, can embody.” Too often “hyperbole becomes [a] convenient excuse to stop listening, to stop believing, [letting us] question the veracity of [any] claims,” made on us. But “when we place stumbling blocks in the paths of those trying to answer God’s call — as they and only they can hear it and live it — we are effectively silencing them.” We end up preventing others from being who Jesus is calling them to be. And in the face of that reality, a reality we too often create for others and a reality that we too often find ourselves in, Jesus – with that little one still in his arms – looks at the ways we try to silent the life of others – and Jesus says: “No.”

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The Company You Keep

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9:30-37

My sermon from the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 23, 2018) on Mark 9:30-37. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Imagine standing on a small ledge, 50 feet above the earth. On your right and on your left is just air. You feel safe because you’re wearing a harness and there’s someone below holding a blue safety rope. You’re on that ledge because you’ve embraced your inner Spider-man, climbing to the top of a thin rock wall inside a vast indoor playspace devoted to wall climbing, obstacle courses, and everything needed to become an American Ninja Warrior. Ten feet in front of you is a large red punching bag, hanging in the air. All you need to do to complete this obstacle is to jump on that bag, wrapping your arms and legs around it. Now, you know you’re safe. And you’ve spent the entire day doing things you’ve never done before. You’re feeling great. So you stare at that bag. And then you look down. And then you stare at that bag once more. All you need to do is jump. But then you hear it – a chorus of fifteen six year olds at a birthday party shouting “jump!” It’s sort of impossible to do great things when a bunch of little kids, their faces covered in pizza and cake, are shouting at you to “jump.” I felt bad for that teenager up on that ledge who was trying to do something great. But they recognized that their situation changed. So they sat down, letting their feet dangle over the edge. And after a minute or a two, they slid off – letting the safety rope control their descent down to earth.

In our reading from the gospel according to Mark, we have disciples and a savior who do very silly things. Jesus is wandering through Galilee, the northern part of ancient Israel. He’s trying to be discreet – so he doesn’t feed a thousand people or cast out any demons. Instead, he focuses on his disciples – telling them the next part of his story. The disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about but, as we heard last week, their confusion is completely understandable. Peter knew that Jesus is the Messiah – the one who would turn the world upside down. But Peter and everyone else assumed that this would only happen when Jesus used our tools of war and violence to establish God’s kingdom. Even after Jesus said, “that’s not how this works,” the disciples still didn’t get it. But they were listening because when Jesus told them, again, about his death on the Cross, the disciples decided to change the subject.

Now, on the surface, arguing about who is the greatest is pretty silly. The disciples are literally walking around with the guy who can feed thousands of people with the crumbs in his pockets. And their acting like kids, arguing about who is Jesus’ best friend. We can, however, give the disciples a bit of pass on their behavior because, just a few chapters earlier, they had experienced Jesus’ power when Jesus sent them to preach, teach, and heal in villages all over Galilee and Judea. Each one of them had been like Jesus, getting a little taste of the unlimited things Jesus could do. And that, I think, gave them a confidence that God was going to overcome with power the pain, suffering, and violence all around them. They imagined that this overcoming of the world was just the beginning of what Jesus was about to do. So, I think, as they talked about who was the greatest, they told stories of the sermons they preached, the healings they participated in, and bragged about how many people heard them in synagogues, homes, and in marketplaces. And since they knew their Bible, they imagined themselves to be the heads of a re-established Israelite kingdom. The 12 tribes of ancient Israel would return, after having been reduced to only 2 over 700 years before they born. The disciples didn’t see themselves as only students of Jesus. They also imagined themselves to be his future generals. It’s silly to be arguing about who is the greatest when God is literally in the room but it’s normal to cling to whatever power we see – so that we can overcome our reality and receive its benefits today and for years to come.

So Jesus responded to a very human but very silly argument with a silly maneuver of his own. He invited a child to be with him and the rest of his disciples. Now we might not realize what Jesus is doing here because we spend a lot of time and energy trying to bring kids to Jesus. We’ve invested in our Sunday school, Confirmation, and our new multi-church high school youth group. I’m personally grateful when kids are here in worship because, as baptized children of God, Jesus says they belong here, just like I do. And any homeowner in our area can look at their property tax bill and see how much we invest in childhood – through education, sport leagues, music lessons, and giving kids experiences so that they can live a life we think they deserve. But in Jesus’ time, there wasn’t a childhood. Once kids were old enough to help their parents on the farm or in the home, that’s what they did. We have ancient statues of four year olds holding mining equipment because kids worked. But kids were still kids. They were still growing and learning and being themselves. They needed to be taken care of. So, in Jesus’ day, being a kid wasn’t something anyone really admired. No one wanted to find their inner child or spend time chasing their childhood dreams because a child, back then, was seen as someone less than being an adult. In the social hierarchy of Jesus’ day, this meant children were at the bottom. And until kids grew up, they weren’t worth much. They were marginalized, vulnerable, and powerless. The disciples imagined themselves to be Jesus’ generals because they were hanging out with the ultimate power in the universe. And in response, that power took the powerless and said this is who God chooses to be with.

I’m pretty sure the disciples would struggle to understand why we celebrate the birthdays of 6 year olds and why we have whole event centers filled with obstacle courses and climbing walls so that hordes of little kids can shout “jump” while they’re eating pizza and birthday cake. But I think they would understand what it’s like to feel as if they are on the cusp of greatness only to then slide down into reality. Every sermon they preached and healing they participated in, gave the disciples a personal confidence that they were heading towards something great. They saw themselves as climbing up a rock wall of faith that would let them overcome everything. Yet they struggled to see how, through the Cross and through the resurrection, God was about to transform it all. There was nothing the disciples could do to become the greatest with God because the greatness of God had already decided that they were worth living and dying and rising for. As the baptized, as the faithful, as the ones who follow Jesus – every time we worship, pray, read our bible, and serve in our church – we hope that this kind of experience will grow our relationship with Christ so that we can become a little more great in our faith. Yet the God we try to be great for is a God who is already here, in our midst, loving and serving and being great to us because that’s who God is. In Christ, there’s nothing we can do to be greater with God. We can’t climb that wall of faith because Jesus has already come down. Instead, we can only live God’s greatness out by sometimes taking a seat, letting our feet dangle over the edge, and then sliding down to live and love and serve each other and our neighbors just like Jesus did.

Amen.

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Who? Who? Who? Jesus is an everyday messiah.

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

My sermon from the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2018) on Mark 8:27-38. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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One of the neat things I get to do is visit people and, if they want, bring them communion. I have a little kit with 4 individual communion cups, a little bronze box that holds communion wafers, and a tiny plastic bottle filled with either red wine or white grape juice. I bring this kit with me when I’m visiting someone who hasn’t been at church in awhile or if they’re seeking a more tangible experience of Jesus. I don’t do these kinds of visits every week – but there are days when I get a lot of Jesus in a short amount of time. I’ll visit someone, set out the cups and wafers, share communion with them, and then drive to my next visit to do the exact same thing. When I do these back to back to back to back communion visits, I pre-plan my route, making sure I have enough wafers, wine, and clean glasses on hand. These Jesus-filled days develop their own kind of rhythm and afterwards my mouth is dry because of all the wafers I’ve consumed. And by the end of the day, my heart is usually completely broken because of all the pain and anguish that exists in people’s lives. But at the same time, my heart is very full because Jesus is there, in all of it.

If I had to guess, I’d say we don’t have many days when an overwhelming amount of Jesus shows up. Most of the time, saying our nightly or morning prayers is all we need to know that God isn’t done with us yet. There are other days when we don’t think about our faith much at all – and still more when we wonder if the creator-of-everything has turned their back on us. So these short and intense Jesus moments are sometimes few and far between. But when they come, they can show up in the most unexpected ways. A friend might say the exact thing we didn’t know we needed to hear. And a stranger might offer us mercy in such a way that we actually see what God’s kingdom looks like. Or we might receive a handwritten note from someone telling us we matter. It might take only 20 seconds to read those words – but that experience of Jesus lasts for hours. We probably need more of these kinds of moments in our lives. But there’s a grace in not being overwhelmed by Jesus all the time. We get to catch our breath, reflect on what we’ve heard, and discover how this faith makes a difference in our lives. If we had to engage with an overwhelming Jesus on a conscious level every day of the week – we might become so overwhelmed that we end up missing what God is trying to say. I think we need space, and time, and distance so that we can see the whole story of what God is up to. Otherwise we might end up feeling a little like Peter did in our reading from the gospel according to Mark.

Peter, at the start of this passage, probably felt pretty full of himself because Jesus asked who they thought he was and Peter blurted out the correct answer. It’s got to feel pretty great to get God’s question right. Yet the chapter didn’t end with this question. Jesus kept talking. And as he talked, sharing with his disciples who he was, what he’s doing, and what’s going to happen to him – Peter and his recently inflated ego felt the need to respond. Peter tried to be discreet, pulling Jesus aside before he rebuked him. But his private moment with Jesus became very public once Jesus called him – Satan. Now, Peter took quite an emotional roller coaster – shooting up to the top of the world at the start of our reading only to be, just a few verses later, staring at us from the bottom of a pit. Our moments with Jesus aren’t always going to be filled with a sense of peace and joy that we know only comes from God. Our moments with Jesus are sometimes rough, as if our world is being turned upside down. And in Peter’s case, it was. Peter thought he got Jesus’ question right. People knew Jesus was special but they didn’t know exactly what to call him. So they used what they knew, typecasting Jesus in roles they could explain and understand. And that’s exactly what Peter did. He knew Jesus was the Messiah, the One who would turn the world upside down. But Peter assumed he knew what that meant. When he said that Jesus was the Messiah, Peter wasn’t only identifying Jesus’ title. Peter was also, in that moment, telling Jesus what kind of Messiah Peter wanted him to be. Peter needed Jesus to turn the world upside down but he assumed that could only be done in the way we expect it to happen: through strength, power, and violence. Peter’s Messiah needed to act in a specific way – by raising up an army to drive the Romans back into the sea. Through military might and political violence, Peter wanted Jesus to build God’s kingdom in the ways kingdoms usually are. Because, for Peter, Jesus was a general, a superhero, a religious teacher, a politician, and a miracle worker who could make ancient Israel independent, mighty, and great once again. Peter’s declaration wasn’t only his way of identifying who Jesus was. Peter’s declaration was also an attempt to tell Jesus what Jesus was supposed to do. So when Jesus started talking about becoming a victim of violence rather than causing it, Peter had to speak up because Jesus wasn’t getting this Messiah thing right. Peter wasn’t just rebuking Jesus; Peter was trying to tell God how Jesus was supposed to work. Peter thought he knew better than God what God is all about.

Peter’s desire to make Jesus be what Peter wanted him to be, is a pretty normal thing to do. We all, at various times in our lives, want Jesus to act in the way we want. It would be awesome if Jesus was a little more over the top and flashy so that we could see him during the regular busyness and noise of our lives. But the Son of God who was born in a barn and who lived a very human life wasn’t interested in overcoming us. Rather, God is interested in transforming us. And that transformation is centered in everyday things – like eating and drinking, visiting and talking, living and dying. God can do over the top things and there will be moments in our live when we will see Jesus clearly. But those moments are not the primary moments where God is at work. Rather, these overwhelming Jesus filled experience help us uncover what God is doing in all our moments. There is no part of our life that’s too small for God to notice. And there’s no part of our life where Jesus isn’t already with us. Peter couldn’t see that because, in Mark chapter 8, he didn’t know the rest of Jesus’ story. Even when Jesus told him what would happen next, Peter couldn’t hear him over the expectations and assumptions making noise in Peter’s head. But once Jesus’ life played out – from his sharing of meals with all kinds of people, to his execution by the state, through his resurrection and the women standing at the empty tomb – it was then when Peter saw what Jesus was all about. We might not see God working in our lives all the time. But know that, no matter where you are or who you’re with, Jesus is already there. And when we gather together around the Lord’s table, whether in this sanctuary or around a coffee table in our living rooms, the everyday thing of eating and drinking, of sharing communion, points us to our everyday reality – that Jesus is busy filling every one of our moments with all his mercy, love, and grace.

Amen.

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