Saturday, March 7, 2020

"God’s Favorites" - March 8, 2020

Text: Mark 10:32-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Threading the Needle” - March 1, 2020

Text: Mark 10:17-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 22, 2020

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

Text: Mark 8:27-9:8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter gives this amazing answer, this seemingly inspired answer. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing of the Transfiguration, Madeline L’Engle said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cleanliness or Godliness?” - February 16, 2020

Text: Mark 7:1-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 8, 2020

“Planning to Fail” - February 9, 2020

Text: Mark 6:1-29

Jesus is on a roll.  His ministry of healing and teaching is becoming known far and wide.  As we have read in Mark over the past few weeks, Jesus has done amazing things.  He has healed a man whose friends dropped him into the house through a hole they cut in the roof.  He has calmed a storm on the lake.  He healed a man possessed by unclean spirits.  Jesus has just healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years, and then raised Jairus’ daughter back to life.  He is on a winning streak, you might say. 

And then he heads to his hometown of Nazareth.  You can imagine the anticipation.  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.  So far, so good.  The people in his hometown synagogue recognize his obvious gifts.

But then the questions start.  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’s not always easy.  Folks will remember changing his diapers in the nursery, or that snotty-nosed little girl from Sunday School, and it is difficult to see them as a religious leader.

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 Jesus is clearly special, and he is asked to speak.

The problem is in what he says and how he says it.  It would have been downright offensive for someone of a lower social class to speak in the way that Jesus did.  In a nutshell, Jesus didn’t know his place.  He didn’t stay in his lane.

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.  This could have been another dig at Jesus and his authority. 

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.  While Jesus has been drawing crowds and performing wonders, he is also well acquainted with difficulty and with opposition.

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.  Several weeks ago, in Mark chapter one, we read about John baptizing Jesus and then that after John was arrested, Jesus began his ministry.  Here we have the details on what became of John.  As Jesus’ ministry becomes known and King Herod hears about Jesus, he thought that Jesus may have been John the Baptist come back from the dead. 

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.  Now if his brother had died, this would have been no problem – and in certain circles even expected.  But Philip was very much alive.  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 this reality hangs over the ministry of Jesus and the disciples.  And then Jesus came to his hometown, where he was met with rejection.  Because of their lack of faith, all he was able to do was to lay hands on a few sick people and cure them.  Which sounds pretty impressive to me, but what he could do in Nazareth was limited.

In Luke’s version of Jesus’ preaching to his hometown congregation, they run him out of town and actually want to kill him.  It does not go well for Jesus in Nazareth, and it hurts to be rejected by your hometown.

In this atmosphere of opposition and rejection and failure and potential danger, 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, someone who has your back, someone you can rely on.  Jesus understands the importance of community.

He 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 he doesn’t have them ride the bench.  Jesus doesn’t wait for the rookies to develop skills and gain maturity and ease in to it.  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 we really don’t have the gifts needed to take on leadership, or teach a class, or sing in the choir, or advocate for justice, or work with children.  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.  Take no food, no money, no luggage, don’t take an extra coat.  Just take your walking stick.

I thought back to our mission trip to Puerto Rico.  All kinds of logistics.  Getting group airline tickets.  Figuring out how to get everybody to the airport and accommodations for the night before in the Twin Cities.  Reserving vans with rental agencies.  Arrangements with the church where we would be staying.  And a long list of stuff to bring, sun protection, work clothes, would our cell phones work in Puerto Rico, on and on. 

But Jesus says to his disciples, Don’t worry about the details.  There is an urgency to their mission; they don’t have time to put together a travel checklist 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 travel light and 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.

Basically, 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 with people.  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, you are rejected.  Just 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.  Hopeless.

Thomas Edison’s teachers advised his parents to keep him home from school, stating that he was “too stupid to learn anything.” 

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

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, wrote about her life.  She said, “I had failed on an epic scale.  An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.  The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”  She wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old manual typewriter and twelve different 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.  Moses.  Jacob.  Joseph.  Ruth and Naomi.  They all knew failure and disappointment, and the list just goes on.

Jesus sends out his disciples, and he helps them to plan for failure.  Because failure is going to happen.  Tough sledding is just a part of life.  So - we all fail sometimes.  What else is new?  It just means that we are human.

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, something different, something challenging, something worthwhile.  Jesus helped his disciples plan to fail.  I think that maybe, Jesus was on to something.  Amen. 

Saturday, February 1, 2020

“Desperate Faith” - February 2, 2020

Text: Mark 5:21-43
February 2, 2000


Are you ready for some football?  On this Super Bowl Sunday, I know you came to church just hoping for great football stories.  So let me oblige you by sharing one.  Back in 1975, the Dallas Cowboys were playing the Minnesota Vikings in a playoff game with the chance to go to the Super Bowl on the line.  The Cowboys were losing 14-10 in the waning seconds.  Dallas had one chance.  Coach Tom Landry said, “Our only hope was to just throw it and hope for a miracle.”  Quarterback Roger Staubach heaved the ball as far as he could, toward the end zone.  Receiver Drew Pearson evaded the Vikings defender, caught the ball, and ran into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

Pearson was so excited that he threw the ball into the stands.  Except there weren’t many end zone seats at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, where the Vikings played.  The football went all the way to the parking lot and it was never seen again.

A reporter asked Staubach what he was thinking when he threw the ball.  Having grown up a Catholic kid in Cincinnati, Staubach said, “I just threw it and closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”  That play has lived on in football lore and a long desperation pass to the end zone has become known as a Hail Mary.

Well, as they say, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”  In moments of desperation, we have probably all thrown up a Hail Mary. 

I knew a man who died at a nursing facility in Juarez, Mexico.  He was receiving experimental cancer treatment that was not available in the United States.  He had exhausted all of the other possible treatments and saw this as his only hope.

We can all face desperate situations.  But there can be a positive side to desperation.  Sometimes we have to come to those desperate moments in order to see with clarity.  Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom in order to come to our senses.  Desperation can be a great motivator.  Our scripture for today has about it this air of desperation. 

You may remember that in last week’s scripture, Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee, where he had an encounter with the man who was possessed by an unclean spirit – the Gerasene demoniac.  In today’s reading, Jesus crosses back across the water, back into Jewish territory, and he encounters Jairus, a synagogue ruler.  Jairus was an important person, and in a time when life revolved around the synagogue, he stood on the top rung of society. 

And so to see Jairus falling at Jesus’ feet and not simply asking him, but begging him, repeatedly, to come and heal his daughter, says something about his desperation.  It is almost embarrassing to see this high official in such a demeaning position, begging Jesus, and in public.  Yet Jairus does this for love of his daughter.  She is critically ill, it looks as though she may die, and Jairus is more concerned for his daughter than he is for maintaining appropriate dignity in a social situation. 

Jesus agrees to go with Jairus, and the large crowd follows.  This was exactly the reason that crowds were constantly around Jesus—you never knew what might happen.

But on the way to Jairus’ house, there is an interruption.  An unnamed woman in the crowd reaches out to Jesus, believing if only she can touch his clothes, she will be healed.

We do not know the woman’s name, but we do know something about her.  The text says that she “…had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”

In Hebrew religion, blood made one unclean.  This woman had bled chronically – she had been ceremonially unclean for 12 years, unable to worship at the temple.  For 12 years, she had to stay away from others, lest she make them unclean.  She had suffered physically for 12 years.  But she had also suffered spiritually.

And she had suffered socially.  To be unclean did not mean that a person was sinful.  But it did mean that others stayed away from you, avoided you, and some certainly would look down on you.  It affected all of your relationships.  This would have taken an enormous toll.

And not only that, she had suffered financially.  She had spent all she had and was not any better; in fact, she was worse.  So now she was broke, a social and religious outcast, and she was still suffering.

Which adds up to desperation.  After all else has failed, over many years, she is desperate enough to try anything - even breaking the taboos of society.  The woman had heard about Jesus.  Word of his healings had spread.  Jesus was rumored to care about the poor, the outcast, those on the margins, and this kind of news no doubt spread very quickly among women in her situation.

As a woman, she was not to speak to and certainly not to touch a man in public.  And as someone who was ritually unclean, she was not to touch anyone, period.  She was not supposed to be in a crowd.  And yet her desperation gave her courage.  She wanted it to be quiet, to be unnoticed, and felt that if only she could touch his clothes, she could be healed.  So in the crowd, she touched his cloak, and immediately she felt within herself that she was well; her hemorrhage stopped.

Jesus is immediately aware that something has happened.  And has asks, Who touched my clothes?  What kind of question is that?  In a crowd of people, with everyone wanting to be near Jesus, how many people do you suppose had touched his clothes?

Imagine going to a ballgame at Hilton.  Imagine it is Kansas playing against ISU, and you are in the crowd trying to get to the concession stand and the rest rooms at halftime.  It’s wall to wall people, shoulder to shoulder.  It’s hard to avoid bumping into others.  And then somebody yells out, “WHO TOUCHED MY CLOTHES?”

It makes no sense.  No telling how many people touched your clothes.

But the woman knew exactly what Jesus meant, and her courage was such that she came forward and, as the text says, “In fear and trembling fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”  There was fear and trembling because she had broken the laws concerning ritual purity.  There was fear and trembling because she was embarrassed.  But she had believed Jesus could heal her, and he did, and now Jesus’ words to her were healing words.  He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

Healing is not simply a matter of body; it involves body, mind, and spirit.  The physical ailment had been healed, but she had suffered spiritually and socially, and Jesus words are words of healing. 

The woman is not named in the scriptures.  But Jesus names her: he calls her Daughter.  Just as Jairus was filled with love and concern for his daughter, Jesus calls this woman Daughter.

And Jesus calls each of us Daughter.  Jesus calls each of us Son.  Others may see an outcast, an outsider, a nobody, but Jesus sees a dear child.  Others may see an average, ordinary, nothing special about them kind of person, but Jesus sees a dear child.  Others may see a boss or an employee or a student or a little kid or an interruption, but Jesus sees a person, and a dear child.

Just as Jairus was concerned for his daughter, Jesus cared about this daughter of his.

And what about Jairus?  He had come to Jesus in desperation, his little daughter near death, and now Jesus was stopping to chat with somebody who had touched his clothes!  As the woman told her story, he was increasingly agitated—he needed to get to his daughter.  He needed to bring Jesus to his daughter.

But just then, some people came from Jairus’ house, telling him that his daughter had died, that he need not bother Jesus any more.  I’ve always thought that these people needed some sensitivity training.  They don’t say, “I’m so sorry, Jairus,” and give him a caring embrace.  They say, “Your daughter is dead, and by the way, quit bothering Jesus.”

But Jesus overhears this and says to Jairus, “Do not fear, but only believe.”  They went to Jairus’ home.  People were weeping and wailing.  When Jesus arrived, he asked what all the commotion was about.  The child was not dead, but only sleeping, he said.  At this, the crowd laughed derisively.  Again, they may have had their doubts, but this seems a little on the insensitive side.  But Jesus went to the child and took her by the hand.  He said, “Little girl, get up,” and she did.

Together, these two stories are what are sometimes called a narrative sandwich.  Mark is especially fond of this.  You have the story of Jairus’ daughter with the story of the woman with chronic bleeding inserted in the middle.  The story of Jairus’ daughter is the rye and the story of the woman with the hemorrhage is the pastrami, as it were.  The stories are intended to shed light on each other and to be interpreted together. 

The differences are striking.  Jairus and the woman in the crowd were in very different places in life.

  • He is a parent.  Her illness likely prevented her from having children.
  • He was on top of the social ladder; she was on the bottom.
  • He was a person of privilege; his name and title are given. She is unnamed.
  • He is a religious leader.  Because of her condition, she had been cast out by her religion.
  • He is wealthy.  She has spent everything she had on medical care that did not help.
  • He approaches Jesus with a formal request.  She pushes her way forward and doesn’t ask permission.
  • Jairus’ house is filled with people who are concerned for his daughter.  This woman seems to be all alone.
And yet different as they were, they shared something.  In the first place, those in need of healing are both women – a 12 year old girl and a woman who had suffered pain for 12 years.  In a world in which women had a very secondary status, it is striking how many of the people Jesus reached out to were women.  Jesus did not view them in any kind of secondary way.

And then they both were in need of healing.  Different as their situations were, illness and pain and tragedy is no respecter of persons.  Cancer does not care how much money you have.  You can have a Ph.D. or an eighth grade education and be plagued by addiction.  You can have family and friends galore, or you can be a new person in town and not know anybody and be visited by tragedy.

Jairus and the woman in the crowd both sought healing.  She needed it for herself; he needed it for his daughter.  Both were desperate for healing, and their desperation led them to make themselves vulnerable.  An upstanding leader of the community groveled at the feet of Jesus.  An outcast broke social taboos to reach out for healing.  And Jesus honored them both.

The one thought of as lowly was just as important to Jesus as the one thought of as important.  In fact, Jesus interrupted his mission with Jairus to care for the woman in the crowd - to the point that the little girl died.  But God’s power in Christ is greater even than death, and Jairus’ daughter was brought to life. 

In each instance, healing came because someone reached a point of desperation, a point where they knew that they could not simply rely on their own power and resources.

And that is where we may find ourselves today.  Sometimes it takes hitting bottom to admit that we need God’s strength and healing.  Sometimes it takes the pits of addiction, or a terrible illness, or a shattering divorce, or the loss of a loved one, to help us see clearly.  Sometimes it takes a deep disappointment or a barely-averted disaster, to wake us up. 

But it doesn’t have to take that.  It can be something like the still, small voice of God whispering to us, calling us, inviting us to abundant life.  What these two stories together tell us is that no matter who we are, no matter where we are in life, Christ is there, reaching out to touch us with love and healing.

Jairus and the woman in the crowd were both desperate.  That is to say, they knew they could not find healing alone.  They knew of their need.  And we find ourselves in the very same place, in need of Christ’s love and power.  Amen. 

“Restored to Relationship” - January 26, 2020

Text: Mark 5:1-20

I remember doing a series with college students one time called Gross Bible Skits.  We took Bible stories and asked students to recreate these stories in a skit – they could set the story in the present day, if they wanted, or maybe come up with a completely different story that conveyed the basic message of the assigned scripture.  I remember one was where Jesus spit in the dirt and made mud and used it to heal somebody.  And then I remember this story of the demons cast into pigs who then ran off a cliff into the water below.

Well, we won’t ask you to do that this morning.  But I do want to take a closer look at this story.  First, we need to know that Jesus and his disciples had just crossed the Sea of Galilee – crossing from Jewish territory into Gentile territory.    While out on the water, a monster windstorm had come up.  The wind was blowing, waves were crashing against the boat, it was taking on water, and lo and behold Jesus was taking a nap, sleeping through it all.  The disciples wake him up in a panic.  “We’re all going to die!  Don’t you care?”  And Jesus calmed the storm.  He said, “Peace, be still,” and the wind stopped and the waters were calm.

And then they arrive on the other side.  If you had been through that experience of thinking you are going to die out on the water, and then watching Jesus just calm the storm, I think you would be more than a little freaked out.  Never mind the winds being calmed; your racing heartbeat would need to be calmed.  You would want to take some time to chill out and to process what just happened. 

Of course, they didn’t get that.  As soon as they step out of the boat, it’s go time.  Immediately, we read, Jesus is met by this wild and troubled soul.  A man possessed by an unclean spirit.  His life situation is about as bleak as you could imagine.  He lives among the tombs.  This was not a pleasant place like our cemeteries today – think open graves and the scent of death. This is where he lives.

The community had tried to restrain this man, tried to put him in chains, but without success.  He was a danger to himself, injuring himself.  He did not even sound human, crying out with animal-like cries. 

Everything about this story – demon possession, tombs, a herd of swine, a foreign land – cries out “unclean.”  But Jesus did not turn away from this man.  He commands the unclean spirit to come out from him.  The spirits begged Jesus to be cast into the nearby herd of swine.  Jesus agrees, and then the swine along with the unclean spirits rushed off the steep bank into the lake, where they all perished.

This entire story sounds bizarre and very foreign to us.  We are not sure what to make of the idea of unclean spirits.  The entire story really is troubling.  But here is the thing: while it is strange, to be sure, upon reflection I have come to see this as not some primitive tale but as a very contemporary story, a story that is played out all the time.

Cliff was a camp counselor at Lake Springfield Camp in Illinois, the camp where youth from our church would go over the summer – like Forest Lake or Dayton Oaks.  Cliff was far and away the most popular counselor at camp.  Everybody wanted to be in his cabin.  He was cool and he was fun and he was kind of a celebrity among some of our youth. 

One summer our youth group went on a mission trip to Chicago.  One evening we went to the Uptown neighborhood, a couple miles north of Wrigley Field, and helped serve a meal at a church.  Every Monday night this church has a free meal for the community.  300-400 people come every week.  Some are low-income folks trying to get by, and many are homeless people.

Some of our group worked in the kitchen preparing the meal while others served the meals to people seated at the tables.  Others went around with refills of Kool-Aid and water and talked with the people there.

During the course of the meal, Jeremy, one of our youth, came up to me and said, “I was talking with a guy over there that looks just like Cliff from camp.  He didn’t make that much sense, it sounds like he thinks he’s Jesus.”  I looked in that direction and I knew right away that this guy didn’t just look like Cliff; it was Cliff.

I talked with him.  We talked about camp a bit and he seemed to have some bitterness about the camp, and he did sort of talk like he was Jesus.

I found that Cliff was a regular at the Monday night meals.  I later called the Camp Director and learned more of Cliff’s story.  As a young adult, he began to develop mental illness.  As a camp counselor, he became undependable and kind of erratic.  Everybody tried to help, but finally was told he could not return to the camp.  He wouldn’t take his medication and his condition worsened.  His family tried to help Cliff but to no avail.  He became estranged from his family, wound up going to Chicago, and here he was.  Our youth had had known him as the perfect camp counselor, but now they knew him as a homeless person with serious mental illness.

What do we do with people like Cliff?  We try to help but we don’t always know what to do.  And in the end, we lock them up.  In many places county jails are the primary mental health facility in a community.  A lot of such people are in and out of jails, and often living on the streets or in homeless camps – which in some cases can be the modern day equivalent of the tombs where this man lived.

One of the details in this story that can really bother us is the pigs.  What did they do to deserve this?  Besides being just plain frightened by the power that Jesus shows, the loss of the pigs was also was a major economic loss.  The townspeople don’t want any more of this kind of ministry, and they ask Jesus if he wouldn’t mind heading on to the next town.

It strikes me that we can still get stuck on the economics of it all, rather than focus on the person who is hurting.  Mental health facilities have been closed and funding for mental health has been cut here in Iowa, as is the case throughout the country.  We always say there will be better care at lower cost, but we are usually only half right.  And I think of the announcement just this week that the EPA will be rolling back clean water standards.  It is another example of putting profits above the health of individuals, real people who may suffer.

The man possessed by unclean spirits was a person.  A human being.  He had friends.  He had a family.  He had a history.  He had people who cared about him.  And while he was suffering, they were suffering too.

A colleague has a friend who is the father of a son with schizophrenia.  He has tried and tried to help his son, and at this point there is nothing he can do.  The father said, “I used to see a homeless person and wonder, where is their family?  Now I see a homeless person and wonder, where is their poor family?”

If you are a basketball fan you may remember Delonte West.  He was a college star and played in the NBA for 8 years, having his best years as a pro starting alongside LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But he developed very serious mental health issues.  Although he had earned $16 million in the NBA, during a work stoppage in 2011, he went to work at Home Depot because he was out of money.  In 2012, his last year in the NBA, he played for the Dallas Mavericks.  Coach Rick Carlisle did all he could to help West.  Mark Cuban, the Dallas owner, set him up with a financial advisor.  He drifted out of the NBA, but in an attempt to help him, Dallas signed him a year later to their minor league team. 

Still later the Boston Celtics, whom he had also played for, hired him as a scout in an effort to help him get his life together.  But things only spiraled downward, he refused treatment, and just last week a video appeared of Delonte West being beaten up – he was sprawled on the pavement and bleeding from his head, somebody stomping on him - in the middle of a freeway.  What made it even more shocking and appalling is that the video was taken by a police officer who posted it to social media.  There were countless mocking comments made on YouTube.  The officer has been suspended.

Don’t tell me that the story of this man possessed by an unclean spirit belongs to an ancient, pre-modern culture.  People still suffer and we can still dehumanize those with troubled spirits.  

Of course, it is easy to talk about this demon possessed man, or Cliff in Chicago, or Delonte West.  It is easy to think about their demons because it keeps us from confronting our own.  Because let’s be honest: we all face forces in our lives that can take hold of us and keep us from living fully and freely.

This may be why Jesus made this trip through a fearsome storm on the lake to arrive at a spiritually unclean, Roman occupied, Gentile town full of pigs and swine herders.  Jesus’ point is that no one, none of us, is so unclean or has strayed so far that we are out of God’s reach.  No one is beyond God’s transformational love and grace and healing.

What are the forces that can control us?  It can be a chemical addiction.  It can be alcohol.  It can be opioids.  Life expectancy in the U.S. has decreased for 3 or 4 years in a row now.  This has never happened before.  This is due to the opioid epidemic – a force that can take hold of us and destroy us.

The forces that can get a hold of us can often be much subtler.  A voice that tells us we are not good enough, not strong enough, not accomplished enough, not worthy of love.  There is an epidemic of worry and anxiety and self-doubt.  For some of us, grief can have a powerful hold on our lives.

We can spend our lives playing video games or watching YouTube videos or binging on Netflix while missing out on personal relationships.  We can be possessed by a constant need to get more likes on social media.  A drive for more and bigger and better – blind ambition that really can blind us to what we are doing to ourselves and to those around us.  A drive to succeed, a drive to impress, a drive to win at whatever, at all costs - including the cost of relationships.

It is not just individuals; societies in general can succumb to forces that can control us.  Fear.  Greed.  Racism.  Scapegoating.  Hatred.  We may want to roll our eyes at the idea of demon possession, but evil in this world is very real.

A couple of things stand out to me in Jesus’ interaction with this man.  First, he asks the man his name.  And he replies, “Legion, for there are many of us.”  A Roman legion was 6000 soldiers.  This man was possessed by a legion of unclean spirits – such was the depth of his turmoil and agony. 

The name Legion may mean something more.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very serious problem for soldiers returning from war as well as many others who have experienced trauma.  This man may well be suffering from trauma – perhaps trauma he had suffered at the hands of the Roman military.  Now just as “Pig” is derogatory slang for police officers, it was used in the same way for Roman soldiers.  It may be notable that the Legion is cast into the pigs.  It’s not necessarily a coincidence.  

Jesus asked the unclean spirit its name.  It was important that the man named the force that had such a hold on him.  Naming what controls us is the first step to healing.  In asking him to name what it was that had power over him, Jesus invited this man to participate in his own healing.

This is exactly what happens in Alcoholics anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or other 12-step groups.  You introduce yourself by saying, “My name is Dave and I am an addict. “ You face it head on; you don’t run from it.  You name the force that has control over you.  That is so hard to do because it means taking a good look, an honest look at our lives.  It is a lot easier to look at others’ lives than to look at our own.  But this is the first step to healing.


And then I am especially struck by what happens after the man is healed.  Jesus has made him whole.  He is freed from the spirits that have tormented him.  All of his relationships had been broken by the unclean spirits that possessed him, so of course, he wants to go with Jesus.  Where else is he going to go?  But Jesus says No, go back to your home, back to your friends, back to your community, and share what the Lord has done for you.

You see, this man had friends.  He was part of a household.  He had a community, though that community was mostly out of the picture.  Their efforts to help him and to protect him from himself have failed, and it appears people had just given up.  We have no idea how he has got by or where he found his meals.  We don’t know how many people may be grieving for him, powerless to help.  But through Jesus’ power and healing, this man is restored to his relationships.

I think that’s the way it works.  When we are possessed by whatever demons that may have power over us, we are separated from others.  When we are freed from those things that have a corrosive power over our lives, we are restored to relationships – with God and with others.

Some of us have family and close friends struggling with demons of all sorts.  It’s not easy.  The forces that can have power over individuals can deeply affect families and friends and communities.  It can be so hard because we can’t make other people change.  Sometimes all we can do is hope and pray and be there to support them when they are ready. 

But the truth is, we all struggle with demons of one sort or another.  The Good News is that Jesus is there, that Jesus cares, and that Jesus comes to us wherever we may be.  And Jesus wants to free us and restore us to relationship.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.