Saturday, January 30, 2016

“Planning to Fail” - January 27, 2016

Text: Mark 6:1-29

Unless you have been hibernating for the past few months, you know that tomorrow is the Iowa Caucus.  We have been bombarded with phone calls and mailings and people knocking on our doors, and in these last few days it has hit a fever pitch.  You can’t watch TV without being subjected to a barrage of political ads.  You can’t get on the internet without having advertisements for various candidates pop up all over the place.  It’s all you hear about on the evening news.

But by Tuesday, Iowa will be old news.  Candidates will high-tail it out of here.  If we get a big snow tomorrow night, there will be stories on Tuesday about staffers and media stuck at the airport, trying to get to New Hampshire.  More than a few candidates and spin doctors will say that the results of the caucus don’t matter much because Iowans are not representative of the nation, and why does Iowa get to go first anyway?  And then the rest of the country can go back to ignoring us.

I’m always glad to get rid of all the political ads and especially the phone calls, but in a weird way I am always a bit sad to see it end too.  It’s like we had this heightened sense of importance, we were the center of attention, and now it’s all gone.

Out of however many people running for president when it started – somewhere north of 20, counting both parties – nearly all of them are going to lose.  Some have already dropped out.  Only 2 are going to make it to the general election.  Nearly all of them are going to taste defeat and disappointment.

Next November, only one will come out a winner – but then you are faced with the question of what do they really win in the end, anyway?  President Obama will have been in office for 8 years, but if you look at before and after photos, it already looks like a lot more than 8 years.  And that is true for nearly all of our presidents.  Twenty some-odd people are vying for a job that is nothing but stress, worry, aggravation, trouble, and disappointment.

You might say that running for president would be good preparation for life, because we are all going to face defeat and disappointment. 

Which brings us to our scripture for today.  We continue reading in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus has just healed a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, and then raised Jairus’ daughter back to life.  He is on a winning streak, you might say.  His reputation is growing.

And then he heads back to his hometown of Nazareth, where he speaks at the synagogue, and everyone is amazed.  They are astonished at what he is saying, startled at the power and authority with which he speaks.

Where does he get this stuff?  And what about all those miracles people are talking about?  Isn’t he a carpenter?  Isn’t he the son of Mary?

While one would think that Jesus’ ministry would be a source of pride for his hometown – “local boy made good” – people were surprised and even somewhat offended to hear his teaching. 

Why were they so surprised?  Part of it was familiarity.  They knew this guy.  They knew his family.  It seemed that perhaps Jesus was getting a little too big for his britches.  I have known people who returned to the church they grew up in to become the pastor, and it isn’t easy.  Folks will remember changing his diapers in the nursery, or that snotty-nosed little girl from Sunday School, and it is difficult to think of them as a pastor.

A good part of the reaction to Jesus had to do with first century class structure.  “Isn’t he a carpenter?” they asked.  Jesus was part of the skilled trades – in that day he would have been thought of as an artisan.  Which sounds kind of cool today, but in first century Palestine artisans were considered working class or even poor.  In a very class-conscious society, it would be somewhat unusual for someone like to Jesus to be asked to speak at the synagogue.  But it would have been downright offensive for someone of lower social class to speak in the way that Jesus did.  In a nutshell, Jesus didn’t know his place.

And then maybe you noticed that Jesus was called “Mary’s son.”  Joseph is apparently out of the picture.  We don’t hear of Joseph after Jesus goes to the temple with his family at age 12, and many believe that he died shortly after that.  He may have simply been called “Mary’s son” because Joseph wasn’t around, but some have also conjectured that this is a way of saying that people considered Jesus to have been an illegitimate child.  People still remembered the controversy over Mary becoming pregnant before she was married. 

The reason that the people didn’t trust Jesus and the reason he could do no more miracles among them, is because Jesus is a hometown kid and they thought they knew him.  And based on what they knew of him, he shouldn’t be able to say and do the things he was saying and reportedly doing.  There was a lack of faith in Nazareth.  The people could not believe that God could be found in the commonplace – that God could be at work in someone like Jesus.

Now, in our reading today we have three separate stories.  Jesus is rejected in his hometown, Jesus sends out his disciples, and then there is a report about the death of John the Baptist.  The sending of the disciples is surrounded by rejection and defeat.

We will come back to the disciples, but I first want to look at John the Baptist.  What we have here is kind of a flashback.  King Herod heard about Jesus, and he thought that Jesus may have been John the Baptist come back from the dead. 

We last heard of John the Baptist in the opening chapter of Mark.  People were coming from everywhere to hear him and to be baptized.  Jesus was among those people.  John’s message was eliciting a very positive response.  But John’s ministry did not last.  Like others before and since, down to our own day, and like Jesus, John’s message and movement was crushed by existing power structures.

King Herod had a kind of love/hate relationship with John.  He thought that John was a good and righteous man.  But John had criticized Herod for divorcing his wife and then marrying Herodias, who had been his brother Philip’s wife.  John had been arrested after speaking out about this, and Herodias wanted John killed.  But Herod respected John, and would not allow him to be harmed.

This leads to the story of how John the Baptist came to be killed.  At a great birthday celebration, Herodias’ daughter came in and danced for the gathering of military commanders and leading men of Galilee.  As one commentator put it, “When we read that the girl was dancing, we can be pretty sure she wasn’t clogging.”  She is not named here, but the historian Josephus identified her as Salome, and in legend and tradition her dance became the “Dance of the Seven Veils.”

Herod is so taken that he offers to give the girl whatever she wants, and after a quick consultation with her mother, she requests the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Herod is put in a terrible position – he has sworn to give the girl whatever she asked, and in front of a large group of people.  He chooses to save face rather than save the life of John.

John’s ministry had been stopped in its tracks.  Those who challenged the status quo too much were met with serious opposition.  And then Jesus came to his hometown, where he was met with rejection.

In this atmosphere of opposition and rejection and failure, what happens?  This is exactly the moment when Jesus sends out his disciples.  He doesn’t wait until he is at the height of popularity.  He doesn’t wait until they have had time to study and learn and grow in faith.  He doesn’t wait until they have a slam-dunk opportunity, a sure-fire success just waiting to happen that will give them confidence.  Jesus sends them out when the air is thick with rejection. 

It is interesting the details that we have about Jesus sending out his disciples.  He sends them out in pairs.  They do not go out alone.  They have one another – for support, for encouragement, for safety, for comradery.  When faced with a difficult or daunting task, or when faced with a situation in which we can expect opposition, how much better does it go when we are not alone?  We have all had that experience – when you are facing a challenge, it is nice to have someone working with you.  Jesus understands the importance of community.

Jesus gives them authority.  Jesus empowers the disciples for the work to which he has called them.  Now, this is still fairly early in Jesus’ ministry.  The disciples are just rookies.  They are freshmen.  But Jesus doesn’t believe in red-shirting.  He doesn’t have them ride the bench.  Jesus doesn’t wait for the rookies to develop skills and gain maturity and figure it out.  This is on-the-job learning.  They are up to the task because Jesus has sent them and Jesus has given them authority.

I think there is something for us here.  We can feel like we are unqualified.  We can feel like others are better prepared, better equipped.  We can feel like we really don’t have the gifts needed to care for others, to work for justice, to teach a class, to sing in the choir, to take on leadership.  We can feel like we may not have what it takes or maybe the time isn’t quite right for us to get involved.  Jesus, apparently, would beg to disagree.  Ready or not, he sends the disciples out.

And then interestingly, he tells them to travel light.  No food, no money, no luggage, don’t take an extra coat.  Just take your walking stick.  There is an urgency to their mission; they don’t have time to put together a checklist of items they might need and they don’t have time to figure out supply-chain logistics.  A heavy load would just slow them down anyway.  They are going to have to keep moving.

Not only that: traveling light is a way to depend on God.  They won’t be depending on their own resources.  They are to accept hospitality when it is offered.  If someone invites them to stay in their home, they should stay there for the duration while they are in that town.  They are not to shop around for better offers or plusher accommodations.  They are going to have to have faith for this to work.

Jesus is preparing his disciples to face rejection.  He knows that it is not all going to be sunshine and rainbows.  He tells the twelve that if they go to a place that does not accept them, that will not listen to them, they are to just shake the dust off their sandals and move on. 

I think that is a pretty healthy way to deal with it.  Don’t beat your head against a wall.  Don’t waste your time arguing.  Don’t try to be someone you are not, in an effort to win over someone.  Just be who you are, share the good news, and if you are rejected, then move on.

It can be very helpful to have a healthy sense that failure and adversity are just a part of life.  And we need to understand that our failures and setbacks do not define us.  Our value does not come from what we do or who we know, but simply from who we are – children of God.

It is interesting to note how many people we might think of as great successes had actually endured spectacular failure.  At the beginning of our service we sang “Ode to Joy,” by Ludwig von Beethoven.  Beethoven had an awkward playing style and preferred to write his own compositions rather than play the classical works of his day, as was expected.  His teacher called him hopeless as a composer.

Thomas Edison’s teachers advised his parents to keep him home from school, stating that he was “too stupid to learn anything.”  Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor who complained he was lacking creative ideas.

Oprah Winfrey was fired as a new reporter because she was “unfit for TV.”  You may remember that Michael Jordan was once cut from his high school basketball team.

And J.K. Rowling, a recently divorced single mother living in poverty, wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old manual typewriter.  Twelve publishers rejected the manuscript.  Finally Bloomsbury agreed to publish the book but insisted that she get a day job because there was no money in children’s books.

It has always been this way.  Even the heroes and heroines of faith experienced heartache and tragedy and rejection.  Jesus sends out his disciples, and he helps them to plan for failure.  Tough sledding is just a part of life.  We are not defined by our failures.  And neither are we defined by our successes.  We are valuable simply because of whom we are: children of God.

J. K. Rowling spoke at commencement at Harvard a few years ago.  She told the new graduates, “You might never fail on the scale I did.  But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” 

Maybe what we need in our lives and maybe what we need at First Baptist Church is more failure.  Don’t get me wrong: we certainly don’t seek out disappointments and setbacks.  We are not out there looking for opposition and rejection.  But the only way to avoid it completely is to do nothing.

More failure would mean that we are making an effort, that we are attempting something, that in the interest of being true to who we are and following Jesus’ call, we have tried something new.  Jesus helped his disciples plan to fail.  Maybe Jesus was on to something.  Amen. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

“Sowing Seeds” - January 17, 2016

Text: Mark 4:1-34

So one day, Jesus said to his disciples, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like 3x squared plus 8x minus 9.”  Thomas looked very confused and asked Peter, “What does the Teacher mean?” And Peter replied, “Don’t worry, it’s just another of his parabolas.”

I apologize for the mathematical humor this morning, but whether it is parabolas or parables, they can sometimes be hard to figure out.  When it comes to teaching, Jesus is not a lecturer who gives the class material to memorize and regurgitate for the test.  He is really not a 1-2-3, a-b-c, organized 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 and contemplate.

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.  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.

This is not at all the way to go about farming.  And in Jesus’ day, if you ran out of seed, you didn’t just head down to the store and get another bag or call the seed company and have them deliver.  You had to save seeds from the previous year’s harvest.  You had to carefully gather seeds and store them safely for the next year’s planting, making sure they didn’t spoil or that varmints didn’t get into them.  Seeds were precious.  If you lost them or they went bad, you could be in big trouble.

Seeds were precious, and 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, throwing seeds everywhere.  We call it the parable of the soils, but to me the bigger story is 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.

Mary Ann Bird was born with multiple physical problems.  She was deaf in one ear and had a cleft palate.  Her nose wasn’t straight. The teasing words of her classmates left emotional scars.

At school, there was a hearing test each year, and Mary Ann dreaded it.  In those days before an audiologist came to the school, the hearing test was pretty simple.  The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other.  The teacher would whisper something to the child like “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.”  This was “the whisper test”; if the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test.

To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she could still hear what the teacher said.

One year Mary Ann was in Miss Leonard’s class. The day for the dreaded hearing test came.  When it was her turn, Mary Ann was called to the teacher’s desk.  As she cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper.

“I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.”  Miss Leonard did not say “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.”  What she whispered was, “I wish you were my little girl.”  Those words changed the way she thought of herself, really did change her life, and Mary Ann went on to become a teacher herself, a much-loved person of inner beauty and great kindness. 

We are sowers of seeds. We simply sow the seeds, and the Kingdom of God grows and flourishes in ways we cannot imagine.

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 myself 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 mighty cedar tree which grows from a tiny cutting.  This mighty tree stands proudly on the mountaintop and its branches provide shelter.  Israel is seen as strong and powerful and a place of blessing and refuge.  This vision of Ezekiel was a point of pride for the people, something to make Israelites feel good about themselves and their nation.

But Jesus turns this story on its head.  Instead of being like a cutting from a cedar tree, 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 most a shrub, and is generally regarded as a weed.  The familiar prophecy from Ezekiel demands a mighty tree, but Jesus gives us a weedy shrub.

The kingdom of God 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.

A few summers 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.

We brought it in again for a second winter.  Then this past summer we set it out on the bench on our deck, and the vines hung down 3-4-5 feet.  And in the middle of the summer we had several little blue flowers.

Well, this fall, we thought about maybe bringing it in, but it seemed like we would never have a hard freeze, so we kept putting it off.  Plus we now had Harry, our cat, and chances were Harry and the vine would not coexist very well.  We thought maybe the vine had had a good run and it was time to let it go, but at the last minute we brought it in.  I gave the vine its annual haircut but it looked like it was maybe too late - the leaves did not look very good and apparently they had started to freeze.  And yes, Harry did try to dig around in the dirt so this probably wasn’t going to work anyway.

We were about to just pull the roots out and save the pot for next summer when we noticed some new growth in the middle of the pot.  So instead of its usual haircut, it got a crew cut, leaving only this new growth.  And because of Harry, we put the plant in the basement, on top of an old refrigerator, near a window well.

We sat it there and just kind of forgot about it.  A couple of times we thought we needed to water it, but it was mostly “out of sight, out of mind.”  On Friday morning, maybe two months after the vine had been consigned to a dark basement, I thought to go water it.  And guess what: it was thriving.  Lots of new growth, vines reaching toward the small amount of sun from the window well.  Birds are not going to build nests in it, but this vine just grows and surprises and hangs on 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.

Clarence Jordan 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.  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 thousands of homes around the world for people in need, including here in Ames.  The Cotton Patch Gospels were made into a musical.  The singer Harry Chapin wrote the music, and that musical is performed to this day, inspiring many.

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 Seminary after having Martin Luther King Jr. come speak at the school.  The president told him it had cost the school thousands of dollars in donations.  Henlee said that it was money well spent.  Years later, when I was a student, he was asked to come and teach there again.  Henlee Barnette influenced two different generations of ministers 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.  That’s the way it works.  The kingdom is like a mustard seed.

How do we sow seeds? Often it is in ways that we might not think of as seed-sowing at all.  Miss Leonard wasn’t trying to change Mary Ann Bird’s life when she whispered in her ear; she was just being herself — a kind, gracious, caring person with a heart for children, especially those in need.  In simply acting in a loving way toward a child, she sowed seeds and changed that child’s life.

Through friendship, through a kind word, through a warm welcome, through encouragement, through acts of kindness, through speaking up for what is right, through modeling integrity and faithfulness, through deep prayer and heartfelt worship, through our gifts of time and talent and money, through the example of our lives and through the power of our words, we are sowing seeds all the time, seeds that may bear fruit in ways we will never know.

So, keep it up.    Keep sowing those seeds, and in the ways of the kingdom, they will bear fruit in ways we cannot imagine.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

“The Starting Line” - January 3, 2016

Text: Mark 1:1-20

You have a big literature test tomorrow on Romeo and Juliet.  It is 10:30 at night and your test is at 8:00 in the morning.  This would not be a big deal except for one small issue: you haven’t actually read Romeo and Juliet.  In fact, you don’t know anything about it.  All you can think of is from that Pointer Sisters song – “like Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah” – apparently, “when they kiss, oohh, fire.”  You decide that bit of information will not get you very far on the test.  You don’t have the time and can’t imagine staying awake long enough to actually read the book.  What do you do?

Of course! You do what slacker students have done for generations.  You turn to Cliff’s NotesCliff’s Notes publishes guides that explain literary and other works in a brief format that summarizes the story and describes the plot, characters, and so forth. 

Detractors claim that Cliff’s Notes allows students to bypass reading the assigned literature.  The company, however, claims to promote reading of the original work and that the study guide is not intended as a substitute for reading the book.  All I know is that more than a few students have opted for the 75 page Cliff’s Notes version rather than the 425 page novel.

Why do I bring up Cliff’s Notes this morning?  Most of our students are gone, so I am not offering this as a public service for those who may not know about Cliff’s Notes.  (And I might add that I never used Cliff’s Notes myself, but then again, they don’t make Cliff’s Notes for Inorganic Chemistry.)

I bring this up because as I read the opening chapter of the Gospel of Mark, I found myself thinking about Cliff’s Notes.  Mark has a rather spare writing style and much more so than the other three gospel writers, he gets right to the point.

John begins his gospel with this great cosmic statement about the pre-existence of Christ – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  And then he goes on the say, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  It is basically John’s theological take on Christmas.

Matthew and Luke each begin with the story of Jesus’ birth, told in different ways, with different details.  Apparently, both felt that the way to begin telling the story of Jesus was with his birth – begin at the beginning, if you will.

Not Mark.  Mark just jumps right in at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, and it is a quickly moving account.  In the 20 verses that we read this morning, we go from a statement of purpose to the ministry of John the Baptist, who preceded Jesus, to Jesus’ baptism, the temptation in the wilderness, a summary of Jesus message at the outset of his ministry, and the calling of the first disciples.  You get all of that packed into 20 verses.

For purposes of comparison, to get past Jesus’ baptism and temptation through the calling of his first disciples takes 90 verses in Matthew and 220 verses in Luke.  Maybe you can see why I thought about Cliff’s Notes.

Mark was the first gospel written, and there is a sense of urgency about it.  Matthew and Luke are similar to Mark in structure, especially once you get past the birth narratives.  These three similar gospels are called the Synoptic Gospels as they have many of the same stories and a similar sequence - the same basic synopsis.  Matthew and Luke both used Mark along with other sources as they wrote their gospels. 

John was written later.  It is more reflective and deals more with the meaning of Jesus’ ministry rather than just reporting on it.  John sometimes follows a different chronology and includes more unique material.

As Mark sets out, he is creating a new genre – a gospel.  The first verse reads, “The beginning of the gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ.”  He is not just referring to the first episodes that he reports on, but he is talking about the entire book.  The whole thing, the whole Gospel of Mark, is just the beginning of the Good News.

First, John the Baptist appeared.  A voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, calling for repentance, calling for people to turn their lives around.  John is a rough character – clothed with camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey.  A kind of scary figure, it seems to me, as Mark described him, but something resonated deeply with folks.  He was preaching what people needed to hear.  We read that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” 

It is hard to imagine something like that taking place.  Think of somebody arriving on the scene, dressed strangely, with odd personal habits, calling on people to change, to repent.  Not blaming others, not elevating himself or even really trying to call attention to himself, but calling on individuals to turn from sin and announcing that one who is greater will be coming.

And this strange figure is not in a major media market, he is not in New York or LA or Chicago, he is not even in Des Moines or Ames.  He is out in the middle of nowhere, sets up shop in the wilderness, out by a creek somewhere.  He doesn’t make it easy to get to him, doesn’t try to be accessible for people.  You won’t find him online and he doesn’t even have a Twitter account.  It is not at all convenient and his message is certainly not easy and yet people flock to him, confessing sins and being baptized.

Something about John, something about his message, resonated with people everywhere.  Here at the beginning of a New Year, it may resonate with us.  Like the people of that day, we may know that we need to make changes.  We can grasp when something is genuine and authentic and I think we have an intuitive sense of time, of knowing what we need to do and knowing when the time is right.  John’s simple message, delivered without bells and whistles, just served up straight, was that people needed to turn their lives around, and that he was there to bring this message simply as the warm-up act.  That was it, but for some reason, people responded.

Among those who went to John out in the wilderness was Jesus.  John had said that he was not worthy to tie Jesus’ sandals, yet Jesus came to him for baptism.  People always wonder: if John is offering baptism as an act of repentance then why did Jesus need to be baptized?  Jesus was without sin, right?

I look at it in a different way.  Jesus came to identify completely with us, he took on fully the human condition, and in coming to John for baptism he was identifying with us and with the movement that John had started.

Mark reports the baptism in a very straightforward way – kind of like the old show Dragnet – just the facts, ma’am.  Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan River.  The heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove and a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

For Jesus, this baptism was an affirmation of who he was.  There was an outpouring of the Spirit and the message that he was God’s beloved son.  Baptism can hold that same meaning for us.  In baptism, God says to us, “You are my beloved daughter.  You are my beloved son.  You are all my beloved children.”    

The Spirit had descended like a dove and brought this conformation of Jesus’ identity and calling, but then immediately, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.  Did you catch that part?  Jesus did not just wind up in the wilderness by happenstance.  He did not just decide to get away for a while.  The Spirit drove him, led him, into the wilderness.

Again, Mark gives us a pretty lean account.  There is no fasting, no hunger, no details about struggle as we find in other gospels.  The Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness, and the sense is that this was not an enticement to sin as much as it was a time of testing - a time of deciding what it meant to be Jesus, a time of preparation for his ministry.  He was tempted by Satan, we read, but Satan is not this towering figure.  Angels minister to Jesus the whole 40 days, and God’s intention is not for Jesus to fail this test.

I kind of like the fact that Mark goes so quickly, immediately from Jesus’ baptism to the temptation.  It is such a brief account that we are invited to think about the baptism and temptation together, as one continuing event, rather than to consider them separately.  When you do that, it becomes clear that baptism led to the temptation.  John is in the wilderness, Jesus goes to John to be baptized and is then sent out himself into the wilderness.

Commitment, it seems, leads to temptation.  Like Jesus, when we commit ourselves to following God’s way, it will not necessarily be easy, and there will be conflict.  It almost has to be that way.  If you do not have any commitments, then you really can’t be tempted.  To be tempted means that you have made commitments.

A New Year is a time when many of us make resolutions of various sorts.  And almost as soon as we make a resolution, there will be temptation to backpedal on it.

You decide to cut down on sweets and inevitably somebody comes by with some brownies.  You decide to exercise more, but it is too dark and too cold to want to get up and go to the gym in the morning.  You want to read more, there is college basketball on TV and they came out with a new version of Candy Crush, so what are you supposed to do?

There are a slew of temptations we face, and a lot of them are temptations that we barely even recognize as such.  When we decide to follow Christ, we choose to be guided by love, but in the world we live in, it is so easy to base our decisions on fear.  I mean, with the world the way it is, fear just seems more reasonable.  You can’t be too safe.  Rather than love our neighbor, it is pretty easy to fear neighbors who are different. 

Bombarded by advertising telling us that life will be better if we just drive the right car or wear the right clothing or drink the right beer, we can be tempted by consumerism and the desire to acquire and amass for ourselves – while we ignore those who are in real need.  It’s subtle – we may not even realize it; it just kind of happens.

In a world where there is plenty of hatred, we can be tempted to fight hatred with hate.  We can be tempted by laziness – not so much lying around on the couch, although that can be part of it, but letting others think and decide and do for us.

Temptation is all around us, if we are honest about it, and there is a sense in which our commitment to Christ brings about this temptation.  Following Jesus is going to bring us into conflict with some of what we find around us.

Fred Craddock pointed out that it is the committed people who get tempted.  “Jesus is not tempted because he has departed from God’s will,” said Craddock.  “Jesus is in the desert because he was led by the spirit….  it’s usually the obedient and not the disobedient who are struggling, being opposed and tested…”  Craddock continues, “Jesus did not use the power of the spirit to claim exemption or to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service.”

William Willimon told about leading a Sunday School class, and one Sunday morning the topic was temptation.  The class was asked if they had any personal examples of temptations they faced, and a young salesman was the first to speak.  “Temptation is when your boss calls you in, as mine did yesterday, and says, ‘I’m going to give you a real opportunity.  I’m going to give you a bigger sales territory.  We believe that you are going places, young man.’”

“But I don’t want a bigger sales territory,” the young salesman told his boss.  “I’m already away from home four nights a week.  It wouldn’t be fair to my wife and daughter.”

“Look,” his boss replied, “we’re asking you to do this for your wife and daughter.  Don’t you want to be a good father?  It takes money to support a family these days.  Sure, your little girl doesn’t take much money now, but think of the future.  Think of her future.  I’m only asking you to do this for them,” the boss said.

The young man told the class, “Now, that’s temptation.”

We are generally not tempted by those things that are clearly, obviously awful.  We are tempted by those things that have good within them but which perhaps subtly ask us to give up or maybe renegotiate those things that matter the most.

Mark’s to-the-point writing style helps us to consider Jesus’ baptism and temptation together, and it seems to me they are very much connected.  They may even be two sides of the same coin.  Following Jesus means there will be conflict – at times with others, and certainly within ourselves.

The temptations we face are not so much about what we believe; they are about the way we live our lives.  Baptism is about professing our faith in Jesus, but that faith is more than a just a set of beliefs.  Christian faith is about choosing to follow Christ through the way we live.

And so baptism is not the finish line – it is not an obligation we need to get done or a way to get a free ticket into heaven.  It is more like a starting line – it marks the beginning, or at least a new beginning on the road to following Jesus.

If we are following the road Jesus took, it won’t always be easy – we can be sure of that.  But through it all, we have the promise that God is with us, and we are God’s beloved children.  Amen.

Friday, December 18, 2015

“Shepherds” - December 20, 2015

Text: Luke 2:8-20

Christmas is now only five days away, and folks are making last minute preparations: shopping, wrapping presents, cooking, baking, mailing cards and packages, getting the house ready for guests.  It’s not usually a part of our pre-Christmas preparations, but my plans include mowing the lawn.  It struck me this week that instead of white snow we still have green grass, but I’ll actually be getting the mower out one last time to mulch up some leaves.

For some people, getting ready for Christmas is a much bigger operation than baking cookies, wrapping gifts and mowing the lawn.  Some will go to great lengths to insure that everything is just right.  If you want things to be perfect, then there is no need to decorate yourself; you can hire professionals to do it for you.  They will set up the tree, decorate your home, put up your lights, the whole bit.

Brite Ideas Decorating in Omaha has 350 franchises nationwide.  It’s a booming business.  To decorate your home for the holidays, prices start at about $1500 with no real limit to speak of.  I checked their website and unfortunately, they are sold out of their 14' Color Changing Cherry Blossom Tree, with 20,376 lights, which retails for $13,984.89 (it was not completely clear if this includes set-up and take down.)  Fortunately, their smaller 10’ Color Changing Cherry Blossom Tree with Iced Trunk is still in stock for only $5272.50.  Now mind you, this is just one tree that can be used indoors or outdoors and would serve as one part of your beautiful holiday display.

It’s not cheap, but a lot of people find the whole idea very attractive.  These trained professionals will set up a perfectly coordinated holiday masterpiece, and you can have a light display outside that will have cars lined up around the block.

It’s not just our decorating that may be lacking.  Who has time for baking?  And let’s face it - some of us are not that good in the kitchen.  Why do it yourself when you can go down to the bakery and get all kinds of wonderful Christmas goodies.  Or, you can rent a baker to come to your home and do your baking for you – that way you get the great smell of fresh-baked cookies in your home.  And of course you can also hire someone to do your Christmas shopping.  Doing all of this would make things easier, and the end product might be a lot better than if you were doing all of this yourself.  You would be one step closer to that perfect Christmas.

But the fact is, you could have someone else doing all of these things, and the people you hire could all be models of efficiency and artistry, but it still would not be a perfect Christmas.  There is something about our participation that is far greater than having things just right.

You know, the first Christmas was not exactly perfect, as we generally measure such things.  God seems to work through the everyday and ordinary more than the spectacular or bright and shiny.

The second chapter of Luke is one of the best-loved chapters of the Bible, telling of the birth of Jesus.  The words are beautiful and moving and poetic, but we have heard the story so many times that we can miss the power and the surprise of what is being said.  In our heads, we can have this “perfect Christmas” overlay on the story that tends to gloss over the more difficult parts of the narrative.

Bethlehem is not decorated for the holidays.  There are no beautiful displays around the city square, no performances of the Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol at the local theatre, no candlelight services planned, no festive holiday cheer to be found.  Instead, we find a city filled with people who do not want to be there but are forced by the Romans, the enemy invaders, to go and register so that they can be on the tax rolls.

We don’t find Mary and Joseph in a beautiful home, or any kind of home.  Despite the fact that Bethlehem is Joseph’s ancestral home, there don’t seem to be any relatives to take them in.    They are not even at the Motel 6.  After a difficult trip, with Mary in the last stages of her pregnancy, they wind up in a stable, a place for animals.  It’s the best they can do.  We don’t find candy and cookies and freshly baked holiday goodies.  There is no turkey and dressing on the dinner table –there isn’t even a dinner table.  We find weary, worn out travelers who are exhausted, hungry, and more than a little scared.

From giving birth in an outbuilding for animals to $14,000 color changing cherry blossom LED trees, Christmas has come a long way, hasn’t it?  Now, there is nothing wrong with out seasonal celebrations, and I enjoy it all, but what really matters is the message and the meaning of Jesus’ birth.  And even here, we can miss out on the depth of what Jesus’ birth means for us because of our familiarity with the story.

The traditions surrounding a birth in Jesus’ day were not all that different from ours.  When someone has a child, we celebrate.  You may see balloons in the front yard and a sign saying, “It’s a Girl!”  At one time new dads handed out cigars at the hospital, though now it is more likely bubble gum cigars.  Photos are shared on Facebook with congratulatory comments.  Family members come to see the new baby.  At church, there is a rose to announce the birth, as we have been doing regularly this fall.

But if a child is born to a famous person, things are a little different.  It makes the national news, at least Entertainment Tonight, and we read about it in People magazine.  If the birth is to royalty, it is a major news story.

In Jesus’ day, an important part of the celebration was music.  Local musicians would come and play at the birth of a baby.  It was a way of simultaneously announcing the birth and celebrating the birth.  The birth of a child to a person of power and wealth would be announced with great fanfare and singing.  If the child were a royal heir, there would be a huge celebration with wonderful music.

A choir rehearses.  Made up of wonderful singers, the very best singers around, the director works them hard.  (You know how those directors can be.)  The choir spends hours practicing so that everything is just right.  The music is powerful and incredibly beautiful.  Finally it is time for the big performance.

The choir has worked so hard and the music is so amazingly beautiful – angelic, you might even say – the choir members cannot believe that there will be only one performance.  This was the kind of music that deserved a tour at the finest venues around.  Crowds would love it.

But the director is adamant.  There will be only one performance.  It will not be at Carnegie Hall or an opera hall in Vienna.  It won’t even be at Stevens Auditorium.  There will be no network TV special, not even on PBS.  No, there will be one performance and one performance only, and it will be to a very small audience.  It is a free concert to some hard-living guys watching sheep out in a field.  That’s it.

Music at Jesus’ birth is entirely in keeping with the customs of the day.  What is amazing is that the audience for this beautiful, celebratory music, is some sheep herders.

Of all the people to whom the angels could have made the announcement, it is to shepherds.  Not to dignitaries, not to religious leaders, not to Roman officials, not to the upper crust of Jewish society, but to shepherds.  This sounds odd enough.

What we may not necessarily grasp is just how far down shepherds were on the social ladder.  For us, raising sheep sounds respectable enough, if that is what a person wants to do.  Ranching can be an honorable and profitable business.  But in Jesus’ day, shepherds were on the bottom rung of society, looked down upon because among other things, they were ritually and religiously unclean.  Besides being just unclean, period.  They were dirty and smelly, rough people, poorly educated.

Because of where and how they worked as well as their ceremonial uncleanness, shepherds mostly kept to themselves.  Because they had so much time alone, out in the middle of nowhere, many played a flute or some other instrument.  It helped to pass the time.  You may remember that King David as a boy was a shepherd, and a skilled musician.

Shepherding could be a lonely job, and shepherds did not tend to do a lot of socializing.  If you wanted to tell a group of people who might then go out and spread the word of this amazing birth, shepherds were about the least likely folks you could find.

And so - why do you suppose the angels sang to the shepherds?  It all has a kind of “pearls before swine” quality to it.  Why was this beautiful music announcing the birth of Christ sung to some shepherds out in the field?  I mean, this is like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsing all year to perform Handel’s Messiah, and then performing the concert for a few guys on the building maintenance crew.

I suspect that the reason the angels sang to the shepherds is connected to everything else in the Christmas story.  An occupied country like Judea.  An insignificant town that had seen better days, like Bethlehem.  A poor, unmarried couple.  No room in the inn.  A stable.  Giving birth far from home and family.  Nothing in the whole story says wealth or privilege or power.  Nothing would seem to indicate lofty expectations.

Everything about the birth of Jesus says that this is a birth for all of us.  God’s love does not discriminate among people.  Kings and queens, shepherds and steelworkers, this child is for all of us.

The announcement of Jesus’ birth is made to the shepherds.  And that is Good News for us, because there is a sense in which we are all shepherds.  None of us are perfect.  We all can feel inadequate.  There are those times when all of us, because of our background or experience or age or occupation or because of what we believe or where we come from, can feel like we really don’t fit in.

We may feel like we are nothing special, just regular folks trying to get through life and not necessarily having an easy time of it.  We may feel like other people get the accolades, get all the breaks.  We may feel like the things that really matter go to the rich or glamorous or uber-gifted.

This may be the way that the world works, but this is not the way it works with God.  God is completely unconcerned by such things.  None of us would have written the script this way, but the birth of Jesus was announced to the shepherds.  This child is indeed for us – for all of us.

A pastor in Indianapolis named Kurt shared something that happened just this week.  Kurt had a Louisville Slugger baseball bat that had belonged to his brother, Scott.  His brother had been gone for 38 years.  In a moment of clarity, or so he thought, Kurt decided to take the bat to Goodwill.  He said to himself, “It’s time to let it go.”

He met a guy named Rudy at the Donations door.  After handing him the stuff he was donating he headed back home.  But in the parking lot, he heard the bat rolling around in the trunk.  He had apparently overlooked the bat.  So he turned around and approached the Donations entrance again.

“I forgot something,” he called out to Rudy.  He handed him the bat. “Tell me, what’s the story behind this old bat,” he asked unprompted.  “Well, this bat belonged to my brother, who passed away at the age of fourteen.  Make sure it gets into the hands of a child, OK?” “Will do,” he said.

Driving away, Kurt said to his son in the car, “That was nice of him to ask about the bat.  He didn’t have to do that.” Kurt thought about the bat, but told himself, “It’s time to let it go.”

Kurt returned to Goodwill later that evening to deliver more of the things he was trying to shed from the past; dishes, books, clothes, various nondescript stuff.  Upon pulling up to the Donations door, he was met by Rudy, who came to the door and called out... “Hey, here he is, he came back just like you said he would.”  Bewildered, Kurt saw someone slowly approach.

“Hey man, I’m Grant.  Listen, I can’t take that bat.  It’s no good here.  You have to take it back.” Somewhat annoyed, Kurt replied, “Oh, OK. That’s fine.”

“Listen,” he said, “I lost my sister to addiction and depression a year ago.  She left me a pair of her flip flops, and the only person who’s allowed to wear them is my daughter.  Your brother wants you to keep that bat safe.”  Kurt said he was stunned into silence which, for him is pretty unusual.

With eyes full of tears, Grant placed the bat into Kurt’s hands with tenderness, as if handing him a newborn baby. “Here he is. You keep it.”  Kurt turned to Grant. “Wait a second, Grant,” he said.  “I want to thank you for the gift you have given me tonight.  Thank you for forcing me to remember.  Really.  I appreciate it.”

The shepherds in the Christmas story might not seem like the main characters, but they are actually at the heart of what Christmas is about.  They are a reminder to us that God works through the most unlikely of people and places and things.  Rudy and Grant, working down at the Goodwill store.  A Louisville Slugger bat that was returned and is a symbol and reminder of love and grace and memory and hope.  A young, unmarried couple.  Rough shepherds abiding in the field.  A stable and an animal feed trough.  A child born in Bethlehem.  And yes, even you an me and an imperfect bunch like the First Baptist Church.

One of the names for Jesus is Immanuel – God with us.  The birth of Jesus is announced by angels to shepherds.  And as is the case all through the Christmas story, this is yet another reminder that God is indeed with us – with all of us, in all of the messiness of life.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.