Posts

The Reversal of Fortunes

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
Mark 12:38-44

 

12: 38As 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, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of widows and strangers, you protect the oppressed and forgotten and feed the hungry with good things. You stand among us in Christ, offering life to all. Give us open hearts and minds to respond with love to the world, caring for those for whom you care. Amen.

 

This is not a Stewardship Sermon! But it is a sermon about giving.

 

We are privy to a very common transaction, a person making a donation, a woman making her offering.  But this woman caught Jesus’ attention and this transaction stood out to him.   So much so that he tells his followers about her and what she gave.  Did anybody else notice her or what she gave?  Probably not?  So, Jesus tells them.  She gave, “her whole life.” Not a portion. Not a tithe. Not a percentage. She gave her whole living.

 

Her whole living?  That should give us reason to pause and reflect on what is happening here.  Nobody can give everything.  Not even to the church, nor should we give that much to the church, or to anyone or any organization.  So, let’s move away from the stewardship interpretation of this Gospel story because we cannot reduce the widows’ donation to a percentage or a portion or a pledge. She gave her whole life to God.

 

She gave her whole life.  Why?  Was it out of obligation?  Was it out of respect?  Was it because of her religiosity?  Her piety?  Was it all of the above?  She gave her whole life because she had no other options.  She gave her whole life because that’s what was expected of her.  She gave her whole life because her life depended on it.  She was captive and caught in a system of exchange, trapped in expectations that demanded more from her than she could essentially give.  She had to do what she did.  She had no choice but to give her whole life.[1]

 

This is not an indictment of her or even the practice of Judaism.  This was the way it was back then.  This was reality.  Like death and taxes.  She had to give.  So, for Jesus to make such an important observation and notice her and single her out and raise her up as an example of the corruption of the system, was a huge risk.  Jesus speaks the truth, trying to show that God was up to something new — not a new doctrine, not a new ritual, not a new sacrifice, or even a new God, but instead it was Jesus telling how God is/was committed to being in relationship with the world.

 

Jesus is attacking the Temple establishment.  The Temple was not only a religious institution and the earthly home of God but it was an economic institution as well.  The Temple had hundreds of employees, and Jerusalem was a “company town.”  The Temple performed many financial functions, including operating as a central bank and treasury.

 

The Temple priests and scribes lived high on the hog.  They received a cut from every Temple sacrifice and were the beneficiaries of a five-shekel tax on every first-born child.  This generated great revenue for the priests, but even this was not all they took in.  There were several other offerings — or perhaps better, taxes —that brought in even greater wealth, so much so that priests got into the business of lending money, which means that they also were in a position to foreclose on property if the debt was not paid. Remember this passage began with a scathing indictment of the scribes, the Temple lawyers, who like to walk around in their long robes and pretty vestments and say long prayers that mean nothing, they devour widows’ houses…So for Jesus to say these things against the Temple and the religious establishment he was setting himself over and against them.

 

Jesus was trying to offer new ways to think about God to show how God was not easy to capture or contain or make into our own.  Jesus is saying that God is more than ritual and transaction.  God is about relationship.  So, the widow and her offering is a foreshadowing of what God was up to in being in relationship with humanity.  That is why Jesus and his ministry was counter to everything people knew about faith and about God.

 

That is why this is not a stewardship sermon but it is a sermon about giving because we can’t reduce the widow’s giving to a message of stewardship or as an example for us to follow in giving to the church, to do so is to miss the point of this story entirely.  The Bible does not allow us to boil down every character we meet into a sermon illustration or a stewardship example.  They cannot always be reduced to an example, “Wow, I need to be more like this widow (her)…”  She is instead a multi-dimensional character, an invitation to embody what it means to follow Jesus.

 

So, Jesus points her out because he sees in her what he must do on the cross.  Jesus will have to give his life for the world. That is how God acts.  That is God’s character.  God knows nothing else than to give God’s whole life for the world, for all of us. God has shown that time and time again to God’s people in the Hebrew Scriptures and it is no different now. This is the essence of God – to give God’s whole self.

 

The widow tossed the only shred of independence she had in to the offering plate, but she kept intact her complete dependence on God and neighbor.  Her way was a life of faith grounded in the trust of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  It’s a life lived in the conviction that we are dependent upon God and others in all things.

 

Jesus shows us that our dependence on God leads to joy and thanksgiving. If God is running the universe and ruling all of life, then we no longer have to save ourselves, prove ourselves or justify ourselves.  We are the work of God’s hands. We live and move and have our being in those hands and we will die in those hands. Jesus through this story of the widow’s mite tells us that we can trust in the one who will reverse our fortune from lost to found from slave to free from sinful and broken to forgiven and whole. It is God who will reverse our fortunes. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. Karoline Lewis, Whole Life Living, Sunday, November 01, 2015, www.workingpreacher.org

The Eye Test

 

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Ps. 34:1-8, (19-22)
Mark 10:46-52

 

10:46 “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. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 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.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 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.” 52 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, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Loving God, creator of heaven and earth in whom all things are possible, have mercy on us and heal us.  We pray that you would sustain us by the power of your word so that we may draw near to you and follow in your way as faithful disciples. Amen.

 

Today’s gospel reading takes place in Jericho, which is described as the oldest city in the world.  The location is important to the story.   In the first century the ancient city of Jericho was destroyed.  This new city of Jericho, built by Herod the Great, was built three miles from the ancient site.  Everyone, in Jesus day, would have known this history.  So, the location of this story is no small matter.  Jericho was one of the lushest cities of the biblical world because of its magnificent water supply.[1]  Jericho was literally an oasis in the desolate wasteland between Jerusalem and the Jordan River.  It is about 15 miles east of Jerusalem, just on the other side of the hills between Jerusalem and the Jordan River.  It was an important commercial center and trading post on the principal road that connected Jerusalem with the Jordan Valley and points east.  But its religious significance was even more important.  Jericho was the point at which the Israelites had entered the Promised Land.  Jericho symbolized God’s fulfillment of the divine promise to Israel that they would enter and possess a land flowing with milk and honey.  So, Jesus’ decision to travel through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem was full of significance.  When Jesus entered this reborn city it was significant because rebirth or a new start is an important undertone of this miracle story.[2]

 

This is the backdrop as Jesus and his disciples come to Jericho. When, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, who was sitting by the roadside began to shout out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

 

Let’s imagine Bartimaeus’ world for a moment.   First of all, imagine what it means to be blind.  Just close your eyes for a minute and think.  Now, keeping your eyes closed, what if I were to ask you to get up and walk around?  Some of you would be able to, because you know the church well.   But, if I were to ask you to get up and walk home, it would be much more difficult.

 

Now, imagine how difficult it would be in Jesus’ day: poor roads, no straight streets, lots of rocks, not to mention thieves and bandits along the way.  Now how much more difficult it was for Bartimaeus because he had once had sight but had lost it.  He had had something precious and had lost it.  I imagine that Bartimaeus had had to struggle with bitterness because of his enormous loss.

 

In Jesus’ day, the blind, were people that society had no use for.  So, it is redundant to refer to Bartimaeus as a “blind beggar.”  He was blind, so of course, he was a beggar.  He had no alternative.  There was no welfare, no social system of support for those who can’t fend for themselves.  The blind were among the most destitute of all people, since they had no way of earning an income.  Unless you had a family to take care of you, the only thing that was possible for a blind person to do to survive was to beg.  So, in this culture it was thought that society would be better off without the blind, as well without lepers, or orphans, or widows, or anyone else who was an economic drain.   They had no value. So Bartimaeus had no choice but to sit beside the road and beg for spare change and or help.

And then along comes Jesus.

 

 

Rather than passively accept his fate, Bartimaeus refuses to be ignored.  He shouts.  He makes a scene.  He shouts Jesus’ name.  The crowd tries to quite him. But Mark tells us that Bartimaeus “cried out even more loudly” and shouted Jesus’ name again.

 

He catches Jesus attention. Jesus calls to him to come over.  Bartimaeus, stands throws off his cloak and goes to Jesus.  Bartimaeus would not have had many possessions, perhaps he had a begging bowl and a staff, but I doubt he would have much else.  That is all a beggar might have had to his name and Bartimaeus throws it off to go to Jesus. Hold this image in tension with another story from the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel.  This too is one person’s encounter with Jesus.  Remember the story of the rich man who came to Jesus.  When Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor.  The rich man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  What a contrast with Bartimaeus who, with joyful abandon throws away his cloak, perhaps his most expensive possession!

 

So, who can blame Bartimaeus for leaving everything and going to Jesus?

 

He is free.  He can see.  He is overjoyed.  He responds with gratitude for what Jesus has done for him.

 

This what this story means to us today.  What is our response to all that God has done for us?  Now, we may not be cured of blindness or any other aliment but we are set free.  Friends, it is Good News!  It is the good news of what God has done in Christ for us and all the world.  We are free![3]

 

No matter what we may have done, no matter what may have been done to us.  None of these things define us.  We are free and the future is bright.   Now, I know that it is really, really hard to believe, in light of what is going on in our lives and in the world around us.  Yes, what is happening in our world such as war, the refugee crisis, hunger, homelessness, violence and drugs in our city, not to mention what affects us even more personally?  All of that seems so huge, so important, so all-encompassing, but ultimately it’s not.  Not to say that these things don’t matter.  They do.  Illness, disappointment, hurt, grief, and loss.  They matter and they affect us deeply.   But they do not define us.  Nothing we have done or has been done to us describes who we are completely.  Only one thing can do that: God, the creator, redeemer and sustainer of all, can do that.  And God has chosen to call us beloved children, holy and precious in God’s sight.  That’s what defines us.

 

And so we are free. Free to risk and serve and help and care and try and struggle and laugh and live.  We are free, to love, just as God loves us. We are free, free to give with the same sense of gratitude that Bartimaeus shows as he throws of his cloak and followed Jesus on the way.  So, friends let us respond to all of God’s blessings by giving back to God through the church with joy filled and grateful hearts.

 

Let us pray:

[1] The Reverend Cannon John L. Peterson, Washington National Cathedral, Sermon for Pentecost XXI, October 26, 2006.

[2] Source unknown. “Seeing Jesus Again for the Very First Time,” Text: Mark 10:46-52

[3] Reverend Dr. David Lose, Mark 10:46-52 Reformation Sunday/Pentecost 22 B: Freedom! http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/reformationpen-22-freedom

 

A Highly Personal Question and a very Public Answer

Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
Mark 8:27-38

 

8:27 “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?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.” 34 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God, without you we are nothing, we pray that your Holy Spirit will fill our hearts to direct and guide our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

Jesus is walking with his disciples when he asks them what people are saying about him. What a question!  Did you know that Jesus asked over 300 different questions in scripture and today we hear one of the most personal questions he ever asked?[i]

 

The disciples have been with Jesus for a while now, they have seen him at work, teaching, preaching, healing and praying. The disciples have seen it all so he asks them what others are saying about him.

 

The disciples respond, “Some say you are John the Baptist; others say you are Elijah; still others say you are one of the prophets.”[ii]  Jesus listened.  He remained quiet as they kept walking and then Jesus gets intensely personal as he asks them point blank: “Who do you say that I am?”

 

Peter faithfully declares that Jesus is more than a prophet; he is the Messiah, the son of God, the one to save all of Israel.  Peter responded to Jesus question with a wonderful by the book answer but Jesus sees through his answer and pushes him further to answer with his heart and not just his head. “No, but who do you say that I am?”

 

Peter gives the same answer that we teach our confirmation class, the “book” answer, Jesus, the only begotten son of the living God.

 

Peter believed the Old Testament prophets who taught that the promises of God were fulfilled in the Messiah, who would be a deliverer, and a Savior of God’s people.  Peter believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the very one of who the prophet Isaiah spoke centuries before:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.[iii]

 

The New Testament and centuries of Church history also bear witness to who Jesus is, they tell that Jesus is:

God’s promised Messiah

Jesus is God Almighty.

Jesus came to save us from our sin

Jesus is the Son of God

Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of lords

 

The Presbyterian Church (USA) defined who it believes Jesus to be as stated in the Brief Statement of Faith:

“We trust in Jesus Christ, fully human, fully God. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.”[iv]

 

The whole purpose of  a church, is to be a gathered community of faith that bears witness to the truth that Jesus is the Son of the Living God…born in a manger, he lived a human life, was betrayed, convicted, died on a cross, rose on the third day, and lives forever.

 

Who we say Jesus is a question that the church has struggled to answer since its beginning and the church continues to try to answer today.  It is also the question that each individual believer must to define: “Who do you say that I am?”

I wonder how:

  • A child, growing up today in the United States, who was born and raised in a upper middle class family in suburbia… Who do you say that I am? Or a child born to a broken family in poverty, hungry, homeless living under a bridge… Who do you say that I am? Or a child living in a refugee camp in Africa, or a bombed out neighborhood in the Middle East? Who do you say that I am?

 

  • A teenager, struggling to find her identity, bombarded with images and ads telling her she is not thin enough, pretty enough, sexy enough… Who do you say that I am? Or the boy who is shunned by his family, ridiculed by his friends, uncertain about his sexuality…Who do you say that I am?

 

  • The college student facing freedom for the first time, intellectual insights and challenges that they have never dealt with, philosophical choices that push their morals like never before, not to mention friends and peers who influence them… Who do you say that I am? Or the young adult unable to find a job or make a living or be herself because of the stresses of family, economics and debt… Who do you say that I am? Or Military personnel, or family of an active Military personnel, who do you say that I am?

 

  • Who is Jesus to a Businessperson? Who is Jesus, to a Physician? Who is Jesus, to a nurse? Who is Jesus, to an attorney, a teacher, an engineer, a custodian, a cafeteria worker, a migrant worker, an illegal alien? Who do you say that Jesus is?

 

  • Who is Jesus to the Kentucky clerk refusing to issue marriage licenses? Who is Jesus to Pope Francis?

 

Some famous people respond to Jesus question by saying this:

–Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France and Military leader in the 18th century:

“I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His Empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.”[v]

 

–Mother Teresa, Roman Catholic Sister and Missionary:

Who served the poor and needy of Calcutta said that “Each one of them is           Jesus in disguise.”[vi]

 

–Mike Tyson, former champion heavyweight boxer:

“I’m a Muslim, but do you think Jesus would love me? I think Jesus would have a drink with me and discuss why are you acting like that? Now, he would be cool. He would talk to me. No Christian ever did that and said in the name of Jesus even. They’d throw me in jail and write bad articles about me and then go to church on Sunday and say Jesus is a wonderful man and he’s coming back to save us. But they don’t understand that when he comes back, that these crazy greedy capitalistic men are gonna kill him again.”[vii]

 

So here we are face to face with this personal question from Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?”  This week I spent some time asking people just who they say Jesus is and here is what some said:

 

When it comes right down to it, the simplest way I can put it is and what I believe is Jesus IS God.[viii]

 

Jesus is the One who was with me even when I was eating the food of the pigs. You are the One who has called me by name to come and follow me.[ix]

 

It’s interesting the question is, “Who do you say that I am?”  He didn’t ask, “Who do you say that I was?” or “Who do you say that I will be?”  The question refers to the here and now of Jesus.[x]

 

  1. Jesus is the person that cut you off in traffic
  2. Jesus is the person beside/next/front/back of you everywhere
  3. Jesus is your best friend
  4. Jesus is your greatest enemy
  5. Jesus is a baby’s cries
  6. Jesus is forests, deserts, seas, and hills[xi]

 

I fail to understand how it would be possible to be in Jesus’ presence and not sense the divine.[xii]

 

          I love that you said, “Very personal question.” To think that Jesus was leaned in close, just having a conversation with his friends…that’s a great mental image.  My answer?  Well, it’s overly simplistic…but I think “love.” I believe Jesus was love lived out for us, and by virtue of that, when we show love for others, believers and non-believers…friends or foes…we are living love…and sharing Jesus and his message.[xiii]

 

Jesus is the son of God.[xiv]

 

As musician music and hymns really speak to me and the lyrics and words say it much better than I can so it is the hymn #210, Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.”[xv]

 

Now it is my turn:

 

At this point in my ministry but more importantly my life right now I wonder who Jesus is to me.      When someone asks I can give the theological answer, “Jesus Christ is the son of God,” I can give a biblical answer, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6) but what I really want to say is from my heart and my soul…Jesus is the great physician and healer but he is also the one to point out my sin and brokenness, he is the forgiver of sin and he offers grace but it is not cheap grace.  It is costly grace that challenges me to deny myself and take up my cross and follow him. Jesus comforts me in my afflictions but he afflicts me in my comfort.  He is my Lord and Savior but he challenges me to be more open and accepting of others.  He is God’s son to save the world and he loves even me for the bible tells me so and he loves me so much that he died for my sin and he loves me enough not to let me live in it.  Jesus is everything to me but even more to all of us:  He is God, savior, mediator, sacrificial lamb for our sin, advocate, comforter, and Lord.

 

Now it is your turn: “Who do you say that I am?”

 

Let us pray: Lord Jesus, we confess that you are He – the blessed Son of God and our Savior.  Make us bold in our witness, our service and love, that we too might be known by what we profess about you. Amen.

 

[i]The Rev. Martin Copenhaver, “Eating Jesus” John 6:51-69, 13th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B August 26, 2012
The Rev. Martin Copenhaver is senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church UCC in Wellesley, MA. http://day1.org/4043-eating_jesus

[ii] Mark 8:28, NRSV, Scripture texts are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Lections are from the Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings. See the Terms of Use for copyright details. The online Revised Common Lectionary is a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, a division of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Support is provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity School.

[iii] Isaiah 42:1, NRSV, Scripture texts are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Lections are from the Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings. See the Terms of Use for copyright details. The online Revised Common Lectionary is a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, a division of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Support is provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity School.

[iv] A Brief Statement of Faith of The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), section 10.2. 1983.

[v] Napoleon Bonaparte. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2012. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/napoleonbo161724.html, accessed September 11, 2012.

[vi] Mother Teresa. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2012. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/mothertere163850.html, accessed September 11, 2012.

[vii] Mike Tyson. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2012. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/miketyson369860.html, accessed September 11, 2012.

[viii]Theresa Blanton  via ad3admasst@skillsdevelopmentservices.org e-mail

[ix] John Hinkle via liverhash@gmail.com e-mail

[x] Jeff Anderson via jeff_anderson@ck-mail.com e-mail

[xi] Dan Townes via dan@shepenco.com e-mail

[xii] Chris Heard via cph163@united.net e-mail

[xiii] Sharon Edwards via sharonedwards405@gmail.com e-mail

[xiv] Frank Robinson  via flrconsulting@bellsouth.net e-mail

[xv] Wayne Bomar via conversation, Hymn #210, “Our God our Help in Ages Past, The Presbyterian Hymnal, and Words: Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David, 1719. Music: St. Anne, William Croft, 1708.

A Measure of Compassion

 

2 Samuel 7:1–14
Psalm 89:20–37
Mark 6:30–34, 53–56

 

6:30 “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

 

53 “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Shepherd God, you call us into a rhythm of work and rest that our lives may be the better for it. So shape our work and our rest that the world will recognize us as Jesus’ disciples and our service as what you would have us do. Amen.

 

It was a surreal experience getting a text message that your home town is in the midst of a mass shooting.  Midafternoon on Thursday my middle brother sent me a text message about an “active shooter in Chattanooga.”  Chattanooga is the city where we grew up.  The news was sketchy but as the day went on it only got worse. Rumors swirling that it was an ISIS attack on military installments.  What about my family, friends and the people I know back there.  Are they safe?  What has happened to the world?  Violence and death and terror seem to rule the day.  As the day turned to night the details continued: four US Marines were dead, a policeman was injured and a US Navy Sailor was in critical condition and has since died.  Then came the news that the gunman, a Muslim, was dead.

 

What makes this reality even worse is that it creates more discontent and more animosity for interfaith relations.  It allows the critics to point out the fact that it is not only radicalized Muslims that are a threat to us but even naturalized citizens who seem like all American guys can actually be wolves in sheep clothing.  For supporters of building interfaith bridges it sets back the cause because yet again it is one of “them” that has done this cowardly and disastrous act.

 

As I learned more about the Chattanooga shootings I remembered the parts of town that rolled of the tongues of the newscasters Lee Highway, Amnicola Highway, Hixson, Colonel Shores, Red Bank High School, all places I am very familiar with.  How can this happen where I grew up?

 

The Mayor of Chattanooga Andy Berke, who was a grade school classmate of mine was all over the television and his quote said it all “it is incomprehensible to see what happened and the way that individuals who proudly serve our country were treated.”[1]  The victims of the crime were rushed to Erlanger Medical Center, the hospital where my father practiced medicine. It is just so surreal and my emotions run the gamut from anger, sadness, rage and compassion.

 

I have been thinking about this for a few days now and I realize that violence is all too common place and I have to admit that I may not have paid as close attention if this violent act took place in Wichita or Dubuque.  Have we become so callous to violence and death that it just washes over us like the weather reports and sports highlights?  After all it was just a month ago that Dylann Roof murdered nine African American worshipers at the bible study at the Immanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.  It was on Thursday night that a jury in Colorado found James Holmes guilty of first-degree murder in the mass shooting inside of a Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

 

I am not feeling particularly Christian in my thoughts and feelings and I am not moved to compassion for those who commit these cowardly acts of violence in death for their misguided beliefs and interpretations of holy writings.  Whether it is a White Supremacist, an Islamic Terrorist or a lawbreaking cop.  Their acts of violence and terrorism that seek to change the world that God created and God sustains and that God redeemed through Jesus are wrong and evil and we can’t stand for them anymore.  Yes, I am angry and passionate about this because it hurts, it hurts us all when it seems that evil is wining and violence continues.  Have we lost all sense of compassion?

 

And that is what this sermon was supposed to be about before the tragic events of Thursday afternoon took place.

 

Compassion. The word compassion has its root in a word that means “guts” or the seat of feeling. You know the saying, “You feel it in your gut.”  You know that feeling – where your reaction to something sends your stomach churning.  That’s compassion – a visceral feeling.  Jesus has compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd, lost, lacking guidance, in need of care, and of protection.

 

But for Jesus, compassion is not just a feeling but an action.  And Jesus shows his followers that compassion is essential to discipleship. Compassion, this gut feeling causes you to go outside of yourself to care for another.

 

For Jesus and his followers, compassion is not an optional, there is no vacation from showing and giving compassion.  The reason is simple: Compassion is who Jesus is. Jesus has come proclaiming a God who is not uncaring but compassionate.  But what if Jesus were to say: “Sorry, I can’t be compassionate right now, I’m on vacation”? It contradicts his very message, his very being.  If Jesus stops being compassionate, he stops being Jesus; he stops being the Son of God.

 

Of course Jesus is going to show compassion.  What else is new?   As if Jesus is just automatically going to cease to have compassion on anyone who comes along. Yet we dare not take the compassion of Jesus for granted, because when you think about it, it is an extraordinary thing, a monumental thing, that Jesus should have compassion on “them.”

 

See, the thing that really gets me about this statement is not that “compassion on them”, but that Jesus had compassion on “them.”

 

Can’t you see them, waiting like a bunch of vultures for Jesus and the disciples when they got out of the boat, clamoring, demanding: “Jesus, heal me first . . . Jesus, give me some food . . . Jesus, make me feel better,” They are dirty, sweaty, needing a bath, so loud and demanding.  And Jesus has compassion on “them.”

 

Now I’m all in favor of compassion.  Given the right circumstances, I can be very compassionate. I was moved to compassion a few weeks ago when Dylann Roof murdered nine African American worshipers at the bible study at the Immanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.   I feel compassion for my family.  I feel compassion for friends who face hard times.  I hurt deeply for them.  I know what it is to feel compassion.  No, my problem is feeling compassion for “them.” Them, a word we use to distance ourselves from a particular type of people or group of people. Them and Us, I am so glad I am not one of them. Would you look at them and how they are acting?

 

You know what I am talking about: Them! The people who are not like us, who don’t look, act, worship, and live like we do. They have different values and morals and lifestyles. The people we don’t want to show or share compassion with. You know —“them!”

 

Jesus interrupts the disciples’ vacation to them.  They are not the handpicked and well qualified, they are everywoman and everyman, anyone and everyone.  They were people: some who are sick and wanted to be healed.  Others who are hungry and wanted to be fed.  Still others had spiritual needs and hungers that were eating away at their souls.  These are precisely the ones who “Jesus had compassion on.”

 

That is why this unassuming story from Mark in between the miraculous feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water is so radical: “Jesus had compassion on ‘them.’” It upsets all the careful arrangements of our world.

 

Jesus has compassion precisely on the ones the world tells us to ignore. The least, the last and the lost, the “riff-raff” with whom Jesus associated.

 

Maybe it is the events of this week or maybe it is the work of the Holy Spirit but I realize that this story is more of a blessing than an indictment because  in a very strange twist – I realize that Jesus compassion on them includes me and us.

 

If we can understand that, if we can begin to know that God has compassion on us just as we are, then perhaps we can begin to feel compassion on the ones we consider as “them.”

 

You know:

The next time you see someone who really turns your stomach, stop and think, “Wait, Jesus had compassion on them.”

 

Next time you come across someone who is dirty and smelly and unpleasant, let the thought come to your mind: “Jesus had compassion on them”

 

Next time you come across someone who pushes every one of your buttons: “Imagine, Jesus had compassion on him or her.”

 

Next time you we hear of violence and terror: “Imagine, Jesus had compassion on them”

 

Thanks be to God, Jesus had compassion – especially on them.  Because “them,” includes all of “us.”

 

Let us pray:

[1] Twitter feed of Andy Berke and also found on http://www.npr.org/2015/07/17/423740589/chattanoogans-find-killings-of-four-marines-incomprehensible

No Guarantee of Success

2 Samuel 5:1–5, 9–10
Psalm 48
Mark 6:1–13

 

6:1 “He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (Mark 6: 1-13, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace and powerful weakness, at times your prophets were ignored, rejected, belittled, and unwelcome. Trusting that we, too, are called to be prophets, fill us with your Spirit, and support us that we may persevere in speaking your word and living our faith. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

 

I know it is strange but I really do enjoy mowing the lawn.  Call me crazy, I know!  Let me explain, what I love about it is the sense of accomplishment.  What I enjoy is I can see what I have done and what I still have to cut. Not all jobs and tasks in life are like that.  Other jobs and tasks are not so clearly defined.

Being a follower of Jesus is one such task or calling.  Jesus tells parables about casting seeds on the ground and having faith that they will take hold and grow.  He admits that not every seed will flourish.  In today’s gospel he prepares his disciples for the harsh reality that not everyone they encounter is going to join the movement.

 

In the Gospel of Mark we learn that Jesus’ ministry is off to a great start.  His has preached throughout Galilee, he has recruited disciples, he has healed the sick, performed miracles, survived theological arguments with the Pharisees, he has calmed a violent storm on the sea, and the crowds gathered to hear his words.  Then he and his disciples go to Nazareth, his hometown.[1]

 

Now you would think it would be one of the high points of Jesus’ ministry to go back home…to family and friends, the people that Jesus grew up with; they were his teachers, his childhood friends, the mothers and fathers who had seen this son of Mary grow up. Up until this point, everywhere Jesus went the crowds loved him and the people were moved by what they had seen and heard through Jesus.

 

So, why this sort of treatment from his neighbors and hometown friends. Why such disdain?  Was it something he said?  Perhaps it’s just that familiarity does indeed breed contempt. Jesus wasn’t what they expected a prophet, let alone a Messiah, to look like.  No one they knew could be a prophet or a Messiah and it surely called into question everything they thought they knew about the world and about people and about themselves. It is a hard lesson of life to learn that not everyone will like you or what you say or what you stand for.[2]

 

It is the difficult truth of the Christian faith and the church, in the end it is not for everyone.

 

Another difficult truth of the Christian faith is the naive idea that if you treat people like you want to be treated, that is treat them well, then people will like you and respond.

 

But that is not what the Christian faith is about— being liked.  The Christian faith, being a disciple, is about loving God and loving our neighbors. Even in disagreement, love God and love our neighbors, but that isn’t so easy.  And that is why Jesus is preparing his disciples for the harsh truth of life as he tells them, “As you leave, shake the dust off your feet…”

 

Jesus prepared his disciples for rejection because there is something inherent about following him that causes controversy. Something about the Gospel that provokes hostility and creates conflict that brings about rejection to the messenger.[3] It is the reality of the church, of faith, that we aren’t all going to agree about everything. There are parts of faith that simply aren’t black and white, most aspects of faith are gray.

 

But yet, having a conversation, being open to sharing your views and listening to others is important, is faithful and what the church can do more of. So, here it goes for today.

 

I imagine that the thoughts on most of our minds over the past few weeks have been on national events such as; racial violence, confederate flags, the Supreme Court, the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage all leading up to the Fourth of July the celebration of the birthday of our great nation.

 

It seems that when the Supreme Court or the government or the ruling body of a church denomination makes a decision it splits us into two groups: those for it and those against it?  Does every political or social issue have to divide us as a people?  Divide us as a church?  I hope and pray not.[4]

 

So, as people of faith we turn to the Bible for guidance and in most cases it isn’t clear cut.  Take marriage for example, as best as I understand, marriage is the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and raised.  It is the logical outcome of what God says in Genesis 1:28, in which God says to the Adam and Even whom he has just created, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”  In the very next chapter Genesis 2:24 it says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves or embraces his wife and they become one flesh.” This is how humans multiply.  A man and a woman “cleave/embrace” to each other.  Biologists call it reproduction or procreation.

This seems to be the primary purpose of marriage in the Bible, and for that reason it is necessarily between a man and a woman.  But not only one woman.  Early in the Bible there is the story of Jacob who married first Leah and then Rachel and then had children by their hand maidens Bilhah and Zilpah. Ultimately Jacob produced twelve sons and who knows how many daughters.  But I don’t know many people these days who hold up the example of Jacob as the model for what the Bible says about marriage.  Instead we talk about a lifetime of love and commitment.  But most biblical marriages were not based on love or attraction.  Most marriages were arranged by parents who lived in an agricultural society and they needed more workers for the fields.  It wasn’t about love; it was about multiplication.[5]

 

Times have changed, we no longer live in an agricultural society. Likewise our understanding of marriage has changed as well.  Today, a woman gets married because she falls in love with a man and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. A man gets married for the same reason. And while they may want a family at some point that is no longer the sole reason for marriage.

 

I have officiated at a dozen or so weddings for couples in their sixties, seventies and even their eighties.  One in particular comes to mind. Bob and Willene, each had survived the loss of a spouse after more than fifty years of marriage.  They both had grown children and grandchildren and great grandchildren.  They were getting married because they were lonely, and they had fallen in love and they longed for companionship.  So, times have changed as our understanding of marriage has changed since biblical times.  It’s not just about multiplication anymore.  It’s about love and commitment.  And our understanding of human beings has changed.

 

Most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, some people are attracted to members of the same sex. Why, we don’t really know?  Is it nature or nurture? Genetic?  Is it something learned?  As far as I can see, whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be a choice. But that is for another sermon.

 

And so the Supreme Court has decided that, since marriage is no longer strictly about multiplication, but rather a matter of love and commitment, and since people don’t seem to choose whom they are attracted to, but rather discover those attractions at an early age, then who are they to tell two adults that they can’t share their lives with each other? That they can’t have joint ownership of property and joint custody of children? The Supreme Court has decided that marriage is a civil right, and that withholding that right on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unconstitutional.[6] Like it or not, for it or against, it is what it is—

But that is not the real point to me.  Instead the point to me is what I believe being a Christian, a follower of Jesus is really all about—how do we treat others?  We have a new law of the land that reflects the reality of our times.  What I believe is important is how we treat people in light of it, especially those who see things differently than we do?

 

I was taught in preaching 101 that the majority of people don’t come to church to hear about politics, especially the politics of the preacher, especially when the politics of the preacher differ from theirs.  Even so, I know that these issues are controversial, painful, and divisive but here’s the thing: you and people you know are talking about them.  You are talking about them with your friends, your family members, your co-workers.  You are talking about just these things everywhere…just not at church. Which is why of all places church should be the place you come to talk about these issues and many others.

 

I enjoy the dialogue, the learning from others about issues and I have heard from many of you that you would like a time to talk about the sermons I preach and the message of them.  So, today grab some coffee and a cookie and come to the library and we can talk about these issues and/ or any of the other hard things going on in life and in the news.  I think this is role of the Church and the task of Christian formation and discipleship, to offer perspectives on how the Scriptures and our faith help us navigate this very challenging world.

 

Which is really the reason I’m bringing all this up – not simply because there are huge issues in the news but more importantly – because the Gospel passage appointed for this week has a lot to tell us about what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Christ in a challenging, difficult, confusing, and at times painful world which is also and simultaneously created and loved of God.

 

There have been a lot of changes in our country in the last few weeks, but as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’ (13:8).

What does Jesus say about gay marriage? Nothing at all.

What does he say about the Affordable Care Act? Nothing.

What does he say about the Confederate flag? Nothing.

What He does say over and over is to love our neighbors…

Remember in the parable of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that the people or groups of people we have the hardest time loving are also our neighbors. Samaritans were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ time, but the Samaritan in his story stopped and helped a Jew who had been beaten and left for dead. What would Jesus say to us in these days when some people have been shot because their skin was black and others have been allowed to marry even though they are gay?  I’m fairly certain he would say, “Love your neighbor.” And I like to think he might add (although I don’t want to put words in his mouth) that the commandment to love applies to everyone with no exceptions, that those of us who follow Jesus must love our all our neighbors, black, white, gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist and even the neighbors who call the SPCA because our dog barks too much.  Let us leave the work of judgment up to God and the Supreme Court and focus on our calling, as difficult as it is – to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.[7]

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. Sid Batts, The Gospel of Rejection, Mark 6: 1-13. Government Street Presbyterian Church, Mobile, Alabama July 9, 2000.

[2] The Reverend Dr. David Lose, Pentecost 6 B – Independence & Interdependence, Mark 6: 1-13. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/06/pentecost-6-b-independence-and-interdependence/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

 

[3] ibid

[4]The Reverend Dr. Jim Somerville, In Light of Recent Events, June 29, 2015. https://jimsomerville.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/in-light-of-recent-events/

 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Storms, Fear and Faith

1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
Mark 4:35-41

 

4:35 “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

 

Let us pray: God our protector, you stood by David in the time of trial. Stand with us through all life’s storms, giving us courage to risk the danger it may take to protect those who are oppressed and poor, that they may know you as their stronghold and hope. Amen.

 

As a pastor preparing sermons is a process and the best laid plans can sometimes be derailed. This was one of those weeks where my sermon was headed in one direction until the events of Wednesday evening when a cowardly young man decided to visit a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and do unspeakable violence to innocent Christian people just because of the color of their skin.  It seems to me that we have taken a monumental step backward as a society with guns, violence, hate, race, and understanding.

 

I know that this was an isolated attack by a confused and angry young white male who is afraid that his way of life and worldview are being challenged but it is painful to watch, hear, listen and live with this sort of reprehensible act becoming all too common place.

 

I find great solace and comfort in the faithful response of the families of the nine victims of Wednesday evening’s murders as the preliminary hearing was going on. Each of them one by one told of their great loss and sorrow but then in what I can only characterize as a true act of faith they said they forgave the murderer.  Friends that is more faith and courage than I will ever have.

 

Which gets me back to the Gospel reading from Mark.  Jesus and his disciples are caught in a storm at sea. Which can be scary in and of itself.  Storms, Fear and Faith these three words seem to capture this text.

 

There is a whole lot going on in this story.  The disciples are afraid.  They are traveling toward unfamiliar territory.  They are afraid because they know what can happen in a storm.  Their boat can capsize.  They can be overwhelmed by the wind and the waves. They can drown. There’s something dangerous about a storm especially one at sea that we ought to fear.[1]

 

So we understand the disciples fear as they face this storm at sea and we often we spiritualize their fear of the storm.[2]   We apply this story to all the things we fear in our world.   We look at the fear in this story, and we relate that fear to the fear we have of the storms of life that surround us.  The storm of racial violence and murder. The storms of evil.   Also, the personal storms we live through and batten down our own hatches against.

 

And we deal with that fear of those storms by recalling the words of Jesus from this text. “Have you still no faith?” We take that rebuke of Jesus, and off we go beating ourselves and each other up for not having more faith.  In spite of the fact that Jesus Christ is with us in the midst of the storm, and it seems he always wakes up in time to calm the storm.

 

So, we tell ourselves that if we had enough faith, we could overcome our fears. After all, in our culture, fear is a flaw, it is something we’re supposed to overcome.  Fear is something we get professional help with.  There are people out there who can help us with our fears, they can help us overcome the fear of flying, the fear of spiders and snakes, the fear of heights, the fear of crowds, and the fear of storms.  We should just overcome this fear, we tell ourselves, and we can do that by just having more faith!  Because, after all, “We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.”

 

But, what if the storm is not what the disciples were afraid of?  What if the disciples were more afraid of Jesus than the storm?[3] Mark says that the disciples were still afraid even after Jesus stills the seas and wind with his voice.  Mark points out that the disciples experience another kind of fear altogether: the fear of being in the presence of the one powerful enough to calm the storm, they realize that they are in the presence of the living God.

 

It’s His power that they’re afraid of. “Who is this,” they say, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  They sense that there’s something about this power that is dangerous.  If Jesus can do what he did with that storm, then what might he do to us?  No wonder those disciples were afraid.  In the presence of that kind of God, who wouldn’t be?  For what can be safe, in such a presence? Anything? Anyone? No.

 

Sometimes this fear is described as a reverential awe, and it’s important to distinguish that kind of emotion from a terror of some known or unknown threat.  I think that the disciples fear was somewhere in between awe and terror and that is often the reaction that comes from an experience of God.

 

Why should they be scared of Jesus? Because he challenged everything they knew about life, faith and even the storms at sea.  He was bringing about change and change no matter what kind is scary.  Just because he stilled a storm does not mean that he did not create more chaos than calm.   If even the wind and the rain listened to him, what else might he do?

-well, he might say that life is more than money and a job

-he might say that to follow Jesus is to deny yourself

-he might say that compassion and service are far more important than power and control

-he might say that death is not really the enemy

-he might even say that forgiveness is more important than vengeance

 

You see, Jesus might just tell these disciples that life is about more than them, faith is about than getting even, following Christ is about more than being successful.  It is hard stuff.  When we think that following Jesus is always peaceful and happy, then we miss the point.  Following Jesus is counter cultural, counter intuitive, because it causes us to look at the world and ourselves differently.

 

Yes, the disciples survived the storm but now what?  They couldn’t go back to the way it was, they knew too much.  They had just witnessed Jesus doing the impossible, a miracle, calming mother-nature something beyond human ability and comprehension.  They can’t control the world.  They can’t control Jesus.  They were filled with fear and awe, they were changed forever.

 

Ultimately what acknowledging the awesomeness of God does is that it makes us realize that we are not in control of the world and that that is Good News.  We can’t calm the winds and the rain and we can’t make ourselves forgive in the face of evil.  Only God can do that.  Only God can step into the storm, step into our heart and say “fear not.”  It is going to be ok.  Now take a deep breath and let go, let me take over and give you the strength that surpasses any human understanding.

 

So all this has had me thinking, if a basic part of the Christian faith is to remind each other that while God may be so much bigger than we’d thought, and that while the life of faith may be at times be much harder than we’d bargained for, God will not abandon us.  Not to the violent storms of life, or the hurricane like winds of our personal fears or even to the senseless acts of violence and murder. God will come, stilling wind and wave, calming the fear-ridden heart, telling us again that we are His own beloved children.

 

And when we remind ourselves that we are beloved children of God.  We are offering words of comfort to each other with the news of God’s steadfast love.  We are part of the greatest messages throughout Scripture, Fear not, do not be afraid!

 

So, I invite you today not only to admit the power we sometimes give over to our fears, but to take a moment right now and turn to your neighbor in the pew – and say to one another: “You are God’s beloved child; do not be afraid.”[4]

 

Let us pray: Dear Lord, it is scary when we don’t understand. It is unsettling when we feel out of control, or actually are out of control. We don’t want to hurt. We don’t want our family or friends to hurt. We know you care—but we don’t understand and we are afraid. Calm the winds of our fears and the waves of their distress. Please. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

[1] The Reverend Dr. Ted Wardlaw, a sermon entitled, The Danger in the Water, based on Mark 4:35-41 preached on July 20, 1997. Found at http://day1.org/838-the_danger_in_the_water

[2] Ibid

[3] The Reverend Dr. David Lose, Mark 4: 35-41Pentecost 4 B: On Miracles and Change, http://www.davidlose.net/

 

 

[4] Ibid.

Family Matters

1 Samuel 8:4-11; 16-20
Psalm 130
Mark 3:20-35

The Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

 

3:20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.  28“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” 31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20-35, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of judgment and mercy, when we hide ourselves in shame, you seek us out in love. Grant us the fullness of your forgiveness, that as one people, united by your grace, we may stand with Christ against the powers of evil. Amen.

 

It is summer time and that means many things. Sun, swimming, gardens, picnics, fresh fruit and produce.  It also means family reunions.  A family reunion—that special occasion when many members of an extended family come together to celebrate.

 

Everyone comes to a huge picnic and shares in a meal with lots of talking and storytelling and gossip.  You can almost hear it now. “Would you just look at Uncle Bob? You know he is an alcoholic.  Well there is Aunt Debbie, I can’t believe she showed up after she ran off with her personal trainer.  Look there is Cousin Steve, who is gay and crazy Sally, she is into that conservative religious movement.” Getting all of these misfits together and sharing in a meal and fellowship and storytelling can only be a family reunion because that is the only thing that would bring us all together.

 

Being together. Brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, first, second, and third cousins.  If there is one human experience that is important to most of us it is our family.  Even in the midst of dysfunction, conflicts, painful circumstances, such as illness, divorce, and death, we often turn to our families.  In a sense, no matter how dysfunctional they seem to be at times, they are still our family.

 

We are early in Jesus’ ministry and he is worn down.  It seems that he needs a break—he needs to go home to be with his family where life will be calm and easy and peaceful.

 

You know the image of home and family.  Where everyone gets along and lovingly listens to each other with compassion and interest, where you sit around the table playing games, laughing and hugging and telling each other that you love them.  Where big delicious meals miraculously appear and the conversations are stimulating and enriching. Where everyone sleeps well and wakes refreshed and ready for another great day with the family.  You know those family get-togethers with lots of affirmation and confidence building that are so wonderful that you simply never want them to end. You know what I mean?  Yeah right!  Did any of you grow up in this family?  Me neither!

 

Most of us grew up in a family with a bunch of misfits trying our very best to live together.  The honest to goodness truth is that going home to family is rarely that peaceful, calm, wonderful image we think it is going to be.  But yet, there is something about family that still draws us in.

 

Family is a foundational concept in the Bible.  The Bible begins in Genesis, not with talk of nations and tribes…but families, Abraham and Sarah. The bible goes on from there telling of the growth of families.  And, sure, there are other great metaphors to describe the relationship between God and humankind. King and subjects.  Master and slaves.  But, it always comes back around to family.  Sometimes God’s faithful people are likened to the bride of the Bridegroom.  And our infidelities are then compared to adultery.  But, most of the time we’re God’s children. God’s daughters and sons who bring great joy as well as great disappointment. That is the reality of family.[1]

 

We like to think that Jesus held his family in the same regard as us, as the most important people in his life.  We like to think that when he came home his cousins and aunts and uncles would have run to see him, to see the local boy who has gone off and done good, but that is far from what happened.

 

Jesus comes home to his own people, his friends and his family, and they think he has gone crazy.  And when they bring his own mother and brothers to him, he doesn’t run and hug them instead he looks around at the crowd and says that they (The Crowd) “Here are my mothers and my brothers.”

 

Talk about family values.  How can Jesus be downplaying the one thing we hold so dear— our families?[2]

 

But if you think about it, Jesus’ life was not very good on families.  He called fishermen away from the family business to just abandon the boat and leave their aging parents.  He said things like, “I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother.”  He told one person who said he wanted to follow only he needed to bury his father first “Let the dead bury the dead.  Follow me and let somebody else do the funeral.”  Whoa.  What happened to honor your father and your mother?  What happened to the family values that we think the Bible endorses?[3]

 

What happened is that for Jesus everything is secondary to his mission.  Nothing is more important than following him.  And following Jesus does not mean that we disregard our family.  Following Jesus does not mean we don’t love and care for and enjoy our parents and our children and our cousins.  Jesus is instead challenging us to expand our understanding of family.  Our close knit family is simply too small in Jesus’ world.  Jesus was constantly expanding the idea of family to include more.

 

So, before we see any of this as bad news, that Jesus is bashing his own family, we have to see the good news in it.

 

Remember Jesus ate and drank with sinners.  That is what got people so mad at Jesus.  He brought people into the fold that simply were not invited.  He brought people into his family that looked different, acted different, and ate differently, perhaps even believed a bit different.  The chief focus of Jesus’ mission was to find the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, to bring them all home.  Even as he was dying on the cross he invited a thief, a criminal, an outcast to join him and his family in paradise.  Right up until the end and beyond Jesus was forming a new family, a family where even misfits belong.

 

The family image is also a great metaphor for the church. Think back to the family reunion where all those aunts, uncles and cousins come together in a meal with lots of talking and storytelling and gossip.  You can almost see it now. Getting all of these misfits together and sharing in a meal and fellowship and storytelling can only be a family reunion because that is the only thing that would bring us all together.

 

And so here we are all the misfits gathered together to share a meal together.  Not just a meal but a feast.  A huge feast where the table is always expanding and there is always room for one more.  People will come from North and South and East and West.  They will come from rich and poor, black and white, Republican and Democrat, people you like and people you don’t like, crazy uncle Bob will be there, along with sinful Aunt Debbie and the outcast cousin Steve and the annoying cousin Sally.  Everyone together and sharing a meal.  It won’t always be peaceful, because no family is always peaceful and we may not even agree on how the meal is served or what the meal means but we are here none the less.  And here with us is love and grace and mercy with a whole lot of forgiveness thrown in for good measure.

 

And Jesus will be there smiling and laughing and joyful because another lost sheep has come home and our understanding of family has just expanded even more.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. Karoline Lewis, Family Matters

[2] The Reverend Dr. Will Willimon, Why Jesus? Part 4: Jesus the Home Wrecker, October 24, 2010.

[3] The Reverend Dr. Will Willimon, Why Jesus? Part 4: Jesus the Home Wrecker, October 24, 2010.

Jesus Appreciated

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
Mark 9:2-9

9:2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mark 9:2-9, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Holy God, you have revealed the glory of your love in Jesus Christ, and have given us a share in your Spirit. May we who listen to Christ follow faithfully, and, in the dark places where you send us, reveal the light of your gospel, for this we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

 

Throughout the Bible we catch glimpses of the holy. Brief moments that are difficult to understand or to explain. Most of the time they just have to be taken on faith. Today’s story from the Gospel of Mark is one of those moments. Jesus is on the top of a mountain with his disciples Peter and James and John when all of the sudden as Mark tells us that his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. The disciples just stood in awe as right there in front of them he is changed – transfigured – right before their eyes.  What do you do with a moment like this?

 

It is a great temptation to try to explain what happened on that mountain top and what it means.  It would be something if by the time we all left the service today we fully understood what happened on that mountain top so long ago. Trying to make sense of the Transfiguration is missing the point. How would explaining a brilliantly glowing holy figure going to make sense anyway.

 

I believe that this is a glimpse of the holy and we are not supposed to figure it out or explain it away. Instead we are to appreciate it.

 

This glimpse of the holy is another way in which God is revealing God’s self to the world. It is another example of God coming among humanity.  God coming into the lives of the disciples, God coming into their vulnerabilities, God coming into their fears. Their response was a sense of awe. Remember it was God who said in the book of Genesis, “Let there be light and light shone forth out of darkness.” It is this same God, who created the world, beautiful and beyond our imagining, who was shone forth on that mountain top and it is the same God who shines light into our lives in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

That is precisely what happened on the mountain top. The disciples were stressed. They were exhausted. They were encountering conflict everywhere they turned. So they go with Jesus to the mountain top to get away, and they experience the awesome presence and power of God. “This is my beloved.”

 

Just like Peter and James and John, we should be drawn to him, as if we were moths drawn to a light.  Because isn’t that what we all want?

  • Don’t we all want some sort of glimpse of the holy?
  • Wouldn’t it be great to experience transfiguration in your life?
  • An encounter with God – some sense that we are not alone, that there is something more than what we can see and touch?

A sense of the transcendent, the mystic, and the holy, something outside of ourselves that will bring about a sense of awe and wonder in our own lives. Not in a narcissistic way. But because we have a deep human need for transformation, change, conversion.

 

So, Peter does just that as he tries save his experience on the mountain top.  He wants to capture the feeling.

 

But this story is not just about Jesus’ revelation of his glory because as soon as Peter tries to capture it God speaks and it is time to move on.

The transfiguration of Jesus is a turning point, it is a transition from seeing Jesus as human to seeing him divine. It’s not just about securing the Jesus of the future or holding on to the Jesus of the past but points to the real human struggle with change, with transformation.

 

Transformation is hard.  Change is hard.  It’s easier to stay the same. Stay the course. Remain in place. Convince ourselves that what we have always done is satisfactory and sufficient, telling ourselves that change is too hard.

 

So we can just sit. And wait. For what? The right time? The right place? All of our questions answered? Everything figured out? All of our proverbial ducks in a row? This is why the transfiguration matters. Because it just happens. No warning. No preparation. It just shows up. There is no right time. It just happens. No amount of planning can predict the right kind of change. No amount of preparation can prepare you for an altered reality or an altered perspective. No amount of strategizing can make you ready for a transfiguration to be truly changed by Jesus.

 

Peter realizes that if Jesus changes, then he will be changed as well. He thinks that if he stays there on the mountain it will simple go away or will just pass by.  Peter can come out of his tent and all will still be the same. Jesus will be the same. James and John will still be the same.  But God speaks and it is time to move on because God does not call him to stay the same. God does not call us to stay the same. Instead God transforms us into the people God created us to be.

 

So, I invite you this Lenten season to keep your eyes open and keep your hearts ready because you just never know when the holy will break into your life and transform you.

 

Let us pray:

I Will, With God’s Help

Deuteronomy 18:15–20
Psalm 111
Mark 1:21–28

 

1:21“They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:21–28, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of all wisdom and authority, you sent Jesus Christ to save us. Heal us, cleanse us, deliver us, and cast out the evil within us so that we may know your Word and heed your new teaching; through Christ, your Holy One. Amen.

 

Today is a big day. Sure it is super bowl Sunday when all the world will watch to see if the Patriots will try to deflate the Seahawks. It is also Volunteer Sermon Sunday and it is the day we ordain, install and commission our newly elected Vestry Session members. It is a big day.

 

It was also a big day on that Sabbath Day so long ago when Jesus entered the Synagogue and he taught. The Gospel of Mark tells us that the congregation was astounded at his teaching. Just like you are every week when Heather and I preach! When all of the sudden the scene shifts to a man described as being filled with an unclean spirit, or what we would called possessed.  A fight of spiritual proportions breaks out. Notice that it does not last very long and Jesus is clearly victorious. So, why is this the scripture and sermon for today?  A big day in the life of our church?

 

I find it very interesting that this confrontation with a possessed man is the first act of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel of Mark. The other gospels present a very different beginning for Jesus.  In Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as a teacher and as the fulfillment of the law. In the Gospel of John, Jesus miracles usher in his ministry as he creates unexpected and unimaginable abundance. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is portrayed as the liberator, the one who sets the captives free, he heals the sick, and he proclaims good news to the poor and the Lord’s favor to all. But the Gospel of Mark ushers in Jesus ministry with a fight as he confronts and casts out the unclean spirit.

 

This confrontation is a signal that Jesus has come to clash with all the forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life God wants for all of us.

 

That is the underlying message I take from this story. God does not want these things to possess us. Things that are real and difficult and life threatening and soul robbing and mood altering. Things that are subtle but no less destructive and spiritually deadly. Things like – anger, fear, workaholism, affluenza, substance abuse…. Things that possess us

 

Please don’t in any way hear me making light of these struggles because I deal with them too and I know that they are strong and powerful and can keep me from being fully that child of God I was created to be. I am not naive to believe or to suggest that with just the right prayer or well worded liturgy or healing touch that any of this things that can possesses us will magically vanish.

 

I believe that Mark is presenting Jesus as the one who is uniquely authorized, commissioned, or empowered to call attention to these possessive powers and the agent to disempower them. Jesus is the one to do it and as Mark shows he is not passive but instead he is intrusive.  He breaks down old boundaries and he sets free people from the powers that afflict us. He is the one to share the promise that God does not want these things for us, the church, or the whole of creation.

 

This story describes God as the God of the broken, and to be a member of Jesus’ disciples then or now is the ability to realize our deep need for and trust that Jesus has come to meet it.

 

But it is not a once and done kind of thing.  Jesus doesn’t conquer that one demon in us and leave us alone. Because you know what? That demon might rear its ugly head or something else will take its place. It’s a lifelong process of Jesus coming in and reminding us over and over and over that Jesus does not want these things to possess us. And there is another piece of this too. Once we realize who Jesus is and what he’s about we are compelled, called, commissioned to use our gifts and talents to help others in their life journeys…

 

So as we commit ourselves to something this Volunteer pledge season pay attention to where God might be needing you to serve, give your time, your talents, your energy, your imagination, your love and your prayers.

 

Later in the service we will ordain, install and commission our members of Vestry Session, the leaders whom you elected to serve and to lead us. Heather and I will ask them some questions, (you can read them they are an insert in your bulletin). Some of the questions they can answer, yes or no, but others are impossible for any human being to achieve. So, they will have to answer, “I will with God’s help.”

 

And so as you think of those places of brokenness or disappointment or fear in your lives, this is a good answer as you face those particular challenges “I will with God’s help.” This story reminds us that God does not stay away from us because we face these challenges or deal with shortcomings. No, instead, God draws nearest to us precisely in these moments as we face them and deal with them. God is still at work casting out the unclean spirits of the world, and God is healing of our possessions so that we can join our Lord and get to work.

 

Let us pray: We praise and worship you, O Gracious God. You have the power to save us, free us and call us to yourself. Amen.

The Beginning of the Journey

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Mark 1:1-8

40:1Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:1-11, NRSV)

1:1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of timeless grace, you fill us with joyful expectation. Make us ready for the message that prepares the way, that with open hearts and holy joy we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ.

I have a good friend whose three sons are each Eagle Scouts. I was not a Boy Scout but I am familiar with what it takes to become an Eagle Scout. Anyway, my friend was talking about her experience with Boy Scouts and how glad she is that each of them has done scouting, because of all the things they learned, she said “I know it may sound strange but as a mother I know that if any of them ever gets lost somewhere out in the woods alone or stuck somewhere that they each have enough tools and skills to know what to do and survive.” They could each survive in the wilderness if they had to.

This conversation got me thinking about Advent. Every year I am it seems strange that Advent always starts in the wilderness and not with a trip to the manger. In our readings from today from both Isaiah and Mark, we get the wilderness. There is a voice crying out in the wilderness. Shouldn’t Advent be on the top of a mountain with glorious scenery all around or in front of a palace with great pomp and circumstance announcing to the world that the savior is coming? Isn’t this the best news ever! But then I stop and realize that Advent has to begin in the wilderness. Throughout the history of God’s people it is often in the wilderness that God speaks. Throughout our lives, it is often in the wilderness that God speaks and acts. When we are on the mountaintop, we are feeling pretty good about ourselves. We don’t think we need God, but when we are lost and wandering around in the wilderness, you better believe that God is often the first place we turn. For in the wilderness is when we realize our own powerlessness. In the wilderness we realize our need for God. In the wilderness we realize that we cannot get out of the wilderness without God.

If ever any people knew what the wilderness was like it was the people in our reading from Isaiah. Six centuries before Christ perhaps the worst that can happen to a people happened to them. They were trying to hold onto Jerusalem, the capital city, but ultimately they could not and the entire nation collapsed. There was looting and pillaging and killing. Solomon’s glorious temple, that was the heart and soul of these people, was destroyed. Then, all the leaders – the politicians, priests, lawyers, businesspeople, were marched across the desert to Babylon where they were held in captivity for 70 years. It is called the Exile. So do you think these people understood wilderness? Do you think that they felt powerless and lost and alone without a home, without anything stable or comforting to hold onto? Many scholars call this time of exile the “great silence”, because the people felt abandoned. For 70 long years they must have wondered what would become of them. (Idea came from John Buchanan at Fourth Presbyterian Chicago, sermon on 12-8-02)

In the midst of this wilderness, the exile, a prophet’s voice is heard. The prophet, Isaiah, was very gifted with words as he speaks to the exiled people in Babylon and he tells those words that we read every single Advent. He tells them words that are the famous words from Handel’s Messiah. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem…Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:1 and 3)

Then Isaiah reminds them about God, reminds them of who God is and what God does for his sheep. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (Isaiah 40:11) Isaiah reminds them that they may have lost everything — their homes, their land, and their temple, but they have not lost God.

“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

I am the first to admit that I am not a political or legal scholar but something is definitely wrong in our nation, violence, riots, race relations seemingly at a boiling point and government racing headfirst into an impasse. It is a mess and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I have no idea what the answers are or what can be done. But what I do know and what I can remind you and me over and over and over is that God is a God who comforts, even — no most especially in the wilderness. God is a God is who never abandons or deserts. God is a God who will find us in whatever wilderness we are in and give us what we need to survive. He will pull us close to him and hold us in his arms with the assurance that at the end of the day, on the other side of the wilderness, is God’s kingdom where mercy and love and justice reign.

I can’t give you the ins and outs of the legal system, or politics but I can look you in the eye and tell you that “the grass withers and the flower fades but the word of our God will stand forever.”

I can’t tell you whether the cancer will go away or the pain will subside or what your particular wilderness is or even that you will be home for Christmas but I can tell you that the grass withers and the flower fades but the word of our God will stand forever.

John the Baptist knew all about the word of our God. He stood out in the wilderness preaching it, preaching a hard to hear and hard to live message of repentance. And amazingly enough people willingly went out in the wilderness to hear his message. There were people who remembered the promises of God, who knew what life God had to offer and also knew they weren’t living it. They had been looking for that life in the mall, in the holiday festiveness, but it wasn’t there. Somehow they knew the message of hope, of comfort, of repentance, of turning around and living a different way, was a message that could be heard in the wilderness. So they left the city and went out into the wilderness to hear this strange prophet, John the Baptist.

John the Baptist told them to get ready, because someone even more powerful than he was coming and he will set the world on fire. He will lift up the valleys and make the mountains low. He will make straight our paths.

It is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ our Lord. Remember he is the One who is coming to save us, to forgive us our sins and to redeem us. So as we come to his tables, to share in communion, eat, drink and remember that our God is a God who will come out in the wilderness, wherever we are and find us and gather us in his arms and carry us. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray. Merciful God, you sent your messengers, the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

The Wait

 

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Mark 13:24-37

 

64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:1-9, NRSV)

 

13:24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.  28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:24–37, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

 

Do you remember “the wait,” as a child? The wait for the JcPenny, the Sears and the Service Merchandise catalogues to arrive in the mail.  It was old school because we didn’t have the internet or online shopping to help us make our Christmas wish list.  Waiting for the postman to deliver those magical books to your mailbox and then those magical moments would ensue going through the catalogue for the first time.  Getting a pristine first look at the stuff that dreams are made of. Seeing those items you didn’t even know existed.  Being the oldest I was entitled to look at them first so I got to use a pen and circle exactly what I wanted Santa to bring, while my brothers had to wait even longer and they got to pick through the leftovers. After, going through the catalogues and making our choices, then we wrote them down on paper.  Now, these were great lists that contained everything from Lincoln Logs, Lego’s, Matchbox cars, bicycles, footballs and baseball gloves.  Then we folded them up and sealed them in envelopes and mailed to the North Pole.  Then we waited.  It was in reality only a few weeks but it seemed an eternity, because we counted down each week, each day until Christmas.   It just seemed like forever.  Every child can relate to that long wait.

 

Why is waiting so difficult?  Sometimes it is the uncertainty; we want to know what is coming and the longer we have to wonder and wait, the higher our level of anxiety becomes.   Or it could be that when we know what is coming, we get even more impatient.  Or is it that we live in an instant world where everything happens so fast – microwave meals, instant coffee, 24 hour news, and you know the rest…After all we all know that Christmas is December 25th and it is coming and we still get impatient.

 

Our text for today deals with the concept of waiting.  It is more serious waiting than waiting for Santa to come or for catalogues to be delivered. It is waiting for the world to change and for Christ to return.

 

No matter how we try each year as Advent begins, and Christmas barrels down on us, we all begin to search for that thing, those gifts that we must have.  We fall into that trap like my daughter Elliott, when she grabs the toy catalogue or the glossy Toys-R-Us insert from the newspaper and points to every item on each and every page and she shouts I want that Mama, I want that Daddy.  But we have to remind her that Santa does not bring everything she wants and that she must pick just two or three things that she really wants more than all the others.   Especially this year, with a whole lot of belt tightening going on it is a perfect opportunity for all of us to realize that the stuff and the things are not so important and that we don’t really buy our children’s or families love by getting them everything they want.  Besides, you can’t fill every void in life with the perfect Christmas gift.

 

The prophet Isaiah has something to say about dealing with voids in life as he tells of the void in the lives of the Israelites in our Old Testament text.  The void Isaiah is praying about is more than what do you want for Christmas this year.  It is the deepest and most significant void of life. The Israelites have really messed things up, and they don’t know where to go or what to do next.

 

Isaiah 64 is written, it seems, in the midst of the worst of times as the prophet Isaiah’s cries to God to tear open heaven and come down and fill the void in their messed up lives.  Isaiah goes on to lament that God seems hidden and silent.  Isaiah confesses that the Israelites have sinned. By the end of the text Isaiah changes, a little three letter word that carries an incredible amount of power,

YET,

“YET, O’ Lord, you are our Father; you are the potter and we are the clay; we are the work of your hand.”  It is like Isaiah has to take a deep breath, walk around a bit and remind himself who God is.

YET,

We are yours

You created us

You are our God

You molded us

and You, our God, are the one that fills the void.

 

We begin our annual practice of lighting the Advent candles today, and we begin a four-week season of hope-filled waiting that this year might be different.  We give voice to our longing to have the void of our lives filled, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” and pray “Dear God, help me,” because somewhere deep in our hearts we know that God answers prayer, and we live in faith that God will answer that prayer.  Somewhere deep in our souls there is not just longing but faith that in the birth of a child in Bethlehem long ago, God did come down; that during a baptism one day in the Jordan River, God did tear open the heavens; and that in a brief moment in time as God walked the dusty roads of Galilee, God healed the sick, God welcomed the outcasts and God restored the unclean.  God taught that it is better to give than to receive and that the highest and best any of us can ever do is give our love and our lives away, and that as God died in humble obedience on the cross at Calvary, God, in fact, did tear open the heavens and come down; and that on the third day, when death could not contain him, then at that very moment the very love and power of God defeated the powers of sin, death, and Satan.  That the powers of sin, suffering, brokenness and hopelessness were defeated.  When that baby born in a manger, now a man, rose up and walked into the light of the first Easter morning, God did come down and God definitively, once and for all, answered Isaiah’s prayer and our prayer, “Help me.”

 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus warns his disciples that they are likely to fail to see God because they were looking in the wrong places and expecting the wrong things and expecting the wrong heavenly Savior.  As we know from the Christmas story, no one really noticed the birth of Jesus.  The prophets spoke, the teachers taught, the angels proclaimed, the people were informed, but they still looked in the wrong place.  They looked in the royal palace, instead of a lowly stable.  They expected the birth to happen in the royal family, not from an unmarried immigrant couple in a stable.  These well-intentioned, properly prepared people of God missed it.  Not all of them, thank God, but most of them missed the most important birth in the history of the world, so the warning continues for us today— KEEP AWAKE, because we too might miss God tearing open heaven and coming down.  This warning from Jesus takes us back to the prayer of the prophet Isaiah as he echoes the theme of the void in the lives of the Israelites.

 

Here we are headed straight toward Christmas, that wonderful and yet crazy time of the year when we all make lists and wonder how we can find that one thing to fill that void of what’s missing from our lives, those gifts we want, those presents we desire and that stuff we want of think we need to complete us – the Holy Scriptures offer us an alternative to that – the bible tells us, we already have what we need: we have Jesus, his presence, his grace, his love and his mercy.   And as we await his return we can know the truth that is so easily forgotten that God remains faithful and constant and God is the support for all of life.  Keep awake for God, for God is tearing open heaven and coming down.

 

Let us pray: Lord, we are thankful that we are alive, that food is delicious, that the ground is firm beneath our feet, that we can rest and rejuvenate from our work, that the Earth is beautiful and all of us and all your children so richly blessed, your name be praised. We thank you for friends who care, for doors that open when it seems that every door is shut, for the reality of forgiveness — both human and divine. We thank you for yourself — the source of all that is good — and especially for your love that no heart can resist and no hatred can diminish, and no need is to great to overcome – your Son our Lord. Amen.

Congregational Hospitality: Welcoming our own.

 

Exodus 1:8—2:10
Psalm 124
Mark 10:13–16

 

10:13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But 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. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

This is the final sermon in our series on Hospitality.  For the last three weeks you have heard biblical texts and sermons that have focused on the broad sweep of Hospitality and the theme of welcome.  We have talked about how our church can be more hospitable and how we can be more intentional in our welcoming of others. I have shared my definition of biblical Hospitality which is a life of openness to the presence of God and to every human being.  This understanding of hospitality is a thread that weaves its way throughout the Bible.  It is the recognition that the presence of God pervades the world, and that God may come to you and me at any moment.  So, to be truly hospitable, we must live in an open readiness to experience the presence of God at any moment, and in any human being.  I have shared numerous stories and theories in those previous sermons.

 

Today, in our text from Mark 10, we read that a crowd has gathered around Jesus and some in the crowd brought their children to Jesus in order that he might bless them or heal them.  But his disciples, being good mangers and bodyguards, scolded the children and their parents, “Get out of here! Can’t you see he is too busy, too important, to be wasting his time with little ones. Come on, move back.”  We must understand that these disciples were just upholding custom and tradition because Children were nobodies, so why should Jesus pay attention to them? Jesus had much more important things to do with his precious time.

 

In response Jesus becomes indignant and rebukes his disciples – “Let the little children come to me – do not stop them – don’t you understand, of such is the kingdom of God.”

 

When we read the Bible we learn that Jesus welcomes all types of people of every station and situation in life.  Young, old, healthy, sick, clean, unclean, insiders and outsiders, rich and poor, saints and sinners.  No matter the place: a formal wedding reception, a dinner in the home of friends or with sinners, or out on the dusty roads of Palestine, Jesus welcomed people.  To be that welcoming, that hospitable means that one must be open, vulnerable, and approachable.  As Jesus welcomed those children, they couldn’t possibly understand his teaching or his message he was doing it because of them and somehow they felt welcomed.  Jesus welcomed and cared for these children who were considered the least and most vulnerable human beings.  He took them into his arms, he blessed them.

 

We are upset with the insensitive action of the disciples.  We all agree that children matter, because they are precious.  We love them, we support them and we affirm them.  That may be what we think and say but what is the reality?  Do we as a church really welcome children? Or are we more like the disciples?  I am not implying that we are gatekeepers fencing off the church and Jesus, not at all but our reality is much more subtle than that.

 

Here are some examples of what I am talking about.  Are we welcoming to our own?  Especially children?  I have listened and observed in my first six months with you with an eye on children and youth for many reasons, first because they are the church too, not the future of the church but the church here and now.  Selfishly, my children are in the church and involved in these programs so naturally as a parent I am attuned to it.  Here are some observations I have gleaned.

 

We have a solid core of seventh and eighth graders that we would like to do more with to prepare them for confirmation and youth group. So, Jennifer and Michelle are planning to do more for our growing middle school age group but their first question to me is how do we pay for it.  We are running on a bare bones budget and we are behind in our giving for the year.  So what do we do?  We would love to do more and offer more but the financial constraints prevent us.  I know we have the financial resources to make it happen so let’s do it.

 

We have young families in the church and we want to offer them opportunities to educate their children in the Christian faith and tell them of God’s love but we are in constant need of Sunday school teachers.  Most of the teachers we have come from parents with children in this age group.  This means that they miss the worship service.  I know we have capable and talented adults who can step up and teach so that some of these young parents come enjoy worship as well.

 

We have children with mobility and other issues and they faithfully worship with us on a weekly basis.  We have caring staff and teachers to help them but we also have limitations to our facility.  We are in need of an elevator so that all can reach the education classrooms downstairs.   It is also an issue for our choir that many of them have trouble with the stairs and an elevator would be a huge help for them as well.  Our classrooms downstairs and in the pre-school wing are not air-conditioned so in these hot and muggy months it is uncomfortable for teachers and children to gather for Sunday school.   I tell you these things because they reflect how welcoming we really are.  Again it is very subtle but people notice.  I know that these are large expenses and will take time and effort and work to take care of but if you don’t know they are needs then they are out of sight out of mind.  I am also convinced that we have the resources to make them happen.  We just have to do it.

 

We have so many resources and so much potential it is our challenge now to step up and respond to truly welcome our own, to make the children feel at home here so that they can learn the important stories of the Christian faith, so that they can grow together and find love and encouragement as they grow in the faith. So that they can be the church as we all are.

 

The question is not just young children.  I know you have noticed how many young kids we have come down for children’s church?  It is wonderful!  I love it!  But have you also noticed there aren’t too many high school age young people in worship? What happens?  Do they get too busy and use Sunday mornings to sleep in? Or is there something we can do to be more welcoming, more supportive and embracing, more hospitable so that as these young ones grow up they will want to be here – to be here in worship where they know that they are loved and accepted and appreciated.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers, but I think about it a lot.

 

I don’t see these issues as obstacles but as opportunities for us to respond. These are tangible and real opportunities to show how we welcome and how we take seriously God’s call to share hospitality with the stranger, the visitor, and especially to our own whether they be young or old, new to the church or longtime members. May our eyes be open and our hearts accepting to all we meet.

 

Let us pray: