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October 14, 2018
Today we hear more difficult words, both from Jesus and from Amos, about what is expected of someone who loves and trusts God and who follows Jesus. In our first reading, Amos takes aim at the economic system of the day, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the rich trample upon the poor. Amos implores the wealthy ruling class to stop taking advantage of the poor, and instead seek economic justice. He calls for a redistribution of wealth. If they can turn around their ways, he says, maybe God will be merciful to them.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus suggests to a faithful and devoted rich man that he should give away everything he has before following Jesus. Like Amos so many centuries before, Jesus also calls for a redistribution of wealth. But their purposes seem to be different. In Amos, the wealthy were using their power to oppress the poor. He spoke out against unjust behavior. In Mark, Jesus isn’t so much calling out the rich for bad behavior (indeed, the man before him is one who has followed the commandments all his life!). Rather, he is saying, “Your wealth is keeping you from trusting in God, and unless you trust fully in God, you can’t follow me.” So Amos rails against the system, and Jesus talks about more how wealth affects the individual’s life of faith.
Both messages are tough, and both are so contemporary. So, prepare to squirm a little bit! As you listen, consider what in your life keeps you from being able to fully trust in God.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever known in your heart that something was true that you really, really, really didn’t want to be true? Like, a decision you have to make that you don’t want to, or a realization that challenges you deeply? Some thing about which you’ve been saying, “No, no, I don’t want to believe that. It can’t be true. Please, tell me it’s not true, so that I can go about my day without my conscience battling me anymore.” Some thing where you are desperate to find something, anything, to tell you the opposite of the inevitable is true?
As I dug into this week’s Gospel, I began to wonder if this is how the rich man felt. He comes running up to Jesus and falls at his feet. He is in a hurry. This question is heavy on his heart, and he’s desperate to get it resolved. He doesn’t do like I might do, and hang out with Jesus for a while, hemming and hawing, until finally saying, “Hey, can I ask you something?” like I’m all casual about it, when really my heart is bursting to know the answer. No, he runs. And he falls. And he blurts out, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Did he already know the answer? After all, he has already been keeping all the commandments since his youth – which is more than I can say for myself, or anyone I’ve ever met! So, he must know there is something else. It must be nagging at him. And given his urgency, I wonder if he knew that something else was something that he would not particularly like to hear, and so he’d put it off too long, but now, he just needed to know the truth.
I’ve been in that kind of anguish – knowing what the right decision is, but not feeling brave enough to follow through with it, and so looking desperately for something, someone, to tell me I don’t have to do what I know I have to do. I can certainly resonate with the rich man in this story.
But Jesus doesn’t give him a pass. He tells him the hard truth, exactly what the man didn’t want to hear: “You’ve gotta get rid of everything,” Jesus says. “You are following commandments, that’s good, but your pathway to God is too cluttered with these things that are falsely promising you satisfaction, convincing you that your things can bring you into joy and life and autonomy and everything you desire. These things can’t, no matter how faithfully you follow the 10 commandments, bring you to that life. You’ve gotta get rid of them.” Jesus goes on, “You have all these things, but you lack one thing. You lack trust – trust in God. You trust in yourself. You trust in your things. You trust in your money. Your things and your money can do a lot – but they cannot bring you to God. They cannot bring you to eternal life.”
The man hears exactly what he feared was true. Mark tells us he is shocked – but is he? Did he really believe Jesus’ answer would be anything other than this? No. His shock comes from the sudden realization that he must accept that which he did not want to believe. And because of that acceptance of a challenging reality, he finds himself also grieving.
Grieving… what? Grieving the possibility of losing his things in which he had put so much of his trust? Or grieving that he doesn’t believe he can do what Jesus asks, and so he shall never inherit the eternal life he craves? Maybe, a bit of both.
I really feel for the rich man. I also feel shocked and grieved by such well-known but still difficult words as, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” and, “It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Over the years, I have tried to soften them for myself, maybe convincing myself that I am last in some things, so I’ll get my reward. Or, I’m not as rich as some other people. Or, Jesus meant this metaphorically, not literally. Or, I can help more people if I have means and am comfortable. Or, I’m doing the very important job of helping my family, my kids, to succeed. Surely Jesus wants me to be able to do that, to provide everything and more for them!
But if I really did take to heart Jesus’ words to the rich man, about giving away all my possessions in order to inherit eternal life, about how it didn’t matter how well I follow the commandments, I will still never get down the path to God as long as all my stuff is cluttering my path… If I really took that to heart, then yeah, I would be grieving, too. Because it is scary to think of giving up the security I find in my money and my things.
Some years ago, I sat next to a beautiful woman about my age on an airplane. She truly seemed to glow, she was so radiant. I noticed she was reading some theology book, so I finally got up the courage to ask her about herself. Turns out, she was on her way to an abbey in Ann Arbor to become a nun! We eagerly engaged in conversation about faith and life and ministry and the particularities of our respective calls. I asked about the process to become a nun. She was genuinely excited about the part where she gets to give away all her possessions and money. She oozed delight at the prospect. She could not wait to be rid of those shackles, to put her trust entirely in God. I will tell you – she is one of the most beautiful and joyful people I have ever met.
Could I be so joyful about that? I don’t know. I’ll be honest, I’m not really prepared to give away all my money and possessions. My guess is most of you aren’t either. So where does that leave us, those of us who, like the rich man, are grieved by the possibility of giving up everything that has provided us security over the years?
Well, maybe we can’t, for whatever reason, give up all of our money and things… but we do have the opportunity, as members of the church and followers of Christ, to give some small portion away each week. Although we don’t typically sign over our whole paycheck to God, the practice of giving to the Church is one way we can do as Jesus tells the rich man, getting rid of some of that stuff that blocks our path to God, and replacing it with utter trust in the one who gives us each day our daily bread. Every gift, every tithe, is an opportunity to say to God, “I trust in you, not myself or my own means. You, O God, are my provider. You give me daily bread. You. I put my trust in you.”
That is what this comes down to, after all. The reason Jesus asks of us such a shocking, astounding, and perplexing practice as giving up everything to follow him, is to show us that as long as these things are in our lives, we will be tempted to put our trust in them, rather than in God. It is a way to remember that in the end, what Martin Luther said on his deathbed was true: “We are beggars, this is true.” We are, each of us, poor. We do not have the resources to save ourselves, fix our own problems, or change the world. Only God does. Giving away our money chips away at our temptation to believe in our own abilities, more than we believe in God’s providence, to believe that we can, by our own efforts, achieve a spiritual life, a godly life, eternal life. News flash: we can’t. We are beggars, this is true, and only God, the provider of all things, our daily bread, can do this for us. When we give a buck here or there, but not so much as to affect our bottom line or even notice it is gone – that is no reminder that our trust and security rest in God. Self-sacrificial giving is what delivers this message to us.
It’s a challenging message. An offensive one, if we’re being honest. One that I know I have a difficult time hearing! So where does it leave us? I find hope and grace in two key phrases in this text. First, that Jesus loved the rich man. Before he asked anything more of the man, Mark tells us that Jesus “loved him.” Not, “judged him,” not, “condemned him,” not, “shook his head in disappointment.” He loved him. And even in our unwillingness to be generous and self-giving, Jesus loves us, too.
Second, Jesus assures us that he knows it is impossible for us. Not everyone is my nun friend on the airplane, joyful about giving away her stuff. Most of us struggle with this. We do find security in our stuff, and our money, and our riches, and it is terrifying to give that up. Yet still: even though it is impossible for us to inherit eternal life by giving up everything, it is not impossible for God. For God, Jesus tells us, all things are possible. Even loving a bunch of sinners like us. Even preparing a place for us in heaven, despite our quickness to trust things and money before God. Even making it possible for us to inherit eternal life – even that is possible for God. And for that, we can give thanks and praise – with our voices, our hearts, our wallets, our resources, with everything we have!
Let us pray… Generous God, you give us all that we could ever need, and we so often respond by trusting those things, rather than the one who gave them to us. Give us glad and generous hearts, willing to relinquish anything that would turn our trust away from you, our giver of daily bread. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
October 7, 2018
Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled jaunt through Mark’s Gospel to hear a few readings that serve to introduce our stewardship campaign, the theme of which is Daily Bread.
The first is from Genesis, the part of the creation story in which God tells the man and woman he has just created that they will be in charge of taking care of all the plants and trees and animals that God made. Though the text doesn’t use the exact word, what God is telling the man and the woman is not, “Use (and abuse) this stuff however you see fit,” but rather, “You are to be stewards of this creation. Care for it. Till it. Help it to grow and thrive.” All, of course, with the understanding that ultimately, it belongs to God!
For our Gospel reading, it seemed appropriate that today we would hear one of the two texts, one in Luke and one in Matthew, that introduce us to the Lord’s Prayer, that prayer in which we regularly ask God to “give us this day our daily bread.” The Matthew version is a bit closer to what we are familiar with praying, but I chose Luke for reasons I’ll get into in the sermon. As you listen to these familiar texts, and especially to the words of the Lord’s Prayer, think about them in terms of how God is calling us to notice what we have already been given, and giving thanks for how God always provides for us.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
How many of you would say that prayer is a fundamental part of your life of faith? How many would say it is the most fundamental part of your life of faith? Okay, now be honest: how many of you have ever struggled in any way with your prayer life, either not knowing what to pray for, or what words to use, or you couldn’t get into a good pattern, or because you were mad at God and couldn’t bring yourself to talk to him, or any other reason?
I have dealt with all of that! I have multiple times come to my spiritual director and said, “My prayer life isn’t working right now. Can you help me get it to where I want it?” And that is why I’m so grateful for this passage in Luke, in which the disciples witness Jesus off praying by himself, and they bravely and vulnerably come to him asking, “Lord, teach us to pray.” These are my favorite words with which to start a prayer journal, because these words are a constant prayer for me. Teach me to pray, Lord. Help me do this better. I know how important this is, God, so please, teach me to pray!
Jesus’ response is so powerful, that the words he suggests have been used by Christians for the past 2000 years. The Lord’s Prayer is memorized by toddlers, written on our hearts, runs through our veins and resides in our very bones. I remember once when I was struggling to know how to pray, and when I told my husband this, his wise response was, “Pray the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a really good prayer.” What a wonderful sermon! That’ll preach!
But even with such a “really good prayer” as this, the danger of a prayer that we all have had memorized since childhood is that it might start at times to lose its power, as we recite it by rote, and let our minds wander, and don’t really pay attention to the words. So I always welcome ways to engage with the Lord’s Prayer in a different way, to help me think about these words differently, to let them water my weary soul in new ways. And this week, we have just such an opportunity, as we consider this well-worn prayer in the context of stewardship.
When a member of our stewardship committee at St. Martin suggested Daily Bread as a stewardship theme, we were in the midst of the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel – six weeks in a row of Jesus talking about himself as the Bread of Life. While it’s not my favorite preaching series, it is an image of Jesus I can, shall we say, sink my teeth into. Jesus is indeed that which gives us life, which sustains us, which fills up our bellies and our hearts. The question becomes: what do we do about that? Do we accept that reality, say, “Thanks a bunch, Jesus!” and go about our merry way? Well, sometimes. But during the next few weeks, I want us all to take the time to really think about what comes next, after we receive our daily bread. And today, I’d like to use the Lord’s Prayer to do that.
Let’s start by looking at Luther’s explanation of what daily bread is. If you remember studying catechism as a kid, or you read your emailed devotions this week, help me out here: what does Luther say is included in “daily bread”? [wait for answers] He says, “Daily bread includes everything needed for this life, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, fields, cattle, money, goods, God-fearing spouse and children, faithful servants and rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, order, honor, true friends, good neighbors, and the like.” In other words: Everything! Everything we need to sustain and nourish us in this life, both physically and spiritually.
When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” it does two things. It first acknowledges that God can and does provide everything we need to live, to thrive, to be nourished and sustained – including not only the food we eat and our other physical needs, but also the relationships we have that feed our souls, really all those things we hear about in our reading today from Genesis.
Second, praying this prayer helps us to recognize that daily bread when God does provide it, and then to respond in kind. There are several ways we might respond. The first and most important is gratitude. This week, in one of the devotions that was sent out, I suggested keeping a gratitude journal. Did anyone do that, or have you in the past? I did this while I was living in Slovakia as a missionary, and during a really tough and lonely year, it was my lifeline. Every day, I forced myself to recognize God’s providence in my life, to see all the ways that I was being fed and nourished, and on days when I couldn’t do it, I went back and read how God had provided in the past. It kept my eyes up and open that year, kept me looking around for daily bread. Intentional gratitude is an immensely powerful tool, not only for giving life, but for helping us to recognize life when it is right in front of us!
From that gratitude comes another way we respond to God’s gift of daily bread: giving. Someone told me about something Rotary Club does called Happy Dollars. When something good happens in your life – your kid gets a job, you do well on a project, your best friend gets married – you respond by making a financial gift to a worthy cause, or to God through your church. “It’s a feel-good practice,” this person told me. And it is! It’s a natural response, really – just like when we are grateful, we may spontaneously smile, sharing our joy with the world, a financial gift, however much, is a way of sharing with the world our joy and gratitude, that God provides for us our daily bread.
Of course, it also works the other way around. Sometimes we give when we are happy and grateful. Sometimes giving can be something we do to remind ourselves to be grateful, and to help us recognize that daily bread in our lives. This is a reason for regular giving, because when you sit down on a regular basis and write a check (or whatever you do), it is a regular reminder to stop and take note of the ways God has already blessed you with daily bread. This is all the more important to do when we are feeling ungrateful or grumpy! Like writing in a gratitude journal, this is a practice that forces us to recognize our bounty, and to be trusting enough to release it back to the giver. For me, each check I write as an offering is an opportunity to be concretely grateful for the gifts I have been given, even if I am feeling grumpy at the time!
Another response to God’s gift of daily bread that I want to mention pertains especially to the daily bread that feeds our emotional and spiritual hunger, that is, our relationships. I think it is very telling that the very next petition in Jesus’ famous prayer is, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those indebted to us.” Forgiveness is hard work, both on the giving and receiving end, but not forgiving or not accepting forgiveness is a surefire way of keeping us from fully receiving the daily bread that God offers us. It is so damaging, even toxic to relationships. It holds us back from the joy God wants for us. In that way, not to forgive is to be a poor steward of God’s gift of relationship with one another. I know, I know, it is so much easier for me to stand here and say that than it is to do the hard work of forgiveness. Yet once we are able to get to that point – to forgive someone, or to accept forgiveness from another person, from ourselves, or from God – it is as if our hearts are cracked open, and ready to receive more robustly the life, love, and grace of God, and then, in turn, to share those things with the world. To give them back. To live them day to day. In other words, to share our daily bread!
Of course, perhaps the best daily bread of all that we receive from God is the bread of God’s grace, which we have the chance to receive physically as actual bread when we come forward for communion. Today, the first Sunday in October, is the day designated as World Communion Sunday, a day when we recognize our relationships with Christians around the world. As we come forward to receive the bread that is Jesus’ body, we will remember that Christians the world over do the same thing. We can also recognize that Christians around the world pray this same Lord’s Prayer, have the same needs we do, and come to God as broken individuals in need of the same grace. How remarkable to recognize that God’s daily bread is certainly given for us, but also given for all the children of God around the world. That, indeed, is something to be grateful for! As we come forward in a moment for communion, I hope you will join me in praying for ourselves, and for Christians the world over, that we would all recognize God’s gift of daily bread, daily grace, daily life, today and every day.
Let us pray… Give us each day our daily bread, O Lord. Thank you for this gift. Thank you for your grace. Help us to recognize that you provide all we need from day to day, and strengthen us to respond in kind. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
September 30, 2018
In two of our texts this week, Numbers and Mark, we get stories about one group of people judging another because they don’t act or believe the right way. That’s nothing we know anything about, right? Haha, right!
In the first reading, from Numbers, we will hear about the Israelites in the wilderness. They’ve been wandering around for some time by now, and Moses has been the main leader. Finally, he can no longer take their bickering, and cries out to God in desperation, saying, “I can’t take this anymore! Why did you put me in charge of this bunch? What did I do to deserve this?” God suggests a change in leadership structure, to allow leadership to be shared. Promptly, Joshua notices that some guys, who weren’t assigned leadership roles, are trying to lead! Tattle tail, tattle tail, he goes running to Moses, who responds, “Um, why would stop someone who is trying to help? Let them help!”
Our reading from James has some things to add about how we can live peaceably together, and then in Mark, we get a similar story to Numbers: someone is doing the work of Jesus, but not formally following him, and the disciples come tattling and finger-pointing. (Keep in mind, this is directly following the disciples bickering about who was the greatest, which we heard last week! Jesus literally still has that little child on his lap, the one who he told them to welcome.) Just like Moses had done, Jesus puts them in their place, saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” then he gives some guidance on how we might refrain from all this nit-picking of one another, and instead focus on our common mission.
Oh friends, it all feels so contemporary! As you listen today, think about the ways you have, even with good intentions, tried to bring others down a notch, or tried to get them to see things your way (that is, of course, the right way), or accused them of something before recognizing the behavior also in yourself. We have all done these things. Let’s listen to how humans have done them all along, and what God has to say about it.
This has been a pretty hot week for our country, politically speaking, particularly around the confirmation process for Judge Brett Kavanaugh. I know some who have been glued to the news, and others who have intentionally avoided it, because it has brought up painful experiences in their own life. The coverage and the resulting conversations have been full of mud-slinging, “what-abouts,” and attacks on individuals and on whole groups of people. Our country was not a beautiful, unified front to begin with, and hasn’t been for a while, but this week it seemed like our divisions were especially deepened and charged.
Now, I am a firm believer that Scripture cannot be honestly read in a vacuum. Because it is the living Word of God, it speaks to us differently based on what is going on in the world around us. Even as it remains steadfast and unchanging, this living Word of God reveals to us different truths, depending on what we are going through. It hits on different parts of our hearts. And so, in light of what is happening in the world around us, the line that hit me especially hard this week was the last one of Jesus’ sermon: Be at peace with one another.
Do you remember what that was like? Or, did that time ever exist in this country? Was there ever a time when people in our country were at peace with one another? Or maybe that line hits you today because of something going on closer to home: for so many families, being at peace with one another is a dream unrecognized, or even one that seems unattainable. And yet, I believe it is something we all want, right? I mean sure, there are some who really thrive on drama, but in the end, to be at peace with one another sounds to me like a pretty good thing.
Turns out, it was an unrecognized ideal for Mark’s community, too. Scholars generally agree that the community for which Mark was writing was dealing with some level of division. We don’t know what about exactly – perhaps it was gnostic versus orthodox views of Jesus, or people who had stayed steadfast in the midst of persecution versus those who had left when the going got tough and now wanted back in. Whatever it was, there were significant divisions. And so Mark includes this little incident from Jesus’ life and teaching as a way of inviting them to use Jesus’ story to reframe how they think about their lives, their commitments, their identity and their understanding of what makes up an authentic Christian community.
Two thousand years later, this story serves the same purpose for us. We, too, live with painful divisions, in our homes, in our country, in our world. We too, need some guidance from our Lord.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t offer the disciples or us any kind, sweet words. That would have been nice, wouldn’t it, because when we are in pain, we just like to be comforted, sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and move on. But in today’s text, Jesus takes a different route: he uses a shock tactic. The disciples come tattling on someone who is not doing things they way they think they should be done, and the harsh language Jesus uses in his rebuke is a really good reason not to read everything in the Bible literally – because if we did, we’d all be trying to stay afloat with millstones around our necks, with eye patches and wrapped stumps instead of hands and feet. These are not the sort of loving words we like to hear from Jesus! Could he possibly have really meant we should resort to self-mutilation when we realize we have sinned?
It is no secret that our president tends to exaggerate. He is so prone to exaggeration, in fact, that shortly after he began his presidency, people started explaining and defending his huge, blustery claims by saying, “Take him seriously, not literally.” The same principle can be applied to Jesus’ words here. Take them seriously, not literally. He uses this extreme language to get our attention, to show us how very seriously we are to take sin, especially sin that would keep ourselves or another from reaching God. Take very seriously the danger of stumbling blocks along this path – so seriously, in fact, that you would go to great lengths to be sure that these stumbling blocks are removed.
In Jesus’ hyperbolic language, removal is straightforward: simply cut it off and throw it into the fire. Drown it in the sea. Discard it. In real life, removing stumbling blocks is not so simple, because the stumbling blocks themselves cannot always be clearly seen. When I had breast cancer, the first step was to determine where exactly the cancer was, so we’d know what, exactly, needed to be removed. So it is with sin and stumbling blocks: the first step for removal, is to determine what is blocking your path to a life-giving relationship with God and with God’s people.
So, what sorts of things could be stumbling blocks for us? Think for a minute… Could it be your pride? Your insistence that you are right on an issue and anyone who doesn’t believe that must be ignorant or blind? … Could it be your temper, how quick you are to jump to judge and attack, rather than reflect and respond thoughtfully? … Could it be your envy, jealousy, or insecurity, and a desire to tear down another so you don’t feel so bad about yourself? … Could it be that thing that you just can’t bring yourself to forgive, because holding onto it gives you a sense of power and control over the offender? … Could it be an addiction, a place you go when you feel lonely or self-loathing so you can self-medicate, rather than finding your strength in God? … You see there are so many stumbling blocks in our lives. I can check several of those boxes myself, and many more that I didn’t mention. There are so many things, you see, that get in the way of the path I want to be walking, the path that leads to Christ, the path that leads to life.
Once we can recognize what those stumbling blocks are, we can hear Jesus’ harsh words more like redemptive ones: cut it off. Get rid of the stumbling block by whatever means necessary. Stop nursing the grudge. Cut off that relationship that is draining the life out of you. Reconsider that point of view that has kept you safe all these years, but is tearing down other beloved children of God. Change that unhealthy lifestyle. Kick the addiction.
Of course, life-giving as those choices may ultimately be, none of them is easy. In fact, they might even feel like what Jesus describes: like losing a limb, or like drowning, or even like death. In a way, it is – anytime you say goodbye to something that, unhealthy though it may be, has held a prominent place in your life, it requires a sometimes painful adjustment. As one commentator writes, “Jesus knows what he is talking about; it hurts to change! It hurts to cut off the precious, familiar things we cling to for dear life—even as those things slowly kill us. The bottle. The affair. The obsession with money. The decades-old shame. The resentment, the victimhood, the self-hatred, the rigidity.”
But, once we do cut those things off… there is where new life begins. There is where the pathway to God gets a little less rocky. There is where we can live into that final line of Jesus’ sermon: live peaceably with one another, experiencing the hope and love and grace of God not in some heaven some time and distance away, but right here, right now. Because that, my friends, is how God works: death must happen in order for us to get to new and abundant life in Christ. It may well hurt along the way. Jesus knows that! But the reward – whether a cup of cold water, or peace on earth, or life everlasting – is worth it.
I wonder what would happen in our country if we could follow Jesus’ advice: if citizens and elected and appointed leaders cut off the greed, and power, and pride, and the need to be right, and paid more attention to that little child that Jesus picked up last week, that he is still holding on his lap? That is, what if we put aside our stumbling blocks, and instead paid more attention to the least, the vulnerable, the abused, the victims of injustice, the weak, the wounded… and lifted them up, and heard their stories, and sought to be the light of Christ to them? We might just find that living peaceably with one another wasn’t some far-off dream after all. We might find that we would all be just a bit closer to the new life that is promised through Christ our Lord.
Let us pray… God of peace, you show us the way to life, but the way is rough and difficult. In your grace and mercy, help us to remove the stumbling blocks along the way, so that we might, with all your children, live peaceably with one another. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The October newsletter is now available.
Last week our prayer group changed things up a bit and met downtown at the High Falls bridge to pray for our city and schools, and then sampled some yummy local food/drink at the Genesse Brew House.
September 23, 2018
The past few weeks, we’ve been chugging along through Mark’s Gospel without skipping much. This week, though, we’ve skipped a few things. Last week we heard about Peter’s confession, as he named that Jesus is in fact the Messiah they have been waiting for. Jesus responded by saying, “Yes, and also the Son of Man has to suffer and die.” Peter didn’t think that was such a good thing to be talking about (a Messiah should be strong, not suffering!), and he rebukes Jesus, and Jesus turns around and rebukes him right back, accusing him of putting his mind on human things, not divine things.
From there, and here’s the part we miss, Jesus heads up the mountain, where the disciples witness Jesus’ transfiguration – you know, where he turns bright white, and Moses and Elijah appear with him and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!” It’s the first time they really hear who Jesus is. Of course, in keeping with his pattern in Mark of not wanting anyone to know who he is, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone, and they head back down the mountain.
That event, the Transfiguration, is, in each Gospel, the point where Jesus starts really heading toward the cross. As they head down the mountain, Jesus, who they now know is the Son of God, will predict once again his death – not unlike the prediction we will also hear from Jeremiah in a moment. Peter doesn’t rebuke him this time, but the disciples still don’t seem to quite know what to make of these things Jesus says. In fact, in Mark, Jesus’ disciples are characterized as especially clueless, never really understanding what Jesus is all about – yet willing to follow him nonetheless. It’s sort of funny to witness, but also quite telling, for in the disciples’ sheer ignorance and humanness, Mark allows us to see quite a bit of ourselves and our own folly in them. So let’s listen to how they respond, and how Jesus then responds to that.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We’re at a point in Grace’s development, where she has become convinced that our house is full of monsters. It’s a veritable infestation of monsters – in my room, her room, the living room, the yard, and obviously, in the potty. Despite that I made for her a “monster dispeller” (a wand), it is still a real problem. These monsters are everywhere. (If anyone has a number for a good monster exterminator, let me know!)
It’s pretty cute out of the mouth of a 3 year old, and though it can be fun to play along (running and hiding, or fighting back bravely, whatever), in the end the child’s fear of monsters is easy to dismiss, at least for the grown-ups in the room. We know there is no such thing as monsters, and so we are in a good position to hold the children tightly, assure them they are safe, tell them there are no monsters (and that even if there were, Jesus would no doubt defeat them handily), and get on with our day.
Yes, children’s monsters are easy enough to dispel. Not so much the monsters we face in adulthood. I resonate with Jesus’ disciples on this one, as they are walking along with a very big, hairy monster on their backs: Jesus’ second prediction of his death. Can you imagine? They’re on a Transfiguration high, having just witnessed it on the mountain. They have heard the voice of God telling them that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God, and they should listen to him. And then, they come down the mountain and at almost the first opportunity, what he tells them is, “I’m going to be betrayed and die and rise again.” Can you imagine the fear and uncertainty they must be feeling? The insecurity? They have given up a lot for this guy who they believed, as we learned last week, was the Messiah, and so what would it mean for them if these predictions were true – that Jesus would be betrayed and die? And what could it possibly mean that he would rise again? Was this metaphorical? Or was he serious?
I have long thought the disciples’ response to this prediction – to begin bickering with one another about who was the greatest – was a strange one. Why would they go from a heavy prediction like this one, to immediately arguing over some petty thing like “who’s the best?” But as I have grown older, and experienced more of the human condition, I actually think it is just right. Of course they change the subject, and think about something else entirely. Who wants to dwell in their fear? Of course they argue about who is the greatest. If they can convince others that they are great, they can ignore how fearful and insecure they feel. Of course they pick a fight with their comrades. Don’t we all, when we are feeling afraid, sometimes lash out at the people who matter most to us?
Of course the monsters we face in our lives are a bit different, though they have a similar effect. There are plenty of things in life from which we’d rather change the subject, and pretend they don’t exist. I don’t want to hear about clergy sexual abuse, for example, or any sort of sexual abuse of a minor, or an adult for that matter. I don’t want to hear about another mass shooting. I don’t want to hear about the 500 kids still in detention centers at the border, whose parents can’t be found. I don’t want to hear about another person I love being diagnosed with cancer. I don’t want to hear about an infant and mother killed when a tree falls on their house during a hurricane, nor that such bigger, wetter hurricanes are the new normal as a result of warmer ocean temperatures. And that’s just some stuff you can read in the news. Never mind the insecurities we may feel in our jobs, in our abilities, in our failures that we deal with every day. These are monsters from which I want to change the subject. They are monsters that sometimes make me lash out at my loved ones, in fear and discouragement. They are even monsters that threaten to make me feel worse about myself, and beat myself up, and then compensate by trying to make myself look extra good – if others believe it, I think, maybe I can believe it, too.
Yes, these monsters can bring out the worst in us, just like the disciples’ own fear about Jesus’ and their uncertain but inevitably painful future brought out the worst in them. Worse yet, these monsters can block our ability to see how to live a faithful life. They set us off track, distract us from our calling as children of God. That is the issue that Jesus addresses in his response. He turns their attention away from their own fears, their own belly buttons, their own inward thinking, their own insecurities, and back toward what a life of faith looks like. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he says. With this, he flips greatness right on its head! No more is greatness defined by blustery arguments about being great, even, the greatest, the best. No more is it measured by how much money we have, or what we can get away with doing without consequence, or by how powerful we are. It’s not even measured by our ability to avoid monsters. It is measured instead by selflessness, by a willingness to serve another’s interests before our own. It is measured by surrounding ourselves not with people we believe to be strong and powerful, but rather, by finding the weakest and most vulnerable, and standing by them – indeed, by seeing in them the very face of God.
Who would that be, in our world today? Who would be the weakest and most vulnerable? In Jesus’ day, it was a child. Children in the first century were not highly thought of – they had little value, no power, few rights, and were completely dependent. They were seen as useless. So Jesus lifted up a child. Who would Jesus lift up today, and tell us to welcome in his name?
Perhaps it would still be a child – maybe a refugee child left in a detention center with no parents. “Welcome this child in my name, and you welcome me.” Perhaps it would be a child who is a victim of abuse by someone he trusted, or a child who is unsure of where her next meal will come from. “Welcome this child in my name and you welcome me.” Perhaps Jesus would have embraced a woman escaping an abusive husband, or a father who lost his daughter in a school shooting. Maybe he’d lift up the grieving mother whose black son was shot in her own backyard, who doesn’t feel her voice or her pain is being heard by the country she loves. Perhaps Jesus would lift up an older couple whose home has flooded – again – and who have lost everything this time. Or maybe he’d lift up a veteran who returned home from serving his country with PTSD and one less leg.
Jesus would lift up and embrace all the people in those monstrous stories from which we would rather change the subject. You see, Jesus will always point us toward the life of faith, the life in which we look for the most vulnerable among us, and rather than dismissing their stories, or saying, “That’s sad, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me,” we instead take the time to listen, to learn, and to stand with these most vulnerable. Jesus will always point us toward a life which heads for the cross – it heads there, and arrives there, but it does not end there. No, the story of the cross is a story that ends with resurrection, with finding new life in the suffering, with assurance that when we are brave enough to stand with the weak, we will find God there.
There are some monsters that we should try to avoid. But let us not avoid the monsters that are bringing down the beloved children of God who are most vulnerable. These are monsters we must face, armed with the best monster dispeller of all: the love of God, the assurance of God’s embrace, and the promise that with Christ, death will always be followed by new and abundant life.
Let us pray… Vulnerable God, you come to us in the weak, in those to whom the world would turn a blind eye. Keep us ever aware of who those people are, so that we might lift them up, and see in their faces the very face of Christ. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
September 16, 2018
Today’s story from Mark is a major turning point, as Jesus first starts to reveal to the disciples who he is and his ultimate mission. But to understand that, we need to go back in time a little bit, to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. The very first line in Mark’s Gospel is, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Sounds straightforward to our ears, knowing what we do now. But this statement would have read like a contradiction. That word we associate with Jesus, “Christ,” is a powerful title. Another word meaning the same thing is, “messiah”; both words mean, “Anointed one.” Christ, or Messiah, was a word that referred to a powerful ruler or leader, one who would be a savior, who would overcome and deliver people from their enemies. This is the word Peter will use to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” But Mark tells us Jesus is both “Christ,” Messiah, and the Son of God. And Son of God has a very different connotation. The Son of God is one who suffers, like the so-called “suffering servant” we will hear about in our first reading, from Isaiah, and one even who dies.
Let’s try something. [Have one side say Messiah, the other say Son of God, back and forth.] And so while Peter is more than willing to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, Christ, Savior, strong, winner… he is less willing, as we will see, to even entertain that Jesus is also Son of God, the one who suffers.
Now, of course, we have a bird’s eye view of this Messiah/Son of God dichotomy, in which Jesus is both the suffering servant who dies for us, and the triumphant Savior who overcomes the enemy. But Peter and his buddies did not have that bird’s eye view. So as you listen to the readings today, and especially the Gospel, keep in mind that they don’t know the end of the story, and think about how you would have answered Jesus question if you were there.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It had been a pretty crazy couple of years for a bunch of fisherman… Really, it had been a pretty could of years for anybody. Just think of Peter – to go so immediately from spending his days fishing on the Sea of Galilee – a pretty mundane job, when you get down to it – to following Jesus around. It was a risky choice, to follow Jesus, but Peter didn’t regret it. Leaving his boat behind led to adventures he could never have imagined. Jesus was a teacher unlike any the disciples had ever seen. He taught with such authority, and had a new spin on every teaching anyone had ever held dear. And the healings! All he had to do was say the word and blind people were seeing, lame people walking, demons were scattering – it was incredible. He kept telling the disciples not to tell anyone what they’d seen – they weren’t sure why. It was like he wanted to keep the whole thing a secret, but anything he did was far from a secret! Everyone knew about him – even when they went to new villages, people were bringing their sick friends and family to Jesus to be healed. The word was out.
Watching all this stuff, Peter really knew Jesus was something pretty special – and so he kept following! He didn’t want to miss a thing! And let me tell you, there was lots to see – they saw Jesus walk on water, and still a storm, they saw him feed 5,000 people, no joke, with only a few loaves of bread and some fish… Each day with Jesus was another marvelous surprise.
Peter found himself wanting to be the best of his disciples, Jesus’ favorite, the one who understood him. Peter watched so carefully everything Jesus did and said. He knew that when it came down to it, Jesus was going to change the world.
Now, Peter grew up Jewish, and so he and his people were always hoping and waiting for God to send a Messiah. Since David’s son Solomon, Israel as a whole hadn’t had another king, someone to defeat the enemy, unite Israel and bring peace on earth. So they believed that God would send a messiah, an anointed one, to rule once again over Israel. And Peter – Peter really wanted to believe that Jesus was that messiah.
One day they were all walking toward Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus suddenly asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” Ah, Peter thought, so he DOES know that people are talking. Even though Jesus was always telling people not to tell about what happened, they all knew how the gossip had spread. The disciples were eager to share what they’d heard: “Some people are saying you’re John the Baptist!” the guys said. “Others think you’re Elijah. Oh, and still others think you’re one of the prophets.” I mean, they were all good guesses, as far as Peter could see. But he knew none of them was correct. Then Jesus stopped them all in their tracks. “Who do you say that I am?” Suddenly the disciples weren’t so eager to answer! That always happens – it’s so easy to talk about what everyone else thinks and says, but when you have to divulge your own secret thoughts, suddenly it is risky, and no one is quite so eager. The group fell silent. Peter took a breath. “This is my chance!” he thought. “I can try out my theory, and if I’m right, Jesus will know I’m the most devoted, most faithful disciple!”
“You’re the Messiah,” Peter ventured. The other disciples looked at him, stunned. “Did I really just say that?” Peter thought. “Could I have been so hopeful as to say this man was the messiah?” They all held their breath and looked at Jesus, waiting. To Peter’s surprise and delight, Jesus seemed satisfied with his answer! So it was true! But then Jesus told them not to tell anyone of this fact. He was so stern, so serious. He really meant it this time! They walked the rest of the way in silence, but Peter was filled with hope. Jesus was it, the Anointed one! He was the one who would finally save them from their enemies! He was the Davidic Messiah they had hoped he would be! They were saved!
As always happened, Jesus and the disciples were met by a crowd. Of course, Jesus took this opportunity to start preaching. Usually he would preach using stories (which were often pretty confusing, but he always explained them to the disciples later). This time, though, he was saying some other stuff – weird stuff. He was talking about how the Son of Man would have to undergo great suffering, and how everyone would reject him, and he would die and then rise again in three days… The way he was talking, it was pretty clear he was talking about himself. It made Peter very uncomfortable. To be honest, he was embarrassed for Jesus. This was no way for the all-powerful Messiah to be talking! All the people who had run out to hear him teach were now looking at each other with that look in their eyes that says, “Is this guy for real?” Even some of his own disciples were looking pretty uncomfortable about even being there.
Peter felt just terrible for Jesus. And to be honest, he also felt scared – he had put his confidence in a strong Messiah, a winner – not someone who would ever think of suffering! How could someone who would talk so openly about suffering and dying be their savior? No, no, this would never do.
Perhaps feeling extra sure of himself for having known Jesus was the Messiah, and thinking that now, he and Jesus must have this special bond, Peter pulled him aside. Jesus looked at Peter, surprised. In a hushed voice, Peter explained, “Listen, Jesus, I’m not sure people are ready to hear these things. All this talk about rejection and suffering and dying – that’s no way to convince people you are the Messiah! They’re going to think you’re crazy! Why don’t you just cool it for a while on this suffering and rejection stuff, and focus instead on the healings, maybe another miraculous feeding. That stuff always goes over pretty well with the crowd.”
Peter would never forget what happened next. Jesus shrugged Peter’s hand from his arm, looking at him with fire in his eyes. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. Peter was shocked. What? He was trying to help! Jesus went on, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It took Peter a moment to really hear what Jesus had just said. Human things? Jesus was embarrassing himself, people were starting to laugh at him. Peter had simply stopped it from going on. Peter was the good guy here!
In that moment, something Peter remembered hearing growing up, from the prophet Isaiah, flashed in his mind: “The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” Adversaries. That’s what “satan” meant – adversary. One who stands between a person and God. Peter was that one, that one trying to stand between these people listening and Jesus, the one whom he had himself only just identified as the Messiah.
Years later, James (who was one of the other disciples there) would write a letter. Peter couldn’t help but wonder if it was about him in that moment, so eager to say the right things, and yet, so ready to rebuke the very Son of God, the Messiah. James wrote, “No one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” So Peter had blessed his Lord Jesus Christ, eagerly wanting to follow him, to show him his loyalty and faith, to be a good disciple… but when it came to a situation where he was embarrassed for Jesus – and yes, embarrassed for himself for being with him – he was so quick to deny all that he thought he stood for, for the sake of maintaining an acceptable front. He had set his mind not on divine things, but on human things. No one can tame the tongue – with it, Peter blessed the Lord, and then, in the next moment, rebuked him.
As Peter tried to process these things, he could hear Jesus continue to preach. He was talking about denying ourselves and taking up our cross, about losing our life for his sake and the sake of the gospel. One line in particular stuck with Peter: “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….” Ashamed. Shame. That is what had gotten Peter to this point. He had been ashamed of Jesus, unwilling to stand up for what he knew to be true, as Isaiah so boldly did. He had let his tongue – always speaking before he really thought about what he was saying – get the best of him, and lead him down human paths, rather than toward God.
Peter held all these things in his heart as they continued down the road that Jesus walked. He held them as they watched him undergo the suffering he had predicted. He remembered them even as he heard himself deny Jesus again – three times – for fear of his own life. He held them as they watched Jesus being taken down from the cross. Shame. Jesus, he thought, I did not stand by you.
But then… That day, that phenomenal day when the women came running from the empty tomb to tell them Jesus had risen… Peter felt a weight lifted from his heart. He felt deep down that the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was not ashamed of him, that he was, in fact, forgiven. Peter remembered how on that night, the night Jesus was betrayed by Judas, he had taken bread and wine, and given it to them to eat. Peter had felt so close to Jesus in that moment. He felt so close to him now, knowing that despite his very human nature, so eager to please but so slow to profess, he was still loved by God. And that love, that continual forgiveness of all his humanness – it gave meaning and purpose to all those years he had followed Jesus. It transformed his shame into hope, and it empowered him to spend the rest of his days openly and courageously professing the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.
Let us pray… Jesus, Messiah, you are our strong savior, and you are the one who gave everything for us. Make us grateful for you, and confident in you, that we would feel courageous enough to profess who and what you are without embarrassment or shame. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
September 9, 2018
Last week, after a few weeks this summer in the Gospel of John, we came back to Mark’s Gospel, in a story in which Jesus talks about what is the key identity marker for Jews. Anyone remember what it was? God’s law. Jesus turned that on its head a bit, saying yes, the law is important, but more important than following the letter of the law about things like hand-washing, was considering how clean your heart is. In other words: are we living the lives of love, grace, justice and mercy that God calls us to live?
Today, in contrast to focusing on the distinction of Jews and Jewish laws, Jesus ventures into Gentile territory. Gentiles are non-Jews, people outside of the Jewish community. In Mark, Jesus is often taking great effort to venture into these non-Jewish areas, these places populated by “outsiders,” people who are even, in some cases, enemies of the Jewish people. So today he takes a journey to Tyre, a place far from his home in Galilee, where he encounters a Syrophoenician woman (so, she is Greek, and descended from people of Syria, and Phoenicia, two historic enemies of Jews). His encounter with this woman changes, or rather, opens up the scope of his ministry, and he continues onto another largely Gentile (non-Jewish) region to continue his ministry with this whole new segment of society. So, today’s story is an important turning point in Jesus’ ministry, from focusing on Jewish people, to opening his mission up to non-Jews.
The other two readings set this story up for us, by reflecting on the ways God, and believers in God, are always reaching out to undesirable or downtrodden populations to bring them the good news of God. These readings are full of life-giving words for those desperately in need of that news… even as they are challenging words for those of us accustomed to feeling comfortable in our faith and our lives. So let’s listen, and see what word God might be speaking this day to our hearts.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Is it just me, or does Jesus seem a little… off, in today’s Gospel reading? I mean, we usually picture him as the very embodiment of compassion, care, and availability, right, but today, he first enters a town and doesn’t want anyone to know it, wants to hide away for a while. And then, when someone comes to him for help, what does he do but insult her! “Can’t help you now,” he says. “Gotta help the children of Israel first. I’m not gonna throw their portion to the dogs!” Did he just… did he just call this woman a dog, and refuse to help her daughter? What?? This is not the Jesus we know and love!
It is one of the more puzzling interactions Jesus has, for sure. Interpreters have spilled much ink trying to figure this one out. Is this just an example of how Mark paints a much more human picture of Jesus? Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we see Jesus exhibit more emotions, as well as more human frailty, even lack of knowledge at times, than we do in the other Gospels. So maybe Mark is saying that Jesus was tired, and a little bit irritable, snarky, and dismissive? I mean, we get that, right? We’ve all been there! But… does Jesus get snarky and dismissive? It opens a complex theological can of worms.
Or maybe, is Jesus testing the woman’s faith? Yeah, standing as the wise teacher who is seeing how bold she will be in her declaration, always with the intention of giving her what she asks, and letting her win the argument. That seems to fit better with our understanding of Jesus – even though I don’t especially like the idea of a God who tests our faith for sport, while our loved one lies in pain!
As I have grappled with this question, trying to understand where Jesus is coming from on this, I realized that really, it doesn’t matter that much to me. What matters more than why Jesus responded to this woman the way he did, is that the woman, who is an ethnic, religious, social “other” from Jesus, has the opportunity to proclaim, even to us, the truth: that Jesus is there for her, too. That her life, and the life of her daughter, matter, and should matter even to this Jewish teacher, even to this God. That she is worthy of God’s care, compassion, and love. This woman boldly proclaims that truth.
We have a complicated relationship with the truth these days, don’t we? Rudy Giuliani made news recently when he claimed on Meet the Press that, “truth isn’t truth.” He caught a lot of flack for that, as he should have, but I do sort of get where he was coming from. These days, it’s hard to know what really is the truth, and what is only some version of the truth, cherry-picked, or conveniently twisted or edited to support one viewpoint or disprove another. I find myself frequently coming back to Pontius Pilate’s poignant question during Jesus’s trial: “What is truth?”
Yet here, this woman of Syrophoenician origin, boldly proclaims a very important truth, and one that can absolutely be trusted: that she matters, and that her daughter matters, and that they are worthy of God’s attention and care.
But even that indisputable truth is not always an easy message to hear. Jesus seems to receive it readily enough, but for us? We sometimes have a hard time receiving the truth, especially when it rubs up in a bad way against something we believe and hold dear, when it challenges our viewpoint. Once we have decided what is the truth, I think a lot of us tend to close our minds and our hearts to anything that doesn’t fit with what we believe.
Perhaps that is why I am particularly drawn to what Jesus says in his next interaction with a Gentile, the man who is deaf and mute. Jesus doesn’t just lay hands on this man to heal him. He says to him, “Be opened.”
“Be opened.” This is message I know I need to hear, and one I think we could all stand to hear and take to heart. Be opened. Be opened to the movement of the Spirit. Be opened to learning something, even something that at first makes you uncomfortable. Be opened to the gifts of others, even others whom you don’t like. Be opened.
I remember once sitting in the office of my college band director. He was leaning back in his chair, with his arms crossed tightly across his chest, when he started to reflect, as he often did. He said, “You know, I’ve been told you should never sit this way, arms crossed, when talking to someone. My teacher used to say, ‘Closed body, closed mind.’ But I don’t know – I think I have an open mind, but I just think it is comfy to sit this way!” Well yeah, it is also comfy to sit in our opinions and never let them be challenged. It is also comfortable to stay right where we feel safe, and know how things work. It is comfortable not to rock the boat, not to speak up when we know something is wrong. But I wouldn’t say any of those things are necessarily open, nor faithful! (That said, I do think my band director had a pretty open mind, despite his crossed arms!)
Be opened. Be opened to the truth, even uncomfortable truth. Be opened to ideas, even ideas you think would never work. Be opened to the possibility that you might be wrong, and someone else is right. Be opened to change, even if you love where and how you are. Be opened.
I think this is a valuable word for us today, on Rally Day, as we begin a new program year. We have some exciting things on the horizon. We’re raising money for a new handicap lift, to make our space accessible to people with mobility issues, and to make that happen, we are about to start a capital campaign, which will depend upon your generosity. We’re trying out a new way of structuring our leadership, a change which may have some growing pains as we work out the kinks. And we are continually thinking about how we can respond to the needs of the community around us.
Some of these things are objectively exciting, and will be easily received. Some might require some risk. Some might require some patience, as we work through the inevitable tough spots. All of them require for us to “be opened” – to listen to one another, to be kind and responsive, to entertain the possibility of sitting in a position that might not be as comfortable at first, but one which will absolutely make us grow stronger in mission and in faith.
All of them, I hope, will equip and empower us to boldly proclaim the truth: That ours is a God who loves, who cares, who heals, who brings life, both to those on the inside, and those who are “other,” who are different from us. That ours is a God who never promised that we would be comfortable, but rather, who always invites us to move, to change, and to grow. I hope we will be empowered to proclaim that ours is a God who listens to our needs, who equips us to boldly share our stories, and who bids that we “be opened” to the possibilities of new life that God places before us.
And so let us “be opened,” my friends. As we enter into this new, exciting year of ministry, let us be opened and responsive to the ways that God will move within, among, and around us.
Let us pray. Moving God, you make the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the dead unstopped. With you, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Make it so also with us, dear Lord. Make us bold to listen, be opened, and boldly proclaim your truth. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
September 2, 2018
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The theme that tied all of last week’s readings together was maintaining faithfulness even in the midst of the various struggles and temptations we face. Today’s readings show us a little more about what that faithfulness looks like. In Deuteronomy, we see that this is laid out in God’s law, which is wise, just and righteous. James elaborates on that, laying out exactly the sorts of acts of faith one would expect to see from a follower of Christ. And in Mark, Jesus totally upsets the apple cart of what faithfulness looks like as he faces up against the scribes and Pharisees.
Mark is what I’d like to talk a bit more about during this time. Because we’ve just come off a month and a half in the Gospel of John, and these two Gospels could scarcely be more different. In John, Jesus is prone to these long, beautiful discourses, where he makes no secret of the fact that he and God the Father are one. Mark’s presentation of Jesus is down-and-dirty, abrupt, almost rushed, like he can’t get this story out fast enough, and throughout the Gospel Jesus tries to keep his true identity a big secret, to be revealed later.
But here is one thing that the two Gospel accounts share: in both of them, and really in all four Gospels, Jesus is offensive. Last week in John, some people turned away because they are so offended by Jesus’ teaching. Today, in Mark, Jesus seems to be undermining the very laws that the Pharisees and scribes work so hard to teach and uphold! No one wants to be told, “You’re doing this wrong, and so did your elders,” and yet that’s exactly what Jesus does. Yet the way that Jesus offers, as always, is one that sheds our human propensities, and leads us into a way of life. Let’s see what we can learn.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This week, in a conversation with someone I hardly know, I let something slip…. I said, “dude.” Yes, I admit it, I spend a little time in my native Northern California, and it is easy enough to slip right back into the vernacular of my hometown. I’ve mostly given up calling things “rad,” but every now and again, “dude” slips back in there. But here’s my real confession: I liked it. I like when I slip back into my NorCal drawl, because it reminds me of who I am. I always come back from California more resolute in my efforts to live a greener lifestyle, I come back with a higher standard for great wine, I’m more interested in going out for a hike, and yes, I am more likely to call people I just met, “dude.” This is who I am, people. Take it or leave it!
The reason I don’t mind slipping back into these things is that, silly as they may seem, these sorts of things are identity markers, things that let people know, “I belong to this group.” We all have them. People from Rochester say “EL-ementary” instead of “ele-MEN-tary,” like the rest of the English-speaking world. We take pride in our winter hardiness, we have a strange yet insistent love for a concoction called a Garbage Plate, and we will never, ever give up on the Buffalo Bills.
Identity markers are an important part of any people or culture, because they not only make you feel like you belong to that group, but they also let everyone else know who you are and to whom you belong. For the Israelites, their most important identity marker was… what, according to our reading from Deuteronomy? God’s law! This, God told them, was what would set them apart from the other nations, what would make everyone look at Israel and say, “This is a wise and discerning nation!” It would provide far more than, say, an affinity for the Buffalo Bills – this law would guide them, show them how God wanted them to live, and bring them into closer relationship with God. This law would be what was a constant for them through years in the wilderness, through centuries of bad kings, and enemy attacks, and exile and diaspora, and rebuilding and Roman occupation and oppression. This law was the very lifeblood of the Jewish people.
That’s why the Pharisees took it so seriously. You know, Pharisees often get a pretty bad wrap, and maybe it is well-deserved, but really, they and many others saw them as the good guys. They were trying to help the Jewish people live holy lives, by keeping God’s law, so that their identity would not be quashed by the oppressive Roman government. This law was their identity, and it must not be compromised. And the Pharisees would make sure of that!
No wonder they felt so threatened by Jesus. Here comes this rabbi, with his twelve… dudes… and they are not keeping the law to which the Pharisees have dedicated their lives to upholding. This dispute about hand-washing isn’t just about hygiene. For the Pharisees, this is a threat to their identity, to their very existence. “Why are you doing that??” they ask, incredulously and with a tone of fear in their voices. “Why are you not taking seriously the law of God that is our life and our essence? Here we are, living as a religious minority under Roman occupation – now more than ever we need to remember who we are, and resist this foreign power! Why are you not living according to the tradition of our elders?” And the subtext: “Who are you, who are we, if not people of God’s law? How can you so easily dismiss that?”
I just want to stop and dwell here for a moment, and feel the Pharisees’ anxiety, because the anxiety they are feeling is not unfamiliar to us. We today know a bit about what it is like to feel our values and so also our identity are being threatened. In a country more divided than ever in my lifetime, at least, I think we are sometimes hyper-aware of who is with us, who is one of us, and who is not. And it is so easy to jump to judging one another, because isn’t the other side (whoever is the other side for you), isn’t it just so short-sighted, and uncaring, and easily duped, and ill-informed? I’m amazed how often I am called these things by someone about whom I was thinking the same thing! It is so easy to fall into that trap of self-righteousness, isn’t it? That same trap the Pharisees so often fall into. And like the Pharisees, all of us have some good in mind. We all think we believe and are doing and fighting for what is best for our people, for those who share our identity. We are all trying to uphold what are our most valued American or Christian ideals, which we feel are being threatened by… you fill in the blank. In that sense, we are all on the same side. We all want to maintain our cherished identity. Just like the Pharisees did.
In both cases, the Pharisees’ and ours, the response to that fear and anxiety, that feeling of something important to us being threatened, comes out as judgment and self-righteousness. And so, we quickly jump to drawing lines in the sand and saying, “You are in, you are one of us, and you are not. You are other. You need either to become like us, or stay away. You must not tarnish our identity.”
Someone once said, if you start drawing lines in the sand between you and others, you can be pretty sure Jesus is on the other side of the line. And for all the Pharisees’ efforts to maintain their identity and live the holy lives they believe God commands, drawing lines in the sand, I think, is exactly what they are allowing their alleged piety to do. The “fence” they so carefully “built around God’s law” is not serving to keep them or the law safe, but rather, to keep others away from God’s grace and mercy. Because that, in the end, is the purpose of God’s law: to guide people toward living lives reflective of God’s love, grace, justice, and mercy. If the law leads to exclusion, rather than love and mercy, then it is not God’s law.
And that is what Jesus comes to say, what he frequently says to the Pharisees in various ways. Basically, he says, “You’ve missed the point of God’s law. The point is to love and care for one another, to devote yourself to God and God’s mission. You think you are honoring God by this, but it is all a farce. Keeping the law just for the sake of keeping the law only serves to keep people out. Instead of being so concerned about who is washing their hands and how, take a look at your own heart, and see if you are driven by legalism, or by love of God and neighbor. If you aren’t driven by love, then you’re missing the point. And if you’re engaging in all manner of sin, even as you preach upholding the law, then I’ll tell you what, your heart and your motives need some work.”
You see in this way, Jesus isn’t dismissing the law, and he is certainly not advocating giving up that essential identity marker of God’s faithful people. God’s law is a very good thing, that does show us how to live holy lives, how to love God and neighbor – all neighbors, not just the ones who also follow God’s law. God’s law shows us how that love should look.
But we also know this: that as important as the law is, as something that shows us what a godly life looks like, it is no longer the key identity marker for Christians. What matters more than our efforts to follow the law, more than our opinions on the hottest political or social issues of our day, more than how you look or what you do for a living or how you sinned this week… what matters more than all of that is this essential identity: that you are a beloved child of God. That you were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. That you are, every day, forgiven for the myriad ways you have already fallen short of fulfilling God’s law, and the numerous ways you will still yet do so. Yes, despite all that, God forgives you, and God still loves you. That, my friends, is your identity.
I’m still gonna say “dude” now and then, and you might even still hear a “rad” slip out. I will never stop preaching the gospel of bringing your own bags to the grocery store, refusing plastic straws, and cutting as many dangerous chemicals from our lives as we can. I will love the San Francisco Giants and the 49ers until the day I die. And, though I will never learn to love a Garbage Plate, I can now shovel snow with the best of them. But the identity marker that matters way more than all of that, is this cross on my forehead, the one my grandfather put there at the baptismal font, 35 years ago. Because I am a beloved child of God. And so are you. And that’s what matters the most.
Let us pray… Loving God, you have given us your law to show us a holy way to live. Thank you for loving us, so that we might strive to live according to yoru law, not in order to make you love us, but because you already do. Help us erase lines in the sand, and guide us into a way of love, grace, mercy and justice for all your children. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 “Build a fence around the law” is a famous rabbinical maxim, and refers to the oral laws and rabbinical practices passed down to keep God’s law entirely safe from being broken. https://www.bible-history.com/Scribes/THE_SCRIBESA_Fence_Around_the_Law.htm