Saturday, March 7, 2020

"God’s Favorites" - March 8, 2020

Text: Mark 10:32-45

It is possible to feel more than one emotion at a time.  I can be angry at my cat for the chaos he has wrought even while I am proud of his incredible athleticism. 
We can at the same time feel both joy and deep sadness.  A mix of feelings is not unusual.

In our scripture today, Jesus and the disciples are on the road to Jerusalem and as they walk on the road, we read that the disciples have a mix of emotions.  They are amazed and afraid.  What a combination!  Amazed and afraid.

It is entirely understandable.  Jesus says, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles (by this he meant the Romans); they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  

Dying in the midst of political upheaval was no big deal; it happened all the time.  Still does.  But the cruelty and personal nature of it, the spitting and mocking and flogging, is what makes this so awful.  From the disciples perspective, Jesus’ words are both amazing and horrifying.

In fact, what Jesus says is so troubling and so bizarre that the disciples just cannot process this.  They don’t know what to do with it.  So they more or less ignore it.  And the next thing you know, James and John are saying to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Jesus has just predicted his suffering and death – actually, this was the third time now – and how do James and John respond?  They say, “Hey Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.”

Wow.  This is entirely the wrong thing to say and the wrong time to say it.  Besides being tone-deaf, this is what you call chutzpah.  I mean, this takes a whole lot of nerve. 

There was something going around on social media called the “24 Hour Can’t Say No Challenge.”  Some kids asked their mom if she would take the 24 Hour Can’t Say No Challenge.  The mom said, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”  Nobody is going to commit to answering with a yes to every request.  I mean, that is ridiculous.  But this is exactly what James and John ask.  “We want you to do whatever we ask you to do.”  Jesus, we want you to take the can’t say no challenge.

But Jesus gets to the heart of it: “What is it you want me to do for you?”   James and John replied that they wanted to sit at Jesus right and left hand when he came into glory.  They wanted to be Jesus’ favorites.  They wanted to be his top guys.  When Jesus comes in to power, they want to be next in line.

Despite Jesus’ talk about what was going to happen in Jerusalem, his disciples don’t understand.  Or maybe more accurately, they just can’t fathom it.  They were still imagining great things ahead, worldly glory, and James and John wanted plum positions in Jesus’ cabinet.  Not surprisingly, the other disciples are none too happy with James and John.  They are furious.

Why does this make the other disciples so mad?  I mean, besides the fact that nobody likes the teacher’s pet.  Nobody likes to see somebody sucking up to the person with authority.  But what really rankles the other disciples, perhaps, is that they had not thought of asking Jesus first.

It’s not like the other disciples are really into servanthood while James and John are into self-promotion.  It’s not as if the other disciples understand what Jesus is all about while James and John alone are kind of bumbling.  There is no reason to think that the others are any different from James and John. 

A couple of weeks ago, we had a work day here at church.  I was cleaning out the closet off of the library.  I found a bumper sticker that said “God Has No Favorites.”  It was an advertisement for UCCM - United Christian Campus Ministry, an ecumenical campus ministry that our church supported and that was housed in our building before closing down a number of years ago.

UCCM handed out buttons and bumper stickers with that phrase, “God Has No Favorites.”  I would show you that bumper sticker but apparently it was not in the keep pile as I had thought.  But I do have one of the buttons.

What do you think?  “God has no favorites.”  This was an especially meaningful thought for UCCM, because they tended to draw folks who were often seen as being on the outside of God’s grace looking in.  But they said, “No, God has no favorites.  God loves us all.”

I agreed with the sentiment, but still, “God has no favorites” bothered me just a little bit.  I suppose that is because deep down, we all think we are one of God’s favorites.  Or at least we want to be one of God’s favorites.  I understood what they were saying and agreed with it in principle, but I kind of liked “We are all God’s favorites” a little more. 

James and John wanted to be top dogs in Jesus’ kingdom.  They wanted to be Jesus’ favorites, and they were not alone in that.  I’m not sure that we are really much different.

Andrew Greeley told a story to go with this scripture, based real-life happenings.  You may recognize someone you know in this story and you may even recognize yourself.

Once upon a time, there was a man who worked many years as an usher in the church.  He came early every Sunday morning and sometimes worked as usher for three services.  Everything was done efficiently when he was on duty.  Even though he was not technically the head usher, he was the one who took the collection money from the other collection plates and piled it into one plate to bring it up to the altar.  If some of the other ushers were slow or inefficient, he didn’t bother to hide his impatience.  It was a privilege to be an usher and one was supposed to work hard to live up to that privilege.  Then the man who had been head usher in the parish since before the flood moved away to Arizona.

Our friend personally believed that the retiring usher was a doddering old fool, but he never said that.  He assumed that his good work would be rewarded and that he would be made head usher.  Then everything would be done efficiently.  But the pastor called a meeting of all the ushers and announced that a much younger man who had worked as an usher for only two years would be the new head usher.  Our friend wrote a letter of resignation from the ushers group and went to church the next Sunday at another parish.
What is being a follower of Jesus all about?  Is it about getting ahead?  About making a name for ourselves?  Rising to a position of influence or importance?  Or, is it about something else altogether?

I am struck by Jesus’ reaction to their bold question.  They make this request – “We want you to do whatever we ask.”  It’s a big ask and if you ask me, Jesus should have set them straight right then and there about how inappropriate it was.  But he doesn’t.  In fact, he asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus demonstrates a lot of grace and a kind of loving patience with these disciples.  He hears their request – to share in his glory – and he tells them that they will indeed share in it.

And they will.  These two sons of Zebedee would share in Jesus’ glory: as his disciples they too would come to know suffering and dying in his name.  They had envisioned the past glories of David’s kingdom; but Jesus’ kingdom would be quite different.  They had imagined sitting with the powerful and triumphant in the halls of power; they certainly weren’t imagining the scene that would unfold in Jerusalem in only a few days.

Mark is writing for an early church being persecuted because they are following Christ.  Like James and John, they to would have to “drink the cup” that Jesus drank.  Mark paints a picture of the Twelve’s misunderstanding of discipleship as a way of reminding his own community what Jesus taught about service and suffering in his name. 

Christian faith cannot be measured by the usual signs of institutional success: the size of church buildings; the numbers of adherents; acceptance and esteem in the world; influence in the halls of power; invitations to sit at prominent places.  Jesus rejected worldly approval and insisted that his disciples will be found in the least likely places: on the wrong side of the tracks and the wrong side of popular opinion, among the poor and neglected and outcast and rejected.  In the eyes of the world and maybe even to some Christians, Jesus’ followers may look like failures - or at least look pretty insignificant.  But what would we expect from those following one who came, as Jesus said, “not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

Writer Frederick Buechner spoke of how Jesus’ way collides with the ways of the culture:

If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party.  The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business.  The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified.  The world says, Drive carefully - the life you save may be your own - and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love.  The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give.

In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks they can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.
Buechner is exactly right.  If we take following Jesus seriously, there are those times when we are going to come off looking a little bit off.  Christian living can be a very countercultural act.

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott quotes a priest friend of hers as saying,  “Eternal Life is not so much a change of address as a change of glasses.”  By that, he means that you look at the same world, the same life, the same faith, but you see it differently.  You see it through different eyes.

James and John wanted to sit with Jesus in his glory.  And they would, but they did not know what it would really mean to sit with him.  For that, they needed to see the world differently, through Jesus’ eyes.

Pastor Thom Shuman wrote a wonderful poem, reflecting on this passage of scripture.  It’s called “Where You Sit.”

we leave our box seats
at the symphony or ball park,
and pray you won’t catch our eye
as we pass you sitting with the homeless;

we wait for a few minutes
at the doctor’s office
to get a free shot
so we won’t catch the flu,
while half a world away
you sit for a week
hoping medicine which will cost you a year’s wages
finds its way to your village;

we sit in our home theaters,
watching the latest “reality”
on our giant screens,
while you sit in the darkness,
rocking your child asleep,
as she cries from the ache
of an empty stomach.

Lord Jesus:
when (like James and John)
we want to be at your side in glory:
remind us where you sit.
James and John seem to have totally missed what Jesus had been teaching them.  They come across as selfish and greedy and self-absorbed.  They are overly ambitious, greedily ambitious.  But Jesus treats their ambition as worthy of redemption.  He redirects their ambition.

It occurs to me that perhaps greedy ambition is better than no ambition at all.  Where ambition exists, it can be redirected.  It can be transformed.  The transformation Jesus offers is like putting on new glasses, new lenses from which to view the world.

But where ambition is entirely absent, mediocrity can take hold.  Change becomes exceedingly difficult.  Ambition is not a bad word.  Ambition can be a good thing.  Jesus ministry was nothing if not ambitious.  “I am come that you may have abundant life,” sounds pretty ambitious to me.  We are called to be ambitious disciples; the only question is the kind of ambitions we have.

It is easy to demonize James and John, but the fact that they stepped forward and approached Jesus seems to matter to Jesus more than their immediate reason for doing so.  Jesus engaged them with respect and love, and in time, yes, they shared his cup, they shared his baptism, and they sat where he sat, and where he still sits today.  They came to see the world through new eyes.  They came to see all of Jesus’ favorites out there.  May it be so for us as well.  Amen.   

“Threading the Needle” - March 1, 2020

Text: Mark 10:17-31

Some of you will remember the TV show The Twilight Zone.  I was a little young for it when it aired, but not too young to watch it later when it was in syndication.  The Twilight Zone was awesome – it was eerie and sort of creepy, and could be scary for a kid.  But The Twilight Zone was not only entertaining; it often had a real point and could be a great vehicle for teaching.

One episode was titled “A Nice Place to Visit.”  It told the story of a thief named Rocky Valentine, who is shot by the police during a robbery.  When Mr. Valentine wakes up, he finds himself in a strange place where he has everything he ever wanted.  He is in a beautiful penthouse filled with perfectly-fitting, expensive clothes.  The dresser drawers are filled with more cash than Mr. Valentine has ever seen.  He’s surrounded by beautiful women.  When he gambles, he wins…every single time.  Everything is so perfect that he concludes that he’s died and gone to heaven.

But within a month Mr. Valentine is bored out of his mind.  He realizes that having everything he ever wanted is not what he thought it would be.  It’s not paradise; it’s more like torture.  He realizes that all of these things have no real value.  At the very end of the episode Mr. Valentine cries out to a man he assumes is the “angel” in charge of this strange place, saying, “I can’t stand this!  I don’t belong here in heaven.  I belong in the other place.  Please send me to the other place!”  To which the “angel” replies, “Mr. Valentine, this is the other place.”

It’s a commonly held belief that the “stuff” of life is what will make us feel fully alive.  This is nothing new.  And it is addressed in our scripture today.

A man comes and kneels before Jesus and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The man is very respectful, but Jesus does not want the flattery.  “Why do you call me good?” he asks.  “No one is good but God.”  Then Jesus describes what the law asks.  “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

The man replies that he has kept the law since he was a youth.  He is honest and pious and he genuinely wants to do the right thing.  The scripture says that Jesus looked at him and loved him.  Surprisingly, this is the only occasion in Mark where it says Jesus loved somebody.  This man comes to Jesus, he is deeply interested in what Jesus has to offer, he has kept God’s law, and Jesus instinctively cares for this man.  I heard someone this week say that Mark can sometimes read like getting text messages without emojis.  But here, we get an emoji – we get a big heart.  Jesus loved this man.

Yet despite his model behavior and attention to the law, something is not right.  This man realizes something is missing – that’s why he came to Jesus in the first place.  Something was keeping this man from God; something was blocking his ability to receive God’s gift.

This is where Jesus’ answer gets very disorienting.  Jesus tells him what he must do – not in anger, not in condescension, but in love, because he wants what is best for this man.  He tells him he lacks one thing—to sell what he owns, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. 

Can you imagine Jesus saying this to you?  Can you imagine being asked to sell everything, give it all to the poor, and follow Jesus?  We can’t even fathom the possibility.  It sounds absurd.  If we sold everything and gave it all away, we would be out on the street.  How would that help anyone?

This is a radical demand.  But if we think about it, it is really no more radical than what Jesus has been saying for a while now.  In our scriptures the past few weeks, Jesus has been saying that you must lose your life in order to save it, that that the greatest must be the servant of all, that we each have to take up our cross, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Here, he is putting this radical demand in very concrete terms for this man.

Now you may not have caught it, but it is only at this point of the story that the man is identified as rich.  This is a wealthy person.  He walks away “shocked and grieving because he had many possessions.”  

He had reason to be shocked.  And the disciples were shocked as well.  There was a longstanding tradition that wealth was a sign of God’s favor.  While the Old Testament warns about the danger of riches and the folly of trusting wealth, it also speaks of riches as a sign of God’s blessing.  Proverbs 22:4, for example, states that “The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.”

The prosperity gospel--the idea that God will bless you if you have enough faith--was not invented by modern-day televangelists.  It has been around a long time.  And in the first century, the rich were closer to God, at least in the sense of following the standards of ritual law.

If a person were wealthy, one could afford to closely follow the law.  The poor did not have the time or resources to follow purity laws or give alms.  The poor might have to take a job tanning animal hides or working with the sick or burying the dead, all of which made a person unclean.  It was much easier for the rich.

You might remember Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof singing “If I Were a Rich Man.”  In that song, he basically says that if he were rich, he would have time to be holy.  I was going to read the words, but it might be better if somebody sang it.  Does anybody know the part I’m talking about?  Any volunteers?      OK, Aaron – (Aaron stands up in congregation and sings)
If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray
And maybe have a seat by the eastern wall
And I’d discuss the holy books
With the learned men
Seven hours hour every day
That could be the sweetest thing of all.
There was not only this tradition that wealth was a sign of God’s favor, there was also some truth to that idea that rich people could more closely follow the law and in the eyes of society, they were seen as actually being closer to God.  It was one of the perks of being rich. 

So the disciples were as perplexed as anyone when Jesus asked this man to give away his riches.  Why would anybody do that?  Why consign yourself to being farther from God?

Jesus’ words are very disorienting.  We can buy the part about keeping the commandments - that is a pretty standard, boilerplate response on the part of Jesus - but this is going way too far.  There are people out there who brag about being Biblical literalists – they say that the Bible means what it says and says what it means.  You just need to read it and believe it and do it.  But if you direct such a person to this scripture, chances are they will stop being so literal about things. 

Jesus not only asks this man to let go of all of his possessions, he goes a step further and confuses everybody by saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.  This teaching has troubled people so much that we generally either gloss over it or we look for a way out.

One interpretation is that this actually referred to a gate in the temple wall called the Needle Gate.  It was a narrow gate with a very short door.  If a camel got as low as it could and kind of did the limbo, then maybe, with great difficulty, it might be able to pass through this gate.  The problem, however, is that it was the Middle Ages before somebody came up with this interpretation, and there is no evidence that something called the Needle Gate ever existed.

This is such a tough teaching that we want to look for loopholes.  The most obvious way out, of course, is to claim that we are not rich.

We can look at athletes and celebrities and CEOs making millions of dollars and think that we really don’t have all that much.  But we are deluding ourselves.  In our world, if you have a place to live with central heat and running water and electricity and two changes of clothes and no worries over where your meals are coming from, you are rich.

You can google the term “Global Rich List” and find a website where you can enter your annual income and find where you stand compared to the rest of the world.  I did that and learned that worldwide, I am in the 1%.  If you earned just over $32,000 or more, you are in the top 1% worldwide.  Compared with the world, we all qualify as rich. 

We may try to weasel our way out of this statement of Jesus by finding various loopholes, but I’m not sure it works. 

The story is told of the guy who dies and is standing before St. Peter at the pearly gates.  St. Peter explains the point system: you tell us what you’ve done, we give you points for it, and if you make 10,000 points, you get in.  The guy rubs his chin somewhat nervously, but only a little, because he's been really good, and he starts in on the list.  “Well, I was a minister in the Baptist Church for fifty years and dedicated my working life to the church.”  St. Peter perfunctorily says, “100 points.”  Oohh, that’s not very many points, the poor guy thinks.

He goes on: “I was married to the same woman for 55 years, and faithful the whole time.  We raised four children—one is a teacher, one is a doctor, one is a pastor, and one is a missionary.”  St. Peter says, ”100 points,” and adds it onto his page.  Yikes, this is really tough, the guy thinks.  “I was a member of Rotary and volunteered countless hours helping my community.”  100 points.  “I didn’t drink or smoke or swear or cheat or lie.”  St. Peter adds another 50 points.  “Oh, my,” the guy says, sweating profusely now.  “If I get into heaven at all, it will be by the grace of God.”  “Grace of God!”  St. Peter shouts.  “10,000 points---you’re IN!”

This is the point Jesus is making.  The man asked Jesus, “What must IU do?” but that is the wrong question.  Because eternal life, or what Jesus often calls the kingdom of God, is not about what we do.  It is about what God does.  In the end, it is pure grace.

Eternal life is God’s doing; it is pure grace.  But we need to be careful here.  There is a temptation to make God’s grace into a way out from having to listen to the truth Jesus spoke to the rich man.  God’s grace can become just another loophole.

What Jesus asked of this man is not terribly unlike what he had already asked his followers to do.  You may remember our reading from a couple of weeks ago – Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs to share the Good News.  They were to take no food, no money, no extra clothes.  They had to be vulnerable and depend on one another.  They had to depend on the community.  They had to depend on God.

Jesus asked the man to give away everything and follow him.  But he walks away shocked and saddened.  And Peter says, “Hey, that is what we have done!  We have left everything to follow you!”  Jesus replies, “There is no one who has left friends or family or possessions behind who will not receive a hundredfold back – friends and family and houses and children and fields – along with persecutions – and eternal life.” 

What is that about?  Well, Jesus seems to be saying that when we give up everything to follow him – when we live not for ourselves but for others – we become part of a community of faith, part of a kingdom that is a source of joy and belonging and support and meaning, and that we are blessed with eternal life together.

It is interesting that this story begins with an individual.  What must I do so that I might have eternal; life?  But in the end, the focus is on the community of faith, the kingdom of God that is present here and now.  We have such a strong focus on the individual as Baptists that it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that eternal life, the kingdom of God, the coming age, as Jesus variously puts it, is not just about me.  

Jesus’ challenge to the man to sell his possessions, give to the poor (again, building community) - and follow him was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments.  The commandments are not so much a checklist of rules to be followed so that we can get a good grade – so that we can earn our salvation – but rather characteristics of one who is living the eternal life God offers.  In other words, we might think of them not so much as the way to eternal life, but more in terms of what eternal life looks like.

Jesus did not simply ask the rich man to sell his possessions; it was sell your possessions, give to the poor, and follow me. 

The real question is, "How do we follow Jesus?"  Jesus comes back to this again and again.  “Follow me,” he says.  He was asking of this rich man the same he asked of everyone. 

Simon and Andrew and James and John had left their nets and their careers as fishermen to follow Jesus; Levi had left his toll booth and his job as a tax collector to follow Jesus; this man is asked to leave behind his wealth and follow Jesus.  

What are we holding on to that keeps us from more closely following Jesus?  Perhaps we are clinging to old ways of thinking and doing.  Maybe we are holding on tightly to our reputation, our power, our need for control, our need to be in charge.  Like the man in this story, it may well be our attachment to possessions.

By letting go, by becoming vulnerable, we become open both to others and to God, and we are able to take hold of God’s gift.

In The Twilight Zone, Rocky Valentine learns that in the end, a life centered on ourselves is no way to live.  Jesus invites us to a better way.   Jesus invites us to eternal life, abundant life.  Life shared in God’s Beloved Community.  Jesus invites us to follow him.  Amen.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

“Who Do You Say That I Am?” - February 23, 2020

Text: Mark 8:27-9:8

Who are you?  No, really – who are you?  We can answer that question in all kinds of ways.  You are a spouse, a parent, a child, an engineer, an artist, a student.  You are chemistry major or a Teke or an Iowa native or a veteran or a grandmother or an elementary student.   You are a runner or a knitter or a liberal or a conservative or an athlete or a pinball wizard.  You are a Christian.  A Baptist.

Who we are is complex and multi-faceted, and changing.  There is no one answer to that question.

Identity has always fascinated us, and the idea of a secret identity or hidden identity can capture people’s imagination.  You’ve got Bruce Wayne who is actually Batman or Clark Kent who is actually Superman.  There is a TV show called the Masked Singer – the basic premise is that celebrities are dressed up in these wild costumes, their identities hidden, as they compete in a singing competition.  Or something like that – I have actually watched about 5 minutes of the show.  So the Bee is actually former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the Peacock is Donny Osmond, and the Flower is Patti LaBelle.  It may not be riveting television, exactly, but there are those times when we have all wondered about a person, maybe someone we know.  “Who is he?  Who is she - really?” 

Our text this morning takes up this this big question of identity.  We are in the middle of a semester-long trek through the Gospel of Mark.  Up until now, Jesus’ ministry has been on the upswing.  Jesus has success, he works wonders, he casts out demons, he heals people, and there are growing crowds.  Sure, there has been some conflict and opposition, but Jesus is The Man.  It seems like the sky is the limit.

But our reading this morning represents a turning point.  While there has been an upward trajectory until now, from here on out the cross stands in the horizon.  We are at this inflection point just as we are about to begin the season of Lent.

It’s not an overstatement to say that everything in our reading this morning revolves around identity.  We are told the Jesus and the disciples are going around the villages of Caesarea Philippi.  The location is almost as important as what happens here.  Just the mention of Caesarea Philippi brings up questions of identity.  This area is named for Caesar – the Roman emperor – and for Philip, the tetrarch or Jewish puppet ruler.  Philip was the son of Herod the Great, the king of Israel when Jesus was born – the one who had the babies killed in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus.

This region was also called Paneas.  It was named this after the Greek god Pan.  He is the one who is half goat, half man and who played the pipes.  He was the god of wild places and nature.

In other words, this is not your everyday Orthodox Jewish village.  The name of this district was a constant reminder that the Jewish nation was occupied and under Roman control.  There is a Roman ruler, a Jewish puppet king beholden to Rome, and the presence of a Greco-Roman nature religion.  It was all a reminder that Israel was an occupied nation.  Caesarea Philippi is in the far north of Israel, the Jewish territory farthest from Jerusalem and with the greatest amount of Roman and pagan influence.  Just living here could make a person question their place in the world. 

This is the setting for Jesus to ask his disciples a huge question.  “Who do people say that I am?”  It is very interesting that Jesus asks this question.  “What do they think of me?”  “What are people saying about me?”  It is interesting because he hasn’t seemed to care about that up until now – I mean, Jesus just does his thing.  He doesn’t seem to give a rip what people think.  Why does he want to know now?

Jesus is a busy guy.  He’s got a lot on his plate.  Why would he ask questions he really doesn’t seem to care about?  Well, you’ve got to stick with him here.  He actually doesn’t seem to care much about the answers to this question.  The disciples respond, “Some say you are John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say one of the prophets.”  And Jesus seems fairly disinterested in this response.  “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that‘s nice.”  This question really just seems like a setup for the bigger question: “Who do YOU say that I am?” 

It is one thing to cite public opinion, or to say, “People are talking.”  It is another thing altogether to voice your own understanding and belief.  In the end, what other people believe doesn’t matter for much.  The question is, “What do you believe?”  And Peter gives this amazing, insightful, incredible answer: “You are the Messiah.”  Messiah is a Hebrew term; the Greek word is Christ.  “You are the Christ.”

We have already been given a heads-up as to Jesus’ true identity.  It came in the very first verse of Mark: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  So when Peter gives this answer, we know that it’s “Bingo!  You got it right, Peter!”  Peter is the first one to identify Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.  And here is the really crazy part: Peter is the only human not possessed by an unclean spirit or working for Rome who correctly identifies Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  The only one. 

Peter gives this amazing answer, this seemingly inspired answer. 

You might expect a party to break out.  Finally, someone has revealed Jesus’ true identity.  But that is not what happens at all.  In fact, it is pretty well the opposite.  Peter’s response begs the question: What does it mean to be the Messiah?  Peter apparently expects a Messiah in the traditional sense – one with strength and power and the ability to lead and protect the nation in a concrete way.  In the back of everyone’s mind, overthrowing Rome is the big expectation - or at least the big hope for the Messiah.

But Jesus sees it in an entirely different way.  He began to teach that he would undergo suffering and rejection and be killed, and then rise again.  And Peter could not stand for that.  He took Jesus aside and the text says he began to “rebuke” Jesus.  You can think of this as scolding or correcting – Peter knows what Messiah is supposed to be and supposed to do, and he wants to set Jesus straight.  But I tend to read this as a very human response from Peter.  Peter has developed a deep sense of love and care for Jesus.  He is saying. “Friend, don’t talk that way.  Don’t go down that road.  Let’s have positive thoughts.”  I kind of see this as a very personal reaction.

But Jesus would have none of it.  He spoke to Peter but turned and looked at all his disciples and said, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter is the first and only one to name Jesus’ identity in the whole gospel.  But he did not grasp what it meant to be Messiah – what it meant to be Christ.  He goes from winner of the $100,000 question to being called Satan in a matter of minutes.  And I might point out that Satan simply means “adversary.”  Just to be clear, Jesus went on to say, “If any want to be my disciples, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Whoa, wait a minute.  Did Jesus say cross?  He did, and it is the first mention of the cross in Mark.  The disciples had to be thinking, where did that come from?  Jesus then said, “If you try to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake you will save it.”  You can hold on to self-preservation so tightly, you can be so focused on yourself and your own needs that you never really live.  Or you can follow me in freedom, committing your life to my mission of love and peace and justice and righteousness, and you will find what it is to truly live.

Six days later, Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter and James and John.  These same confused and befuddled disciples.  And there on the mountain, something happened - something mysterious and powerful and wonderful.  We are simply told that Jesus “was transfigured before them.”  And we are told how dazzlingly white Jesus’ clothes are.  It is like an Oxy-Clean moment except that no one on earth could bleach clothes this white.  It’s a nice little tidbit in the text.  And with Jesus, in this dazzling light, they saw Moses and Elijah. 

Peter and James and John didn’t know what to think or what to do.  I mean, this doesn’t happen just every day, right?  They only knew that something incredible was happening, and they wanted to capture the moment.  They wanted to hold on to the glory.  Peter said to Jesus, “Let me build three dwellings--one for you, Moses, and Elijah.”  He wanted to bottle what they felt at that moment.  But he couldn’t.  It wasn’t something they could control.   

Immediately a cloud came upon them, and there was a Voice.  They were terrified.  The voice said, “This is my son, my Beloved; listen to him.”

Peter and the other disciples had observed Jesus’ ministry.  They had learned from his teaching; they had seen the healings; they had experienced his power firsthand.  Peter had tried to add it all up, and he came up with Messiah.  But Peter’s understanding was too limited.  I think Jesus took these three close friends and followers with him so that they might have a glimpse – a glimpse of God’s glory.

Writing of the Transfiguration, Madeline L’Engle said,

Suddenly they saw him, the way he was, the way he really was all the time, although they had never seen it before, the glory which blinds the everyday eye and so becomes invisible.  This is how he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands.  This is the way he was—is---from the beginning, and we cannot bear it…  We all know that if we really see him we will die.  But isn’t that what is required of us?  Then perhaps we will see each other too.
How about you?  Have you had a mountaintop experience?  A brush with the Holy in which God seemed especially real and near? 

These Holy Moments are times when faith is experienced.  They teach us, they remind us, they grab us with the truth that faith is not just a head trip or a set of beliefs that we sign on the dotted line; faith is about trust and wonder and awe and joy and relationship. 

The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church has a wonderful prayer to be said for the newly baptized.  The prayer concludes with these words:

Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  Amen.
I love that last line: “The gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

Jesus asks of us: “Who do you say that I am?”  What we believe about Jesus has implications for the way we understand ourselves.  Because if as Christians we are trying in some way to follow Jesus, we need to know who it is we are following.  We need to have a sense of what Jesus is about.

Peter had in mind what it meant to be the Christ, but Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

This is what Christ looks like.  This is a completely different kind of power than the power wielded by Caesar or by Jewish puppet rulers.  God’s kind of power is very different than the world’s kind of power. 

After the Transfiguration, the cloud passes, and it is just the three disciples, the three frightened and freaked out disciples standing there with Jesus.  And it is time for them to move on.  Time to get to work.

How we understand Jesus and how we understand the power of God and the purpose of God makes a difference in the way we see ourselves and seek to live out our faith.

I have a childhood friend.  We went to church together and played basketball together and have kept in touch a bit in a recent years through Facebook.  This is what my friend posted a couple of days ago:

As many of you know I have tremors and I have dealt with them most of my adult life… I have never really tried to hide them, not really able to, and have always been open with questions that anyone has had.  Today for the first time I was faced with someone mocking my tremor when they thought my back was turned.  This made me think that if we are going to mock a person with the slight issue that I have, then how are we treating those with more complex disabilities?  These were people from the same generation as me and it makes me sad to think of the world of disrespect that we have helped in creating…. The most frustrating part of this ordeal was the main individual involved calls himself a Christian.
I have been thinking about this the past few days.  In personal situations such as this, and in bigger, sweeping, even national and international situations, Christians have often claimed to be following Jesus when in reality we are acting a lot more like Caesar, a lot more like Philip, seeking power over, power to dominate, power to control - not power in weakness, not the power of truth, not the power of the cross. 

We are called to follow a Christ who leads through love and not coercion; through humility and not bravado; through servanthood and not demand; through embracing humanity in all of its pain, not turning his back on those in need.

Up on the mountain, Peter and James and John had a glimpse of such a Christ in glory.  And like them, we are called to follow that Jesus down in the valley where we live.  Amen.  

“Cleanliness or Godliness?” - February 16, 2020

Text: Mark 7:1-23

As the saying goes, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”  It turns out that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was the first person recorded as saying that, in a sermon back in 1778, but the idea goes all the way back to ancient times.  Cleanliness is next to godliness.  That’s not necessarily my favorite saying, but then maybe Baptists are not quite as fastidious as Methodists.  But while it may be overstating it a bit, I doubt any of us would actually come out against cleanliness.  I mean, cleanliness is a good thing, right?

But then we read our scripture for today.  We continue working our way through the gospel of Mark, and in today’s reading, a controversy arises between some Pharisees and scribes – religious leaders – and Jesus.  They noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples had not washed their hands before eating.  For some reason, this is very upsetting to them.  In fact, they say that the disciples’ hands were “defiled.”

To say that something is defiled sounds like a pretty harsh judgment.  I was looking for art for the bulletin cover and I came across a word cloud of this passage in a heart shape.  All of the words appearing in the text arranged in a red heart, which seemed to fit the theme very well.  I was going to use it and then realized that by far, the most prominent words was “Defile.”  You really don’t want the word “defile” just screaming at you at the cover of the bulletin.

What was the big deal?  If anybody goes to our Men’s Breakfast on Tuesday morning at Perkins, walks in the door and just sits down at the table where we always sit, without first stopping to wash their hands, they do not expect to have someone at the table make a scene because their hands are “defiled.”  (And as a side note, if unwashed hands are defiled, would washing them make them “filed”?

It is clear that the concern here is not about cleanliness in the way that we generally think of cleanliness.  This is about religious practice, not personal hygiene. 

The Pharisaic tradition of washing one’s hands before eating went way back.  Since the Law had been given to the Israelites, it was required that the high priest, before he even entered the temple, ritually washed both his hands and his feet. Over the years it had become the norm for all followers of the Pharisaic tradition, not just the priests, to wash their hands before eating, as a way of sanctifying the act of eating.

Special prayers and ritual acts of cleaning surrounded other common acts of life as well.  By performing these ritual acts, the Pharisees hoped to sanctify the common things of life.  They wanted to add a religious dimension to everything they did.  So for them, in this case it wasn’t a matter of cleanliness being next to godliness; cleanliness actually was godliness.

What they were about here was making the common holy.  Honoring God in all that we do.  This is not a bad impulse.  In our day, we can do a version of the same thing when we pray before a meal.  We give thanks for the food and pray for God’s blessings as a way of remembering and celebrating God’s providence and God’s presence with us.  A common act like eating can be made holy.

Knowing this tradition, knowing their concern, the Pharisees’ question is a little more understandable.  They were sincere in their desire to keep the law as well as the traditions that had developed surrounding the law as a way of honoring God.  But Jesus does not go easy on them.  They were so focused on such external practices that they had forgotten the point of it all.  They hands may have been clean, but their hearts were far from it. 

There are plenty of outward signs of faith that may appear holy and be good and helpful, but these external actions are not what matter the most.  It’s what’s on the inside that really matters.

Jesus takes issue with the Pharisees and scribes, and then he goes a step further by saying to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”  He accuses them of rejecting God’s commandments.  Jesus is playing hardball. 

And then he gives an example: there was a tradition called Corban.  Something that was dedicated to the temple was in a sense earmarked as Corban.  It could not be used for other purposes.  Corban was a vow attached to particular goods.  Apparently, there were those who claimed they could not help their parents in need because the means to assist aging parents had already been declared as Corban.

“Sorry mom and dad, I would love to help you with rent, but I have already declared that savings account as Corban.  It has to go to the temple.”  There was a later Rabbinic decision that a person could be released from a vow of Corban in order to help one’s parents, so this was evidently a real issue.  Jesus saw it as putting a human tradition above God’s law, which said, “Honor your father and mother.”  That was far more important than the tradition of Corban.

It is not that Jesus rejected the law.  And it is not that he took lightly the traditions that had developed around the law.  But Jesus lived in freedom.  That’s what the law was supposed to be in the first place: a way for God’s people who had lived in slavery in Egypt to live as a free people.  Freedom meant putting the needs of people above tradition.  Jesus put faithfulness to God above faithfulness to ritual practice.

Jesus was not afraid to get dirty.  He touched and healed the leper.  He touched the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years.  He hung out with the marginalized and outcast.  He had conversation and spent time with foreigners.  These were all people considered unclean.  Ritually speaking, one would be defiled by touching these people.  But that did not stop Jesus. 

He spoke to the crowd and said, “It is not what goes into a person that defiles, but the things that come out.”  Mark wrote his gospel for a Gentile audience that did not follow Jewish dietary rules, and Mark notes here that Jesus declared all foods clean.  And then Jesus talked about the things that really defile a person – evil intentions and actions that come from the heart – from fornication to wickedness to deceit to pride to slander to murder. 

As in Jesus’ time, it is the externals of religion that get noticed.  People can see you in church every Sunday, and you post Bible verses on social media.  But Christian discipleship is something deeper.  It is a matter of the heart.  It is about who you are and what you value deep inside. 

You can take care of unclean hands pretty easily.  You can buy hand sanitizer.  But the heart is another matter.  They don’t make heart sanitizer.  

As a seminary student, I spent a year at Virginia Tech doing a campus ministry internship.  While I was there the campus ministers group had Will Campbell come to campus to speak.  

Campbell was an amazing and absolutely unique person.  He grew up as a Southern Baptist in Mississippi and wound up going to seminary at Yale Divinity School, which is definitely not the school of choice for Southern Baptists in Mississippi.  He came back to the South but had a hard time finding and keeping a job as a Baptist minister who supported integration in the 1950’s.  He was chaplain at Ole Miss for a short time but resigned amid death threats. 

Brother Will, as he liked to be called, became a prominent white supporter of the civil rights movement before having this epiphany that bigots needed Jesus too, and he befriended and ministered to folks in the Ku Klux Klan even while he worked for racial reconciliation. So, he had enemies just about everywhere.  He was a powerful writer and called himself a “Bootleg Baptist preacher.”

At any rate, we had Will come speak on campus and I had the chance to have dinner with Will Campbell along with a few other people.  He lived near Nashville and he was telling us about being on a radio program in Nashville a couple weeks before.

It seemed that the singer Charlie Daniels had been on the same program in the previous segment.  Campbell was interviewed for a bit and then they opened the phone lines.  A woman called in to say how terrible it was that Charlie Daniels had used such obscene language on the air, and what did the minister have to say about that?

Well, Campbell said it was hard to comment without knowing what Mr. Daniels had said.  He asked the woman if she could tell him so that he could offer an opinion about it.  Of course, the woman said that she couldn’t repeat that kind of language.  And so Will Campbell told the woman, “Tell you what: I will say the most obscene words that I know, and you can tell me if Mr. Daniels used these words.”  Well, the caller about went into convulsions, but these are the words that Will Campbell said:

Did Mr. Daniels use any of those words?  The woman said, “Well, no.”  And Will Campbell said, “Well, those are the most obscene words I can think of, so if Mr. Daniels didn’t use any of those words, then I guess I’m not too worried.”

Now of course, 50% of this was just Will Campbell being ornery, but he made a powerful point.  It is possible to be more concerned about someone failing to follow social niceties than we are the terrible and truly obscene things that go on in our community and in our world.  We can put a great focus on the externals while missing what matters the most.

Now, there is a temptation to read this scripture and come away thinking that it is about how terrible tradition can be.  That is not the point, and in fact let me say a word on behalf of tradition.  There are wonderful and meaningful traditions that we follow.  I mean, we are here because it is Sunday morning, and our tradition is to worship on Sunday, the day that Jesus rose from the dead.  Our tradition is that every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection.

As Baptists, we have a strong tradition of speaking out for religious liberty and for the separation of church and state.  This stems from our history as a persecuted minority, and we by tradition have wanted to extend that same freedom to others, especially remembering minority religions.  That is a wonderful tradition.

This congregation has a long tradition of being thoughtful and open-minded, of being open to new ideas.  We have taken stands that are not always popular.  I think these are good things and I am proud of our tradition.

And then there are more ritualized traditions: we generally have communion on the first Sunday of the month, and at the end of that service we join hands and form a circle around the sanctuary as a sign of our oneness in Christ and our identity as a family of faith.  We usually include the Lord’s Prayer as a part of worship, connecting us with others around the world who pray this prayer.  We usually take time to pass the peace and greet one another in worship, believing that there is both a vertical dimension to worship as we approach God, but there is also a horizontal dimension as we approach God together, as a community. 

There is nothing especially sacred about these sorts of traditions, and we can be attached to traditions just as people were in Jesus’ day.  These traditions can be powerful and important, but they are not the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.

Tradition can give us a place to stand, but when we are just going through the motions of tradition, with no thought or passion or real engagement, what we have is traditionalism.  Blindly following a tradition just for the sake of the tradition can leave us with something less than a real and living faith.

The Pharisees and Scribes objected to those who did not follow ritual practice.  But the thing is, the disciples were alive and open to what God was doing in their midst.  Those who questioned them performed the proper rituals, but their hearts were closed.  The Pharisees and Scribes were majoring in cleanliness, if you will, while the disciples were more interested in Godliness.

Jesus lived in freedom.  And when our hearts are made free in Christ, then we can find the Holy in all of life – not by washing our hands the right way or saying the right prayers, but by seeing common events and ordinary people in a new light - through the eyes of Christ.

Jesus freely accepted the outcast, the lonely, the unclean.  He accepted the common things and broken things of this world - which means that he accepts you and me. 

Our calling is not to try and keep from getting dirty.  And it is not to try and keep up appearances.  In freedom, we are called to love hurting people and care for a broken world, following the One who reaches out in love even to people like us.  Amen.