Saturday, January 18, 2020

“Sowing Seeds” - January 19, 2020

Text: Mark 4:1-34

When it comes to teaching, you’ve got to admit: Jesus is not an organized, 1-2-3, a-b-c outline kind of guy.  Jesus teaches by telling stories - sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes obtuse, often challenging, often provocative.  Jesus’ parables often turn conventional wisdom on its head.  They are stories for the hearers to ponder, to chew on.

We read several parables his morning, and they have to do with sowing seeds.  First, there is the parable about the different kinds of soil.  Seed is scattered along a path, where birds eat it.  On rocky soil, where it sprouts but can’t put down roots and withers in the sun.  Some in the weeds, where it gets choked out.  And some on good soil, where there is a tremendous harvest.

Jesus’ disciples ask him what it all means.  And they get a response about how the various types of soil are like various people.  The story answers the question of why people respond differently to the Word – how some can be open and respond to God enthusiastically while others seem completely closed off. 

And then Jesus goes right into the next parable.  About setting a lamp where it can be seen.  About bringing things into the open.  About sharing. About generosity.

I think that the first parable, about sowing seed in different kinds of soil, is illuminated by Jesus’ words on generosity. Think about it for a moment: what kind of farmer sows seed along a path?  Why would anybody plant seeds in gravel?  Who would scatter seeds in the middle of a bunch of weeds?

Farming today is a high-tech business.  Computerized equipment and GPS technology allows farmers to drop one seed per hole and to apply exactly the right amount of fertilizer exactly where it is needed.  It is highly efficient.  You don’t waste seeds, you don’t use more fertilizer than you need, you save on costs and you maximize both the harvest and your return on investment.  The farmer in Jesus’ parable does just the opposite — wasting seeds, sowing seed whether or not there is any realistic chance of growth.

In Jesus’ day, you saved seeds for planting from the previous year’s harvest.  You had to carefully gather seeds and store them safely, making sure they didn’t spoil or that varmints didn’t get into them.  Seeds were precious. 

But Jesus tells a story about this guy just tossing seeds all over the place, pretty well throwing them to the wind.  The farmer is totally inefficient, even irresponsible.  We call it the parable of the soils, but the bigger story may be the sower.  And this is reinforced with Jesus talking about generosity and warning about stinginess.

If the seed is God’s love, then there is plenty to spread around.  It won’t run out.  You don’t have to carefully hang on to a part of last year’s crop in order to have love to plant.  Like the farmer in this parable, we are to sow seeds of love everywhere and just recklessly, indiscriminately share the Good News — even in places where a harvest seems unlikely.

Jesus tells more stories about seeds and planting.  The kingdom of God, he says, is like somebody who throws seed on a field and then just forgets about it.  The seed sprouts, it grows, and they have no idea how this happens.  They just plant the seed, and later on, there is a harvest.

I read a story this past week that kind of stuck in my mind.  A man in Tennessee has had kidney disease for many years, and now it has gone from painful and very serious to life threatening.  Back in October two different close donor matches did not pass the final tests to be kidney donors, and it was a big blow.  A local TV news reporter spoke with the family about it.

A woman named Rhonda Jackson, who happened to live in the same small town, was watching the news that day.  She didn’t really know the man but she knew who he was.  And as she watched the news story, she somehow knew she needed to help.  She said, “I think the Lord just spoke to me that day and said ‘You need to do this.  You just need to go ahead and do it.”  So she called the number at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

She said she didn’t want to tell anyone at first, because she didn’t want to get their hopes up if it didn’t work out.  But as she kept passing the tests she reached out to the man’s wife.

And last week, when Jason Robbins arrived for his dialysis, he had the surprise of his life.  His wife, children, mother, sister and other family were there along with a woman he had seen around town but did not really know.  That woman was Rhonda Jackson, who had been approved as his kidney donor.

She said she was never scared because she knew this was something God wanted her to do.  And in fact, Jackson even had a doctor write that down as her reason for donating her kidney.  The surgery is set for a few weeks from now.

My question is, how does somebody do that?  How does that happen?  And I think the answer is, someone doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide to make such a generous and gracious decision.  My guess is that somewhere along the way, maybe early on in life, someone helped to plant seeds of kindness and empathy and generosity and love.  Someone planted seeds of a Christ-like spirit, and those seeds grew in this woman’s life so that when she heard about a man in dire need, she was ready to respond. 

Jesus tells another parable, about a mustard seed.  It is a familiar parable – maybe too familiar.  Nathan Nettleton suggests that Jesus is actually telling a joke here, making a parody that we tend to miss because we are unfamiliar with the culture surrounding the story.  Jesus’ story parallels one of the visions of the prophet Ezekiel:

Thus says the Lord God; I will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar... On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.  Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest creatures of every kind.
Israel is depicted as a tiny cutting that grows into a mighty cedar, strong and powerful and a place of blessing and refuge.  But Jesus turns this story on its head.  Instead of a cedar sapling, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed.  A mustard seed doesn’t grow into a mighty cedar; it grows into what is at best a shrub, and is generally regarded as a weed. 

The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is not like the biggest tree on the mountain.  The world will not stand back and admire its branches.  The work of the kingdom will mostly be seen as small and insignificant. Signing up for the kingdom of God is not about glory and honor.  A mustard shrub, a weed, is not highly regarded.

But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard.  It’s a noxious weed that will not go away.  It refuses to die.  It just grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.  In saying that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, Jesus is really saying that although it may appear small and insignificant, it cannot be stopped.

Maybe 8 or 10 years ago, we planted some geraniums in a pot.  Just to liven things up, I added a little vine to the mix.  By the end of the summer, the geraniums were doing OK, but the vine was just going to town.  It was doing so well that we decided to bring it in over the winter. The vines had spread 2 or 3 feet, so we gave it a good haircut and brought it in.

It made it through the winter and we put it back out on the deck the next summer.  This time it was all vine, forget the geraniums.  Again, it grew and grew. And then sometime in July, we were surprised to see a little blue flower.  We didn’t know that it was going to flower, but it did.

The next fall, we gave it a haircut and brought it in for the winter.  That year we had a new kitten, and we were worried that Harry would either eat it or get dirt everywhere, and we were right.  So I took it downstairs and put it on top of an old refrigerator, near a window well.  And I kind of forgot about it.  Maybe two months later, I thought, “Oh no, the vine” – and I went to check on it, thinking it was probably dead.  But lo and behold, it was thriving, with new growth reaching up toward the small amount of sun from the window well. 

Birds are not going to make nests in it, and it is definitely never going to be King of the Forest, but this vine just grows and hangs on and surprises and keeps going.  It is another parable of God’s kingdom where there is beauty and strength and power and fortitude in unexpected places.  And this vine just will not die.

I sat in with the Theology Class last Sunday.  There was such good conversation at Fellowship Time that they were pretty late getting started, and rather than watch the video for that week, they just visited.  And somehow we were talking about Bible translations and I think Johnie mentioned the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible.

If you don’t know about the Cotton Patch Bible, it is a  translation by a man named Clarence Jordan.  He was born in 1912 in a small town in Georgia.  From an early age he was troubled by the racial and economic injustice he saw in that community.  He earned a degree in agriculture and wanted to help sharecroppers with scientific farming techniques.  But Jordan decided that there was a large spiritual dimension to the problem.

So he went to seminary and earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Greek.  He and his wife Florence, along with another couple, Martin and Mabel England, who had been American Baptist missionaries in Burma, founded Koinonia Farms near Americus, Georgia.  It was an interracial Christian farming community that was intended as a model of racial harmony.  This was in 1942.  Can you imagine – an interracial commune in the Deep South in 1942? 

They were harassed and persecuted and threatened, not only by local citizens but by law enforcement and public officials, but they persevered in both preaching and living out the message of God’s love and care for all people of all races.  And Jordan wrote The Cotton Patch Gospels, a translation of the New Testament that is set in the American South.  Paul’s Letter to the Romans becomes a letter to Washington, DC; Pilate is the Governor of Georgia; and so on.  To capture the tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile believers, Jordan translated this “white Christians” and “black people.”  The translation made the issues of racism and injustice come alive.

You don’t necessarily hear a lot about Jordan but he inspired and encouraged Millard Fuller to begin what is now Habitat for Humanity, which has built over 800,000 homes around the world for people in need, including here in Ames.  Our church is involved with Habitat.  The Cotton Patch Gospels were made into a musical.  The singer Harry Chapin wrote the music, and that musical is still performed, inspiring many people.

Harry Chapin, a humanitarian as well as musician, was influenced by Jordan through the Cotton Patch Gospel.  Harry died in a car wreck in 1982 at age 39; the epitaph on his tombstone is from a song from Cotton Patch Gospels.  “Now if a man tried to take his time on Earth – and prove before he died what one man’s life could be worth - well, I wonder what would happen to this world?” 


Chapin shared this drive to make a difference in the world with other musicians.  One of them was Bruce Springsteen.  Harry told Bruce that he does one concert for himself and the next one for the other guy.  Half of his concerts were for charity and various causes.  This had a big impact on Bruce.  Springsteen said that he isn’t as generous as Harry, but he plays benefit concerts, works for social justice, and encourages other artists to do the same.

Clarence Jordan was a colleague and an influence on my seminary professor Henlee Barnette, who himself was quite a character.  Henlee was fired in 1961 from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after having Martin Luther King Jr. come speak at the school.  The seminary president told him it had cost the school thousands of dollars in donations.  Henlee said that it was money well spent.  After he was fired he became an ethics professor at the University of Louisville, and many years later, after he had retired from teaching at Louisville, he was asked to come and teach courses at the seminary again.  By then he was a kind of living legend and he was one of my favorite professors.  Henlee Barnette influenced two different generations of ministers, incudinmg me, with his focus on the social and ethical demands of the gospel.

A kid in rural Georgia wanted to help people who were unfairly treated.  He sowed the seeds, and the seeds grew in ways he would never have imagined, in many directions, among all kinds of people.  That’s the way it works.  The kingdom is like a mustard seed.

I think of Rosa Parks, tired after a long day’s work, refusing to give up her seat on a bus.  I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., agreeing to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery.  He was 26 years old.  He was young enough and the family had enough connections that if the boycott were a total failure he would be able to find another church.  But these were seeds that grew and grew and grew.

In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, King wrote, “[T]he early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.  In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”  In other words, even in the face of opposition, the church was about planting seeds.

How do we sow seeds?  Often, I think, it is in ways that we might not think of as seed-sowing at all: 

  • through friendship
  • through a kind word
  • through welcoming the stranger
  • through encouragement
  • through acts of kindness
  • through speaking up for what is right and doing what is right, even when there is a cost
  • through modeling integrity and faithfulness
  • through deep prayer and heartfelt worship
  • through our gifts of time and talent and money
We are sowing seeds all the time, seeds that may bear fruit in ways we will never know.

So, keep it up.  Don’t worry about how receptive the ground will be, don’t worry about running out of seed, don’t worry about the results.  Just keep sowing those seeds.  Amen.

Monday, January 13, 2020

“Old and New” - January 12, 2020

Text: Mark 2:1-22

There are some pretty spectacular stories in the Bible.  The parting of Red Sea…The walls of Jericho tumbling down… David defeating the giant Goliath…  These are some of the stories I remember learning as a kid in Sunday School.  But one of the very first that comes to mind for me is the story we read this morning of the paralytic man being brought by his friends to Jesus.  Other stories are perhaps more spectacular, but for some reason this one comes to mind.

I’m not sure why that is, but I have a theory.  If there are any heroes in this story, besides Jesus, it would be the four friends who bring the paralyzed man to Jesus.  Without these friends, the man does not get healed.  Now if you stop and think about it, and this may be what drew me to the story as a child, these people do everything that we are told not to do as children.

When they first bring the man to Jesus, they are unable to even enter the house where Jesus is.  The place is packed.  Now we all know that we are supposed to wait our turn, but these people insisted on getting in, and right now.  In other words, they cut in line!  Everybody knows you are supposed to wait your turn.  But these friends refuse to wait.  They decide to take action. 

They have a plan—they will climb up on the roof.  You’ve got to love a plan like that.  When I was a kid, my grandmother lived in McLeansboro, Illinois, and at the back of her house was a sloping roof over the basement stairs that extended almost down to ground level.  I’ve never seen another house quite like that—I’m sure the roof over those stairs to the basement were added after the house was built.  It looked like it was made just so that kids could climb right up on the roof.  Well – it may have looked that way, but that was not what it was for, as I was told on more than one occasion.  But that’s what the good guys do in this story.  They climb up on the roof.

And then, to get to Jesus, they not only climb on the roof, they cut a hole in the roof.  What if you received a phone call saying, “Your little Johnny has climbed up on my house with a Sawzall and cut a hole right through the roof?”  The heroes of the story mess with other people’s property.  You’ve got to love it.

And then, they drop the paralyzed man down through the roof, on his mat, to Jesus.  Jesus was preaching.  They were in the middle of the worship service.  In other words, they interrupt.  This is a huge interruption.  How many times will a child blurt out something in the middle of the adults’ conversation and be told, “that’s rude—now don’t interrupt.”  And here were people interrupting right in the middle of a worship service!

So what we have here is a perfect story for children.  The examples to follow are people who cut in line, climb on buildings, tear up other people’s property, and interrupt.  How great is that?  It is no wonder this story has always appealed to me.

But just as appealing is Jesus’ response.  He doesn’t get upset.  Of course, it’s not his roof, right?  And maybe I should say that it is probably a mud and thatch roof – I mean, they dug through it.  But Jesus is not upset by the interruption, by the commotion, by the brashness of this effort to get to him to ask for help.  In fact, he is impressed by it.  He sees all of this as an act of faith.

“Seeing their faith (that would be the faith of his friends), Jesus said to the man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Why would he say that?  It not only seems a little odd – I mean, the man did not ask for forgiveness – Jesus seems to be claiming the power to forgive sins, which does not sit well with some of the religious authorities present.  After all, only God has the authority to forgive sins.  To the scribes, this is blasphemous.  Jesus is aware of these grumblings.  And to show his authority, he says to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk home.”  And the guy does just that.

It is a great story, an amazing story.  I love the role of the four friends.  Each of the four friends held up their corner of the mat.  Each did their part, and without each one holding up their corner, it would not have worked.

From the perspective of the friends, we can read this as a story about each of us doing our part.  Each of the friends held up their corner.  What if we all held up our corner?  What if we all did our part to bring healing and hope and joy and justice to others?  What is we cared for people in need as these friends did?

I would love to think about these four friends and what they do together and just run with it, but I have been thinking about this scripture in a little different way this past week. 

With a new year, we are following the Narrative Lectionary.  It is a set of scripture readings for each week that tries to follow the narrative flow – the stories and the Story, capital S - of the Bible. 

We will be in the Gospel of Mark until Easter.  One of the things you may have noticed last week, and now this week, is that the readings can be fairly long – sometimes combining a couple of different stories, often more than one section heading, if you have those little section headings in your Bible.

So I’m wondering - looking at the bigger picture - what is the common theme that is running through this passage?  What larger point is Mark making as his gospel just gets going, with the story of this healing, of the calling of Levi, with Jesus hanging out with a bunch of tax collectors, and then this sort of odd exchange where people are asking Jesus why he isn’t fasting like John’s disciples and the Pharisees, and he talks about new wine and old wineskins?

Well, I want to go back to a small detail in the story of the man who was healed.  It is a small thing that can be easily missed – I had never much noticed it before: the paralytic’s mat.  His stretcher.  His bedroll.  We are told the man is laying on it, that this mat is lowered down through the roof.  That mat or bed roll is what makes it possible for the man to be lowered down through the roof to Jesus.

But not just that.  There is the way Jesus specifically includes the mat in the question he poses to the scribes.  He doesn’t just ask if it is easier to tell the man his sins are forgiven or to “stand up and walk.” No, it is “stand up and take your mat and walk.”  And then Jesus tells the man to do exactly that: “Stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” And then Mark writes that the man did that, immediately, taking his mat with him.  This man’s bedroll gets a lot of airtime, a lot of mentions in a relatively small number of verses.  What’s the deal?

You have to admit: it sounds like an odd thing to tell a person who has been healed:  be sure and take your sickbed with you!  Why in the world would this person want that kind of souvenir? 

Many years ago, just before I started dating Susan, I tore the ACL in my right knee playing basketball at the seminary gym.  I had surgery and they didn’t goof around with that arthroscopic surgery stuff back then.  This was a big deal and I have a couple of big scars to show for it.

I wore a cast on my leg for like 4 or 5 months.  It was an eternity.  Finally, the day came for it to come off.  What a huge relief.  It never would have occurred to me to ask if I could take the cast home with me.  Who would want that kind of souvenir?  I never wanted to see it again.  (And it was getting a little gross by then, anyway.)

Why does Jesus tell the man to take his mat, take his stretcher, with him?  What is up with that?  And why does Mark include this seemingly small detail?

Maybe it is just a way of showing that the paralytic really is healed.  Not only can he walk, he can reach down and pick up stuff.

Or maybe it is very practical – it is just the recognition that this man will still need something to sleep on now that he is mobile again.  Or maybe it’s pragmatic, given the setting: it’s a crowded room, we need the space, get that thing out of here.  (And why don’t you help clean up the mess from the roof while you are at it.)

But I am thinking there may be more to it.  Presumably this man’s life would never be the same after that day when he heard Jesus’ words of forgiveness and stood on his own two feet and walked.  He was carried in at the beginning of the story, but now he carrying the mat, and he is carrying on. 

The old life is gone and a new life has begun.  But take your mat with you, Jesus says.  Maybe it is something like this: Don’t forget where you have been.  Take your testimony with you.  The old and the new, the past and the future, are somehow related.

What follows in this chapter is in a similar vein.  First, Jesus sees Levi, a tax collector, sitting at the tax booth.  He says to Levi, “Follow me,” and he does.  And Jesus winds up having dinner at Levi’s house.  Levi had a bunch of friends over, and who were his friends?  Well, many of them were other tax collectors, along with other assorted sinners.

Like Jesus’ claim to forgive sins, his association with these kinds of folks struck people the wrong way.  It’s not that tax collectors would be that popular in any culture, but in this case tax collectors worked for Rome - the occupying power -and they were well known for cheating people.  They were seen as corrupt and as collaborators with the enemy. 

Yet Jesus called Levi and Jesus sat down for dinner with a lot of folks seen as generally unsavory characters.  The grumbling about Jesus’ ministry continued as people noticed that Jesus did not necessarily follow all of the generally accepted spiritual practices.  John’s disciples fasted, and the Pharisees fasted, but Jesus did not. 

Jesus replied with these kind of cryptic statements about not fasting at a wedding.  It would be completely inappropriate.  Nothing wrong with fasting, but there is a time to fast, and a time not to fast.  And Jesus continued, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak” – the patch will shrink and the tear will be made worse.  And no one puts new wine in old wineskins, because the wine will burst the skins.

What is Jesus talking about?  It all has to do with relationships between old and new. 

The gospel is not simply about God’s love.  I mean, it is absolutely about that.  But it is about more.  It is about transformation.  It is about healing.  It is about bringing about justice.  It is about making all things new. 

We started a class this past Wednesday for youth who are considering baptism and what it means to follow Jesus.  We talked about God this week and using construction paper and card stock and markers and tape, we all created an image or object or word collage that represented God.  Some decided to just write about it.  I was pretty amazed by what they came up with.  It was thoughtful and creative.  We talked about who God is and what God is like and came up with a whole easel pad sheet full of words to describe God. 

Love was a biggie, of course, but there was a lot more on that sheet.  Powerful, mysterious, creator, rock, shield, caring, friend, peace, kindness, justice, family, salvation, shepherd, coach.  And more.  They understood that God is actively involved with us and leading us to change, to grow, to be made new.

The paralytic man is healed.  He is changed.  He is transformed.  Levi, a tax collector, is called as a disciple.  He leaves behind his tax collector’s booth.  He leaves behind his old life.  Transformation is possible for any of us, for all of us. 

But just like that mat, we don’t simply throw out the old.  Jesus says that if you put new wine in old wineskins, the skins will burst, and you will lose both the skins and the wine.  He is concerned for both the new wine and the old wineskins. 

When new wine is placed in old skin, it continues to ferment and gives off carbon dioxide.  The old skin is unable to breathe and when a certain amount of gas is given off, it bursts.  But one can make the old skin usable by preparing it properly.  First you rinse it thoroughly with water, to refresh it and stretch it out.  In other words, prepare the old material to work with the new.

Jesus also uses the image of putting a patch on clothes.  You don’t just throw the old clothes out, but you have to patch them properly.  New material will shrink, so use old material (or “pre-shrunk” as they call it in the business.)

I did a wedding many years ago for some former students.  They were and still are kind of countercultural types and at their wedding, they wore tie-dyed clothes.  It was very nice tie-dye – slightly classier than the tie-dye t-shirts we made at Music Camp last summer.  (Not that they weren’t fabulous t-shirts.)  These clothes were made at a shop in Chicago called “Worn Again Clothes.”  I love the name of that shop.  You don’t throw out the old, you renew it, modify it, improve it, work with it. 

Diana Butler Bass wrote a book a few years ago exploring mainline churches that were doing well.  The story you hear is that churches are struggling everywhere, but she studied mainline congregations, long-established churches that were thriving.  And one of the things she found was something she called “retraditioning.”  These churches had experienced renewal and transformation, but in a way that remembered who they were and carried the best traditions of their past into the present day.  You might say that they had carried their mats with them.

We need to patch up and maintain the best of our old traditions.  We need to remember and carry with us who we are and where we have been.  But we also need to be pliable and stretchy enough and have faith enough to be open to and embrace the new possibilities which God is giving us. 

God is always doing a new thing, always working in new ways.  And even as God calls us to the new thing before us, even as God leads us to transformation, we hear Jesus’ words: “Take your mat with you.”  Amen.

“The Beginning” - January 5, 2020

Text: Mark 1:1-20
An attorney who specializes in personal injury law was at the grocery store with her 6-year old daughter when a person walked by wearing one of those foam-rubber-collar-brace things. “Look, Mommy,” said the little girl, “There’s a plaintiff.”
Not many 6-year-olds would look at someone with a neck injury and see a “plaintiff.” But that 6-year-old’s mother specialized in the legal aspects of injuries, and from hearing her mother talk, she had learned to see through that filter.
A movie begins. A car is traveling at a high rate of speed, driving on the wrong side of the road. There is a curve and the car is approaching a hill. You worry that there will be a violent collision – I mean, you have watched these kind of shows before. Sure enough, just over the hill, there is an oncoming vehicle. But the oncoming car is also driving on the wrong side of the road. The cars pass without incident. You realize the movie is set in England. You had been watching through the filter of American driving.
We all see through filters of one sort or another. And we rarely see the whole picture.
Now, filters can be very useful – we would have a hard time getting by without them. We wear sunglasses so that by filtering out glare and UV light, we can see clearly what we want to see.
When it is late in a basketball game and it’s a close game, the home crowd behind the basket is waving and screaming and holding up signs and doing all they can to distract the free throw shooter from the visiting team. A really good player will be able to filter out those distractions – for them it’s just like shooting hoops in the driveway. Filters can be very helpful and even necessary.
But not always. There are filters we don’t even realize we are using, and they can lead us astray. Look at our political conversations – there are such huge filters that people can view the same events, the same issues, and see completely different things.
Sometimes what gets filtered out is what is most important for us to see. This morning, with a new year, we are beginning a journey through the gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel was the very first gospel written. Mark wrote so that people could see clearly who Jesus was.
The very beginning of Mark is not the story of Jesus’ birth, which we have just celebrated and which we read about in Luke and in Matthew. For Mark, the first thing to know about Jesus is that he was the One who John the Baptist had pointed to. John had set the stage for Jesus. John drew all kinds of people out to the wilderness for baptism – people from the countryside and people from Jerusalem, all coming to confess sins and to repent – to begin a new life. Jesus identifies with all of these people and with John’s movement as he himself comes to John for baptism.
Who is Jesus? At his baptism, there is a voice from heaven: “You are my son, the beloved: with you I am well pleased.” Mark wants us to see Jesus clearly.
It is interesting that while this is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it is not the end of John’s ministry. John continued to preach in the wilderness and gather crowds. He continued his work as a prophet, and it is some time later, during Jesus’ ministry, that John is executed by Herod.
Why didn’t John immediately become a disciple of Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t asked. Maybe John had his calling, his work to do, and Jesus had his. But John saw himself as a forerunner to Jesus. He said, “One more powerful than me is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and tie his sandals.”
While John understood himself as Jesus’ warm-up act, some of John’s disciples, even after John’s death, had a hard time transferring their allegiance to Jesus. Compared to John, Jesus seemed to them just a pale imitation. Jesus certainly was not as tough on sinners as John was. John kept separate from the evils of society, but Jesus was much too worldly. John was an ascetic – he ate locusts and honey and stayed away from wine, but it seemed like every time you turned around, Jesus was at a party.
Some of John’s followers continued as a separate community long after he was gone. In fact, there is yet today a small group called the Mandeans who see themselves as the continuing community of followers of John the Baptist. It obviously wasn’t easy for all of John’s followers to become followers of Jesus.
And even when many of John’s disciples did follow Jesus, even after John was long gone, they were not all necessarily following Jesus so much as they were following that part of Jesus that reminded them of John. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. “Some say you are John the Baptist,” they answered. “They say that John’s spirit is in you – when they look at you, they see John.”
Others looked at Jesus and saw other things. Some saw in him Elijah, a great prophet. Others looked at Jesus and saw a charismatic leader who would overthrow the Romans and bring glory to Jerusalem. It wasn’t just John the Baptist; people saw Jesus through a lot of different filters, a lot of different lenses.
Now this may all seem a bit remote for us, a mildly interesting Bible lesson perhaps. But this is not just history. This is where we are today. We still see Jesus through various filters.
Consider Christian survivalists who stockpile food and weapons, so that when disaster comes, they’ll have all they need for themselves -- and all the weapons they need to keep others from getting any of it. How can these folks think that this is what following Jesus is all about? It’s simple. Jesus’ actions and teachings that may run counter to their positions get filtered out. They only hear what they agree with.
The Ku Klux Klan sees itself as a Christian organization, “bringing a message of hope and deliverance to white Christian America.” Other white Christian nationalists would have similar views. How could they possibly identify themselves as following the way of Jesus? They have a very big filter.
These may be extreme examples, but before we get too smug, we need to acknowledge that we all see Jesus through filters. The way we see Jesus is colored by our experience and our cultural situation and by what we expect to see. Think of all the paintings of Jesus as a blue-eyed Scandinavian. Historian Stephen Prothero wrote a book called American Jesus, tracing various ways Jesus has been remade in our image in our culture. A cold, severe Puritan Jesus; a kind of effeminate Sweet Savior Jesus seen in a lot of 19th century hymns, a more manly, masculine Jesus of the early 20th century, a countercultural hippie type Jesus, and so forth.
We see most everything through a certain lens. Paul understood this when he wrote that we “see through a glass dimly.” We don’t see everything. We don’t see clearly. At the very least, we need to have some measure of humility, understanding that we don’t have all the truth or all the answers.
To varying degrees, Jesus’ life and message gets filtered for all of us. This is one reason we need to continue go back to the scriptures. We need to hear Jesus’ words and see Jesus’ actions again and again, because it is so easy to filter out what we don’t want to hear or don’t expect to see. Simply reading the scriptures is no guarantee that we will see Jesus clearly, but it surely improves our odds.
Dan Kimball wrote a book a few years back called They Like Jesus But Not The Church. He was writing about millennials. His experience was that millennials are generally very positive about Jesus but by and large negative about the church. In focus groups and interviews, individuals in this age group were asked about their attitudes. Now Kimball himself is fairly conservative, but he is very open about the problems facing the church and the way emerging generations view the church. Common perceptions he found included:
  • The church is mainly concerned about power
  • The church is judgmental, negative, and political
  • The church oppresses women
  • The church is homophobic
  • The church arrogantly thinks all other religions are wrong
  • The church is made up of fundamentalists who take the Bible literally
As it relates to our conversation this morning - about the way Jesus gets filtered - Kimball essentially is saying that a lot of people think the church is presenting Jesus through filters – filters of judgmental attitudes and politics and privilege and power.
Are all churches like this? Of course not. Is there truth in what Kimball is saying? Of course. And whether any of this is accurate or not, these are perceptions that a lot of people have, and that is something that we have to face up to. But it is interesting that people who would not necessarily self-identify as Christian say that the church is presenting a Jesus that is heavily filtered.
On the other hand, Kimball found that almost everyone interviewed really liked Jesus. Of course, they were largely viewing Jesus through a mostly popular culture kind of filter, but many of those interviewed had read the Bible and given this a lot of thought.
We all have filters, and sometimes these are necessary. But when it comes to Jesus, it is important to see Jesus as, as much as we can, as he really is.
On this first Sunday of the year, we have read the very first words of Mark - the very first gospel written. And right off the bat, those who may have been seeing Jesus through the filter of John the Baptist have their eyes opened. Jesus is the one who is greater than John, yet he identifies with John’s movement and ministry. And then as he comes out of the water the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends like a dove and the voice comes from heaven, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”
And as Jesus is baptized in the waters of the Jordan, we too have our eyes opened, and we begin to see Jesus more clearly.
That’s what baptism can do. It tells us who we are. It helps to remove some of the filters we may have about Jesus – and about ourselves. In our own baptism, we are reminded that each of us is a beloved child of God. And we continue down a path of seeing and following Jesus – who is not only greater than John, but greater than our limited vision. As we read through Mark, or at least a good portion of Mark between now and Easter, the goal is to see again, and maybe see anew, who Jesus is.
We can see Jesus through the filter of what we believe is possible and practical and reasonable. But John says, Jesus is far greater, far more powerful than you can imagine.
In the old Wild West, a stranger arriving in town went to the saloon, which he immediately noticed was full of the toughest and meanest looking cowboys he’d ever seen. Tough and fearless himself, he strode in among them, hoisted himself up onto a barstool, and ordered a drink.
He had hardly had time to take his first sip, however, when a man burst through the saloon doors, obviously in a panic. “Big Red is coming to town!!” he yelled. “Big Red is coming to town!!” On hearing this, the hard-bitten cowboys in the saloon were instantly terrified and ran screaming out the door.
The stranger thought that was odd, but being genuinely fearless, he remained to finish his drink. About that time, he heard the saloon door swing open again, and turned to see a huge man, 7 feet tall, massively muscled, with long fiery red hair -- on his head, on his face, on his chest, on his arms -- and the meanest most evil face and eyes he had ever seen. And the stranger, who had never known fear, suddenly was very afraid.
The floor of the saloon shook as this massive incarnation of evil walked up to the bar ordered a drink and threw it down his throat.
Still shaking with fear, the formerly fearless stranger could think of only one thing: get on the good side of this monster. So he said to him, “Please allow me to buy you another drink.”
“Another drink??!!” the fellow said. “I ain’t got time for another drink. Ain’t you heard? -- Big Red’s coming to town!!!”
“After me comes one who is greater,” said John the Baptist. “You think I’m great? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” Amen.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

“The Soul Felt Its Worth” - December 22, 2019

Text: Luke 2:1-14

There are two main points I want to make today.  If you want, you can just jot these two points down and then let your mind wander.  If you want, you can just hang on to these two points and then maybe doodle on your bulletin.  I’ve seen the doodles that some of you make and they are pretty good.  I mean, I’d prefer that you stick with us, I’d prefer you stay awake, but like I said, the message today is simple and there are really just two points. 

Are you ready?  I mean, this is pretty profound, so you need to be ready to take it in.  There are just two points, but these are biggies. 

As I read through our text, the well-known Christmas story from Luke chapter 2, I had two thoughts.  They may be the same two points you would come up with.  But maybe not – your mileage may vary, as they say.

OK, are you ready?  All right: this is what stands out to me from Luke’s telling of the Christmas story.   On this fourth Sunday of Advent, here is the big take home.

Number one: Christmas is simple.
And number two: Christmas is weird.

Did you get that?  Christmas is simple, and Christmas is weird.

Now it’s possible that you may think that is pretty weak for a message on this Sunday before Christmas.  Well, maybe it is, but look, this has been an exceptionally busy season and I just wasn’t able to put together a three point sermon, so two points will have to do.  Christmas is simple, and Christmas is weird.

And to be honest, I was a little less than confident about this two point outline, but then I heard the special music, I heard our men’s trio just a minute ago, and I thought, “You know, this fits perfectly.”  Simple and weird it is.

But before you start doodling, let me say a little more about these two statements.  First, Christmas is simple.  At the most basic level, it is about the birth of a baby.  We can try to make it about other things, but really, the gist of it is, “a child is born for us.” 

When you get past all the get-togethers - the office parties and Christmas lunches and cookie making extravaganzas;  when you get beyond the TV specials – Charlie Brown and the Grinch and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and of course those Hallmark Christmas movies (which I think actually started in July); when you get past the light displays and trees and tinsel; when you get beyond concerts and the Nutcracker and school Christmas programs – all good things, all fun things - the point of it all, the reason for the season, as they say, is the birth of a child.

Like every child, the birth of this child was not without its moments.  It did not all go 100% smoothly - and many of us can relate to that.  Babies tend to come when they come.  Sometimes much too early, and there are medical issues and concerns.  Sometimes very quickly – I read about a pregnant woman who was flying home the day after Thanksgiving.  She was 39 weeks pregnant and had been cleared to fly by her doctor and American Airlines.  But lo and behold her water broke and she went into labor and she had the baby right there on the plane.  The article didn’t say if the mother had to buy another ticket for the baby.   But she did name her daughter Sky.

Sometimes there are complications.  Sometimes there are interesting circumstances surrounding births.  We remember all of these things.  We remember who came to the hospital and those first days with the child.  We look at photographs of baby Zoe – friends and family came to see her, and our dog Conway is in almost every picture.  He wanted to be there right beside Zoe.  We remember these things and we share these stories.

The birth of a child elicits hopes and dreams.   What kind of person will he or she become?  What is in store for them?  There is celebration, there is joy, there is hope.  No matter what part of the world you live in, no matter your background or religion or social status, there are common experiences we all share in the birth of a child. 

Christmas is simple in that we can all relate to it.  We have not all had a child, but we have all been a child.  It doesn’t get much more human, it doesn’t get much more basic, than a child being born.

All of our preparations, all of our activity, all of our efforts in this season stem from a very simple thing: the birth of Jesus.  It is not about pyrotechnics or complicated theology.  It is about a baby.

As we read the story in Luke, we learn that Mary and Joseph experienced more than their share of difficulties along the way.  A poor couple living in a time when their country was occupied and controlled by Rome, they were forced like everyone else to go to their ancestral homeland to register so that they could be taxed. 

And so, we can count Mary and Joseph among the countless people down through the ages who have suffered under coercive power.  They go on a long, arduous journey at the worst possible time.  Why?  Because they have to.  It is not up to them.  And even though Bethlehem is his ancestral city, either family ties are not that close or most of the family has by now moved away, because the best Joseph can do is find a barn where they can stay, and that is where Mary winds up having the baby.

They go to Bethlehem so that they can be counted, but the irony is, they really don’t count – not to Rome.  They are nobodies.  Their only hope, if they have any hope, is not in Caesar Augustus, not in the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but in the God of Israel, who is with them through this long journey.

So they made their way to Bethlehem, get turned away at the inn and wind up in the stable out back.  Our nativity scenes make it seem so sweet, so lovely, so romantic.  I don’t think it was really like that.  I doubt anybody here would sign up to have a baby in the barn – with the sight and sounds, not to mention the smells of livestock.  “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  Somehow, the Biblical narrative makes it sound so nice - so appealing, even.

Well, so far it is simple.  A child is born.  It’s a basic, very human and very relatable story, even if most of us were not born out back in the barn. 

What happens when a child is born?  Among other things, the birth is announced.  We do this in various ways.  First, we probably get on the phone and call family and those close to us to share the news.  We may see balloons and banners in the front yard saying “It’s A Girl!” Births aren’t necessarily listed in the newspaper any more – perhaps in small town weekly papers – but the birth of a child will be all over social media.  There may be baby showers, and gifts are given.

The birth of a child to celebrities and royalty is much the same, and it is a major news story.  When Prince Harry and Meghan’s child was born, we heard all about baby Archie.  It is big news.

The traditions in Jesus’ day were not all that different.  An important custom was music.  Local musicians would come and sing and play at the birth of a baby.  It was a way of simultaneously announcing and celebrating the birth.  The birth of a royal heir or a child born to a very important person would be announced with great fanfare through music and singing and festivities.

Now, this is the place where the story starts to morph from reasonably simple into kind of weird.  I don’t so much mean weird as bizarre, but weird as in totally unexpected, totally off script compared to what usually takes place.

There is an announcement.  There is music at Jesus’ birth, but there are no earthly musicians around.  The music is the singing of angels.  Angels.  That is out of the ordinary, you have to admit.  Now, if we could arrange such heavenly music, who would we choose for the audience? 

This heavenly singing is not broadcast on a network Christmas special.  There is not a large audience.  Those who hear the singing of angels are not celebrities or government officials or religious authorities.  These are not leading citizens; in fact, they are about as low on the social ladder as you could be.

The angels announce this birth to shepherds.  That’s it.  Shepherds out in the fields with their flocks.  At night.  Working the night shift.  Angels announce the birth of this child to Second Shift Shepherds.  It’s a little weird, don’t you think?

The big question is, Why?  We have heard the story so many times, we don’t think about it.  It sounds quaint and it sounds beautiful.  But – seriously?  We may think of shepherding as a respectable occupation, and I’m not saying that it isn’t, but in that culture shepherds were looked down on.  They were despised because they were ceremonially and religiously unclean.  They were dirty and smelly, they were poorly educated, they were rough.  They lived on the margins.

Why do you suppose the angels sang to shepherds?  Why was this birth announcement made to them, of all people?  It seems a little off, a little – well, weird.

As he tells of Jesus’ birth, Luke wants us to know that Jesus is a savior for all people.  He tells the story through the eyes of the common people, and he tells us that the very first to hear were the shepherds.  And as we read throughout the life of Jesus, God seems to have a special concern for those living on the margins.

I had known of Queen Victoria of England and heard a lot of references to the Victorian Era, but the PBS series Victoria has made her and that time in history more relatable and understandable.  And more sympathetic.  There is a great story told about Queen Victoria.  She once attended worship on a Sunday morning at a small village church in Scotland, near the royal castle at Balmoral.  The register for that day recorded the attendance by profession.  It read: shepherds 12, servants 11, queens 1.

That register sums up the way it is in the church.  It reflects the way it is in our world.  Shepherds and servants have always been in the majority.  Jesus came for shepherds and servants.  God’s favor was not simply on the wealthy, the beautiful, the powerful.  In the birth of Jesus – in the miracle of Christmas - God’s favor is shown to be upon Mary, a not yet married young girl living in an occupied, unimportant country.  God works through Joseph, a simple carpenter.  And the announcement of this birth is made to shepherds, second shift shepherds out in the field at night.

It’s all a little strange, you have to admit.  If we hear the story as though we are hearing it for the first time, it is surprising, even shocking.

I was walking our dog Rudy a couple of weeks ago.  It was almost dark – at this time of year it is often pretty well dark when I get home from work.  The next street over, there is a house with one of those reindeer light displays – lights on a reindeer shaped frame, pulling a sled - and some inflatable figures.  A toy soldier and a dog with a Santa hat and a snowman.  The reindeer and these inflatable figures are literally 2 or 3 feet from the sidewalk.  Just as we were right in front of the reindeer, the lights come on.  Right in front of us, the reindeer suddenly lights up.  Rudy jumped.  He has no vertical leap, but he jumped straight up and sideways, kind of like a startled cat.  And then the figures lying on the ground, the toy soldier and snowman, started to inflate.  Rudy was freaked out and I got him to move on before he broke out in a barking fit.

My take is that our dog Rudy had the perfect reaction to Christmas.  We are so used to the story that we don’t give it much thought, but if we actually consider what is happening we will jump straight up and sideways and take notice.

The song that the angels sing to these Second Shift Shepherds is, “Glory to God in the Highest.  Peace on Earth, Good Will to All People.”

This is no ordinary birth.  Jesus came to bring hope and peace and joy and love.  This child is evidence of God’s glory.  And it is all about God’s love for us, all of us, every one of us, from Second Shift Shepherds to Queens.  

We long for peace on earth.  We long for goodwill among all people.  Anyone paying attention to the news longs for that.  The hopes and dreams for this child were not just for his family, not just for his hometown; they were hopes and dreams for all humanity.  And through his life, Jesus was indeed the one who brought hope and peace and joy and love to all of us, even here and now.

This season, some of us find ourselves, like Mary and Joseph, traveling a hard road that we may not have chosen.  Wherever we may be on that road, Christ’s coming is good news for us.  In Genesis, we read that we were created in God’s image.  But in the incarnation, in God coming as a baby born in the manger, God takes on the image of humanity.  God takes on human flesh and shows us how deeply loved we are.  This is Good News of great joy for all people.  As the great carol “O Holy Night” says, “he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”  God loves us so much that God came as a baby to dwell among us.

Maybe weird is not quite the right word.  I’m thinking wonderful might be a little more fitting.  Simple and wonderful.  Amen.