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. 



Sermon by Keith, 2.23.20: Mark 8:27–9:8

I have been to the top of the mountain and have seen the promised land! 

No, literally, I’ve been to the top of the mountain and have seen the promised land. Now, there are some arguments about which mountain Jesus was transfigured on because the scriptures don’t say exactly which one it was. The two top contenders are Mount Hermon, an almost 10,000 feet mountain way north of the Sea of Galilee, or the much shorter but still impressive Mt. Tabor in central Galilee. It is this one that I got to go to the top of, a flat topped volcanic cone that sits by itself away from the other range of hills and mountains. There is more than one church there, because people can’t seem to agree about where the exact spot Jesus might have been transfigured.  What is ironic is that in the one church we did get to visit, they built the huge sanctuary with this beautiful mosaic of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the ceiling, and off to the left and right of the main sanctuary are two chapels, one for Moses and one for Elijiah. Peter got his wish after all!

But what impressed me most about the spot the church was built on was the view.  There is what can best be described as an observation deck to see out across the valley.  Our guide, Ezra, started pointing out historical places that took place. There is Nazareth, there is Zarephath, the place where Elijah lived with the widow.  He lists off all the battles that took place that are listed in the Old Testament. And the valley’s name? Megiddo. Or the Valley of Armageddon, the place where history will culminate per the book of Revelation.  Before our eyes was ancient history and future history all wrapped up for one to take it all in and really see it. What a spot for the Transfiguration. 

I’ve always struggled with the meaning of this story.  Glow in the dark Jesus being visited by Moses and Elijah.  But the more I’ve studied it, I think it is a moment of seeing, of clarity, of not just from a human point of view but also from God’s point of view.  That’s kind of a scary proposition, to see the world from God’s point of view, but we will try.

Let’s start by taking a step back.  What has happened in the gospel so far? Jesus has, metaphorically speaking, led the disciples up the high mountain to a new view of God’s kingdom during the first half of Mark’s gospel.  In extraordinary actions and puzzling but profound words he has unveiled for them what God is up to. Those ‘outside’ look and look, but never see; the disciples are having their eyes opened, to that they can see for the first time the inner reality of God’s kingdom, and its central truth that, even though he doesn’t look like what they might have expected, Jesus really is the Messiah.  Thus the story so far keeps telling us about eyes being opened, in several senses, and it all concentrates on Jesus himself and God’s kingdom that is arriving with him.

Now Jesus takes the disciples up a high mountain, and something similar happens, through on an entirely different level.  Western culture is increasing realizing that most cultures have never forgotten, that the world we live in has many layers.  And when we peer into one of these layers, we ever afterwards see everything differently.

That’s what happened on this mountain.  What was the inner reality of Jesus’ work? He was continuing and completing the tasks of the great prophet Elijah, and the lawgiver of old, Moses himself.  Both of them, interestingly, had disappeared from view rather than died in the ordinary way, surrounded by their families and friends. Now they reappear, with the veil of ordinariness drawn back for a moment, and Jesus is with them, shining with a brilliant light.

What does this all mean?  We should state that the Transfiguration isn’t a revelation of Jesus divinity; if it were, that would make Elijah and Moses divine too, which Mark certainly doesn’t want us to think.  Mark does believe in Jesus’ divinity, but hasn’t told us why yet. Instead, this is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, bathed in, the love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light, just the way a scenic vista can change how you view the world or how music transforms words that are sung.  This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It is the sign that he is indeed the true Messiah. Everything is culminating with him.

That, too, is what the heavenly voice is saying.  Jesus is God’s special, beloved son. Elijah and Moses were vital in preparing the way; Jesus is finishing the job.  Mark is happy for later Christians to hear in the phrase ‘son of God’ fuller meanings than the disciples would have heard, but for them, the primary meaning, as with the voice at baptism, is that Jesus is the Messiah. That’s enough to be with now on the next steps of Jesus’ journey.

Once again, Jesus tells them not to reveal what they have seen.  This time he gives them a cryptic time-frame: ‘until the son of man has risen from the dead.’ Not surprisingly, this puzzles them.  In Jewish thought of the time, ‘the resurrection’ would happen to all the righteous at the end of time, not to one person ahead of all the others. 

What could Jesus mean by implying that ‘the son of man’ would rise from the dead, while they would be still living the sort of normal life in which people would tell one another what they had seen months or years before?  Mark’s readers would already know about Jesus’ resurrection, but the characters in his story certainly didn’t and weren’t expecting it. Like much that Jesus said, it remained cryptic and puzzling until after the event.  

The final exchange is even more teasing.  The disciples are trying to work it out; scripture, they know, tells them that Elijah will prepare the way for the Messiah.  Jesus also has other scriptures on hand which speak to him of his own vocation; this time, he seems to be blending passages and images from Daniel and Isaiah.  But the fateful identification, the one that matters, is his cryptic comment about Elijah having already come. Now there is nothing left but the final messianic task, the task which Jesus has already declared will involve his own suffering and death.

So, what does this mean for us?  We don’t generally experience things in our lives as dramatic as this story.  Sometimes I think it would be nice if we did, but I have to admit I’d probably be as bewildered as Peter.

But in Mark, the Transfiguration takes place right in the middle of his gospel, the transition point of Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee region to headed to Jerusalem and this death and resurrection.  What have you seen so far? There is an invitation to look back and see how Jesus has revealed himself as the Messiah as God intended.

Peter was surprised. The Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die. He is supposed to lead Israel to freedom and new glory. How was it in his healing and teachings that Jesus was letting them know he was a different kind of Messiah than they had expected? Be as surprised as Peter at what you discover about Jesus and yourself during this time in Galilee. There is also an invitation to look towards Jerusalem and follow Jesus with your own cross.

Most importantly, each of us is called to do what the heavenly voice said: Listen to Jesus, because he is God’s beloved son. As we learn to watch where he goes and listen to what he has to teach us, even if sometimes we get scared and say all the wrong things, we may find that glory creeps up on us unawares, strengthening us, as it did the disciples, for the road ahead.  Amen.

Offensive Jesus

Sermon by Laura 2.9.20: Mark 6:1-29

Forgive me for attempting a football metaphor, since I know barely enough about the game to follow the Super Bowl once a year. I do know that each team has offensive and defensive players. The offense has a mission: advancing the ball across the opposing team’s territory to score a touchdown in the end zone. The defense stands in the way of the offense  to keep them from scoring and possibly take the ball away.

Teams need both skills to win big. Defense is important to prevent your opponent’s touchdowns. But—correct me later, football people, if I’m wrong—it seems that a great offense is even more important. If you have a great defense and no offense, the other team won’t score, but neither will you. That’s why the great quarterbacks are the stars of the show. They are the leaders and directors of the offensive game.

So maybe we can compare Jesus to a great quarterback? If so, Mark 6 demonstrates his offensive game. Jesus’ urgent mission is to press forward his message, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news.” He carries out his teaching and preaching, healings and exorcisms, his pronouncements of forgiveness and his confrontations with the religious authorities, all toward the goal of focusing God’s people on God’s in-breaking reign and apprenticing disciples to live in God’s will and ways.  Jesus is on the move, inexorably advancing toward the goalposts of redemption, reconciliation, and resurrection.

But even as Jesus is on the offense, he offends people.

In Mark 6, Jesus and his discipleship team arrive in Nazareth. Unlike the Chiefs returning to Kansas City, there is no victory parade to welcome him home! Quite the opposite. Tales of Jesus’ mighty acts have gotten back to his hometown, but they are not impressed—they are offended.

All they can see is the handyman putting on airs, a local yokel gotten too big for his britches. What else is there to know about Mary’s son and James’ brother? He can’t possibly be the Messiah. But though hardly anyone in Nazareth is receptive enough to catch the new life Jesus wants to pass them, the text says that he still does heal a few people. Even Nazareth’s unbelief can’t halt God’s mission.

Now, don’t let anyone tell you that the hometown crowds’ rejection doesn’t hurt. How many of us still carry a chip or two on our shoulders from our hometown crowd’s reaction when we tried to do something new and grow into our full potential! We still remember the disapproving expressions, putting us back in our place, telling us in no uncertain terms that any newness was strange and unacceptable.

How does Jesus react to this rejection? He’s astonished at the intensity, but he seems prepared for it. It doesn’t throw him off his game. In fact, it seems to energize him to engage a new tactic. He expands the mission to neighboring villages by sending out his chosen twelve disciples, empowering them to proclaim the good news and cast out unclean spirits.

The instructions he gives his offensive team are remarkable, the opposite of “defensive” in every way. Take nothing for the journey, he tells them, no bread and no money; wear sandals and two tunics and only carry a walking stick.

These instructions speak not only to the urgency of the mission but to the heart of it: availability and vulnerability. Following Jesus’ directions, the disciples are totally dependent on the hospitality of strangers. They show up to each village as people in need, not as those with something obvious to give.

Compare this mode to the posture we often assume in our own mission efforts! Ever resistant to place ourselves in another’s debt, we try to show up in the superior position, doling out what we think people need.

Instead, Jesus teaches us to meet others in the vulnerability and availability which are the substance of loving relationships. Without vulnerability and availability, human beings cannot possibly connect in love, and any efforts at mercy and healing which are not based in love will be short-lived at best. Love is the transformative power of God.

Author Brene Brown’s social research confirms the wisdom of Jesus’ instructions. Every leader on a mission faces fear, she writes.

“The real barrier to daring leadership is our armor—the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability…You can’t fully grow and contribute behind armor.”

from Dare to Lead

Brown further notes, “Daring is not saying ‘I’m willing to risk failure.’ Daring is saying, ‘I know I will eventually fail, and I’m still all in.’”[i]

Jesus prepares his disciples to dare vulnerability in the face of resistance and rejection. When his hometown rejected him, his disciples witnessed his refusal to armor up in defensiveness.  Nor did Jesus try to impose his views by force. Leaving Nazareth, perhaps Jesus did what he now instructs them to do: just shake off the dust of your feet from any town that refuses to welcome or hear you out. A small and nonviolent action, it bears witness to a devastating lack of hospitality while allowing the disciples to release rejection, rather than retaliate for it.[ii]

Following these instructions, the disciples are successful in their mission to the extent that King Herod hears about it. This gives Mark an opportunity to insert a sordid bit of history, about how Herod beheaded John as a result of a grandiose oath sworn to his (illegal) step-daughterin front of his courtiers.

What are we to make of this awful story? I hate to say it, but I think Herod’s story is where the text comes home to us in our world today. We are not kings and queens, per se, but we are largely people of privilege. Brene Brown, again, defines privilege as the ability to avoid uncomfortable conversations and situations. We can and often do choose to do just that.

So we have something in common with Herod, who is caught in the snare of indecision.  He likes his worldly pleasures, his parties and dancing girls. At the same time, he’s drawn to John the Baptist. He likes listening to John, though he finds John’s teaching perplexing. Maybe some part of Herod longs to be a righteous Jewish king, as John exhorts him.

But Herod’s new wife, Herodias, hates John, who has spoken against their marriage. She wants to silence him. When her dancing daughter requests John’s head on a platter, the moment of decision arrives for Herod. Will he stand up for John, though it means losing face before his guests? Or will he defend his ego in the eyes of these peers with the horrible death of an innocent man?

Herod makes the defensive choice, the ego choice, all too common for people in high places. We’ve so often seen leaders choose political expediency over righteousness– did we ever expect Herod to seriously consider another option?

Too often, our own disappointment with corrupt politicians leads us to armor ourselves against truly daring leadership. Why should we dare courageous choices, if those who claim authority over us refuse to do so? Instead, we occupy ourselves with shaming and blaming, rather than summoning our own courage to risk leading others with integrity.

The truth is, we face Herod’s choice every single day: will we choose the righteousness of God’s will and ways, entering into Jesus’ offensive vulnerability, or will we play the defensive game, armoring ourselves against failure, but also connection and transformation?

Jesus’ way offends us because it’s not an “if” but a “when”: his daring leadership will bring us face to face with failure, heartbreak, suffering, and death. Jesus will ask us to move beyond our comfort zone, to go without our usual defenses, and to meet the world without armor, with no padding aside from our trust in Christ’s peace which passes understanding.

Even so, the scriptures testify that Jesus offers the only life which is, truly, life: the kingdom of God life, in which we manifest divine grace and glory as we learn from Jesus the capacity to meet whatever resistance we encounter. In fact, Jesus shows us how to use resistance, to let it be transformed into a meeting place where we encounter God and ourselves face to face, receiving and expressing God’s love all the more profoundly.

“What stands in the way becomes the way,” second-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said. Jesus lived this principle to the fullest, all the way through death on a Roman cross and beyond, into the resurrection life, God’s decisive triumph over humanity’s deathly choices.

The good news, teammates of Jesus, is that he’s not only a great quarterback: Jesus is the game itself!

Jesus Christ is God’s purpose, presence, and power, God’s Word made flesh. Jesus not only leads us but empowers us to accomplish our essential part in his mission through the Holy Spirit he gives us. Through Jesus, we partner with God!

Isn’t it amazing that God trusts us so much as to toss the ball into our hands that we may run it in for the ultimate score? Though we often fumble and drop the pass, in Jesus Christ, God keeps lobbing extravagant grace encouraging us to receive it and run long, to carry Christ’s mission as far as we can, no matter what resistance we face. 

This may be where the football metaphor breaks down, however.  Unlike spectacular touchdown passes, the actions of God’s people often don’t grab headlines. Mostly, we carry grace forward quietly, in daily kindness to people, animals, and the earth, in small gestures which gently and patiently heal those around us. We love by seeing a need and stopping to lend a hand; by taking the time to listen to a someone’s sad story; by giving the benefit of the doubt to those whose ideas differ from ours, by refusing to avoid uncomfortable conversations even as we greet our opponents with Christ’s peace.

How many times a day do you receive these graces? How many times a day do you carry them forward? Each tiny decision we make to follow where Jesus leads has unaccountable ripples, my friends. These small actions keep advancing the long game of God’s mercy, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, to the glory of Christ’s kingdom fully come.

Alleluia! Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, 12, 14,19.

[ii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 214.

What Have You To Do With Us, Jesus?

Sermon by Laura, 1.26.20: Mark 5:1-20

Okay, folks, get your workout clothes on and get ready to sweat! You thought you were coming to a Presbyterian worship service, “decently and in order” with two liturgical movements only—stand up and sit down—but, oh no, we’re shaking things up; today we’re gonna exorcise some demons!

Ugh, I know, bad joke. Blame Keith; I stole it from him. The exercise-exorcise pun works well, though, for the Gospel of Mark. It’s a high energy book, with lots of movement and lots of crowds. Read the whole book in one sitting, and notice how it seems Jesus is always running from one crowd to the next, teaching, healing, creating controversy, exorcising demons, and eventually being crucified—at the word of a crowd—for these efforts.

And throughout Mark’s gospel, we feel the str-e-t-ch of dynamic tension between Jesus’ true identity and the perceptions of the crowds. Whether they are anonymous gatherings of random bystanders listening to Jesus teach, the smaller “crowd” of religious authorities, or Jesus’ own family, each group of people sorts themselves in relation to Jesus according to whatever “groupthink” influences their assumptions.

Today’s story is circled about by various “crowds.” To begin with, there’s Jesus and his disciples. They are Jews, but they are arriving “on the other side” of the Sea of Galilee. When they step ashore, they are in Gentile territory. As Dorothy says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The second “crowd” in this story is harder to see, when a lone man runs from the tombs to meet Jesus. This man has the honor of being one of the best-described characters in all the gospels. Mark—notoriously brief on details—actually spends three and a half verses describing his deplorable state. Utterly outcast, he rattles around in a graveyard, clanking the chains his own people have used to restrain him, howling and beating himself with stones.

He seems to be alone, but he gives Jesus a name which evokes a particular crowd’s presence: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” For Mark’s audience, this word, Legion, did not merely suggest a multiplicity of entities. It was a political word, naming the premier weapon Rome used to conquer and enforce their occupation. Legions were groups of six thousand warriors securing the empire’s rule with deadly force. The power dominating this man’s home country and the “troop of phantom invaders” dominating his humanity are linked.[1] His personal has been utterly overrun by the political.

How many of us can identify with that, though the 2020 election year has hardly begun! We can also identify with feeling overrun in our heads with too many voices expressing their opinions. We should be so lucky in our day to only contend with 6000 extra voices in our heads—for us, it’s more like a Google.[2] Plug any topic into the internet search engine, and you’ll have 32,000 results or more in half a second.

And each of those voices represents, in its own way, a crowd—a group of people with an agenda, furthering their interests. So we struggle to determine which groups truly represent ours! We are always wondering, what’s real news and what’s fake, who is telling the truth and who is lying, who can we trust to have our best interests at heart, and who is trying to sell us out for their own gain.

No wonder we often find it easier to sort ourselves into likeminded groups and go along with a party line. It’s understandable that we seek belonging among groups which make us feel most comfortable, but there’s a danger in doing so. Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, writes,

“As people seek out the social settings they prefer…the nation grows more politically segregated…and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogenous groups…”[3]

Bishop wrote this statement in 2009, but the dynamic of polarization has only grown stronger. At the extreme, we not only polarize but demonize, dehumanizing those who dissent or disagree with our favored group. And please do not assume I’m favoring one kind of faction over another in saying this! All groups have this temptation.

It turns out to be a demon destroying us from within. In Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown writes, “The paradox is that we all love the ready-made filing system…but we resent it when we’re the ones getting filed away.” She reports that “[a]t the same time sorting is on the rise, so is loneliness.”[4]

Brown’s research shows that a sense of the “true belonging” we desire actually not from sorting ourselves into likeminded groups, but from recognizing our shared humanity, regardless of differences we perceive, celebrating that we are “inextricably connected” to each other by a loving and compassionate power greater than any of us.

Among all the strange moments of today’s scripture, I believe there is this invitation for us to exorcise the sorting demon as we exercise our faith; to learn to see as Jesus sees and value as Jesus values, our personhood, our common humanity, beneath and beyond all our differences.

In today’s story, the local people seem to have “filed away” this demon-possessed man. They’ve given up trying to see the man beneath the demonic behavior, and hopeless to transform his plight, they isolated and bound him among the dead.

But from first to last, Jesus never loses sight of his humanity. [5] Even before the possessed man bows at Jesus’ feet, Jesus perceives the cause of his suffering, distinguishes the demon from the demonized man, and calls out the evil: “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

The demon, Legion—or is it the man inside—responds with a question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The question acknowledges Jesus’ authority even as it resists; it suggests both hope and fear.

So, too, goes the exercise of our faith, as we follow Jesus across group boundaries. For human beings don’t always welcome the gaze which perceives our common humanity. The groups we settle into are often masks which hide our vulnerability. We both hope and fear, long for and resist being seen us as we are, unmasked as frightened broken children, barely aware of yet also ashamed of the things which grip and control us against our best intentions.

Jesus never loses sight of our common humanity. Gazing upon each one of us with tender compassion, he asks us to name the demons that plague us: the addictions, the mental illnesses, the pain of whatever us-or-them groupthink, has convinced us we are unclean and unworthy of true belonging. Naming these powers in the light of day, saying aloud what seemed unspeakable, the demons are banished, and we are set free, in our vulnerability, of everything that kept us bound and separate from each other.

What have you to do with me, Jesus? Only everything.

Jesus never loses sight of our common humanity, and what’s more, Jesus, Son of the Most High God, joins us fully within it. As N.T. Wright reminds us,

“At the climax of Mark’s story, Jesus himself will end up naked, isolated, outside the town among the tombs, shouting incomprehensible things as he is torn apart on the cross by the standard Roman torture…And that, Mark is saying, will be how the demons are dealt with. That is how healing takes place. Jesus is coming to share the plight of the people, to let the enemy do its worst to him, to take the full force of evil on himself and let others go free.”

Jesus shares our common humanity, and we are called to take strength from his solidarity with us, to risk crossing to the other side and sharing what he has done for us.

This story ends with the man calm, clothed, and in his right mind. Though he begs to go with Jesus, he is sent back instead to his own people. “Go home to your friends, and tell them what the Lord has done, what mercy he’s shown you.”

This is, for the man, just as risky as crossing to the other side. Can you imagine the courage it takes to return to people who had ostracized and restrained you? To the people looking with fear upon the terrifying miracle of your salvation?

Yet the text says he goes and proclaims what Jesus has done for him, Jesus who is to him now the Lord. Everyone was amazed.

What have you to do with me, Jesus? You are my Lord and Savior, seeing me and delivering me, standing beside me in my vulnerability that I may face all others with true belonging in you, the common humanity by which you join me to God.

To God be the glory! Amen.

[1] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everybody, 56.

[2] Thanks, Keith.

[3] As quoted in Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, 47.

[4] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, 50-51.

[5] M. Jan Holton, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, 148.

Deeper Love Than We Can Imagine

Sermon by Keith, 11.10.19 Mark 10:13-14, Hosea 11:1-9

Either to their joy or consternation (I won’t know for sure which until after we get their bill for therapy) we have referenced our children in our sermons over the years.  I think there was a disclaimer in the delivery room when they were born that said, “Welcome to the world, PK! Everything that you say and do from this moment on may be used as a sermon illustration.” 

Which in some ways makes perfect sense. You are bound to see all aspects of the human condition–the good, the bad, and the ugly–come out in such close knit relationships, including between a husband and wife, parent and child, and between siblings.  I can say that for the most part, what I have seen and experienced with them has been so joy-filled that when they say or do something that speaks to a scripture text I’m working on, I want to share it with you.

But yes, we have an almost teenager in the house.  Things are changing. The dynamic of the relationship is changing. And that probably means you will also hear some different type of sermon illustrations. But no matter what the dynamic of the relationship I’m having with Lucas or Ben, or even with Laura for that matter, the constant will always be love.

And that is the point about God love that the prophet Hosea is trying to make.  Now if you think that we use stories from our familial relationships in our sermons, especially of our kids, Hosea takes it to the next level.  Early in his prophetic writing, his children become living sermons and the deep messages tied to their names are then used to teach us deeper lessons about God and God’s people. 

In Hosea, you find the prophet marrying a prostitute and having children. And their names become important messages. His first son he names Jezreel to talk about the death, destruction, and murder that took place in the city of Jezreel.  His next child he names Lo-ruhamah, which means “not shown pity” as the people feel that the love of God has left them. And the last child, a boy is given the glorious name of Lo-ammi, “Not my people” because of the separation and rejection God felt because of his people.  Just think of what their playground experience had to be with names like that!

But Hosea, through poetic prophecy about these close familial relationships, teaches us that these names are not looking at the relationships from God’s perspective, but from our perspective.  I feel like God has left me, I feel like I am no longer part of God’s people. These names are about Israel’s unfaithfulness, not God’s undying faithfulness.

The names change, or at least the understanding of the names change.  The living sermon changes to a message of despair to a message of grace. Trouble to grace. Jezreel’s name doesn’t change, but instead of being a reference to a place of destruction, it changes to the literal meaning of that name, “God’s sows.”  God will sow God’s own self in the land so that no one will miss his bountiful love and presence. Lo-ruhamah becomes Ruhamah, because the people will come to know God’s love and grace. And finally, Lo-ammi’s name is transformed to Ammi, because God’s claim on the people as his people has not been changed, but only reaffirmed and strengthened.

Outside of talking about the psychological damage this may do to his kids, this name game makes us ask the question of why would Hosea do this, make his children into living sermons?  As we continue to read Hosea, I think we see why this is important for this prophet. Even in their rebellion and waywardness, Hosea wants to stress that the living God of Israel and Judah loves his people, loves us, more deeply than humanly love can be explained or expressed.  But the closest he can come is relating it to the love of a parent who has loved relentlessly and fiercely a child who kept running away from his or her parent’s love. Hosea gets personal with the names of his children because he wants to stress that we have a relational, personal God.

And I love how Hosea shows that love in chapter 11, a piece of scripture that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says is “among the most remarkable oracles in the entire prophetic literature.” And biblical scholar , HD Beedy said, “In Hosea 11 we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.”  What Hosea has us do is pull ourselves up the kitchen table with God and a hot cup of coffee and go through the family photo album.  

How many of you have a family photo album? They are fun to look at.  Pictures of either when you were a child or pictures of your children.  Maybe there are pictures of you in your highchair with spaghetti all over the place.  Or a picture of your daughter playing with dolls. Your son on his first bike. The vacations and family gatherings.  The birthdays and holidays. Now think about what might be in God’s photo album. For the people of Israel, there had to be a picture of them crossing the Red Sea.  God shares the pictures of teaching them to walk, leading them with cord of kindness and bands of love. Can you picture the photograph that would go with these lines:  “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Wow!

What would be in God’s photo album of you? What about the church?

Sometimes we go back through the old photos because life has hit a rough spot, like maybe when a rebellious adolescent child has done something so horrible that we need a reminder of just how much we love that child.  God in this story has hit a difficult time. And God is responding to Israel’s rejection. Israel ran away from God to pursue other gods. Some of the Israelites in fact went back to Egypt–the very place from which God brought them out of slavery.  Even after God kept them alive during those years in the wilderness; it was God who gave them a beautiful land to call their own, but they mistreated it all, abused their land and its people, ultimately discarding their relationship with God. God lamented, “You want to go back to the place that nearly destroyed you?  Fine, go! I’m done this time. You are on your own from now on!”

Not too unfamiliar behavior for a parent of an unruly child.  My parent’s closest words to this were, “if you choose to go out partying with your friends, when you get arrested for doing something stupid, don’t call me until the morning.”  

But then we see God’s internal anguish and self dialogue.  It appears that God cannot even escape the pain that people can inflict on someone they love.  And there is a dramatic twist in the plot of the story, a twist that would have shocked the people who heard these words.  God’s heart recoils within God’s own being.

The word we translate “recoil” is the same word used in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to describe how God overthrew those cities.  In Hosea’s words, God overthrows God’s own heart. Instead of punishing the child, God takes the punishment upon himself. The consequences of the child’s painful actions are taken into the heart of God. 

And God’s tender compassion is rekindled. They are God’s children after all. They didn’t ask to be chosen by God. God has different eyes to see them. God holds their yesterdays in pictures no one else remembers:  waiting for them to be born, the moments of their childhood, first steps, first words, smiles and cries, and all the big thresholds of their journey–in wilderness, in the promised land. In life and in death, they belong to God as God’s children.

I share a story, not of our kids, but what may be looked at as the infancy of our time as your pastors.  It had to have been within the first month that we were here that one of the members of this church walked up to me after a Sunday worship and said, “You are this church’s last hope.” 

Well, needless to say, that freaked out this fresh out of seminary new pastor. I got over pretty quickly the weight of that statement because I realized that at some point or another, I would mess up things up.  Thank goodness you are a forgiving people! But most importantly I came to see that this church knows that its hope isn’t in the pastors, the programs, or the music played on Sunday, but our only hope is on God in Christ and in his fierce love and compassion that goes beyond our human comprehension. 

That love was made most visible when God bent low and became one of us in Jesus Christ, entering the fray of humankind. God went to the depths of anguish, like a lion roaring out from the cross, giving voice to a painful love for all humanity.

And in his resurrection, Jesus calls us to be living sermons with and for him, because we take on a new name, Children of God, lifted high in the arms of God’s grace and love as a new family.  And it is there we find we are connected to one another, our unknown neighbors, and all of creation to share that message of love, invite others into God’s family, work for justice, and glorify the One whose love we cannot escape. Because it is a love that calls us back home to God’s fierce, loving embrace. Amen.

Pinky Strength

Sermon by Keith, 10.27.19: Mark 10:42-45; 1 Kings 12:1-17

The party has ended.  If you were here last week, you will remember that David was having a huge celebration, a dance party, as he brought the ark of the covenant to the new capital of Jerusalem.  David has been made king of the twelve tribes and it appeared to be the beginning of a time of prosperity and hope for God’s people.

But a lot has happened since then. Things start falling apart quickly.  You start seeing a change when David commits his affair with Bathsheba and has her husband killed by placing him in a vulnerable spot in battle. Jealousy, greed, and selfishness in David’s household and among his descendants have led to coups, rape, murders, and rebellions. 

Royal projects and policies have placed a heavy tax burden upon the citizens to supply crops, animals, and other materials. Both King David and his son King Solomon implemented systems of forced labor. But not of everyone. They both favored certain cities and tribal affiliations, which means their tribe of Judah was let off easy.  The other tribes saw this favoritism and resented it.

Both developed strategic international alliances through marriages to the daughters of foreign rulers. Solomon built cities to store the chariots, horses, cavalry, and other goods he amassed. He made shields and goblets of gold. On a good note, he built a magnificent temple in Jerusalem and led another massive procession, with innumerable sacrifices, to transfer the ark to the inner sanctuary of the temple.  A new glorious temple where all the people could come to worship God. But then Solomon turns around and built worship sites for the gods of all his foreign wives, and “walked after” and worshiped these foreign gods.   

What happened?  Things looked so promising, so hopeful for the covenant people and their king.  Scripture says that Solomon turned away from the Lord. You could compare it to an open hand slowly getting tighter and tighter until you have an iron fist choking off the people.  He was wise and prosperous, but he used his wisdom for self gain. He used and misused people, the people God had called him to serve and guide, for his own benefit. In his power-brokering with foreign leaders, he made alliances not only with the kings and ambassadors, but also with their gods. 

The conditions for civil collapse and division started with King David. They became more amplified under Solomon, coming full steam ahead to the breaking point when Solomon’s son, Rehoboam became king and we find with today’s passage with the confrontation between him and Jeroboam.

A quick note on Jeroboam’s story.  The R-named dude is Solomon’s son. The J-named dude was actually a faithful servant of Solomon, not related to him at all and no royal lineage.  One day, while he is working, along comes a prophet who tears his clothing in 12 pieces and gives 10 of them to Jeroboam. The prophet then says that the kingdom will get split and Jeroboam will lead 10 of the tribes.  This is all that happens. Nothing in scripture says Jeroboam led a rebellion nor even bad-mouthed Solomon. But word gets to Solomon about this prophecy and he sets out to kill Jeroboam. He flees to Egypt until Solomon dies and had now returned home. And because of the prophecy and the harsh rule from Solomon, Jeroboam had a big following when he returned.

Here, Rehoboam had an opportunity to keep the nation united.  But he had learned the ways of power, or you could say misuse of power, from his father. The people let him know that if he will lighten the burden that Solomon had put on them, they would follow him. And he did what might be considered the smartest thing in the whole story: he asked for advice.

The older advisers who had served under Solomon council him that if he serves the people, they will serve him forever.  I find it interesting that these advisers are the ones who recognize that Solomon may have been a bit too harsh on his people and see the precarious situation the nation was in. It makes you wonder just how much Solomon may have actually listened to his advisers. 

But when these elders offered the advice to Rehoboam to be a servant leader, Rehoboam was too worried about being weak and losing his grip on power. So he disregarded their advice and moved on to others, the men that had seen and experienced the fun of having power with the prince as he grew up.  They tell Rehoboam what he wanted to hear: Close your grip tighter upon the people. Give them the iron fist, a fist so strong that its pinky finger is stronger than the waist or thigh of Solomon. And that iron fist, instead of holding the kingdom together, rips it apart.

The question this passage asks of us is, “How is power to be understood?”  Our culture says that how you get and use power is that you rule others with an iron fist.  That’s how Rehoboam understood power.

But as we look at Christ and his life, death, and resurrection, we as his followers ask a different question, “How is God’s power understood?”  Power takes the form of service. Power takes the form of emptying one’s self for the other. Power takes the form of sacrifice. Power takes the form of serving those more vulnerable than yourself.  It is using the resources and skills that we have in the direction of easing the burden of the oppressed and not adding to it. Power looks a lot like a cross.   

Think about the power God has, the power to create the universe.  And God used that power to become a flesh and bone human, not to be exalted on a throne, but to be lifted up a cross.  In that vulnerability, God has now lifted us up to be a new creation in relationship in him and win our salvation by the Holy Spirit.  Power, God’s power, Christian power is going like this (tight fist) to like this (open hand).

I have a friend that when he finished college, got a job at a camp for troubled youth.  Many of these kids were in this camp because they did some pretty serious bad stuff. And from day one, my friend was told that to get these kids to listen to you and respect you, you had to rule them with an iron fist.  And that is what he did. He ran his group of boys like they were in the military, constantly on their case, screaming at them for the smallest infraction, not giving them any grace.

This camp had a policy of not letting the campers know what was called “No Future Information.”  NFI’s for short. As they were out on a hike in the late afternoon and one of the campers asked “What’s for dinner?” My friend just shouted, “NO NFI!” This kid looks at my friend and said, “Dude, do you have to talk to me that way?” It kind of took my friend back and made him think about how closed off he had become to these youth because he was supposed to be strong, tough, and controlling.  Iron-fisted.

That night he had a long talk with his campers and ended up apologizing for how he had been treating them. From that day forward, even though he still ran a pretty tight ship, he never had any problems with the boys. Other counselors asked him what he did, and he told them he became vulnerable, working with the boys instead of trying to control and lord over them. This shift from being iron-fisted to vulnerable ended up having a profound effect on the entire camp and how the counselors worked with the campers.

Today is the Sunday we celebrate the reformation.  We could talk about the abuses of the church that Martin Luther was protesting when he nailed those 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany and how the split that caused is similar to the split with Rehoboam and Jeroboam experienced.  But, we will save that for a Sunday school lesson sometime.

What I want to do is share a quote from Luther about the Christian life that speaks to this idea of understanding what power looks like for those who follow Christ. “A Christian,” Luther said, “is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

That’s the paradox that we live into on a daily basis. Lordship takes its expression in service. Luther’s paradoxical teaching of Christian freedom and power, following Christ, joins lord and servant into one person. By faith alone, God sets a person utterly, completely, free in Christ to share in Christ’s presence, purpose, and power.  But love binds that person as an utterly dutiful servant, subject to everyone. And it is with this love that we discover that our hands outstretched have more power than any iron fist. Amen.