The Strength of Christ: sermon by Laura, 9.19.21

Ephesians 6:10-20

Once upon a time there was a chapel. It was a small, round building on a college campus. Students and their chaplain gathered there for Christian worship on Sunday evenings, but on other days of the week, groups from the community used the space, which was just right for intimate gatherings. 

One summer day, a group of women came together early in the morning to do their spiritual practice together. But when they walked into the chapel, they discovered that another community group had decorated the space with camouflage banners, tiny green plastic tanks, and toy U.S. Army-style guns dangling from the ceiling. 

Now, though these women often practiced poses named after warriors, the intent of their practice was union with God and others. In a chapel dedicated to a nonviolent Messiah, they wondered how anyone who followed him could simultaneously glorify instruments of war and pretend they were merely children’s toys. In shock and anger, the women tore down the weapons. 

True story: these events actually took place at the Sheldon Jackson College Chapel. The first group was–you probably guessed it–a women’s yoga circle. But did you guess that the second group was actually a local church, leading Vacation Bible School with the theme “Soldiers for Christ?” 

You can bet that VBS used this passage from Ephesians 6 at some point in their lessons. Paul’s metaphor, of putting on the “whole armor of God,” might seem right in line with the war kitsch. After all, Paul certainly describes the armor and weaponry of soldiers in his time. The VBS folks probably thought they were just updating the metaphor. 

But the yoga women, who themselves regularly practiced the postures of Warrior 1, 2, and 3, thought the VBSers had crossed a line. And I would agree–there is a big difference between the tone and context of Paul’s metaphor, which was given to encourage a persecuted minority dwelling in an occupied nation, and the visual of weaponry produced and utilized in present-day military occupations by a world superpower. Though I also think the yoga women’s concerns would have been better served by opening a dialogue instead of rushing to tear down the decorations! 

This story is a parable of a conundrum in which we often find ourselves. Paul is very clear that people who follow Jesus will have to withstand enemies. His metaphor draws on the virtues of the Warrior: standing strong to protect others. But what is the difference between standing strong as a Warrior and being a bully? How do we embrace Warrior virtues without glorifying War? 

First, we need to understand the nature of the enemies of Christ. “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” Paul says, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” 

Paul is clear that our enemies are not other human beings, but rather spiritual influences, which infiltrate and distort the inner lives of individuals and the ethos of institutions. And it is very difficult to pin down and name this enemy, because, as Eugene Petersen writes, it is “evil that rarely looks like evil.” Petersen continues, 

“There are a lot of things in this world that people do that are wrong and that look wrong. Paul has mentioned some of these…But there is far more that is wrong with the world than the sum total of what we name as sin and sins…This evil has nothing to do with cartoon caricatures of pitchfork-wielding demons or sulphur-breathing dragons.”

“The powers” Paul is talking about “insidiously make themselves at home” in institutions which are founded with good intentions and provide ongoing benefits to society. Money, language, and technology–good things in and of themselves–can become evil when institutionalized in business, governments, the media, schools, churches, and other structures. Petersen writes, “The basic good of money is idolized into the god Mammon; the basic good of language is debased into lies of propaganda; the basic good of technology is depersonalized into a world of non-relationship.”

The early Christians were pacifists. As religious minorities in the Roman empire, they faced harassment, discrimination, and the suppression of their officially illegal religious activities. But they understood that their battle was spiritual, a battle against sin, evil, and death; these forces waged war “in their inner spirit and at the cosmic level,” with tangibly “dehumanizing, death-dealing, alienating” effects. Early Christians died as nonviolent martyrs, rather than take up arms against other human beings.

But as the history of Christianity has continued on, the concept of spiritual warfare has too often been used to justify flesh and blood wars, with some people calling others the ‘enemies of God.’ Christians began persecuting other Christians by 325 CE, after Constantine legalized Christianity. The tragedy is that any time we justify violence against other human beings, all of us created in God’s image, we’ve already been defeated by the true foes Paul exhorts us to stand firm against. 

My friends, we don’t have to be defeated! In fact, the victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We face an enemy in its death throes, though still dangerous. And though it is difficult to see, we are not powerless against this enemy. We need to be aware that we will be attacked, sometimes full on, sometimes in distractions, distorted teachings, or in the age-old temptations of sex, money, and power.  

Of course, you won’t see it at all if you simply refuse to acknowledge that evil exists or that it is constantly exerting influence upon you and infecting your relationships! But acknowledging evil’s influence does not mean living in paranoia or anxiety, or setting up some kind of fortress to guard yourself from it. Nor should you ally yourselves with those who think of themselves as “defenders of purity,” who “vilify, mount crusades, [and] define [them]selves by what [they] are against.” 

Paul describes a third option, neither hiding, nor attacking directly, since the “wiles of the devil” are usually immune to direct attack. Our response to the enemy we face is to stand firm, to “be strong in the strength of the Lord.” 

Now let’s pause for a moment and think about the “strength” of Jesus Christ. In the gospel stories, we see that Jesus did not hide from conflict or controversy, and he rarely spoke directly against anyone, though he did rebuke the hypocrisy he saw in religious leaders.  Overall, he stood his ground gently and generously, condemning violence when his disciples tried to defend him with swords: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” He did no violence to those who actively harmed him, but on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

“Lowly and meek, yet all powerful:” that’s how one of my favorite songs describes Jesus’ strength.  That’s the strength of the Lord in which Christians are called to stand. “We are called to realize and cultivate our unique identity as men and women living under the lordship of Christ in the household of God that is the church,” writes Petersen. 

Our strength is in that identity and community. And the good news is that God has provided us tools, not only to withstand evil influences, but even to transform evil into good: We’ve been provided the whole armor of God! 

Paul’s metaphor serves to remind us of the tools God has provided: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and word of God. By linking these qualities to items of armor, Paul emphasizes that they are not passive. They are means of active participation which develop qualities of character within us as we engage with Christ in the redemption of the cosmos. In fact, though Paul calls us to put on external items–a belt, a breastplate, shoes, shield, and helmet–as we mature in our practice of them, these qualities become internalized, like a strong backbone and core strength, so that we come to embody the strength of God in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

It does take practice, and we need help: to recognize the enemy’s attacks, to learn how to put on the whole armor, and to stand firm. Thankfully, God has also given us one another, God’s church, a community of practice in which we hold one another up in prayer. 

In the final section of today’s scripture, nearly at the close of the book of Ephesians, Paul reminds his readers once more of the power of prayer. The letter began in prayer, and now it ends in a request for prayer. Prayer: the communication of both our thanksgiving and our supplication, our communion, direct with the Source of all that is! Prayer is the most powerful tool we have, not only to withstand evil influences, but to transform evil into good! 

Prayer keeps us alert and helps us persevere. Prayer reveals how obstacles can become opportunities. Through prayer we are enabled to see all people with God’s eyes, the eyes of love, so that instead of repaying evil, we can offer and receive forgiveness, and be reconciled to those we have harmed or who have harmed us. 

Never be too shy to ask for prayer on your own behalf! Even the mighty apostle needs others to pray for him. He models for us his own awareness of his susceptibility to evil and the struggle of his current state–which he also sees as an opportunity. An “ambassador in chains,” Paul desires to speak boldly the message of the gospel. The prayers of the community will strengthen him when nothing else can! 

So, my friends: stand firm! You know well how challenging it can be in our times to discern the influences of evil from the good. You also know the strength of the Lord: lowly and meek, yet all powerful. It is not easy to stand in Christ’s strength, but we are here for one another, praying with and for each other, that we will neither cower in fear nor demonize our opponents, but instead stand firm, consciously participating with God’s truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Word in the redemption of the cosmos, now and always. Amen. 

(Note: nearly all quotes are from Eugene Petersen’s Practicing Resurrection, a major resource in the writing of this sermon.)

Follow Me!

Sermon by Keith, 3.1.2020: Mark 10: 17-31

Before I read this morning’s text, I want to go over a couple things.  First I want to ask you a question.  How many of you have been in a room with a group of people, and then maybe the speaker or the host or even just one of the people in the room says something that changes the entire atmosphere of the room, either for good or bad? 

That’s what happened with this text for me when I preached it before, probably about 7 years ago.  The text is usually given the title, “The Rich Young Ruler” and the story shows up in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  Matthew tells us he was young and Luke tells us he was a ruler, thus the Rich Young Ruler.  I’ll read the text here in just a bit so if you aren’t familiar with it, you soon will be. 

When I preached on it before, when I finished and looked up to say, “The word of the Lord,” the atmosphere in the congregation changed. Before reading, there was my congregation, eager to hear a word from the Lord.  But when I finished, about half the people in the room had their arms crossed.  What’s body language saying when you are talking to someone and they cross their arms?  Yeah, I’m not listening to you!  And I’ve always wondered how this text has been used, maybe to beat you over the head about your giving. 

So, my invitation to you before we read the text is to just listen to it.  It is a hard text, but an important one especially since we find it Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  But it is also full of grace if we don’t put up walls to keep that grace out.

The second thing I need to let you know is I’m going to read a translation from NT Wright that is a little bit different than what you might be used to hearing but I believe it gets closer to understanding the first century Jewish worldview and I’ll explain why I use his translation as we get into the sermon. 

Are we ready?  Arms loose, relaxed, hearts and minds open.  Here we go.  (Read text).

Most of us have had a moment in our lives where everything changed and how you responded to and looked at the world was forever altered.  Maybe for you it was when you moved out of your parents’ house, or when you got married, or maybe even divorced.  For our country, one of those turning points was 9/11.  How we viewed our nation and our place in the world was drastically changed. And I’d even argue that the Second World War changed the trajectory that the entire globe was on, it literally tore a hole in world.  Everything was different, different governments and societal structures, different hopes and needs, and different possibilities and dangers. 

For the first century Jew, there were two events that changed how they viewed themselves in the world.  The first one was in the past: the Passover event that led to the people leaving slavery in Egypt.  The second was actually an event that hadn’t happened yet.  Something would happen, they believed, that would make everything different.  A great event would occur which would bring justice and peace, freedom for Israel, punishment for evildoers, a time of prosperity when all the prophesies would be fulfilled, all the righteous dead would be raised to new life, all the world would burst out into a new and endless spring. 

That future day had an impact on the everyday of the typical Jewish person at the time of Christ. Their way of talking about all this was to distinguish between the Present Age and what was referred to as the Age to Come.  The Present Age, their current time, was full of sin and injustice, lying and oppression. Good people were suffering while wicked people got away with wickedness.  But in the Age to Come, that would all be changed. 

So the question pressing on any Jew who believed this was, can I be sure that I will be one of those who will inherit the Age to Come, and, if so, how?  This is the question this man who stops Jesus wants answered. 

Now, many a translation puts his question as, “How do I inherit eternal life?”  A long Christian tradition has assumed that he wanted to know how he could be sure he was going to heaven when he died, but that wasn’t how the man in the story would have put it. 

The word that we often translate ‘eternal’ comes from a word which means ‘belonging to the Age.’  In this Coming Age, God was going to make the whole world a new place; when that happened, it wasn’t about escaping this reality. You wouldn’t want to be away in heaven but here on earth to enjoy the great blessing God was giving in re-created reality.

This understanding changes how we read Jesus’ words, “You will have treasure in heaven.”  Jesus doesn’t mean that this man must go to heaven to get his treasure; Jesus means that God will keep it stored up for him until the time when, in the Age to Come, all is revealed.  The reason you have money in the bank is not so you can spend it in the bank but so that you can take it out and spend it somewhere else.  The reason you have treasure in heaven, God’s storehouse, is so that you can enjoy the Age to Come when God brings heaven and earth together at last.  So it isn’t about escaping this world, it is about bountiful living in the next, recreated world and enjoying God’s blessing to its fullest.

Now, other groups had answered had answers for this rich, young ruler’s question.  For the Pharisee who worked with the common people in the village synagogues to the Essenes who had isolated themselves in the desert, to inherit the Age to Come meant living out their own detailed interpretation of the Jewish law.  More importantly, you had to join their group.  If you were in with the right group, you would be on the right side of the blessings of the Age to Come. 

So, you could look at the man’s question not as “How do I inherit the Age to Come?” but more like, “Jesus, just what sort of movement might you be leading?”  He wants to make sure he has his ducks in row and in the right group to get the most of the Age to Come. 

Jesus’ reply must have puzzled this young man greatly.  All he did was to restate the basic commandments from the Ten Commandments which every Jew knew well.  Or at least some of them.  Notice which ones he misses.  He starts the list with numbers 6-9, murder, adultery, theft, perjury.  Adds an extra one with ‘don’t defraud.’ and then goes back to number 5 about honoring your parents.  He omits number 1 to 4, putting God first, no idols, not taking God’s name in vain, and the Sabbath and also number 10 about covetousness.

Now, watch how the rest of the conversation comes round the back with a fresh twist on all the commandments (except Sabbath keeping).  Jesus’ basic demand is not for some logic-chopping extra observance, some tightening of a definition here, some tweaking of a meaning there.  No: It is for idols and covetousness to be thrown to the winds.  Sell it all and give to the poor

And it is for a radical rethink on what putting God first, and not taking his name in vain, might mean:  Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God; come and follow me.

Jesus’ new movement is indeed a radical revision of what it means to be God’s people, to follow the Law of Moses.  Because he, Jesus, is here, a whole new world opens up:  The Age to Come is not now simply in the future, though it is that, too.  It is bursting through into the present, like a baby chick so keen to be born that it’s already sticking its beak through the shell ahead of the right time.  Every time that you hear Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God, he’s talking about that future reality of the Age to Come being pulled into the here and now so we can experience it today.

The discussion that follows the rich man’s sad departure reflects the disciples’ shock at being told that wealth won’t buy you a place in the Age to Come.  Their surprise only makes sense if we assume that they regarded wealth as a sign of God’s pleasure. 

Jesus cuts right through that surprise.  Wealth can be a blessing from God, but if that wealth gets in the way of loving God and neighbor, then it becomes a block to the overwhelming treasures God has in store for us.  Riches can no more go or get you into the Age to Come than a camel can go through a needle—a deliberate overstatement.  In God’s kingdom now and fully realized in the Age to Come, everything will be upside down and inside out, all things are possible with God, and the first will be last and the last first. 

In particular, though, those who have left family and possessions to follow Jesus will receive many more things back in the Present Age—a new and ever-enlarging family of their fellow-disciples, with homes open to them where they go.  And yes, persecutions are waiting for them, too.  Mark wants to stress that the paradoxical living in the Age to Come now clashes with Present Age.  They are at odds with each other. 

 So, what’s Christ’s invitation to us this first Sunday of Lent? 

It is to take his call to follow him seriously.  What is it that gets in the way of you following him?  Wealth?  Power?  Status?  Even our family or home can become idols that direct our love away from God and neighbor.  Take this week as an invitation to open your life to the call of discipleship.  Let the Holy Spirit work on you. 

Friends, the good news is that that all things are possible with God. God can take those things that hinder us from truly following him and transform them and us into beacons that point to the Age to Come.  We open our homes to each other and the stranger.  We share, not because of a fear of scarcity, but because of the abundance we have been blessed with.  We use our influence to lift others up instead of a continued race to the top of the heap.  God’s grace and love are shared in new and multifaceted ways.

All the early Christians came to believe that with Jesus’ death and resurrection the Age to Come had indeed broken fully into the Present Age.  The future hope had been pulled into the present reality to be experienced and embraced.  That day was a day that everything changed for humanity and all of creation.  Nothing has been the same since. 

That’s one of the hardest points for us to grasp today about their way of looking at the world and at God.  But if we even begin to take it seriously, we’ll see there is nowhere to hide from Jesus’ uncompromising–though cheerful and celebratory and blessing-filled—call to discipleship. 

The call “Come on!  Follow me!” echoes down through history to us today.  We are invited to respond with a cry of “Yes!” with all that we are and with all that we have. 


Come and See: Sermon by Keith, 1.22.17

Scripture: John 1:35-42   

Let’s just say that the “philigopper” on your car breaks.  You go out one morning, put the key in, and nothing happens.  You open the hood and notice the philigopper is leaking gop, so you know this is serious.  Your car has always run like a dream, and besides regular maintenance, you have never had to go to a mechanic before.  But this isn’t a job for any regular mechanic; you need one that specializes in philigoppers, a philigoptimist.  You open the Yellow Pages or Google “philigoptimists” in La Grande, OR.”  Wow, there are six different philigoptimists in the area!  You know this will be an expensive job that is very detailed and time consuming and you want it done right.  What do you do next?

Well, I know what I would do; I’d start calling my friends.  I’d call some of you and ask you if ever had your philigopper go out on your car, and if so, who did the repairs.  (pretend to call one of the members of the church.)

There is an issue of trust in the midst of all of this.  If your friend tells you which shop took good care of him when their philigopper went out, you are more than likely to go to there, too.  If your friend says that the new movie showing at the theater is awesome, you have a better change of changing your schedule and go see it.  It even counts with restaurants.  We are making our plans to travel to Arizona for Spring Break and trying to decide if we are going to go through Nevada on the back roads or stick to the interstate through Utah.  We may have been swayed to go through Nevada because Linda Fratzke said there is this little restaurant in Wells that has awesome homemade food.  Our trust and friendship in Linda may have swayed how we travel in March.

But what about when comes to church?  Or even talking about God for that matter?  I’ll be the first to say that we live in era and part of the world that you are probably more likely to be asked about where you get your philigopper fixed than you are to have someone call you up and ask you about what church you go to.  In some ways, this seems almost counterintuitive.  Spirituality is at an all time high, people are looking for God, people are looking for answers to life’s questions, but for some reason people want to find that path on their own, as an individual without a community.  It’s like fixing your philigopper without a manual or help from someone else who’s worked on one before.  But on the flipside, it can be hard to talk about God, our faith, Jesus, and church.  If the phone did ring and a friend was asking you about who this Jesus fellow was, you might be apt to say, “Let me have you call my pastor.”  You know, call the expert, even though you have everything you need to talk about what Jesus is doing in your life.

I believe our scripture from the Gospel of John offers up to us what any of us can say, a simple invite to those times when we haven’t been asked about our faith, because I believe it goes beyond waiting for someone to ask us.  The invitation is to “Come and see.”   And I think the entire gospel is a “come and see” gospel.  Do you remember the very beginning of John, where the Word was God and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?  God didn’t wait for our invite.  Jesus is God stepping across the cosmos right into our lives, right in front of us, inviting us to “come and see.”  Why would God want to do this?  Because God wants to be known by us and has become known by us in Jesus Christ.

It begins when John the Baptist sees Jesus walking by, points to him and says to his disciples, “Look, there he is—the Lamb of God!”  They follow Jesus and he says, “What are you looking for?”  A simple question with profound implications.  Everyone is looking for something: salvation, identity, love, to get out of church soon enough to get to their favorite lunch spot.  Some are looking for fulfillment, purpose, answers to life’s question.  Their reply may seem odd, “Where are you staying?”  But I think their question points us to a deeper meaning, they want to know if this guy is legit, if he really is the Lamb of God.  “Come and see,” is Jesus’ response.  Come and get to know me. Come and find out for yourself.  Ask questions.  See me at work.  Come to the conclusions on your own.  Live with me.  Be in relationship with me.  Simply, come and see.

Even the interaction between Philip and Nathanael shows how uncomplicated it is.  We don’t know their relationship, but they must have been friends for Philip to go share this good news.  Philip comes and tells Nathanael that the one scripture has promised is here!  And he is from Nazareth.  Now, Nathanael’s response can seem a little snooty, but it is a legitimate question.  “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael knew his scriptures and the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  It seems like an unlikely place for the Christ to call home.  But do you see what Philip does?  He doesn’t try and convince or cajole.  He doesn’t even answer Nathanael’s question.  No, he invites Nathanael to join him on this faith journey and answer the question himself.  Here is a friend inviting his friend to come have an encounter with Jesus himself.  Come and see and have your own experience of and testimony to God who has come to him in Jesus Christ.

What does this mean for us?  Well friends, first and foremost, it means we invite our friends to come and see.  It isn’t our job to answer every question.  Like Philip, we must recognize that questions are an opportunity to help the people who are curious venture into the ranks of those who are willing to come and see.  Our job is not to think for people; it is only to invite them.  This means that those you are inviting to “come and see” are those who know you and trust you, whether family member, friend, or neighbor.  In this day and age when people are looking for authenticity in every aspect of their lives, an invitation from someone who they already know and trust will go further than anything anyone can offer.

But I also believe these “come and see” invitations are to be given to those who haven’t called you up to ask you about God.  God came across the room, so to speak, in Jesus Christ so he could live with us and we could live with him, to be in a new, whole relationship with him.  And in that relationship, God is inviting us to walk across the room to invite people to “come and see.”  I think Philip was excited to invite Nathanael into a relationship with Jesus.  And it is something we need to be excited about, too.  Now, I’m not saying stand on a street corner and scream Bible passages at people.  I’m not saying clobber your friends and family with Jesus.  What I’m saying is pray and be guided by the Holy Spirit.  Those times for invitations will come.

A couple years into our time as your pastors, I was asked, “If I invited someone to church, what would I be inviting them too?”  It’s a good question.  If you hadn’t noticed, we are a little older, we don’t have a praise band like a cool church should, we don’t have a bunch of programs.  But notice what God’s invitation, Jesus invitation, and Philip’s invitation is all about.  Or what that invitation isn’t all about.  It isn’t an invitation to accept a certain dogma or doctrine, a certain music style, or even an invite to a church.  It is an invite to a relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  To dwell in God and have God dwell in us.

So, what would you be inviting people too?  Let me answer that question with a story.  Do you all remember Autumn and her two daughters? A couple of months ago, she was trying to sell her house and she called us to see if we were able to help her with a couple of things now that she is hundreds of miles away.  When I thought we were almost done talking, she asked, “Keith, why isn’t your church full of people?  It should be packed.”  I went on to ask her what she was talking about.  She shared that when she had moved to La Grande to go back to school at EOU, she checked out a couple of the “big” churches and felt ignored by the people.  Yeah, they had all the programming for the every age and whatever style of music worship service that a person could want.  But they didn’t seem to want to get to know her and her daughters.  So she took a chance on First Pres, mostly because she liked the architecture.  But she was shocked when she got here.  Never had she felt so welcomed at a church.  She said, “The church loved on me and my daughters like we were family.”  She didn’t find a program, she didn’t find a praise band, she didn’t even find a small group for divorced moms like they had at one of the other churches she checked out.  She got a glimpse of God.  She found the love of Christ in and through you.

And Autumn hadn’t been invited by anyone.  Just think what would happen if we all invited a friend to come and see and experience Christ here?  Because Christ is here!  Ultimately, he is the one doing the inviting, because he wants to be found by you, by your friends, by your family.  “Come and see” calls the Christ.  And his invitation becomes ours. “Come and see” is our invitation to the world.  Join the journey and invite others on the journey as well, for in the quest itself, there is life to be found in the one who journeys with us.   Because along the way, he promises that we will get glimpses in and through him of what every person is looking for:  the very heart of God.  Amen.


Torn down to build up 11.15.15

Today I delve into one of those texts of scripture that often cause stress and anguish not only for the reader, but also for the preacher who decides to wade in the apocalyptic waters of texts that deal with things yet to come.  Chapter 13 in the Gospel of Mark has often been referred to as the “little apocalypse,” because of all the dire language.  Oft-quoted texts like “wars and rumors of wars,” of earthquakes and famines, have been used by alarmists throughout the history of the church.   Which is ironic, because in the midst of this bleak picture of wars and earthquakes, you will hear Jesus give words of comfort to not only his disciples, but also to us as we live in a world where nightly the news broadcasts bring the horrors of wars and natural disasters into our living rooms.

Even though I completely believe Jesus’ predictions in chapter 13 dealt with the destruction of the temple that happened in 70AD, any good prophecy speaks beyond the moment it was intended for and has a word for us today.  Jesus consoles his disciples then and now with the words, “Do not be alarmed.”  These texts aren’t meant to strike fear into our hearts, but to teach what is needed to sustain us as we life out our day-to-day discipleship in a world of transition and turmoil.  Let us hear the words of our Lord from the opening verses of chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 13: 1-8

Many of you are well traveled and have seen some pretty spectacular structures during those times abroad.  Which of all the buildings you saw was the most impressive or most beautiful? What was your initial reaction when you first saw it?  How many pictures did you take?  Now imagine as you are taking your last picture, the guy standing next to you says, “It won’t be long before all that will all be gone.”

The feeling you have only begins to scratch the surface of what must have gone through the disciples’ heads and hearts as Jesus told them that the temple would be destroyed.  This was the temple, the very dwelling place of God.  It was huge.  The Roman historian Tacitus described the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold.  There were immense courtyards, grand porches and monumental stairs.  Herod, the great builder of this temple, not only built it to impress his Roman allies, but to show off his power to the common Jewish people of Israel.  And he succeeded.

For these Galilean fishermen, the daunting power of the temple and the Roman forces may have seemed irresistible and immovable.  But Jesus lets them know that the powers of the present age are transient, they will not last.  The world they are living in of imperial rule from both outside and inside the temple is not the way that God intends the world to be.  They would have been in complete agreement that the sooner the Romans went the better.  But the temple?  It stood for so much.  Sadly, the temple became a metaphor for how God would save the people of Israel from the world, but it had originally been built so the people of Israel would be a light unto the world, pointing the world back to loving presence of God.

In sharing this story of the foretelling of the destruction of the temple, Mark is not denying that crises exist or that there are times when present suffering calls for urgent action.  But what it does is present the cataclysms Jesus describes as the “birth pangs” of God’s transformation of the world, where God’s new heaven and new earth intersect with the old.   Because of this, whenever you hear people ascribe disaster experiences as part of God’s judgment, they are to be held at arms length.  In almost a way that is un-apocalyptic, Jesus says that earthly disasters are not necessarily an indication that God’s judgment is near.  They will happen, but don’t try and interpret them for what they may not be.  God is at work in the world, but labeling God’s actions and motivations as judgment is not the job of his followers.

Jesus is aware of our human tendencies, to lock in on more powerful forces and to be overcome with fear due to threats, violence, war, the tenuous standing of the church, the finitude of our existence, or to be lured by all those enticing voices promising the false security of other idols, quick fixes and scapegoats.

In response to our inevitable reaction to such powerful forces, Jesus provides us with three important spiritual disciplines for navigating transitional times.  Things were changing and about to change very fast for the disciples in the next several days and years, with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and then the destruction of their beloved temple.  How are we to respond in this world of constant change and flux?

First, believers must engage in discernment in the face of threats from both without and within to determine God’s goal for the life of the world.  For the disciples between that time of the resurrection and destruction of the temple, history tells us that resistance fighters were going through the Palestinian countryside calling on all Jews to join the battle.  Many in Mark’s community would have been tempted to join the cause and saying “no” would have marked them as traitors.

For us, the threats in this age are more subtle such as allowing the false security of a cultural, consumer driven theology to creep into our community.   In today’s culture in the church, this often takes shape in the assumption that a church that is growing, vibrant, and happy is “filled with the Spirit,” as though these are visible indications of being spiritually dressed for success, or that a church in decline has necessarily lost the steadfast faithfulness of bygone years.  God in Christ calls us to be faithful to him and not successful as defined by the world’s standards.

Second, believers must be patient.  Birthing a new heaven and new earth takes time.  There are many evils to eradicate and many more hopes to realize.  These are the birth pangs of God’s new age.  God’s transformation and the witness of believers must compete with many forces, biases, demons, and appetites.  Working out God’s promises occurs during the life of the world as well as in and for the world.  Being patient requires the recognition of the truth that, while the powers of the world are imposing and strong, they are not unmovable and invincible.  The love of God that is transforming the world is the one thing we can rely on that won’t change.

Trusting that God is transforming the world and that believers are called to participate in God’s saving work is fundamental to Mark’s conception of the Christian life.  In that task, believers are sustained by the third reminder:  for the Christian, there is always hope.  There will be times when we feel beleaguered, beaten up, bruised, and vulnerable.  Growth, change, and the coming of new life are a painful process, but in this suffering there is always hope and the promise of a new day.  Hope sustains us through the birth pangs of change and the necessary struggle that leads to growth.  It is Mark’s prescription to the disciples as they move into a time of great change and transition, and it his prescription to us, Christ’s church, in a world of change and transition:  Discernment, patience, and hope.  They are given as a provisional sign to stand in the midst of tension in a passing world.  Amen.

What Do You Want Me To Do? Sermon by Laura 10.25.15 Pentecost 22B

The story of Bartimaeus is Jesus’ last healing miracle in Mark’s gospel. Coming just before Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, it’s a transition story wrapping up one section of the narrative while it points toward the next. In the story of Bartimaeus, we have a rich gathering of imagery and ideas about who Jesus is and what he’s about, as well as what it means for us to have faith and follow him. This story seems simple, but it has many layers of meaning, so it lends itself well to a prayer practice from Ignatius of Loyola, who valued the power of human imagination in deepening our relationship with God. The idea is that you use your imagination to enter into the story and find yourself as a participant in it, experiencing for yourself an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Now, I’m aware that this kind of prayer is a challenge for some of us, so let’s be clear: there is no way to do this exercise right or wrong, and I invite you to release any expectations you might have about how it will go.  If you have a new powerful insight, great; if nothing comes, that’s okay, too. Allow yourself to be present; invite Jesus to sit with you in any discomfort; breathe, rest and trust that God is present no matter what. Even if you fall asleep, well, God’s with you there, too.

So, let’s go. First, get as comfortable as you can in your seat and close your eyes.  Let’s take three deep breaths, Trinitarian-style,letting our bellies fill with air and soften and then releasing with our breath anything outside of this moment. Two more…one more…

Now, letting your breathing settle into a relaxed and regular pattern, begin to imagine a busy ancient street in Jericho…a regular thoroughfare for Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals…It’s a spring day, and you feel the bright sun on your face. You hear animals, and smell the dust rising from the road. Hawkers shout out what they have to sell, and beggars plead for alms. You hear the sounds of a large crowd, many feet stepping, and feel the buzz that someone special is coming, anticipation and the curiosity building on the street. Find yourself in this story as I read the text…

Mark 10:46-52

So…Where did you experience yourself in this story? Were you an observer, watching the whole thing? Were you on the street in the crowd? Were you on the roadside with Bartimaeus? Maybe you saw yourself as Bartimaeus, or maybe, if you were daring,you experienced the scene from Jesus’ point of view. Is there anything that surprised you about this experience?…

Here are a few thoughts I had, pondering this story from multiple perspectives. First, the disciples: how would you, one of Jesus’ “inner circle,” be feeling at this moment? You’ve been journeying with Jesus for many days, and you know it’s significant to be closing in on Jerusalem. Not so many days ago, Peter named Jesus “the Messiah,” and since then Jesus has been predicting strange things you can’t quite take in, using scary words like “suffer” and “be crucified.” You don’t really want to hear them, and they make no sense,
so you continue imagining that the moment you’ve been dreaming of is finally approaching, when Jerusalem is reclaimed and restored to the rightful King of Israel,and you, one of the 12, are at the center of power.

Then there’s the crowd. These are folks who have heard of Jesus, who are curious about him and want to be near him, who are carried along with the wave of energy his presence creates.  As a crowd member, it may be unclear to you why you are here. The buzz around him, the stories about things he’s done and said connect with you, but otherwise you are not particularly committed to Jesus. When you hear Bartimaeus calling out, the beggar’s voice at first feels like a dissonant interruption. And then, when you hear what he’s saying, it makes you a bit nervous. To call Jesus “The Son of David” is a pretty bold assertion that he really is the true king the Jews have been waiting for. It’s a politically dangerous claim, and you want him to quiet down before Herod’s spies or local Roman centurions hear anything and get everyone in trouble.

And of course, there’s Bartimaeus, a beggar with a curious name. It oddly combines Aramaic and Greek to mean the “son of Timaeus.” In naming him thus, Mark might be making a connection to Plato, who wrote a philosophical piece called “The Timaeus;” so I like to imagine that Bartimaeus before he was blinded, was a confused student of both Jewish and Greek ideas,  wondering about what’s truly true.

But what, if you are Bartimaeus in this moment, are you thinking? What is you’ve heard about Jesus convicts you now that he is the one, your true king? What is about Jesus that inspires your trust, that he can and will help you in your deepest, most desperate longings? What is it about him that compels you to shout against the crowd so that he will hear and see you?

Finally, there’s Jesus. If you are Jesus, you are pacing yourself, step by step, toward Jerusalem, aware of the big picture. You know that what you’ve been doing and saying will inevitably be recognized as dangerous by the powers-that-be. You know the time remaining for your mission of proclaiming and enacting God’s kingdom is limited, and you know that even your closest companions are not really “getting” it.

God’s ways are so different from human ways, turning everything upside down. Yet you have trust and courage; you are centered and focused; the affirmation God pronounced at your baptism rings in your mind with each step: “You are my Beloved Son.” Amidst the flurry around you, you are somehow able to rest and trust in those words, in their truth and promise.

When Bartimaeus causes his commotion, the crowd—presumably including the disciples—tries to shut him down. But I love how the text says that Jesus “stood still.” I imagine him as the still point in the whirlwind of emotions and expectations the disciples, the crowd, and Bartimaeus represent. It reminds me of another chaotic commotion, on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was the still-point, calming the Sea’s chaos and the disciple’s terror with authority.

Here Jesus uses that authority, commanding the crowd to call Bartimaeus, and a different kind of transformation takes place. I love how the crowd, obeying Jesus, goes from being a disinterested collection of people to a community of care and encouragement. I love how Bartimaeus goes from a disempowered beggar to a man of vision, doing what the rich man earlier in Mark 10 could not, flinging away his one possession, his cloak, as he springs with raw hope toward Jesus.

And I love the powerful question Jesus asks Bartimaeus, by which, perhaps, just perhaps, the disciples  are brought a teeny-tiny bit closer to understanding. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. This is the same question he asked James and John, when they approached him a few verses earlier, wanting to be Jesus’ #1 and #2 courtiers when he kicks out the Romans once and for all. Jesus tells them their request is not his to grant, telling them, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

What do you want me to do for you? It’s a beautiful question, says author John Dear, revealing not only that God truly desires to help us, but the very nature of our God: “In Jesus, we have a God who is humble, loving, and generous, a God who longs to serve humanity, especially in its brokenness, poverty and blindness.” Bartimaeus’ response shows his clear insight, his transparent humility, so different than the presumptions of the power-hungry disciples. Bartimaeus is graced with awareness that he is indeed broken and in need of mercy, and that Jesus is the One who can heal and restore him.

This question also shows that Jesus makes no assumptions. It may seem obvious to us that Bartimaeus will want his eyesight back, but I believe Jesus looks on him as Jesus looks on all of us, a human being in need but with inviolable dignity. Jesus’ compassionate vision can hold both our brokenness and the wholeness God intends for us, and he doesn’t presume to decide for us what we need most. It is up to Bartimaeus, as it is up to each one of us, to see and name our deepest desires for healing and wholeness, entrusting them fully to God in Christ.

My friends, Bartimaeus asks for what he wants and receives what he asks for. The disciples and the crowd are not yet as clear—not just about who Jesus is, but about who they are and what they truly want.

Where are you in this story? The good news of the gospel is that we have a King who has come to serve. Wherever we find ourselves today, we are invited to know ourselves as those who need his mercy, and we are invited to become aware of the mercy we need. Flinging away everything that stands between us and Jesus, we are invited to tell him, with profound trust, exactly what we long for, what we hope for, our deepest most desperate desire for new life.

I am convinced we will find it as we follow, like Bartimaeus, in Jesus’ way, a way that leads us from our blindness through suffering and loss into the wide-eyed wonder of resurrection faith by which we ourselves are blessed to serve and heal the world. Amen.

Losing to Gain: Sermon by Keith, 10.18.15

Note to readers: our sermon blog has been on hiatus for a bit, but I’m trying to catch things up. That’s why this is a sermon from October 2015 being blogged in February 2016. Such is the life of pastoral ministry: busy season and things go by the wayside. At any way, I’m going to do my best to get us up to the present in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. 🙂 Laura


Scriptures: Hebrews 5:1-10 and Mark 8:27-38

It is mid-term exam time for the disciples.  The test will not only see if they have been paying attention, but it is also see if we have been paying attention.  And the test boils down to just one question from their teacher, “Who do you say that I am?”   And a lot is riding on their answer, for what they say not will not only reveal who they think Jesus is, but also who they are as his followers.

Up to this point, the disciples have been hearing a lot of questions and even asking a few questions about who Jesus is and what he is up to that might help them pass the teacher’s test.  From Jesus’ first healing, the question rings out, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority?”  Basically, who is this guy and where does he get his power?  When the paralytic is dropped through the ceiling of the house that Jesus is staying in and offers him forgiveness before offering healing, the questions come up, “Why does this fellow speak in this way?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”   And when he is in the boat with his disciples and he calms the storm, the disciples ponder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Even Jesus’ question about what other people are saying about him gives the disciples time to ponder who Jesus is.

Then he turns and asks them all, “Who do you say that I am?” When he says, “You are the Messiah” or the Christ, Peter becomes the spokesperson for the group. But in calling Jesus the Messiah, Peter isn’t calling Jesus divine or even delving into Trinitarian theology.

We have the benefit of reading these words on this side of the resurrection, of knowing how the church has wrestled with answering Jesus’ question for millennia. But in that time and place, what Peter meant in calling Jesus “the Messiah” is that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the heir to the throne of David.  Not Herod, not Caesar.  But Jesus was the long awaited king that they had all been waiting for.

I always have wondered what the teacher’s expression was when he heard Peter’s answer.  Was it a look of relief, “You finally got it”?  Or was it more of, “Well, you got the right answer, but show me your work.”

Now that Peter made his confession, Jesus begins to teach them something new, something different than they had ever been taught before about the Messiah.  Peter and the disciples had a specific job description for the Messiah: Cleanse and rebuild the temple, defeat the enemies of God’s people, and bring God’s justice upon Israel and the world.

But that isn’t what Jesus had been doing, he wasn’t gathering a military force or announcing plans to kick out the Romans or the temple authorities.  From the get go, he has been re-defining and re-describing what the Messiah would look like.  And now he adds a new layer to it:   There is danger ahead, and Jesus must walk straight into it.  It was certain death and it was what he, as the Messiah, had to do.

Now, I really like how N.T. Wright describes what must have been going through Peter’s head.  It would be like the new football captain telling his team that he was intending to let the opposition score 10 goals right away. The disciples had probably deduced that Jesus had something else in mind besides a military take over, but for sure they never thought he was going straight to his death.  To their ears, they were hearing that Jesus was going to lose, and worse yet, he was inviting them to come and lose along side him.  They want to play follow the leader, not follow the loser.  No wonder Peter pulls Jesus aside to give him some career counseling on proper Messiahship, how the Messiah is supposed to play the game.

So, what happened?  Peter gets the right answer, which leads Jesus to command them not to tell anyone, followed by the harsh prediction of the future that awaited Jesus, and finally by an exchange of mutual rebukes by Peter and Jesus that end with Jesus linking Peter to Satan. It appears Peter got the right answer wrongly.  This exchange between Peter and Jesus gives the indication that this suffering Messiah is not the one the disciples planned on following.

Now, if a suffering Messiah is hard enough for Peter to swallow, Jesus turns and open begins to teach what it means to follow him, to lead a life as his disciple.  They include denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus.  Peter probably thought that confessing Jesus as the Messiah put him on the winning side of things to come and a glorious leadership role, not the possibility of ending up on a cross himself.

And this is where Jesus calls for a change of human perspective to a divine perspective.  Of course Peter is looking at things from a human perspective; he is a man, how else does Jesus expect him to look at things?  Peter sees him as the one who will support his human wants and desires.  Peter sees him as the one who will sustain the values he wants in enhanced in his life and country.  Peter sees Jesus as the one who will enable him to become a winner and ruler in the age to come.

But Jesus’ words to Peter suggest that he can, and we can, set our minds on divine things.  In our relationship with Jesus, as we have seen what he has and is doing in our lives, the lives of our neighbors, and in the life of the church, there is a promise and the hope that somehow the divine perspective on who we are and what we are about breaks through.  In Jesus, God enables us to find a way that is different from the way of the world, enabling us to discern how life is fulfilled as God intends, and enabling us to live by values that are not embodied in the normal course of human affairs.

Even with the added benefit of reading Jesus’ words on this side of the resurrection, it can still be a struggle to discern the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?”  We want a Messiah who will set the world right on our terms, but God gives us a suffering Christ who brings forth a new creation on God’s terms.  We don’t get the Messiah we want, we get the Messiah we need.

And in answering the question of “Who is Jesus?” in light of Mark’s answer to that question, we can come to a clearer understanding of the question, “Who am I?”  It is not only about what we confess we believe about him, it is also about what we do in light of that confession.  We are disciples, his disciples:  learners who follow Jesus; followers who learn from him.  And what we learn above all else from our teacher is that we follow him in obedience in the will of God, even though it may mean our suffering and death of the self.  Because when we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we are also following him to his and our own resurrection, participating with the power of God to bring life out of death.  Amen.

One Thing: Sermon by Laura, 10.11.15 Pentecost 20B

Scriptures: Mark 10:17-31, Hebrews 4:12-16

In the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” Mitch, played by comedian Billy Crystal, is a 40-ish radio ad salesman in midlife crisis, whose friends have brought him on a Western cattle drive “vacation,” hoping to reignite some inspiration in their lives. The movie’s pivotal scene comes when Mitch is helping Curly, a grizzled old cowboy played by Jack Palance, round up some missing cows. Curly turns to Mitch and says, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger. “This.”
“Your finger?” says Mitch, perplexed.
“One thing. Just one thing,” Curly says….
Mystified, Mitch asks, “But, what is the ‘one thing?’”
With an enigmatic smile, Curly responds, “That’s what you have to find out.”

One thing. Just one thing. A man interrupts Jesus’ journey, kneeling before him to ask a burning question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The text says Jesus looks at him, loves him, and—I’m imagining this part, but can’t you just see him holding up a Curly-esque finger?—says to the man, “You lack one thing.”

One thing. You lack one thing. How ironic, since, by any of the world’s standards for measuring abundance or blessing, this man seems to lack nothing. Wealth then, as now, was understood as a sign of God’s blessing upon individuals or nations. To have many possessions is to lack nothing necessary for the comfort of oneself and one’s family, but also for achieving status as a societal patron with the power to influence culture and politics; and how much more likely is one whose needs are not only met but exceeded to be able to rigorously keep the commandments!

But Jesus looks at this man and sees differently. Mark’s words are simple but moving: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

Yet Jesus’ loving focus on the man also brings to mind today’s Hebrews text, about the living, active, piercing word of God:  sharper than any sword, judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart, so that “no creature is hidden but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Jesus’ sharp gaze sees not only the man’s status, but also his sincere longing to be faithful, his deep yearning to participate ever more fully in the goodness of God. It is from such love that Jesus issues the man an invitation: “Go, sell, what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

These words were shocking and grieving to that man, as they are no less shocking and grieving to those who today have many possessions. And while Jesus issues this particular invitation to a specific individual, so that we are hopeful it doesn’t apply to us, just after the rich man sadly walks away, Jesus turns his keen eyes on all his disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

Christians over the centuries, desiring to be both faithful and prosperous, have wrestled long and hard with this text. There are two classic ways interpreters have tried to wriggle out from under Christ’s loving but pointed gaze by making its message too simple. On one hand, we reduce what Jesus is saying to “Poor people good, rich people bad.” This gives us permission to do what we do so often, compare our wealth to those who have more than us. Clearly, Jesus isn’t talking to us, because we have so little compared to the 1%. And if we believe we are on the poorer end of the scale, we get to feel a little virtuous, feeling entitled to tell people who hoard their riches, “Good luck getting through the eye of a needle!” whilst we secretly envy them.

On the other hand, we try to tame Jesus’ hyperbole. There was a time when church scholars regularly taught that there had been a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which it was difficult, but not entirely impossible for camels—and therefore wealthy people—to pass through. Often the preacher would then suggest that if said wealthy people put a bit more in the church’s coffers, they’d be assured safe passage through the tight gate to eternal life.

Of course, there never was such a gate, and both reductions of Jesus’ message reveal that we are just as misunderstanding about the God’s kingdom as that poor little rich man.

“Good teacher,” the man says of Jesus, and we, like him, think we know what is “good.” Surely it is “good” to purchase every comfort or influence events with our monetary power. But Jesus says only God is good. The things we have and the power we exercise are only “good” to the extent that they partake of the God who alone is good.

We also, like the rich man, tend to think we are capable of assuring for ourselves ultimate security and abundance, both in this age and the age to come. “What must I do,” he asks, unable to see that eternal life might not be something he can procure for himself, even in his prosperity and lawful obedience.

Finally, we, like the man, misunderstand the kind of inheritance God gives us in Jesus Christ.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks. The word “inherit” suggests the experience of waiting and receiving from someone with whom there is a history of relationship, a kinship. To the extent that we honor the one from whom we inherit, we assume a responsibility for stewardship. In an inheritance, the relationship is key.

With “abstract wealth,” however, those ties are severed; we claim ownership of our possessions detached from relationships and unaccountable to anyone but ourselves. As one scholar notes, “The rich man thinks he wants inheritance, but what he wants is an eternal form of abstract wealth. He soon discovers that God does not give gifts that are detached from God’s own self…”

Jesus invites us, like the rich man, to consider how our abundant “goods” have become an obstacle to inheriting and receiving what we really yearn for, not abstract “goods” but the Good which God alone can give. How does our wealth distort our relationships with God and to others? How have we sought to provide for ourselves, by means of monetary power and accumulation of things, the abundant life that God alone can provide?

What is the one thing, just one thing, which makes our lives here and now and forever abundant with joy? I know how many of us here are all too aware how our possessions can begin to possess us! Our home is no exception to the clutter conundrum, a pandemic unleashed on the earth by consumer capitalism.  So recently I tried out a de-cluttering method from an international bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Kondo helps people in her native Japan shape the life they long for by teaching them how to discard and store their stuff.

Her method is pretty simple: go through your stuff, category by category, hauling out everything into a big pile, and then taking each piece in your hands, asking yourself, “Does it spark joy?” If you feel a thrill of joy holding the item, keep it. Otherwise, thank it for its service to you and let it go.

I began, as Kondo recommends, with my clothes. Now, I am by no means a clothes horse, but just as Kondo predicted, I was stunned to see the heap of clothing I actually had. I managed to cull four large garbage bags of clothing from my collection, though I was a bit worried seeing how much I was letting go: “What will I wear? If I rely only on joy, will there really be enough?”

That right there is more than a purely practical question, isn’t it? Somehow de-cluttering my clothing became a practice that got right at my fears of scarcity, revealing my lack of trust in the true source of joy. Waking up to my fear, I chose to trust and let go, giving thanks for the abundance I had received; and sure enough, a new and joyful freedom in dressing emerged.

It’s a pretty simple example, but I think Kondo’s method is effective because, beyond the desire to have a tidy home, it taps into our greater longing for joy and gratitude,  without which the most luxurious things become nothing more than clutter collecting dust.

Gratitude and joy go together. As Benedictine Brother David-Steindl-Rast writes, “We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy. But the reverse is true: their joy springs from gratefulness. If one has all the good luck in the world, but takes it for granted, it will not give one joy. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it…”

My friends, what is the one thing you lack, the deepest yearning of your hearts? And what in your life has become clutter, standing between you and the truly abundant life? Maybe it’s a pile of things collecting dust, but maybe it’s also your fears and insecurities, your distrust of anything but what you can count in your pocketbook, your home, or your heart. Maybe it’s a long-burning anger or grudge, or maybe there’s grief that’s never been experienced and released.

Today is the day to look at your life with the sharp and loving gaze of Christ, to see the things, habits, attachments and attitudes, holding you back from full reliance on God, to let go with gratitude, trusting you will inherit the one thing necessary a life of joy that comes only from the Giver of all Good things, not only in the eternal future but starting here and now, as we lean deeply into Christ’s love,  and we receive with gratitude the grace and mercy of our God of impossible possibilities.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says, pointing the man and us toward liberating generosity which restores relationship with God and others, rooted in gratitude and fruiting in joy. My friends, let us practice gratitude that we own nothing, not even ourselves. We belong to the God who created us, who invites us to receive a joy we can scarcely imagine, as we follow Jesus the Christ and we partner with the Spirit in sharing ourselves generously with a world profoundly in need of God’s love.  Amen.

Sources:, with obscenity removed for church consumption.

Karoline Lewis,

Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective,” in, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 310.

David Steindl-Rast, quoted from Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast by Brene Brown at

From Without and Within: Sermon by Laura, 8.9.15 Pentecost +14 B

Scriptures: Mark 7:1-8, 1423; Romans 8:31-39

It’s the blessing and curse of the digital age that, if you want to make a change, there is an overabundance of “expertise” instantaneously available to you. Take, for example, the parents of my generation, who want to discipline our children differently than our parents did. Maybe we’ve seen how those ways fell short; perhaps we’ve even seen the repetition of dysfunctional patterns in each generation. So, searching for best practices, we Google our childrearing questions and receive a thousand conflicting disciplinary ideas. Overwhelmed and weary after too many lists of “10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know,” we default back to familiar disciplinary tactics. Our parents weren’t perfect, but we turned out okay, didn’t we?

Thus flows tradition, by which humans learn and pass on disciplines of all kinds, effective or not. I’m using the word “discipline” in its basic, neutral meaning, simply a mode of training intended to guide and shape the will and character of a person. At our best, with children we use discipline to train them in acceptable and responsible behavior, wanting them to not only survive but thrive in a complex world.

Likewise, in Christian spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, such as prayer or Bible study, are tools to shape disciples in God’s will and character. In the gospels, Jesus is always teaching and modeling practices which help us see and live into life in God’s kingdom. And that is where the debate springs up between the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus has been saying and doing things that contradict the “tradition of the elders,” the disciplinary theory and practice the Pharisees are promoting for God’s people.

Practices of table fellowship are the specific issue: how, what, and with whom should faithful people eat? The Pharisees, drawing from Leviticus, had developed a number of disciplines to ensure ritual purity, a state of unblemished faithfulness to God. It meant keeping oneself separate from contaminating things and people which could render a person ritually unclean and barred from the Temple, the site of God’s holy presence on earth.

But some life situations made ritual purity difficult. For example at a market, you couldn’t be certain the food you purchased was cultivated correctly, or if proper tithes had been set aside. So you practiced cleansing disciplines to counteract any ritual impurity for which you couldn’t otherwise control.

The Pharisees, whose name literally means “separate ones,”[i] believed God’s people were meant to be set apart. So they promoted these practices as not just good for individuals, but as “fundamental to [their] ethnic and national identity”.[ii] In a time when Middle Eastern Jews were surrounded and infiltrated by the pagan Romans, their reinforcement of their purity code is typical. N.T. Wright suggests that for people experiencing the threat of invasion and cultural compromise, keeping strict purity codes was a symbolic way to say, “We are Jews! We are different! We don’t live like you do!”[iii]

So there is not just religious but political consternation when the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples eating without performing the purification rituals. Beyond the actions of the moment, they are offended by Jesus’ larger pattern of eating with people excluded by the purity codes: sinners, tax collectors and Gentiles. So the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

The Pharisees’ criticism is an opportunity for Jesus to address key issues of spiritual discipline. First is the issue of hypocrisy, which one commentator defines as “the disconnect between the moral values and standards we espouse and those we actually practice in our behavior…”[iv] In the Bible, the “heart” is understood as the seat of human motivation and will.  With Isaiah’s words, Jesus attacks the Pharisees’ promotion of ritual purity, suggesting they are not solely motivated, as they claim, by a desire to honor God, but by the mixed motivations of a self-serving, human ideological agenda.

Everyone who seeks to live in ways pleasing to God faces the danger of hypocrisy, especially those who want teach others the discipline of such a life. How much damage has been done in faith communities whose leaders fall scandalously short of practicing what they preach! But the example I started with, of parents disciplining children, exposes the basic culpability of the majority. How many of us, in our words or actions, have not essentially told our children, “Do what I say and not what I do?”

Keith and I recently attended a workshop on Conscious Discipline, a theory and practice for offering loving guidance to children, recommended by Ruth Young, who uses it with children at Head Start. The founder of Conscious Discipline, Becky A. Bailey, has a book for parents called Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. After eighteen months studying Spiritual Formation and Discipleship at George Fox, I must say that Bailey’s book translates so much of what I’ve learned into clear, practical terms that I’m an enthusiastic “new convert” who just can’t help myself recommending it to you, regardless of whether you work with children.

Bailey’s purpose is to help parents move from disciplinary practices motivated by fear, which seek to control children, to practices motivated by love, which seek to guide growing human beings in learning connection and cooperation. But the most challenging aspect of her thought is that parents themselves must become consciously disciplined in the skills they wish to teach their children.

To highlight this point, Bailey recounts the story of a mother who walked three days to consult the Mahatma Gandhi about her son. “He eats only sugar—no other food. I have tried everything to get him to eat healthfully, yet he refuses. Please help me.” (I relate to her!). Gandhi told her to return in one week with her son.

Disappointed, the mother nevertheless walked home, waited a week, and then walked the long way back to Gandhi, as instructed. When she arrived, Gandhi simply looked at her child and told him, “Stop eating sugar.” “The mother, shocked by the brevity of his command, said, ‘I walked nine days and that is all you have to say? Could you not have told him this last week?’ Gandhi responded, ‘I could not tell the boy to stop doing something that I was still doing. It took me one week to stop eating sugar.’”[v] Bailey writes, “Gandhi couldn’t tell a child to stop doing something that he himself still did, and neither can you.”[vi]

In Christian terms, this story reminds us that purity of heart empowers purity of action. Not one of us doesn’t struggle to live with such integrity, in which our outer actions are a natural outflow of our inner dispositions. So often we launch into the attempt to change our own or others’ behavior without becoming aware of our own inner reality. If we keep this up, we become divided from ourselves, determined to escape a confused inner life by adhering rigorously to external formulas and checklists, trying to purify ourselves by fencing off the devastating vulnerability of a disintegrated identity.

Jesus says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: here is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile…For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…”

Do not mistake the means for the end, Jesus is saying. We can wash our hands, choose organic food, and exercise ourselves all we want. All of those are health-promoting practices, but they will not save us. Ultimately, every practice of discipline falls short. Even Conscious Discipline, which I am so excited about, will fall short, if it does not help address the deeper, root problem humans face in our desire to live a whole and holy life.

Our “Unvanquished” Vacation Bible School, which was held this past week, had today’s Romans passage as the centerpiece: there is nothing external to us, nothing that can happen to us, nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

But what might, and often does, hinder us from living out of God’s love is what N.T. Wright calls “the poisoned wells of human motivation.”[vii] Another author writes says it is the “malignancy” at our hearts “that chokes the life out of tradition, turns it into an enemy of God, contorts it into a way of excusing injustice, and blinds those afflicted by it to their own culpability for the evils that trouble the world…”[viii]

My friends, the enemy comes not from without but from within.

As much as I enjoy teaching spiritual formation practices, as much as I respect our Presbyterian polity, those disciplines, at their best, serve only to direct us toward and open us to our true hope, which is that God in Christ can show us the truth of our hearts. As we turn again toward God, we see ourselves, with humility and honesty, as sinners—people who miss the mark of true faithfulness—sinners who receive God’s saving purpose, presence, and power only by way of God’s gracious mercy.  This awareness alone prepares us to enter the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.

At their best, spiritual disciplines also reveal for us that Christ’s kingdom is always different from what we expect. Christ’s kingdom is like not a world so controlled that there are no upsets or conflicts, but a world in which conflict becomes an opportunity to teach and to learn the ways of forgiveness and love.[ix] It is not a purity of separation, from which some messy people are excluded to make the world less complex for “clean” ones. It is about a purity of unification, in which a holy God comes to earth, embracing a fully human life, relating with compromised, corrupted people in acceptance, compassion, and vulnerability, in which we become pure as we are joined to God.

My friends, Jesus Christ invites us to follow him as disciples, receiving his discipline of forgiving love with hope and joy. As we follow him, let us entrust our broken hearts to his transforming touch, returning again and again to his love in which we are made whole. Amen.



[ii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, 218.

[iii] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 93.

[iv] Loye Bradley Ashton, “Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 22.

[v] Bailey, Becky A. Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The Seven Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation. New York: Harper, 2000, 70-71.

[vi] Bailey as above, 71.

[vii] Wright, 91-92.

[viii] Matt Skinner, quoting Joel Marcus in

[ix] Becky A. Bailey, 17; also Rachel Mann,

Vulnerable Mission: Sermon by Laura, 7.19.15

Scriptures: Mark 1-13

His disciples followed him.

With the dramatic stories that happen next, this phrase from Mark 6:1 seems rather innocuous and obvious. Of course Jesus’ disciples followed him. That’s what the disciples do, right? They go where their master goes. They do what he tells them to do. They open themselves to receive and learn from him. They follow.

In this text, they are following Jesus back from a tour of regions around the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus has been announcing the coming of God’s kingdom. On this tour, the disciples have seen him rebuke the wind-tossed sea into stillness and cast a Legion of unclean spirits from a possessed man into a herd of swine. Just prior to our stories today, they have witnessed Jesus heal a woman suffering from 12 years of bleeding and raise 12-year-old girl back to life. Thus have the 12 disciples seen Jesus’ kingly authority revealed, bringing order to chaos, freedom from enslavement, and new life out of death.[1] Soon, they will themselves be sent out, in that same authority, to heal, cast out demons, and announce the kingdom.

His disciples followed him.

First, however, the disciples follow Jesus to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath day. And, after all the wonders they have seen, I imagine the last thing the disciples expect is the hometown crowd’s reaction to Jesus. It begins well; the people seem impressed by Jesus’ wisdom and powerful actions: “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”

But in the next breath, what appears to be a compliment becomes an insult. Regardless of any powerful deeds, these people know those hands were, up until now, employed in the mundane work of carpentry. Jesus was just a handyman, so how special could he really be?

There’s irony here, as N.T. Wright notes, “Jesus is indeed the one who can fix things, the one who is putting up a building, the one people should go to, to get things sorted out.”[2] But “familiarity breeds contempt,” the saying goes, and even more, it gives the locals the excuse they need to reject any notion of Jesus as Messiah and dismiss his dangerous kingdom teachings.

So this “un-miracle” story ends sadly.[3] Jesus offers a new, transformative reality, but the locals refuse to receive it. It’s not that Jesus’ hands have any less power, but that his neighbors and friends have effectively tied them.  After healing just a few sick folks, Jesus voices the pain he must have felt in this rejection: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown…” And then, amazed at their unbelief, Jesus moves on.

His disciples followed him.

It’s interesting that Mark’s gospel places the story of Jesus sending the Twelve into the villages to minister with “authority over the unclean spirits,” just after an event where Jesus’ authority was rejected.  What is “authority?” One source defines it as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.”[4]

My mind links the word “authority” to the word “authoritarian,” a leadership style which enforces obedience “at the expense of personal freedom.”[5] Authoritarian governments use whatever force necessary to compel submission and conformity to their agenda. This is the kind of leadership Rome exercised over the people of first century Palestine, domination by force of arms and incessant war, celebrated, ironically, as the “Pax Romana,” the peace of Rome.

The peace of God’s kingdom, the authority in which Jesus sends the disciples, is utterly in contrast to such authoritarian regimes. And that, frankly, may be part of what offended Jesus’ hometown crowd. The kingdom Jesus was announcing contradicted the hope of Messiah so many Jews had nursed, the hope for a military leader who would fight Rome’s fire with fire, reclaiming their homeland from the pagans.

Jesus does not and will not compel obedience to his agenda by dominating force. Jesus’ authority comes from God, and God doesn’t force anyone into faith. God, who longs for our responsive love and obedience, allows people the freedom to reject him. In concert with God’s will and ways, Jesus’ authority makes change by way of free acceptance. He announces the kingdom, available to us here and now, and he shows us God’s desire and power for healing and wholeness. Those who freely accept and receive from him find their hearts and lives completely transformed. The eternal kind of life—a life of grace, purpose, courage, and deep love—becomes our everyday reality and spreads out from us to others.

But Jesus knows that for others, his way just seems too contrary to their understandings of prosperity and power on earth. No matter how loudly he speaks, some will not hear; no matter what sign he reveals, some will not see. Jesus grieves our rejection and our lack of faith, but he doesn’t let it slow him down.

And his disciples followed him.

 The Greek word, here translated “follow,” can also mean “imitate.” Disciples not only go where their master goes, but they take on his discipline: training that guides them in imitating the master’s character and deeds, training that shapes them in his likeness.

So, when Jesus sends out the Twelve, the disciples are not only to imitate their master’s powerful words, calling people to changed hearts and minds, fit for God’s kingdom; and they are not only to imitate his powerful sign-acts of exorcism and healing, which show, more powerfully than words, God’s kingdom is present in Jesus Christ. Above all, in the instructions he gives, we see that his disciples are also to imitate with authority rooted in vulnerability.

It’s an urgent mission; the disciples need to move fast and travel widely. They are not to waste time or energy carrying the burdens of self-sufficiency—bags with extra clothing, money, or even bread. If the disciples are not welcomed, they are not to waste time or energy trying to force the issue. Jesus tells them to shake off the dust and move on.

But beyond urgency, these instructions shape a relationship of hospitality. The disciples leave behind “the right equipment and…beautiful sacred objects”[6] we are so often tempted to substitute for faith. “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment,” is how Eugene Petersen puts Jesus’ instructions in the Message.[7]

Showing up in town as vulnerable people, strangers in need of welcome, willing to risk rejection, and accepting their lack of control over others’ reactions: It’s not just that these instructions allow them to be in a home to speak gospel words; it’s that, in and of itself, living out these instructions actually makes the gospel real. The disciples come into a community in vulnerable acceptance, just as Jesus Christ, in whom God comes to dwell with us came as a vulnerable infant, submitting himself to our hospitality, accepting our rejection, giving himself for our redemption.

His disciples followed him.

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes that hospitality is not just the literal act of receiving a stranger into our home, but “a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being” and “…in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other.”

Nouwen continues, “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place….Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”[8]

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that God in Jesus Christ offers us this kind of hospitality. When we were far off, God in Christ ran to us with open arms and received us with mercy and grace into his kingdom. Therefore, as Christ’s disciples, we are called to offer such hospitality to others. But in today’s scripture, we see that we do so not merely by welcoming strangers into our fine homes or churches, but by becoming strangers ourselves, allowing others to fulfill our needs, making ourselves vulnerable to the welcome or rejection Jesus himself receives. The paradox is that, in so doing, we become available to share the radical acceptance and the new reality of love we have received in Jesus Christ.

Friends, I know this is not easy or comfortable. It means shedding not only layers of stuff that get between us and others, but layers of cultural assumptions. In and of ourselves, we frankly cannot do it.

But we are disciples sent out in the authority of Jesus Christ, imitating and relying upon his utter faith in God: Nothing will be impossible with God. Friends, it is not easy, but the eternal love and abundant life of God in Jesus Christ is worth whatever discomfort, whatever risk.

So let us, Jesus’ disciples, follow him. Amen, and Alleluia.


[2] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 66.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey at


[5] Definition from

[6] Peter W. Marty, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey at

[7] Eugene Petersen, The Message, Mark 6:8

[8] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, New York: Doubleday, 1975, 67, 72-73.

[9] Gittins, quoted at

Deep and Wide: Sermon by Laura, 5.3.15 Easter 5B

Scriptures: 1 John 4:7-21, Acts 8:26-40

“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries, that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there….”[i] Those words, spoken by Professor Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, describe the force which saves Harry from his enemy Voldermort, the same force 1 John describes in today’s scripture: Love.

Love: We rarely think about love as a “force” in our culture, where we throw the word around with abandon. We say we “love” almost anything and everything for which we have generally affirmative feelings.

And Christians do love to say “God is love.” But do we know what we are saying? Do we say it too easily, with glib sentimentality, from our relative places of privilege? Step back and think how shocking and foolish this idea, so familiar to us, actually sounds from the context of the common experience of the vast majority of human beings.[ii] Earthquake victims in Nepal and Baltimore rioters might justifiably question this claim. In light of the suffering so many people face, is it an “escapist fantasy”[iii] to claim “God is love”?

But 1 John is not describing a generally warm feeling. He’s making a radical, counter-cultural confession[iv] with major implications for how we live our lives; he’s bearing witness to the powerful force revealed and experienced in Jesus Christ. It is not the force of a shooting gun or a striking fist, but the force in the children’s song: “Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.”

Jesus was sent to unite humanity with a loving God, so that we can see and know in him that God is with us and for us. God desires to embrace and include us in the refreshing reality of peace, joy, hope and love which is God’s very being, an abundant flow of grace not even death can hold back.

God’s love is a force which can and does change the world. We see it in the encounter of Philip and the Ethiopian man on the wilderness road. The story in Acts begins with Philip, who was chosen one of the seven deacons who oversaw equitable food distribution between Hebrew and Greek-speaking widows. After the Jerusalem Christians are scattered by persecution, Philip shows up preaching and baptizing in Samaria. Here is a man who is willing and able to relate to others with hospitality and respect across cultural and language differences.

The man he meets on the wilderness road represents another realm of otherness—it’s not his race, religion or language. This Ethiopian, returning from his Jerusalem pilgrimage, is either Jewish—there were Ethiopian Jews—or a God-fearer, a Gentile who worshiped the Jewish God and followed Jewish teaching. He is wealthy, educated, able to read the Greek scriptures, and riding in a chariot. He is a powerful insider in places such things matter. But another aspect of his identity overrides them all with respect to his faith: he is a eunuch, a castrated male, a sexual minority excluded and barred from entering the temple.

We can learn a lot from these two men, whose actions reveal attitudes, habits, and practices sourced in the love 1 John describes. Philip’s humility and obedience, his responsiveness to the Spirit, is revealed in his willingness to run up alongside this stranger’s chariot, and to listen before he speaks. These are loving patterns of behavior.

The text from Isaiah refers to “one who is shorn;”[v] an experience with which the eunuch can identify. We don’t know what Philip says, but having spent time in the scriptures, he likely knows that Isaiah later prophesies hope which meets this man’s pain, that when the Messiah comes, eunuchs “who hold fast my covenant,” will have full inclusion among God’s people.[vi]

Philip shares the good news, that in Jesus the Messiah, Isaiah’s prophecy has come to pass. Those who have been shorn have in Jesus Christ a God who knows their suffering, and they are now fully welcomed as children of God’s house. Philip speaks and embodies Christ’s compassionate welcome to this man.

The Ethiopian also eunuch reveals patterns of God’s love in his actions. In devoted love for God, he’s journeyed to Jerusalem, even knowing he is barred from the Temple; and he continues to study the scriptures, even though some sacred texts name people like him aberrant and unworthy of inclusion. He receives Philip with hospitality and humility, acknowledging his own need for guidance. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “For a modern parallel, imagine a diplomat in Washington, D.C., inviting a street preacher to join him in his late model Lexus for a little Bible study. The inclusion in this story runs both ways.”[vii]

The eunuch is receptive to the surprising Spirit, and when water appears near that desert road, he eagerly receives baptism. Can you imagine the tears of joy on his face, when this long-excluded man finally receives God’s affirmation of his identity as God’s child, wholly welcome and wholly loved?

He went on his way rejoicing; and the history of the ancient Ethiopian church perhaps evidences that he, who loved God, not only received God’s love but shared it boldly back home.

Friends, we are called—commanded!—to love one another as we have been loved. Indeed, 1 John says that we lie if we say “I love God” but act in hateful ways. God’s love is witnessed and perfected in our love for others. To proclaim “God is love” is a commitment to be formed in attitudes, habits, and practices which show forth God’s love to others.

This is a radical claim on us, because these attitudes, habits, and practices do not come naturally. We are conditioned to fear those who are different from us, which, truly, is every other human being. Every single person is ultimately a unique, fathomless mystery, a bearer of the image of our fathomless God.

And we are conditioned to see the raised fist as so much more powerful than the overflowing fountain. Violent force seems to promise immediate means to control our destiny.

But in drought-stricken times, the life-giving power provided by an overflowing fountain cannot be underestimated. That is the force of God’s love in Jesus Christ, the life-source in which we plant our roots, which brings forth life-giving fruit.

Which brings up an important point: you do not gain loving patterns, habits, and actions by forcing them upon yourselves or others. You become loving, first, by receiving. Some of us try to skip over that part, compelled by the go-go/do-do drive of our culture, which values productivity over receptivity.

To receive love, you must stop and take time to be with God and others, which can feel incredibly vulnerable. You will adapt to dwelling in vulnerability, deciding to arise with trust in a good God and to drop the fearful defenses which numb and block you from receiving the source of love and life. Trusting in God for your strength, you will learn that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Friends, polarization, marginalization, and discrimination are all-too-common statements on our collective reality. We can change that.

We will not do it perfectly. We will make mistakes. Loving is awkward and messy at times. But sourced in God’s perfect love, we can boldly let it flow through us, accepting and welcoming others with Christ’s hospitality, so that the powerful force of God’s love overflows in us, deep and wide, replenishing the world. Alleluia! Amen.

[i] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

[ii] Stephen Carlsen,

[iii] Carlsen, as above.

[iv] Carlsen, as above.

[v] Karen Baker-Fletcher in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 456.

[vi] Isaiah 56:4-5

[vii] Barbara Brown Taylor, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 457.