Monday, August 31, 2015

Sermon: Rule-bound

Grace Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2015, Ordinary 22B
Deuteronomy 4:5-9; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Rule-bound

The book of Deuteronomy is an odd fit in this first portion of our scriptures, in that its content is largely a recapitulation of laws (or, as this book typically labels them, “statutes and ordinances”) that are already included in Exodus or Leviticus or maybe Numbers. Why it was deemed necessary to do so isn’t always understood; some scholars suggest that it was actually conceived later as a reassertion of those statutes and ordinances to a people who had already strayed from them. Whatever its function, it is framed as Moses’s last great sermon to the Hebrew people – those soon-to-be Israelites – before his own death and their crossing (under Joshua) into the Promised Land.
There are, explicitly stated or implied, several different reasons Moses gives for commanding the obedience of the people. Perhaps most interesting is the idea that the current inhabitants of the land would be so impressed by a people who observed such an impressive corpus of law. One wonders how that works: wow, guys, that’s some really great law y’all have brought with you… (it's hard not to wonder if Native Americans had that reactions to the laws that various European groups brought with them to North America). On the other hand, verses three and four (which were not read here) offer a different reason to keep these statutes: the memory of a group among the Hebrew people who had not kept those laws in a previous incident, and their untimely end.
Not so explicitly stated, but implied in the text, is the idea that these “statutes and ordinances” distilled from the experience of the Hebrew people simply represented the way to live that was going to be most fulfilling, most enriching, most satisfying for the people. This is, frankly, a long way from how we think of law today. For the most part we tend to think of it as restriction of freedom, limitation rather than liberation.
Steed Graham of McCormick Theological Seminary points out the ways in which people are more likely to respond to the promulgation of law, not just but particularly in scripture. Some are cowed by what the year as a call to be perfect. Others are convinced they are doomed to failure before they even start. Still others consider it an imposition on a relationship that was (they understood) meant to be liberating rather than restrictive.
Now the Pharisees who show up in the gospel reading are a different sort altogether. They might fall into Davidson’s first category – seeing the “statutes and ordinances” as a call to perfection – but rather than being cowed or intimidated by it, they whip through the statutes and ordinances and adjust their collars and straighten up and say “we got this.” Then they set about applying the law, and its interpretation. While they were not rabbis themselves, the Pharisees placed a great deal of emphasis on keeping these “ordinances and statutes” and their extensions as interpreted by numerous rabbis over the centuries.
To take this story for example, there is no specific provision forbidding plucking kernels of grain without washing your hands. Not in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy. There were, though, laws concerning ritual purity in everything from liturgical practice to more mundane aspects of life, and later rabbinical traditions held that eating with unwashed hands could be interpreted as a violation of the spirit of such laws. Your grandmother would probably approve of their great concern with washing hands, food from the markets, pots, cups, and so forth.
In this case, though, Jesus isn’t at all interested in the finer points of purity laws. Actually, it almost seems in reading this that Jesus was ready to let these Pharisees (who had apparently come up from Jerusalem just to hound him) have it, and was just waiting for the slightest provocation. Picking on the disciples (fishermen and other rough guys) for their hand-washing habits was more than enough for Jesus to light into the Pharisees for their coldness of heart and their elevation of human traditions over divine commandments. In verses 9-13, which were not read, he offers up a particularly egregious example, by which a person could designate resources that might otherwise have been devoted to the care of his parents as “corban,” or “designated for God,” and therefore escape the command to “honor thy father and mother,” which you will remember is one of the Big Ten of laws.
In their zeal to be perfect (and to be blunt, to compel others to their particular brand of perfection), these Pharisees displayed (to Jesus) a particular kind of corruption and coldness of heart that flew in the face of their obsessively kept traditions. All their purity of ritual couldn’t compensate for the corruption of their hearts, as Jesus saw it.
Certainly I don’t have to point out too many examples of this today, do I? I mean, I could mention, say, an individual with a great interest in projecting a public image of purity – even a member of a large family dedicated to fostering such an image, let’s say, with a television show – whose name turns out to be on the customer list of a website devoted to facilitating extramarital affairs. But rather then get hung up on name-calling, let’s get to the point here; laws, or statutes and ordinances, or purity codes don’t change hearts.
The Apostle Paul will consume much ink on this subject, particularly in the book of Romans. The law is pretty good, he will observe, at showing us our sinfulness; it isn’t much help in overcoming it, though, as Paul lamented in his own life. Eating or not eating certain foods isn’t going to bring about purity of heart; after all, as Jesus points out, it comes in and goes out and doesn’t necessarily stick around long, while the hardness and pride of our hearts lingers on and on. Our hearts are as likely to turn such dietary purity into an object of sinful pride.
The things that defile a person come from within, and only within will they be changed. Only genuine encounter with the Spirit, real experience and practice of the “kingdom of God come near,” is going to do that. Adherence to those statutes and ordinances may well make an impression on those around us as Moses suggested, but correcting of the heart is another matter.
The law has its place. We don’t want to live wantonly or disreputably. But to confuse varieties of ritual purity, ancient or modern, with a genuine and caring heart for Christ, a heart that extends itself in care for and service to others, a heart that sings with unmistakable and unquenchable joy, is to make the mistake the Pharisees made. To the degree our laws or our statutes and ordinances or our human traditions are not only unhelpful, but become an active obstacle to the working of the Spirit and the advancing of the kingdom of God, we are setting ourselves in direct opposition to Christ’s work in God’s world.
May it never be so with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from  Glory to God: The Presbyterian Humnal)
#13                  The Mighty God With Power Speaks
Hymn Mini-Festival:
                  #669                  Let’s Sing Unto the Lord
                  #383                  Dream On, Dream On
                  #324                  For All the Faithful Women
                  #726                  Will You Come and Follow Me
#63                  The Lord Is God
#852                  When the Lord Redeems the Very Least



Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sermon: Storm Stories

Grace Presbyterian Church
August 9, 2015, Ordinary 19B
Mark 4:35-41; 6:45-52

Storm Stories

I suspect just about everybody has some story they could tell about some incident in their lives that has something to do with the weather, or that was affected in some way by the weather. This might be especially true for Floridians in particular, but I have the feeling it’s close to universal.
Myself, I have several such stories. The one that comes to mind dates from my time attending school in Louisville. For one solid week those of us still in the dorm over a semester break period spent some portion, late evening or overnight, of each night huddled up in the dorm’s basement laundry room as severe thunderstorms with tornadoes swarmed about the metropolitan area. Each night, inevitably when I had just fallen asleep or was at my groggiest, the knock on the door jolted me awake and set me on the journey down the stairs from the second floor to the basement, and then wandering through the labyrinthine corridors of that basement to the laundry room, where we few huddled around someone’s portable TV watching the latest weather warnings.
On the final and most severe night of the outbreak, the problem was compounded, because not only were the tornadoes most numerous and closest to our part of the city, but for the first time all week we received so much rain that it began to force its way through the one outside door to the basement. We couldn’t go up because of the tornado threat, but we couldn’t stay in the basement because it was starting to flood. Fortunately the warnings were lifted and we escaped to the dryness, if not quite safety, of our own rooms and beds. The Great Tornado Week was over at last.
The two readings from Mark offer different and more immediate peril for the disciples, who have no basement to which to flee. In both cases the disciples are on a boat out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, struggling against adverse weather that threatens their very safety.
The story from Mark 4 puts Jesus on the boat with the disciples, and also notes (in verse 36) that “other boats were with them,” so by no means are the disciples alone in their peril.  The Sea of Galilee, despite being actually only a moderate-sized lake by any normal measure, is subject to some ferocious windstorms that can be extremely hazardous to anybody out on the water.  One of these indeed sprang up, and the disciples were struggling to keep the boat right-side up (and remember, some of these guys were fishermen, so it isn’t as if they were novices at handling a boat).
Somehow, though, Jesus is asleep on a cushion in the back of the boat. And this frustrates the disciples to no end. Finally they could stand it no longer and woke Jesus, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’s answer, as we all know, was to say to the wind and the sea, “Peace! Be still!” To everybody’s amazement, the wind and sea did exactly that. Jesus then chewed out the disciples a bit, and that was that.
Though you might not get it from the rather matter-of-fact way Mark tells the story, this is a Big Deal. To understand why we need to remember something about the time and culture in which Jesus performed this miracle.
Up to now, Jesus’s miracles had consisted of healings and exorcisms. (Remember, we have dropped back a bit to consider this story; this is before the little girl is raised in chapter 5.) While these healings and exorcisms were sufficient to draw tremendous crowds around Jesus, they were not necessarily considered unique in first-century Palestine or the eastern Mediterranean. It wouldn’t necessarily be correct to say that miracle healers were common in the region at the time, but they certainly weren’t unheard of, and weren’t even necessarily rare. It was not his healing power that set Jesus apart.
Remember, the issue here is not whether we modern twentieth-century types believe literally in these miracles actually happening in the gospels or not. This is frankly irrelevant to this particular question. What matters is that the people among whom Jesus was living and working and teaching were not unaccustomed to miracle healers, and were mostly concerned about, well, getting healed by them.
This miracle, however, was different. While healing may have been a fairly accepted practice and possibility in this time and culture, direct control over the forces of nature was not. This was a feat reserved for the Divine, no matter what religious culture of the era you examine, and certainly in the Hebrew tradition.
The most basic example of this belief can be traced back to the story of creation itself, in which God exerted control over the primordial chaos. Or one can recall God’s manipulation of nature in Exodus, parting the Red Sea or the Jordan River. Or think of the vivid display God put before Elijah, storm and earthquake and fire, before the “sheer silence” in which God’s voice was heard.
The Psalms in particular echo this language of God in control of nature. The excerpt we read from Psalm 107 earlier seems almost an early anticipation of Mark’s account, in which “they that go down to the sea in ships” are beset by storm and wind before God intervenes; “he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Sounds very much like the account from Mark, doesn’t it? A number of other Psalms also describe God’s powers over the forces and beasts of nature.
Thus the question the disciples ask after the storm, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Up to this point, to the crowds Jesus was primarily a healer; to the religious authorities, a troublemaker and a dangerous fellow; to the disciples, “Teacher.” But this event was something totally other, and even those closest to Jesus are suddenly overcome by the awe of being in the presence of someone with a power normally reserved only to God.
If this “storm story” set the disciples to wondering, the second “storm story” leaves them with their jaws scraping in the dirt. And if what Jesus did in that first story seemed to echo signs of divine action, what Jesus does in this second story was much more direct and explicit.
Now we have moved ahead to chapter six, following the original miracle feeding, the one in which five thousand were fed with a very Hebrew-friendly twelve baskets left over. Now it was time for that long-delayed rest at last, and Jesus sent the disciples away in the boat, without him, and sent the crowds home as well. Perhaps he was hoping they would be less besieged if he weren’t with them, and he could get away to a mountain for prayer and “alone time.”
As the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee, again the weather turns against them, as they face what Mark calls an “adverse wind.” From the shore Jesus sees their struggle, and acts out of compassion. In this case, the compassion comes in the form of walking on the water.
Here’s the telling part: Mark tells us that as he was walking on the lake, Jesus “intended to pass them by.” Huh? Why, with the disciples struggling against the wind and increasingly panicky, would Jesus walk out onto the Sea of Galilee just to pass them by?
Again, Mark is counting on his readers to be reminded of their scriptural tradition, two stories in particular. First we turn to Exodus, and Moses’s encounters with God. In chapters 33 and 34 Moses asks to see the glory of the Lord. God promises to fulfill this request, but only by passing by Moses so that Moses only saw the back of God. Later, in 2 Kings 19, Elijah has a similar experience of God “passing by,” not in wind or earthquake or fire, but in a “sound of sheer silence.” 
Note the language of “passing by.” Note how these stories are of nothing less than the very presence of God passing before God’s servants. And now note how the language of Mark 6 would have set up a parallel so nicely, if the disciples hadn’t panicked and thought Jesus was a ghost.
It’s slightly ironic that in the gospel in which Jesus is depicted repeatedly as ordering people to tell no one about him and his works, here Jesus is doing something that is flagrantly evocative of the appearance of God, or to use a fancy theology word, a “theophany.” As if the previous stilling of the sea and calming of the storm wasn’t enough, now Jesus shows divinity to the disciples in an even more direct and explicit way. Even the words Jesus says to the disciples in their panic – the Greek ego eimi that the NRSV translates “It is I” – are more simply and directly translated “I am,” echoing the words Moses receives from God at the burning bush, when he asks who to tell the Israelites who has sent him.
And yet, for all these clues, the disciples don’t get it. They don’t get the epiphanies, they don’t see the divine revelation – not just in the calming the sea or the walking on the water, they still don’t get what they witnessed in the feeding of five thousand, and they won’t get it when they see the feeding of four thousand.
To put it most bluntly, these storm stories show us nothing less than God breaking into the world in the person and life and teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ. And the disciples are missing it.
To be honest, though, it’s not as if we have a lot to brag about. We live in the world where God has broken in, the post-Pentecost world where the Spirit is loose, and we don’t see it. We miss it no less than the disciples do. We do not see Christ in our neighbor. We do not perceive the moving of the Spirit in the church or the world around us, and sometimes if we do we react as if we’re seeing a ghost. We draw back in fear when Jesus shows himself to us in any form other than the lily-white piety portraits we grew up with, portraits and manifestations that make us feel good but do not challenge us to do good, or to do better.
In the end, if these storm stories are to be of any use to us, they must challenge our fear. They must demand that we reorient our misplaced faith, to lean not on our own efforts and understandings and to have actual, unalloyed faith in the Christ we claim to follow; to live into the church as it must be, not as we’ve always imagined it to be. If we are not jolted awake to the presence – the ongoing, dynamic presence of God, the unquenchable moving of the Spirit in us and among us, if we continue to succumb to the fear instead of recognizing the Lord, then these are just stories, interesting but ultimately pointless.
Wake up. Look beyond the storm and see the Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: (from Presbyterian Hymnal ’90)
#288                  I Sing the Mighty Power of God
#210                  Our God, Our Help in Ages Past
#379                  My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less
#---                  Jesus Calls Us (insert) (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal 720)



He, Qi. Peace Be Still, from Art in the Christian Tradition

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sermon: Plenty Of Bread 2--The Second One

Grace Presbyterian Church
August 2, 2015, Ordinary 18B
Mark 8:1-9, 14-21

Plenty of Bread 2: The Second One

This is an awfully familiar story, isn’t it?
In fact, didn’t we just hear it last week?
Big crowd, only a little bread, lots of fragments gathered up after…it really does sound familiar.
Of course, as Mark makes clear to us in the second part of today’s reading, that’s not the case. What happens here is in fact a second incident, a second miraculous feeding of thousands with only limited resources.
Mark gives us both stories, as does Matthew, while Luke and John only record the more famous feeding of the five thousand. On the surface it would seem that Luke and John have it right; really, what’s the point of telling two stories that, even if there are a few different details, on the surface, is there really enough difference between them to justify telling the story twice?
In fact, the answer is a definitive “yes.” As much as the stories may appear similar, the differences are crucial and point to a distinct, perhaps surprising necessity for this second story, in that this second feeding demonstrates something critically important about this “kingdom of God come near” that Mark has been proclaiming to us since the beginning of his gospel.
To refresh our memories, let us recall that the feeding of the five thousand took place after a journey around the Sea of Galilee, during which crowds on the shore had raced ahead and were waiting for Jesus and the disciples when they landed. Moved with compassion, Jesus sat down and began to “teach them many things” (6:34), which was followed by the feeding of the five thousand. After this there was another boat passage (with its own miraculous story attached), landing at a place called Genessaret, where much healing and teaching took place. After an unpleasant encounter with the religious authorities at the head of chapter 7 (we’ll get to that), Jesus leaves the territory of the Jewish people and heads to the region of Tyre and Sidon (approximately where southern Lebanon would be today, where healing occurs again, and then to a region called the Decapolis (or Ten Cities), which was mostly but not exclusively populated by Gentiles, i.e. non-Jews. In other words, Jesus has crossed over into maybe not quite foreign territory, but certainly outside of his “home” region, and the crowds he encounters are not necessarily “his own people.”
They seem no less eager to encounter Jesus than those on the Galilean side of the Sea of Galilee, such that again the crowds were gathered around Jesus, and he began to teach them, just like the crowds on the “Jewish” side.
This time the stakes are heightened; the crowd has been listening to Jesus not just all day, but three whole days. Even those who had somehow had he foresight to pack a picnic basket had surely exhausted it by now. Another subtle difference this time is that it is Jesus, not the disciples, who expresses concern for the crowd’s care. Whereas the first time the disciples had gotten antsy after just a day’s teaching, somehow in this case it hasn’t occurred to the disciples to be concerned about this crowd’s care and feeding.
So Jesus takes it upon himself to point out to the disciples that it’s been three days, the people have had nothing to eat, and if they are sent away to any nearby towns to get food they are likely to faint on the way, and that some of these people have come from a great distance to be here. Then he waits to see if the disciples get it.
They don’t. “How can we feed these people with bread here in the desert?” they ask. They saw five thousand fed with just five loaves of bread and two fish, but somehow it doesn’t occur to them to check their reserves. One wonders if we might do well to hear Jesus ask his next question with an exasperated sigh: *Sigh*How many loaves do you have?”  They answer, still not getting it, “Seven.*Sigh* “Get the people to sit down…”
The language for what happens next – Jesus gives thanks, the loaves are blessed and broken and given to the disciples – very much foreshadows the language we hear in chapter 14 when Mark describes Jesus’s Last Supper with his disciples. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the language of chapter 14 echoes the language here, and in chapter 6, and other occasions in the gospels where Jesus is at the table or sharing a meal. The bread we break here and the cup we share here don’t come out of the blue; the meal Jesus shares with his disciples, and shares with us here, come out of the intense and frequent sharing of bread and wine that was not special occasion, but everyday occurrence in the life of Jesus and the disciples. When he tells them to take the bread and cup “in remembrance of me,” it’s not only about remembering one particular meal, it’s also about remembering so many meals, with so many people, and with Jesus providing in ways they would hopefully never forget.
It turns out, though, that the disciples don’t get it yet. Later, after another unpleasant encounter with the Pharisees, the disciples and Jesus are on the boat again, and what are the disciples worrying about? Behind Jesus’s back, they’re fretting about only having one loaf of bread.
Jesus’s reaction might seem unduly harsh. Maybe the disciples forgot to get more bread, but have they really been quite so offensive as that? But Jesus’s questioning here takes us into some unfamiliar territory, in which we need to understand that the number of baskets of leftovers gathered up after the feedings isn’t a random thing to Mark, but a very significant statement on Jesus’s part.
After the feeding of the five thousand, twelve baskets of fragments were gathered up. You don’t have to know a lot about the history of the Hebrew people to understand that when a Jew of that time heard the number twelve, thoughts went straight to the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, the number of sons of Jacob who were reckoned as the ancestors of the people of Israel. Of course, Hebrew scripture tells us that the twelve tribes did not remain intact; some were carried off into captivity at different times. Seeing twelve full baskets left over would have struck a faithful descendent of the Hebrews as hugely significant; all of the Hebrew people being gathered together again.
Seven (the number of baskets gathered after the feeding of four thousand) has perhaps more obscure but no less significant meaning. Though the origins of this significance are less clear, seven stood out in Jewish thought as a number of completeness. For those who have spent much time in the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament, you might recall how many times the number occurs in that book – seven churches, seven signs, and so forth. So seeing seven baskets gathered up afterwards would have been no less significant; in this sign Jesus is signaling nothing less than that the whole world is to be gathered together.
Maybe this is why the disciples were obtuse; they didn’t want to think about the whole world being gathered up in the reign of Jesus, the “kingdom of God come near.” Maybe this foray into Gentile territory has made them nervous or uncomfortable about just what Jesus is doing here.
Of course, for us, this is much more a sign of hope. After all, we – good American Christians that we naturally regard ourselves to be – would fall into the category of “Gentile” in this story. We’re the ones on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. We’re the outsiders. We’re the “unclean.” This story, this second one, is no less than a foreshadowing of the very opening of God’s kingdom to all of us on the outside. This breaking of bread is no less than the foreshadowing of our being invited to this table before us today.
We can get really possessive, we Christians. Particularly in this country we can be rather accustomed to the idea that we run everything by some kind of divine right. This story – the second one – reminds us that we are not the hosts, not the possessors of the table; we are every bit as much invited guests as the rest of the world. It is only by the grace of God, expressed by Jesus who broke bread on both sides of the Sea of Galilee, that we come to this table today, invited by Jesus to come to the table and eat. Let us never be so arrogant or belligerent as to act or presume otherwise.
For this great feeding – the second one – Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (PH ’90): “Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken” (446), “The Church Of Christ, In Every Age” (421), “Break Thou the Bread of Life” (329), “Open My Eyes That I May See” (324)




Monday, July 27, 2015

Sermon: Plenty of Bread

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 26, 2015, Ordinary 17B
Mark 6:35-44

Plenty of Bread

This is an awfully familiar story, isn’t it?
Really, I imagine most of us could come up with the key details of the story before it was even read: the big crowd of five thousand, five loaves and two fish, twelve baskets left over. The only thing missing is the boy with the loaves and fish, which Mark doesn’t include in his account – he shows up in the Gospel of John.
In wrestling with a sermon for this text I was reminded of an old folk tale, which I remember from a children’s book from lo, those many years ago when I was a child, called Stone Soup. In that book’s version of the story, a couple of soldiers arrive in a village with nothing to eat. The villagers are unwilling to help out. Undaunted, the soldiers produce a pot and gather up stones, announcing their plan to make stone soup. Curious villagers look in, and when one of the soldiers suggests that some carrots, or onions, or other small additions would make the soup so much better, first one, then another, and then another villager decides that they can spare those vegetables, so that finally the entire village is able to enjoy a nice filling kettle of soup together.
That’s not how this story goes, of course, although the occasional scholar with a problem with miracles suggests that something like this is what “really happened.” But Mark is quite clear; this crowd is fed with five loaves, and two fish. That’s all. Jesus has the disciples seat the crowd; he distributes bread and fish for the disciples to give to the crowd; and this keeps happening until the crowd is filled, and twelve baskets of fragments are gathered up afterwards.
It’s the Gospel of Luke that is most prolific about stories of feedings or meals or bread broken and shared, but Mark isn’t too shabby about sharing such stories. We have seen meals interrupted by the crowds pressing in on Jesus or by pestiferous Pharisees, and now we get the biggest “food story” of the Gospels, one that all four tell in one way or another.
Maybe this isn’t an accident. The sharing of meals seems to be an attractive setting for humans to use for telling stories to one another. Think, for example, of the number of movies that include food or the sharing of meals as a major framework; Babette’s Feast.  Chocolat. Soul Food. My personal favorite is a little movie called Big Night, about two Italian immigrant brothers throwing a great feast in attempt to save their struggling restaurant. If movies aren’t your thing, consider how many episodes of your favorite television shows involve the family around the dinner table. Or consider how many pieces of art picture food or meals.
Or consider, say, big holiday dinners at your house, or someone in your family’s house. How often does most of the best conversation (or worst, sometimes) happens around the dinner table, or even in the kitchen while the meal is being prepared?  The table is one of the places where we humans connect the most, share the most, relate to each other the most directly and most honestly.
With that in mind, you have to wonder how the folks in this crowd remembered this great sharing of bread and fish after it was over. Did they even realize what had happened? Were they aware how little food had been turned into how much? It’s not as if Jesus said anything about it, or the disciples. Maybe as far as they ever knew, they spent the day listening to Jesus teach and then had a little bread and fish and were on their way.
In fact, they probably weren’t expecting it at all. After all, in Mark’s account, it wasn’t the crowd who got antsy and hungry, nor was it Jesus who suddenly decided it was time for a dinner break. It was the disciples, getting antsy about the crowd, who raised the question to Jesus.
There does seem to be something worth considering here. Jesus was, out of his compassion for the crowds as we heard last week, expressing his compassion by starting to “teach them many things.” The crowds, for their part, seemed to be fully content with the teaching; there’s no indication they were clamoring for food. The disciples, though, were distracted and getting anxious.
Maybe there are times we need to take our cue not from the disciples, but from the crowd.
Goodness knows there is a lot to get done, whether we’re speaking of this church individually or the larger church in the larger world. And goodness knows we are short of hands to do the work. Some of those who claim the name “Christian” seem to have other agendas than doing Christ’s work in God’s world, and some have frankly gotten tired and given up and walked away. There’s no doubt we could use more able hands to be about our work, whether it be with Family Promise or St. Francis or Gainesville Community Ministry or any of the other works we seek to help.
But at the same time, we can’t forget that there are times we just have to stop and listen. We have to stop and be fed. We need to step away from the busy-ness and listen to Jesus teach us. Like the story of Mary and Martha, when the former sat at Jesus’s feet while the latter let herself get caught up in the busy-ness of being host, this story reminds us that sometimes it is our role to be nothing more than Jesus’s guest.
I wasn’t kidding earlier; we need folks to help with Family Promise next month. But don’t forget that even amidst the work and need, it’s not just a politeness; it’s an absolute necessity for your spiritual health to, at some times, stop, listen to the words of Jesus, and be fed by Jesus. And this is something the crowd recognized that day. And they didn’t end up starving for it.
What it looks like today to be taught and fed by Jesus obviously isn’t quite the same as it was in this story. It may be time reading and meditating on the scriptures. It may be seeking out your Sunday School class or a Bible study or other class we’ll do this fall. It might be joining the choir and being ministered to by the act of making music in worship of God. It might be a vacation you haven’t taken in years. Maybe it’s getting one of these hymnals and drinking in both old favorites and new songs.
But somewhere along the way, there comes a time where you have to, for your own sake and for the sake of those who care for you and rely on you, sit down and be taught and fed by Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly (509)
Hymn Mini-Festival:
                  Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading (287)
                  One Bread, One Body (530)
                  Sometimes A Light Surprises (800)
                  Come! Live In the Light! (749)
Loaves Were Broken, Words Were Spoken (498)
His Eye Is On the Sparrow (661)



Monday, July 20, 2015

Sermon: Compassion For the Crowds

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 19, 2015, Ordinary 16B
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Compassion For the Crowds

While it has now been more than four years since I last taught a music history class, I have been fortunate, through the modern miracles of electronic communication and social media, to be able to keep up with many of my friends and colleagues from that part of my life. One of those friends, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, recently shared on Facebook a number of pictures and posts from one of his scholarly trips through Africa, including in the nation of Rwanda.
I’m going to guess that most Americans know Rwanda, if at all, as the place where one of the more horrific modern episodes of genocide occurred just over twenty years ago, in which members of the larger Hutu population tried to wipe out the smaller, but more politically powerful, Tutsi. While in Rwanda Mark visited one of the memorials erected in the wake of and recovery from that genocide. Part of the display at that memorial attempted to give some kind of background or context to how such an event could happen. One part of the story sought to clarify one part of the answer in the country’s colonial past.
The colonial powers in Rwanda, first Germany and then Belgium, were confronted with these two main populations, Tutsi and Hutu; the Tutsi were evidently the rulers and more militarily powerful, while the Hutu were reported to be more numerous and more prominent in the country’s agriculture. The problem was identifying exactly who was Tutsi and who was Hutu; if there were racial or ethnic differences at one point in history, they were far less prominent by the time the colonialists were in charge. In order to exercise control, those colonial powers, according to this memorial, devised their own categories.
One example: any family that owned x amount of property (say, ten cows) was designated a Tutsi; any family with less was a Hutu – this despite the centuries of cohabitation and mixed marriage that had greatly reduced any previous racial differences. The colonial powers then proceeded to rule through the Tutsi and discriminate against the Hutu. This division (along with a lot of other factors) animated new conflict between the peoples, leading to decades of intermittent warfare culminating in the 1994 genocide.
In short, the Germans and then Belgians saw crowds and thought first of how to control them, how to dominate them, how to play those two groups against one another for their own benefit. Would that we could say such behavior was rare, but sadly history and honesty do not allow us that luxury. When we have to acknowledge that we’ve been party to such sowing of division in our own time, the Christian church should blanch with shame, particularly when we see in today’s gospel how Jesus saw crowds so completely differently.
The passage looks like a throwaway at first, or merely a connecting tissue from last week’s story of Herod and John to next week’s miraculous feeding of five thousand. When we look closer, however, we see that buried in this short excerpt, and its counterpart from the end of the chapter, is nothing less than the gospel in practice.
The disciples are returning from their first independent mission, and Jesus sees that – among other things – they are tired! They’ve been traveling and working hard, and Jesus’s first plan is to get them away for a time of rest and recuperation. This itself is a compassionate response to his disciples and friends, which is not so surprising; showing compassion on those we love is difficult enough, but it is something we can do, and something we expect to do.
What happens next, though, is where the whole idea of compassion is put to the challenge. As Jesus and the disciples are headed across the Sea of Galilee to seek that rest, somehow those on the shore are able to see or to know that Jesus is out there on that boat, and somehow are able to race the boat and arrive at their landing point before the boat does.
Think of it; you’re exhausted, you’ve “been run ragged” as we might say, and just as you think you’re getting away or getting a chance to rest, here come a whole lot of new demands on your time and energy. I’m going to guess, that if you’re anything like most people, compassion is not the first reaction that comes to your mind or soul.
Jesus, though, saw these crowds and had compassion on them. Understand what Mark means when we see this word; its Greek source is an utterly wonderful word, σπλαγχνιζομαι (splaghnizomai), a word with anatomical origins. Its most literal meaning would be something we might express as having your insides all churned up. This is not compassion as an abstract, distant reaction; it is compassion that is true to our English word’s Latin roots as well – “feeling with” or “suffering with” another, to the degree that their grief becomes your own, their loss your own.
We do know this feeling, to be sure; we experience it when one of our own loses a family member or a loved one, or when a major tragedy strikes in the world. It actually isn’t that hard to feel compassion for those we know and love, and for those whose suffering and loss are clearly seen and understood.
Compassion as a default reaction, though, is much more difficult. But this is where Jesus’s heart is as he sees these crowds. While we might look and see only a bunch of people or a new burden, Jesus sees, as verse 34 says, “sheep without a shepherd.”
Just as this passage overall is much more than a mere linking passage, this phrase ‘’sheep without a shepherd” is loaded with significance, and well beyond such familiar passages as Psalm 23 or Jesus’s “I am the good shepherd” discourse in John 10. As far back as the book of Numbers we find Moses praying to the Lord to raise up a successor to him, in chapter 27, so that the Hebrew people would not be like “sheep without a shepherd.” The book of Ezekiel also addresses this idea, in a passage that both denounces the “false” shepherds as those who feed themselves instead of the sheep, and promises to rescue those sheep:
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep/ You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd…

The excerpt from Jeremiah we read earlier takes a very similar tone to Ezekiel, condemning the rulers who are not good shepherds to the flock and adds the promise “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…”.
In the novel The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene portrays the central character, a fading old whiskey priest, reflecting on the struggle he feels in caring for or feeling compassion for the people of his flock, compared with the deep, profound love he feels for his (illegitimate) daughter. He thinks:
One mustn’t have human affections – or rather one must love every soul as if it were one’s own child. The passion to protect must extend itself over a world – but he felt it tethered and aching like a hobbling animal to the tree trunk.

I dare say many of us can relate to that struggle.
We see crowds around us. We read our newspapers or hear the news on the radio or television or online. What people do breaks our hearts, or inflames our anger. And it’s so hard to feel compassion.
Or maybe we’re more like the Peanuts character Linus, exclaiming, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!” Someone close to us breaks our heart or inflames our anger. And it’s so hard to feel compassion.
But Jesus sees the lost-ness, the loneliness, the adrift-ness of the people, and compassion is his default reaction. And in his compassion…”he began to teach them many things.”
There are times when we need to feed people who are hungry. There are times when we need to shelter those who are without shelter, clothe those who have nothing to wear, seek out healing or relief for those who suffer physically. But many are the times when the thing we need to do most is speak the good news, to speak love and peace and healing and wholeness to those who do not know love or peace or healing or wholeness.
The events of verses 35-52 we will hear in the next two weeks. When those events are done, another boat ride commences, and this time when Jesus and the disciples land the crowds gather up quickly. Many healings happen in this place, as the people of the region gather up all those who are sick and bring them to Jesus. Even the marketplaces become venues of healing, as the sick are brought in on mats and laid before Jesus’s way, with people begging merely to touch the fringe of his cloak. The echoes of earlier stories in Mark are thick here; people being brought to Jesus on mats recalls the four who tear a whole in the roof to lower their sick friend to Jesus in Mark 2; touching the fringe of his cloak brings to mind the woman with bleeding from Mark 5. Here the more traditional scenes we have come to expect in this gospel play out – crowds swarming around Jesus seeking healing for their physical ills.
Taken in tandem, these two seemingly throwaway passages turn out to be nothing less than the kingdom of God come near, the very thing we have been watching for since the first chapter of this gospel. It is both in the feeding and healing and in the bringing the good news that we “get it right” when seeking to be followers of Christ. And as radical or utopian or farfetched as it might seem, when enough people who call themselves Christians actually get around to being followers of Christ, seeing with the compassion of Christ and loving with the love of Christ, this is what the world will look like.
Theologian Douglas John Hall suggests that this passage offers no less than the answer to the two most basic questions that come of our religious striving:
(1) How does your God view the world? – the basic theological question; and (2) How does your God ask you to view the world? – the basic ethical question.

In short, our God sees the world with compassion, and calls us to do the same.
For the compassionate Shepherd who rescues the sheep without a shepherd, Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns: “Though I May Speak” (PH ’90 335); “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (PH ’90 387); “When Peace Like A River” (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal 840); “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” (PH ’90 408)



Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sermon: Requiem For a Prophet

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2015, Ordinary 15B
Mark 6:14-29

Requiem For a Prophet

This is a strange story.
Or perhaps it’s not so much a strange story as it is a strange story to be telling now, at this point in Mark’s gospel.
We’ve been following this gospel for some time now, catching some of it before the Easter season and resuming the journey after Pentecost. We’ve seen the beginning of Jesus’s ministry; a number of miraculous healings and exorcisms, causing the crowds to throng around Jesus to the point that it became impossible to travel in the cities and towns; we’ve observed the first stirrings of opposition from religious leaders from Jerusalem, as well as the embarrassment of his family; and, after a couple more healings, last week we saw Jesus face the rejection of his hometown folk who “took offense at him,” and send out his disciples on their first “independent” mission. Now we get what looks at best like a sidebar, in which Jesus is quite absent except as a point of discussion at the royal court, and a flashback revealing how things finally turned out for John the baptizer. Remember him?
We had met him back at the beginning of this gospel, out in the wilderness preaching and challenging his hearers to repent. Jesus, you’ll remember, shows up to be baptized by John, and then is driven into the wilderness for a period of temptation. Meanwhile, the last we hear of John is in 1:14: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
We’ve come back to that last part many times since then. But that first phrase of verse 14: “Now after John was arrested…” Wait, what? This seems like a big deal, something that deserves more than a throwaway phrase.
Well, maybe Mark agreed with that sentiment. For whatever reason, five chapters later, our author suddenly returns to John and picks up his story after his arrest by Herod. It turns out that story didn’t end well.
First, though, we get an insight into just how much Jesus’s reputation is spreading. It turns out that the authorities in the Temple aren’t the only bigwigs who have taken notice of Jesus and his following. Unlike those Temple authorities, though, the level of concern in the courts of King Herod runs more towards idle, bemused speculation than serious interest and wariness.
One might imagine the conversation, something like this:
“So, how ‘bout this Jesus fellow?”
“Who? What’s this?”
“You know, this rural rabbi making the rounds up in Galilee, doing all these healings and miracles. The one who’s got the prayboys over at the Temple all aflutter.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard about him. Big miracle worker. So what about him?”
“Who is he? I mean, obviously he can’t just be this hick-from-the-sticks preacher, not with all these things going on around him. So who is he, really?”
“Well, there are some talking about him as if he’s John the baptizer come back from the dead. You know that would drive Herod crazy.”
“Yes, but there are others who say he’s Elijah returned, or a prophet like the old prophets who used to roam around this benighted kingdom and make kings’ lives miserable.”

When the chatter made it to Herod’s desk, though, it stopped being idle. One can imagine Herod turning pale as a sheet, eyes stricken with fear, mumbling to himself, “It’s John. I had him killed, and John has come back to get me.” And then, as if suddenly remembering that he hadn’t gotten around to telling that story, the author now does so.
It’s a pretty sordid story, and one that has lived on in the arts and culture in a way that few such New Testament stories have done. Aside from the obvious “biggies” like the Crucifixion or the Nativity, this particular story has been one of the most fertile subjects for painters, novelists, playwrights, and even composers of any of the New Testament. Aside from a number of paintings, probably the most famous such artistic products are the scandalous Oscar Wilde play Salome and the also-scandalous opera by Richard Strauss based partly on that play. For arts lovers, those products may actually be unhelpful in reading this story, so a moment to clear away the clutter is appropriate here.
First of all, get that “Dance of the Seven Veils” from the Strauss opera out of your head. The girl in question was a younger girl, possibly no older than the little girl raised by Jesus back in chapter five. For another, you’ll note than in this account she isn’t even given the name “Salome”; rather, Mark sticks her with her mother’s name Herodias (although there’s some uncertainty about whether Mark is actually trying to refer to “the daughter of Herodias herself”). The name “Salome” is given in extra-biblical accounts like that of the Jewish historian Josephus. So bear in mind that what Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss give us is, as you might expect, quite an exaggeration of the original.
Not that the story doesn’t have its own intrigue. Herodias is more than willing to use that young daughter to get Herod to do what she (Herodias) wanted, and what Herod could have done at any time. A whole roomful of courtiers and hangers-on are on hand to see just how Herod (who in this telling is nobody’s idea of a great king) handles this particular pickle.
But perhaps the most intriguing, or maybe most curious part of the story is: why had Herod kept John alive for so long?
He, as king, could have had John executed at any time. He didn’t even have to bother with imprisoning him, really, although it might have been expedient in order to keep the possibility of a revolt by John’s followers under control. He could have had any crowds dispersed or put down and then had John killed. Instead, for some reason, he keeps John around, not only letting him live but even going to hear John occasionally, even though he had to know they only thing John was going to do was to condemn him for stealing his brother’s wife.
In the end, though, political expediency won out. Herod, like any politician, lived in mortal fear of appearing weak, and once he was put on the spot there was nothing to it but to have John’s head served up on the requested platter.
So, what then to make of this story? There are a few lessons, some obvious and some less so.
Maybe the easiest lesson is that speaking truth to power is not always rewarded with success and honor. Sometimes it just gets you killed. While history offers a multitude of examples of this tendency, one of which I was reminded this week was William Tyndale, the sixteenth-century English scholar who determinedly produced the first complete translation of the Bible into English drawing directly from Hebrew and Greek texts rather than Latin translations. For his trouble, Tyndale was arrested and imprisoned for a year, then finally executed by strangulation, after which his body was burned at the stake. Even as vernacular translations were appearing across Europe in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, Tyndale’s effort to bring scripture into the language of the people brought him to a violent end. Tyndale is just one example; students of history can probably come up with many others who confront the powers that be, and end up crushed by them.
Not all such persons ended up executed, of course, and we today are fortunate to live in a place and time where we don’t face execution or other such punishments for speaking truth to power. It still can cost us, though, particularly when one looks at powers other than the state. The ability of large corporations, for example, to crush those who speak out against their practices is something that should frighten us all. So it still remains true that speaking truth to power can not only be rejected, but cause harm to us as those trying as best as possible to follow Christ.
There’s another lesson, though, in that wishy-washy way Herod keeps going back to hear from John, one that gives a preacher like myself great cause for concern. In a way, there might just be a fate worse than facing punishment for speaking truth to power; the fate of, in trying to proclaim the news of the kingdom of God at hand, of being reduced to an entertainment, or a sideshow.
I think that’s a fear for preachers in particular, yes, but not one irrelevant to anyone trying to be a follower of Christ. They’ll come back to hear us, sure. They might even commend our preaching, or our music or whatever aspect of the church’s worship or practice strikes their fancy, but nothing really happens. The sermons or anthems go out and are heard, but … nothing. Nothing changes. Nothing “takes,” and everything goes on the same as it always has been.
I fear in some ways that this is how the Christian Church in general, particularly in the United States, passed much of the twentieth century. We built our big fancy buildings when we had the influence that came of being something people just had to be part of. We put out our radio shows – like, say, “The Protestant Hour” or the old broadcasts by the likes of Bishop Sheen – and, comfortable in our place, were content to be simply influential, without much actually happening.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we thought we had found our place in society, when in fact society had found its place in us. 
Then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves on the outside looking in. Finally people had noticed that the church wasn’t really doing anything with all that influence, at least not anything that really made anybody’s life better. Things like racism, or sexism, or poverty, or all manner of injustice were rolling along unchecked, and instead of making a difference or at least speaking up against these injustices it seemed like large chunks of the church were getting all bent out of shape over what went on in people’s bedrooms. Faced with this kind of disconnect, society decided the church wasn’t really worth the trouble anymore, and they’ve been drifting away ever since.
So now, we try to speak, even try to speak up against real injustice, and society looks at us and says, “that’s cute.” And they go on about their business, and we remain on the fringe, looking irrelevant, more like a curiosity than a serious messenger with good news to proclaim.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that Mark is engaging in some literary foreshadowing here. The final result of John’s encounter with Roman power is not exactly like what happens to Jesus later in the gospel, but the effect is pretty similar – except, of course, for the small detail about Jesus not staying dead. And it’s hard not to wonder if Jesus, fresh off rejection in his own hometown, doesn’t have some inkling of this. You have to think Jesus knows what happens to those who speak truth to power in the age of the Roman Empire.
And yet Jesus didn’t go silent. Jesus didn’t retreat from his mission. Jesus didn’t stop acting out of compassion for the crowds that continued to flock to see Jesus, and Jesus didn’t stop lighting into the Pharisees and scribes when they continued to nitpick at Jesus and the disciples. The ministry, the mission continued, and Jesus continued to proclaim the kingdom of God come near, and the good news.
And that’s our mission as well. Whether we face opposition or bemusement, our call continues to be to proclaim the kingdom of God come near, and the good news. And for that call, enduring and unchanging, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90):
#482                  Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
#418                  God, Bless Your Church With Strength
#409                  Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice
#420                  God of Grace and God of Glory



That's one kind of legacy...

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sermon: You Can't Go Home Again, But You Can Still Get To Work

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2015, Ordinary 14B
Mark 6:1-13

You Can’t Go Home Again, But You Can Still Get to Work

In the movie Love and Mercy, now in theaters, there’s a scene in which Brian Wilson, the former Beach Boys musician and subject of the film, persuades Melinda, once girlfriend and future wife, to drive him home. As she drives by his directions she is surprised to see a neighborhood of rather small houses, not what she had been accustomed to from him. He corrects her; “I’m not asking you to take me where I live; I want you to take me home.” Sounds wonderful, like the perfect ending to your typical Hollywood movie.
It doesn’t quite turn out that way, though, as when the two arrive at the street where they’re supposed to turn left, there’s nothing there; the road ends, and there’s nothing there but metal guardrails and a standard diamond-shaped yellow sign that says END; it is a literal dead end.
Maybe it’s not a perfect metaphor for what happens to Jesus in this scripture from Mark 6, but it’s not bad. We should probably acknowledge, though, that to some degree Jesus might have brought it on himself.
Remember a few chapters ago, at the end of chapter three, Jesus’s family comes looking for him, to take him home because (as they say) he was out of his mind and possibly embarrassing them. Jesus’s answer at the time was to gesture around the crowd and to say that the ones who did the will of his Father were his brothers and sisters and mother. You have to figure that word got around back in Nazareth, and the home folks may well have been predisposed to be a bit suspicious of Jesus or maybe even hostile towards this uppity kid (even if he was at least thirty by this time) who disrespected the family.
Their reaction actually brings to mind another popular culture reference, in this case a song once recorded by the bluegrass duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (and later by Ricky Skaggs), the title of which is so characteristic of a particular attitude that it later became the title of a book about country music: “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’.”  Really when Lester Flatt sings:
Now looky here gal don’t you high head me
For I ain’t forgot how you used to be
When you didn’t have nothin’ / That’s plain to see
Don’t get above your raisin’, stay down to earth with me

…is it all that different from the way the locals react to Jesus, as Mark describes it in verses two and three?
They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

And then the awful capper: “And they took offense at him.”
Don’t get above your raisin’, stay down here with us.
You can practically hear “who do you think you are?” in every word. Because these folk knew him, they took offense at his teaching and healing. Because they knew his mother and his brother and sisters, they presumed that they knew him, and all this highfalutin’ preaching and casting out demons and healing was apparently too presumptuous for the local folk to abide. How dare you? comes the unspoken retort. How dare you think you have anything to tell us? How dare you think you’re better than us?
And they took offense at him, and in a way even beyond those scribes and teachers from the Temple in Jerusalem. And it’s the kind of offense that people – even good Christians – can take at us, when we really get serious about following Christ.
You might remember from last week that we were roughly reminded, for example, of the degree to which racism is still a plague on American society and politics and culture, in the wake of the murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and a number of suspicious burnings of African-American churches across the South. In our own denomination, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is in touch with those churches in their localities to see what kind of aid we Presbyterians might be able to offer to those churches in their time of recovery and grief. (You might remember that we heard from our local PDA coordinator in a minute for mission a few weeks ago.) Even now, some of those fires continue to be investigated as arson.
But a new development has followed in the wake of those murders and burnings. About twenty different female pastors in the African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina had, in recent weeks, been receiving threatening letters from an unidentified source, overlapping the time of the events in Charleston. Apparently a man, identifying himself as an “Apostle Prophet,” took it upon himself to decide that God’s call on those ministers was obviously not real, because they were women, and to use intimidation and fear to drive them out of the pulpit. Sexism is at least as perennial as racism, and equally as evil.
Yet there are those, in our country and our culture, and even in God’s own church, who would tell us to keep silent on these evils. Some politicians would have us keep silent because they need the votes of those people. Some pastors would rather us not rock the boat, let’s just keep everything peaceful and quiet and not get anybody all disturbed. Some would tell us to quit making our country look bad, particularly around the Independence Day holiday that just passed yesterday.
If we are ever tempted to listen to these voices, what happens after the rejection in Jesus’s hometown should jolt us out of our quiet.
You will notice that Mark does not care about our delicate theological sensibilities; he flat-out says that Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Let’s face it, healing a few sick people  doesn’t seem like it should count for so little to us, but Mark doesn’t mess around with worrying about the reaction of the locals or how Jesus was “amazed” at their unbelief.
Rather, Mark tells us Jesus went right back to work. He went right back out into ther other towns in the area and went right back to teaching. He didn’t let the disciples mope either; he sent them out in pairs and put them to work, giving them “authority over the unclean spirits” and putting them on the road with little more than the cloaks on their backs and the staff in their hands. If the people of the town refused to hear them, their instructions were to move on to the next place; if their word was heard, they were to stay and continue to preach and heal.
Folks, we have a lot to learn from this. Here we are, not a huge church by any means, and maybe not in the trendiest or most elegant part of town. We’re part of a denomination in which some of our largest and richest churches have taken offense at us and run away as fast as they can. We’re kind of traditional and many of us are kind of old in a culture that idolizes the young and contemporary and “hip”. We still come to this table, every now and then, and engage in a ritual that some of the younger and more contemporary and “hip” churches in our land, maybe even in this town, have forgotten or tossed aside. We are, intentionally or not, on the “wrong” side of a lot of the divides that crisscross our nation, our culture, and our church.
And yet Christ’s call to us is not to indulge in a pity party. It isn’t to worry about how we in the church in general or this church in particular can be popular again, to be as big and important as we were in the 1950s or 1960s or whatever idealized era you may remember. It isn’t to try to be “influential” or “trendy” or whatever buzzword is getting tossed around these days.
Our job is to follow Christ out into the world and teach and preach and heal. Our job is to go out and proclaim that message that Jesus proclaimed, as Mark told us, at the very beginning of his ministry: “the time is at hand, and the kingdom of God is come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Good news. Not news that drives people away because of their race or orientation or anything about them. Not news that divides us or sets us at one another’s throats, or news that tells us to keep silent in the face of hatred or injustice.
It isn’t about being in good standing in society, or “having pull” with the right people in town, or even being good patriotic Americans (even if Independence Day was yesterday). If our call is about anything, ANYTHING other than knowing Christ and making him known, bringing healing to those who need healing, and proclaiming the news of the kingdom of God come near, then we’re doing it wrong.
It’s time to get on board and get on with Christ’s work in God’s world. It’s time to get out there and bring the good news, no matter how small we feel. It’s time to be witnesses.
For a call to go out and bring healing in the world, Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (PH ’90): “God of the Ages” (262); “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (562); “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (563)



Told ya it was a book too...