Friday, February 26, 2016

“God and Caesar” - February 28, 2016

Text: Mark 12:1-17

The only sure things in life, they say, are death and taxes.  Neither is anything to look forward to, and to be real honest about it, it appears that some of us may have a bigger issue with taxes than we do with death.

Taxes are in the news constantly.  Most of the presidential candidates have something to say about taxes, mostly with plans for lowering taxes, which is no surprise.  It is hard to find people who are real excited about taxation, and all things being equal, we would just as soon keep our own tax bill low.

But you know, the services provided by our taxes can make a big difference in our lives.  Personally, I don’t mind paying my fair share for things that benefit me and my family and build up the common good.  24th Street was reconstructed last summer, and while it was a pain to deal with at the time, it is really nice to not have to drive over potholes all the time.  We have a great public library and I am glad to support it.  I am glad we have fire and police protection.  We have great schools in Ames and our daughter received an excellent education at a public university. 

When I fly somewhere, I am glad that the Federal Aviation Administration has safety standards for aircraft.  I am glad that pilots have to be qualified and licensed and that we have air traffic controllers and security personnel working at the airport.  Last summer we visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and I think it is important that we have beautiful and unspoiled natural places in our country that are protected and maintained.  Many of you have served in the military, and is important that we support our armed forces to have a safe and strong nation.  It is important that we have a social safety net - having compassion and care for those in need is a part of our faith.  Taxes support a lot of important things, things that we need for society to function well and things that we need for life to be richer and fuller and more enjoyable for everyone.

But imagine if our taxes did not go to educate our children and protect our communities and maintain our roads and bridges and water systems.  What if, instead, our taxes were going to support a foreign power whose army was occupying our country?  What if our taxes went to prop up the empire that was oppressing us?  What if our taxes went to pay the enemy soldiers who were making our lives miserable?

That was life in Jesus’ day.  You think there are anti-tax people around now?  Just imagine what it would have been like in first century Israel.  If taxes are a bit of a touchy issue today, they were absolutely explosive in Jesus’ day.

We have been following along in Mark, reading sequentially.  You may have noticed that we skipped chapter 11.  Chapter 11 includes the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, what we remember on Palm Sunday.  So we will come back to that in a few weeks.  Today we have moved on ahead to chapter 12.  In the first reading, Jesus tells a parable of wicked tenants who abuse, hit upside the head, and in some cases outright kill the representatives of the vineyard owner, including servants, slaves, and finally the vineyard owner’s beloved son, who was killed as well.

It is a parable of judgment, and if you go back to chapter 11, you find that this parable is told against the chief priests, scribes, and elders – the religious elite, the power brokers of society.  These are the people to whom Jesus is speaking.  And they want to arrest Jesus, but they can’t do it while Jesus is in a large crowd of supporters.

Our second reading involves a different set of people.  We read, “They sent to him some Pharisees and Herodians.”  These are two entirely different groups from the chief priests and scribes.  And then in the passage that follows ours, we have some Saducees, yet another political and religious movement, coming to Jesus with a controversial question intended stir up trouble.  Basically, in one chapter, we have a variety of groups from all over the board, all working against Jesus and in some cases working together against Jesus.

The Pharisees are often mentioned in scripture.  They are pious religious folks, people who followed the law very closely and believed that everyone should do so.  The Pharisees don’t have the kind of power or official positions that the scribes and chief priests  have, but they are very concerned about righteousness.  Jesus would actually have more in common and more natural affinity with the Pharisees than most of the groups who opposed him.

The Herodians we know a lot less about; in fact, this is the only mention of the Herodians in the gospels.  They were supporters of Herod, the Jewish king who was essentially a puppet ruler.  Herod ruled only with the approval and support of Rome; he did whatever Rome told him to do.  So the Herodians were Jews who collaborated with the Roman overlords while the Pharisees were pious, strictly religious Jews who resented the Roman occupation.  The Pharisees wanted nothing to do with the Romans.

Do you get the picture here?  The Pharisees and Herodians are not friends.  Far from it.  But they have made common cause against an even greater common enemy.  They are brought together by their common disdain for Jesus, and they have a doozie of a question for him, one of those questions that no matter how you answer it, you get yourself in trouble.  It reminds me of the questions we would ask each other in junior high, questions like, “Are you the only ugly one in your family?” 

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the word of God in accordance with the truth...”  That’s funny; these people didn’t usually speak to Jesus with such admiration and deference.  If they think he speaks the truth, why didn’t they act accordingly?  What is this all about?

We know you always speak the truth, Jesus, we know you always have the right answer, so here’s the question: is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar or not?

It seems like a simple enough question.  And that’s all the Pharisees and Herodians want: just a simple answer.  The simpler, the better.  A simple yes or no would be great.  Because either way, Jesus would get himself in a mess of trouble.

No matter what Jesus says, he will alienate people.  To say “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” would mean alienating Jewish nationalists, who felt that paying taxes to Rome was intolerable.  He would lose standing with the people.  Who would follow a leader perceived to be in sympathy with Rome?  But to say “No, taxes should not be paid to Caesar,” would mean risking imprisonment by the Romans for insurrection.  So it is a perfect question for someone wanting to do damage to Jesus: he either loses credibility with the people, or he goes to jail.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

But Jesus is way ahead of his questioners.  Maybe those nice words helped to tip him off.  Jesus dispenses with the niceties.  He is not into games.  “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks.  Because that is all it was, a test.  And to show their hypocrisy, he asks for a coin. 

They brought him a denarius, and he asked, “Whose image and title is this?”  They answered, perhaps somewhat sheepishly, “the emperor’s.”

The Jews considered a coin bearing the image of someone to be a graven image – an idol, specifically prohibited in the Ten Commandments.  A Roman coin bore the image of Caesar and the words “son of the divine Augustus,” a reminder of the emperor-worship of the Roman Empire.  The Jews considered this to be blasphemous.  It was unclean; it was “dirty money.”  This was such an issue that you could not bring this Roman money into the temple.  If you wanted to make an offering when you went to the temple, you had to convert your Roman money into temple coinage.  When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple, this is what they were doing – converting Roman currency into temple currency, and at a tidy profit.

Some Pharisees and Herodians had asked Jesus a question in order to trap him or at the very least to embarrass him.  But now, who was embarrassed?  Those questioning whether taxes should be paid to Caesar were shown to themselves be fully involved in the Roman economy, with its blasphemous money and all.  Whether it was OK to pay taxes to Rome was not a real question for them, and Jesus points this out in dramatic fashion. 

As you read through the gospels, have you ever wondered why they kept asking Jesus these kinds of questions?  Those who try to trip him up with trick questions always come off looking bad, but they just keep asking.

Jesus points out that whether to pay taxes to Caesar is not a real question for them, but then he goes on to answer it – at least, he engages the question.  He says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  It sounds brilliant, but then upon reflection we realize it really doesn’t answer the question.  It is left up to us to decide, what is Caesar’s and what is God’s?

What Jesus does is to reframe the question.  What is due Caesar, and what is due God?  What claims does Caesar have on us, and what claims does God have on us?

This passage is sometimes taken to be Jesus’ teaching on church and state, and while it no doubt has something to say about that issue, that is not the crux of what he is trying to get across.  The state, the government, may have claims on us, but so does God, and we have to weight this and struggle with this for ourselves.  We have to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul put it.

The question of the relationship between church and state has always been an important question for Baptists.  Our history and heritage is as a persecuted minority who understood all too well the coercive power of the state and who fought for religious freedom for all people, even those with whom we disagree. 

A clergy group that Susan and I are a part of is watching and discussing the PBS series “God in America.”  The episode we watched this week told the story of Jeremiah Moore, a Baptist from Fairfax County, Virginia.  In 1773, the 27-year-old Moore found himself arrested and thrown in jail.  His crime: preaching without a license.  Soon after, numerous Baptist ministers in Virginia were thrown in jail.  The ironic thing was that being willing to go to jail proved the commitment and sincerity of these Baptists and rather than hurting the Baptist movement, it only served to make it grow.

What is due Caesar and what is due God?  The early Baptists answered this question by saying that the state had no claim whatsoever on one’s religious conscience and no right to regulate religious practice.  In 1644 Baptist Roger Williams argued for “soul liberty” for all people, “paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian.”  Williams was centuries ahead of his time and maybe even ahead of our time.  The Baptists argued that for the state to impose its own brand of religion, whether emperor worship in Rome or Puritan religion in New England or the Anglican Church in Virginia or even Baptist faith in Rhode Island, was to make a claim on individuals that was not the state’s to make.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians gives us the opportunity to think on such matters, but as I said, this is not really Jesus’ main intent here.  The crux of what he is saying goes far deeper than church-state relations.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus doesn’t really answer the question.  It is kind of thrown back at us.  But it is interesting to go back and consider the original question.  Jesus is asked if it is OK to pay Roman taxes.  That’s it.  There was no mention of God at all.

Caesar’s image was imprinted on the Roman coin.  But God’s image is imprinted on us – on every one of us.  The very first chapter of Genesis tells us that we are created in God’s image.  God is Creator of the whole world, the whole universe, every last atom.   Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness therof.”  It’s all God’s.  When we give to God the things that are God’s, there is nothing left for Caesar. 

Next to the Creator of the universe, Caesar becomes small and insignificant.  Caesar’s empire and Caesar’s image just don’t stack up against the greatness of God.  This story is not about taxes, not really.  It is about what belongs to God and what obedience to God looks like.

It is not that the government has no claims on us.  And it is not that we do not give allegiance to the state.  It is just that these claims are not ultimate claims on us.

Sometimes we want to pigeonhole the various areas of our life.  We can be good at compartmentalizing: school is over here, work is over here, family is over here, church is over here.  We divide sacred and secular, public and private.  But this doesn’t hold true in God’s economy.  This doesn’t work in a world in which everything belongs to God.

What does it mean, in a world in which we pledge allegiance to so many things – not just the state, not just the flag, but work and family and clubs and organizations and friends and school and sports teams – what does it mean that our allegiance to God is ultimate, above all else?

Giving to God the things that are God’s, it seems to me, means remembering that we bear God’s image and acting with God’s love and mercy and compassion and working for God’s justice in all of the various arenas of our lives. 

Marjorie Thompson wrote,

If the word I hear on Sunday has no bearing on the way I relate to my spouse, child, neighbor, or colleague; no bearing on how I make decisions, spend my resources, cast my vote, or offer my service, then my faith and my life are unrelated.  The spiritual life is not one slice in a larger loaf of reality but leaven for the whole loaf.
Caesar may be one slice, but God’s claims, and God’s grace, are found throughout all of life.  May we be faithful in giving to God what is God’s.  Amen.

Friday, February 19, 2016

“Addition by Subtraction” - February 21, 2016

Text: Mark 10:17-31

Many of you remember the TV show from the 1960’s, 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.  It was sometimes bizarre to the point of being almost humorous, and it was very creative.  The show 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 who can’t resist him.  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 really 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 no new phenomenon.  In our scripture today, a rich man comes and kneels before Jesus.  Right away, this is a red flag: this is not the posture a rich man would ordinarily take.  Rich people do not kneel before poor people.  This gesture took a lot for the rich man.  He clearly thought a great deal of Jesus.  He kneels down and addresses Jesus by saying, “Good Teacher, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It’s hard to know exactly what this man is really asking for. We often assume that this man is asking how to get into heaven after he dies - and maybe he is.  But what we do know is that what Jesus offers is much more than life after death.  Jesus offers life before death – life here and now.  The Kingdom of God to which Jesus points is about eternal life that begins in the here and now.  Jesus said, “I have come so that you might have abundant life” – meaningful, satisfying, vital living.  Whatever else he may have been asking, this is what the rich man was interested in.

The man seems very respectful of Jesus, 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.”

So far, so good.  Jesus essentially says, do what the law asks and lead a good middle class life.  I mean, we are all against murder.  We are all against stealing.  We are all against lying, most of the time.  We believe in honoring our parents (although we would probably prefer that you ask us how well we are doing at that rather than ask our parents). 

Jesus says to follow the law and the rich man replies that he has kept the law since he was a youth.  He is respectful 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.

This is almost too good to be true.  If we were to describe someone we would like to have come and join our church, this is the guy.  A good, sincere, respectful person shows up seeking God.  And he’s rich. 

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 standing in the way of his spiritual growth.  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 homeless.  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 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 rich man.

And then, Jesus goes on to say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  We can tell ourselves that Jesus demand was to the rich man and not to us – we can believe that money was his Achilles heel, so to speak, and it is not that for us.  But Jesus goes and makes this generalized statement about the impossibility of a rich person entering the kingdom of 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 too far.  If anyone tells you the Bible means what it says and says what it means, that they don’t have to interpret the Bible but just read it and believe it and do it, direct them to this passage.  This teaching has troubled people so much that we generally try to gloss over it in one way or another.    

There are a few early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that have the word “rope” instead of “camel.”  There is only one letter different in the Greek word for camel and the word for a rope used to anchor a ship.  Apparently, the idea of a camel going through the eye of a needle was such a hard teaching that scribes who copied the Bible felt that what was intended there must have been “rope” and not “camel.”

And then there is the interpretation that this actually referred to a gate in the temple wall called the Needle Gate.  There was a very 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 us with this interpretation, and there is no evidence whatsoever that something called the Needle Gate ever existed.

This would be roughly equal to a modern claim that Jesus did not mean a camel as in the animal, but a Camel cigarette.  The point is, this is such a tough teaching that we want to look for loopholes.  We want to look for a way out and we can be creative in doing so.  The easiest 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 $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. 

What do we have to do to inherit eternal life?  If we are wealthy, we have to do something like thread the eye of a needle with a camel.  It wouldn’t have had to be a camel, Jesus could have said a rope and the result is the same.  He could have said an unfiltered Camel cigarette or a canned ham, but the result is the same: you can’t do it.

At this point, let’s step back for a moment.  Let’s go back to the commandments Jesus lists.  He does not say you shall not covet, but instead he says, “You shall not defraud.”  For a rich man, defrauding another might be a bigger temptation than coveting.  Many of those who had accumulated wealth in the ancient world had done so at the expense of others—by exploiting and abusing and defrauding.  As far as we can tell, this man had not done so.  But perhaps his father had.  Perhaps his family had become rich by exploiting the poor, and this man inherited his wealth.

Which is an interesting thought, because that is the way he wants to get eternal life: he wants to inherit it.  What must I do to inherit eternal life?  It’s really an odd question.  It is an odd question because inheritance is not about what we do; it is about to whom we are related. 

We cannot do anything to gain eternal life.  We are with the rich man, trying to get that camel through the eye of the needle, and it’s not working.  Thankfully, Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.”

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 going to be 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.  Eternal life, or what Jesus calls the kingdom of God, is not about what we do, it is about what God does.  In the end, it is pure grace.

Jesus’ words to this rich man are hyperbole.  Hyperbole, maybe with a touch of sarcasm, even.  Because this man is asking the wrong question, and Jesus’ answer points this out.

What must I do to inherit eternal life?  What must I do to earn God’s favor?  It’s the wrong question.  You can’t earn it or inherit it; it’s a gift.  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.

Eternal life – abundant life – life worth living, here and now – it is God’s gift, but the one way we can miss out on a gift is by not accepting it.  It is possible to hold so tightly onto something that we cannot open our hands to accept anything else.

The rich man was clinging so tightly to his possessions that he could not accept God’s gift.  The same may be true of us.  And the fact is, it is very difficult for us to seriously consider that our wealth might keep us from God.

Mark Twain once said that people holding four aces do not tend to call for re-deals.  Considering what our wealth might do to us spiritually is not something we are anxious to do.  Jesus told the rich man that he had to change.  He was following the letter of the law but missing the point of the law, the heart of the law.

Jesus’ challenge to the man to sell his possessions, give to the poor 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 but characteristics of one living the eternal life God offers.  You may remember that Jesus did not simply ask the rich man to sell his possessions; it was sell your possessions and follow me.  The problem was not simply his possessions; it was that his possessions kept him from following.

The real question is, how do I 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 onto tightly that keeps us from more closely following Jesus?  Perhaps we are clinging to old ways of thinking and doing.  Maybe we hold on tightly to our reputation, our power, our need for control.  Like the man in this story, it may well be our attachment to possessions.  Perhaps we are just filling our lives with stuff.  I wonder - what is it that keeps us from following?

In The Twilight Zone, Rocky Valentine learns that in the end, a life centered on wealth and possessions and pleasure – 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.  Jesus invites us to follow him.  Amen.

(thanks to Dennis Sanders for the story from The Twilight Zone)

"Welcoming a Child" - February 14, 2016

Text: Mark 9:30-37  

I love it when things come together.  We have been making our way through the Gospel of Mark, and today we come to this story of Jesus welcoming a child – on the very day that we are dedicating Ethan.  Ethan, my man, you have impeccable timing.

Jesus and the disciples were traveling through Galilee, on their way to Capernaum.  In last week’s scripture, Jesus spoke of his own suffering death and told his followers that they must take up their own crosses and follow him.  Peter considered this crazy talk coming out of Jesus’ mouth and tried to shush him up, whereupon Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan,” which is not really what you want Jesus to be saying to you.

In today’s passage, found later in the same chapter of Mark, Jesus speaks again of his coming death, and that he would rise again.  But the disciples did not understand what he was saying and given what happened last time, they were afraid to ask.  But it appears that some really weren’t listening too closely anyway.  Jesus could hear heated words among the disciples but didn’t know what it was all about.  It stands to reason that if Jesus couldn’t hear them, then they probably couldn’t hear Jesus.

When they reached Capernaum, Jesus asked what they were arguing about along the way.  The scripture says, “They were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”

The disciples had missed Jesus’ words while they were arguing over who was the greatest.  This begs the question:  what do we miss concerning God’s kingdom because we are arguing about something else? 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that we live in an argumentative age.  You see it in sports.  I don’t know how many times I have watched a basketball player arguing with a ref over a foul that wasn’t called while the other team keeps on playing and scores a basket.   

It happens in politics.  How much political grandstanding goes on over relatively insignificant matters while the important issues of the day are left behind?  And how many good ideas are dismissed because someone on “the other side” thought of it?

It happens in churches.  I know of a church that had a big argument over the color of the new carpet, and one man got so mad that he left the church over it.  The focus was not on spiritual growth or serving others or developing community or loving one’s neighbor – for this person, the focus was on getting his own way.

Of course, this happens in families as well.  How often do families squabble over matters that in the end don’t really matter very much, while more important concerns go unconsidered?

Now, disagreement is not a bad thing.  It can be a good and healthy thing.  It is important to have honest discussion, to air differences.  Jesus didn’t back away from hard issues.  But when Jesus had an argument with someone, it was over something worth debating.  It was almost always about the lack of regard for the needs of people.  The disciples, however, are entirely self-serving.  It’s all about them.  They are arguing over who is number one.

In Jesus’ time, life was all about hierarchies.  Someone had to be top dog.  There were national hierarchies: the Romans, and the conquered nations, vassal states.  Greeks looked down on everyone else, much as people from the high-culture big city might look down on hicks from the sticks.  There were religious hierarchies: we read about Pharisees and Sadducees in the gospels, but there were numerous groups, with varying social and religious standing.

There were economic hierarchies: rich and poor, those who owned land and those who didn’t.  There were rich absentee landlords, landed managers who ran their estates, and poor day laborers who eked out a meager existence.  Below them were slaves.  There were all kinds of hierarchies, and the disciples were simply trying to establish their own.  Who was the greatest?

It’s hard to be too tough on the disciples, because we are a lot like them.  The concern for who is number one sounds familiar.  Every Monday the Associated Press releases its Top 25 College Basketball poll.  Who is the greatest?  At the moment, the Hawkeyes, amazingly, are #4, while the Cyclones are #14 – although both may drop tomorrow.  But we all know that the exact ranking doesn’t matter: in head-to-head competition, ISU beat the Hawkeyes, so we have bragging rights.

A lot of effort goes into determining who is the greatest.  You’ve got the Grammies, the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the People’s Choice Awards.  Band and orchestra members seek to be first chair.  Girl Scouts battle to sell the most cookies.  It goes on and on – how many people want to outdo the neighbors in their Christmas light display?

There are plenty of hierarchies in our world, and there can definitely be religious hierarchies.  I am glad that I don’t hear it so much in American Baptist circles, but it is not uncommon to be asked, “How big is your church?”

The disciples, believing that Jesus’ kingdom was imminent, were arguing over who was going to be vice-messiah.  In all of their discussion about who was the greatest, they didn’t hear what Jesus was saying.  He was talking about important stuff.  He was speaking of his own suffering and death and resurrection.  But they missed it.

Jesus asks, “What were you arguing about back there?”  But the disciples just kind of looked at their feet.  They didn’t answer him.  They were embarrassed that they had been arguing about who was Jesus’ number one disciple.

But Jesus had an inkling as to what the discussion had been about.  You get the feeling that maybe they had been through this before.  He said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  And then Jesus took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.”

Today, family life is often centered on children: taking kids to ballgames and dance lessons and school activities.  Grandparents dote on grandkids.  But this kind of pattern has only emerged in recent times.  It was not so in Jesus’ day.  Children were considered to be almost without value, and they were to be neither seen nor heard, especially in a gathering of men.  Children had no status; their value only came when they were old enough to contribute something to the family. 

For Jesus, a public figure, to take a child in his arms while teaching was almost shocking.  And his point cannot be missed.  The disciples argued over who was the greatest, but Jesus redefined greatness.  Greatness was seen in welcoming “the least of these.”  This is not a romantic statement about how wonderful children are, and oh my, look at those precious these little darlings, with their innocence and wonder.  Rather, it is a statement about how we ought to treat those of low status – how we are to treat the most vulnerable.  We are to serve with humility – valuing everyone, welcoming everyone. 

A pastor in Dallas says that he once served a small church that was growing.  He made the comment that it was great to see 60 or 70 people each Sunday (which was more than the 35 they had averaged for some time).

The woman to whom he was speaking said that she had been counting, and she never came up with more than 45 or 50.  The pastor was sure it was more like 60-70.  So they decided to count the people there in church at that moment.  The pastor started with a family of 6 sitting on the front pew.  But before he got to the next pew, the woman stopped him and said, “You can’t count the children!”

He was surprised and jokingly said, “Hey, if it’s breathing and it’s here I’m going to count it.”  But she replied with great seriousness, “No, you can’t count them because they don’t give money.”  This pastor’s jaw hit the floor as the woman walked away.

The pastor said that he counted for the next year as the number of children grew smaller.  The woman made a comment that they now were agreeing on the numbers.  The pastor said that all the children had gone someplace where they count.

According to Jesus, how we value others – especially those of low regard - is a test of greatness.  In Jesus’ eyes, every person has great worth.

A man recalled being in Coast Guard boot camp.  The day came to go to the firing range and learn to shoot.  This man had never handled a firearm and had no real desire to start, but he had signed up for the service and had no choice.  Most of his fellow recruits bragged about what great marksmen they were.  A competition arose as to who would be the best.  Needless to say, this man, a complete novice,  wouldn’t be in the same league as these self-proclaimed “experts.”

But when all was said and done, although he was not quite “best in the class,” he was close.  He had done better than most, including those who knew they were so great.

After they were done, the shooting instructor pulled this man aside and said, “I can tell you’ve never shot before.”  The recruit asked how he knew that.   “Because you had no bad habits to unlearn and no ego to overcome,” he said.  “You were open and ready learn and that is why you were able to shoot so well.” 

The disciples, with their egos and arrogance and concern for who was best and who was right and who was number one, were not open and receptive to what Jesus had to offer.

The same spirit that would welcome a child would welcome Jesus.  And to truly welcome a child is to value that child, to listen to that child, and begin to discover imagination and a sense of wonder and adventure and a new way of looking at life.  How much do we need the capacity to imagine a different world?  How much do we need to experience the life of faith as an adventure?  A little child, someone like Ethan, really doesn’t care about someone’s race or background or occupation or educational level.  How much do we have to learn from children?

True greatness involves humility – not putting ourselves down, but lifting others up, and valuing all of God’s children.  In doing that, we are simply following the way of Jesus. 

Ike Robinson’s funeral was on Friday in Minneapolis.  If you didn’t get a chance to know Ike, he was a wonderful guy, a member here for over 50 years.  At the service, there was an opportunity for those present to say a few words about Ike, and it was striking how person after person talked about his humility.  People had known him for years before discovering that he had been a Tuskegee Airman.  Being in the military had come up in conversation, but Ike never mentioned the specifics of it.  A neighbor read an article in the Tribune a few years ago and learned that Ike was so highly regarded as a microbiologist that a species of bacteria named after him.  A future son-in-law thought he was a big star and then he met Ike and learned about greatness from a guy who was more interested in welcoming others than talking about himself.

Jesus modeled true greatness in welcoming a child.  As Jesus’ followers, we are to value everyone and welcome everyone and be willing to learn from others. 

A while back, I came across a word of welcome printed in a church bulletin.  It wasn’t your usual bulletin blurb.  It read,

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles.  We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or if you can’t carry a note in a bucket.  You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail.  We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.  We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters.  We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion” - we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here.  We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both.  We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake.  We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters … and you!
To extend that kind of welcome, to value all people in that way, and in humility to serve God and others – for Jesus, that is true greatness.

We are called to be the kind of community that welcomes a child – that welcomes those who would appear to have little to offer.  And Jesus says that to welcome a child in Jesus’ name is to welcome him.  Amen.

“Holy Moments” - February 7, 2016

Text: Mark 8:27-9:8

Several years ago, Susan and Zoe and I had a wonderful trip to Europe.  We spent time in a little medieval town on Lake Constance, we visited the area in Germany where Susan had lived as a teenager, we saw the cathedral and other sights in Strasbourg, and we visited a farmhouse in Switzerland built by my ancestors in in 1608.  My distant cousin has a dairy farm there in the Emmental region, famous for Emmentaler cheese – the classic Swiss cheese. 

One of the most memorable parts of our trip was spending time in the Alps.  One morning we got up early, took the train to Interlaken and then a mountain railway and an aerial cable car.  Zoe and I hiked to the little town of Kleine Scheidegg, at the base of three great mountain peaks.

The forecast was iffy, but it turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous, picture-perfect day.  It was late June, and we walked in the sunshine along snow-covered mountains.  We looked down over deep valleys.  We saw wildflowers along the path and cattle with bells around their necks grazing above the tree line as we approached some of the highest peaks in the Alps.

It was hard to go on – not because the walk was difficult, it was actually pretty easy, but because we wanted to stop about every five feet and take another picture.  It was so beautiful and so stunning and we were so amazed to actually be there.  Seeing the incredible beauty of God’s creation, breathing in the fresh mountain air, stopping to rest and just take in the expanse of sky and snow and meadows and mountains, it was a mystical experience.  It was a holy moment.

There is something about the mountains that I have always found very appealing.  Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Midwest and have spent nearly all my life in relatively flat country.  But it’s not just me.  For Native Americans, for example, the Black Hills are a sacred place.  This is also true in scripture.  Mountains are places to meet God.  Moses received the Law on Mt. Sinai.  He gets to see the Promised Land, but not enter it, from Mt. Nebo.  The prophet Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives to pray.  Mountains can be what Celtic Christianity calls “thin places,” where there is little  separation between heaven and earth.  They are places where Holy Moments can take place.

We have been making our way through Mark, and the scripture this morning raises the question of identity.  Jesus asks his disciples, “What are people saying about me?”  Some were comparing Jesus to Elijah or John the Baptist or one of the prophets.  Then Jesus asked a bigger question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter gave a big, bold, answer: “You are the Messiah.”

It’s a wonderful answer, but Peter really has no idea what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.  Peter is thinking of Messiah as in overthrowing the Romans and becoming political leader of the Jewish nation.  So when Jesus begins to speak of suffering, Peter rebukes him.  A Messiah would not suffer the way Jesus is talking.  But Jesus then says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Jesus comes down hard on Peter.  Rather than lording it over others with power and glory, Jesus says, “If you want to be my follower, you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”  Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  It is a completely different take on what it is to lead.  Jesus has a different idea of what messiahship involves; God’s kingdom is very different from the kingdom of this world.

With this question of identity hanging in the air, and right after Jesus publicly reprimands Peter, Jesus takes Peter along with James and John up on the mountain.  Mark reports it in quite a straightforward manner: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  There isn’t much explanation, but I’m not sure how helpful any amount of explanation might be.  Jesus went up on the mountain, and something powerful, something awesome, something other-worldly took place.

The three disciples saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus.  Peter apparently hasn’t learned the lesson about not putting his foot in his mouth, and he starts talking about building dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, but while he is still speaking, God’s voice is heard.  And the words are those same words heard at Jesus’ baptism:  “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”  It is a holy moment, and both for Jesus and for his disciples, it is a confirmation of his identity.

I wonder - have there been holy moments in your life?  Have there been powerful spiritual experiences you find it hard to put into words? 

I have a friend who, after his first child was born, finally went home from the hospital.  He took a shower, and then started calling family and friends to share the good news.  (This was in pre-cell phone days.)  He says it was about an hour before he realized he didn’t have any clothes on.  He was so caught up in the moment that he just hadn’t stopped to get dressed when he got out of the shower.  (Maybe that was too much information.)

The birth of a child can be one of those mountaintop experiences.  We hold that baby for the first time and we may be overcome by the miracle of life.  A holy moment can also come at the death of a loved one, when there is a sense of thankfulness for a life well lived, a life that has touched one deeply, and a sense of God’s presence.  Those holy moments may come in many ways.

The writer Frederick Buechner tells about one of those times in his life.  He writes:

A year or so ago, a friend of mine died... One morning in his sixty-eighth year he simply didn’t wake up.  It was about as easy a way as he could possibly have done it, but it was not easy for the people he left behind because it gave us no chance to start getting used to the idea... or to say goodbye... He died in March, and in May my wife and I were staying with his widow overnight when I had a short dream about him.
I dreamed he was standing there in the dark guest room where we were asleep, looking very much himself in the navy blue jersey sweater and white slacks he often wore.   I told him how glad I was to see him again… Then I said, “Are you really there, Dudley?”  I meant was he really there in fact, in truth, or was I merely dreaming he was.  His answer was that he was really there.  “Can you prove it?”  I asked him.   “Of course,” he said.  Then he plucked a strand of wool out of his jersey and tossed it to me.  I caught it between my thumb and forefinger, and the feel of it was so palpably real that it woke me up.  That's all there was to it...

I told the dream at breakfast the next morning, and I’d hardly finished when my wife spoke.  She said that she’d seen the strand on the carpet as she was getting dressed.  She was sure it hadn’t been there the night before.   I rushed upstairs to see for myself, and there it was -- a little tangle of navy blue wool.  (The Clown In The Belfry, p. 7 ff.)
Buechner is not the kind of guy who does séances.  To a certain extent, he is as much at a loss to explain this incident as anyone else would be.  But all of us, if we are truly honest, have to admit that the mysterious will from time to time invade our nice, rational, common-sense lives.  God may be speaking to us in those moments.  God may be present to us through the beauty and wonder of nature, through the awe and mystery of life and death, through joyful times of celebration, through powerful, gripping experiences.  Holy moments may just come out of the blue, when we least expect them. 

Most of us would like to have a greater certainty about these things.  We’d like to know that the vivid dream we had is from God, and not from the pepperoni pizza we had for supper.  We’d like to know that the beautiful rainbow in the sky, or the eagle we saw in flight, was indeed a sign from God for us.  And we would like to figure out a way to experience these holy moments.

But that’s not the way it works.  We live most of our lives not up on the mountain, but down in the ordinariness of the valley.  We cannot make such holy moments happen.  What we can do is open our eyes to the mystery and wonder all around us.  What we can do is be sensitive to one another, to develop the ability to listen, to be attentive, so that we might be able to see and hear and experience the holy around us.

Emily Dickinson famously wrote,

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes -
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
For me, holy moments often come in times of worship, and often through music.  I remember the first time I sang Brian Wren’s hymn, “Bring Many Names.”  The hymn speaks of Warm Father God, Strong Mother God, Old Aching God, Young Growing God, and finally Great, Living God, and I was moved to tears.  It was a Holy Moment.  I remember the worship service the Sunday following 9/11.  It had been an emotional, gut-wrenching week.  And I remember singing “A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”  It was like hearing those words for first time.  It was powerful, and it was comforting, and it was exactly what we needed, and for me it was a Holy Moment.  Then again, I remember that day in the Alps, and I remember seeing the incredible expanse of the Grand Canyon.

These experiences just happen.  I can’t plan or force mystical experiences in worship, but I am not in worship, I know they won’t happen.  I cannot create a holy moment in the midst of nature, but if I never spend time in nature, I know it won’t happen.  We need to be open to God in the present moment.

Imagine Peter and James and John, finally heading back down the mountain.  They wanted to stay.  Peter wanted to build dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.  But they can’t stay on the mountaintop forever.

When they returned back down the mountain, what was different?  They were still plain old fishermen; they were still followers of an itinerant rabbi.  They still had the same sort of everyday concerns they had before the experience.  So in a sense, nothing really changed.  But in another sense, life had changed completely.  Though they did not yet fully understand it, they had a glimpse of who Jesus was.  They had seen his glory, however briefly.  They had heard the voice of God: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

There would be days when they didn’t listen to him so well, and there would be days when the experience on the mountain seemed to be a million miles away, but looking back, the writer of 2 Peter said, “he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him… saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.  So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.”

The experience on the mountain changed the disciples.  Years later, that experience still had an impact.  Holy moments have the power to change us.  How can they not?

Those powerful experiences of the Holy can affect our more mundane, everyday living.  They serve as a reminder that there is a God who loves and cares for us.  They help us to put life in perspective.  They can give us hope and help sustain us in hard times.  They can affirm who we are and give us a sense of joy.

I’m reminded of such a moment for Martin Luther King, Jr.  In the early days of the Montgomery bus boycott, he reached a place where he felt he just couldn’t go on.  He was under great pressure, facing daily death threats.  In the middle of a sleepless night, he sat at the kitchen table, filled with anxiety, and said out loud, “I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”  As he spoke these words, the doubts suddenly melted away.  He became intensely aware of an “inner voice” telling him to do what was right.  That experience, that holy moment, changed the course of his life. 
Frederick Buechner, who had the dream and the experience of the blue thread, told about a couple of other experiences, the kinds of things that might be called a very strange coincidence.  And then he wrote,

All that’s extraordinary about these three minor events is the fuss I’ve made about them.  Things like that happen every day to everybody.  They are a dime a dozen.  They mean absolutely nothing. 

Or.  Things like that are momentary glimpses into a Mystery of such depth, power, and beauty, that if we were to see it head-on, we would be annihilated.

Perhaps our holy moments are brief glimpses into the power and glory of God, a kind of brief peek behind the curtain.
What is interesting is that while these encounters with God may well happen in church, in corporate worship, they can come anywhere.  Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grounded, explores the way that people experience the divine in the everyday – through our surroundings, through the ground we walk on and the air we breathe, in our family, in our neighborhood.  Our experience of the holy and the work of God’s Spirit is present here and now, and all around us.

The Transfiguration is an epiphany – an appearance and a revelation of who Jesus is.  But in the end, this is not only about Jesus.  It is about us.  It is about our seeing the glory of God in Jesus on the mountaintop as well as the glory of God that shines all around us. 

We cannot create or control the holy moments of life.  But we can be open to God’s spirit around us.  We can allow ourselves to learn and grow and be challenged and changed and affirmed and comforted by such moments.  We can be sustained through the hard times by such experiences.  And when we are open to God’s Spirit, we may find that there are incredible mountain peaks all around us.  Amen.