Monday, March 23, 2015

Sermon: The Last Straw

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 22, 2014, Lent 5B
Isaiah 5:1-7, Mark 12:1-12, 28-34

The Last Straw

You can call it “the last straw” or the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” the “breaking point” or “tipping point.”  We know what that is; whatever trouble or disagreement or source of difficulty had been bearable or tolerable before is no longer so, and must be removed.  We might say “I can’t stand it anymore,” or “enough is enough, and then proceed with taking the troublemaker or source of stress out of the equation altogether.
That is the place we find the religious leaders of Jerusalem at the end of today’s reading from Mark.  They already knew this Galilean rabbi was trouble after that incident in the Temple courtyard the day before, where he had been upsetting the tables of the moneychangers and animal sellers, and accusing the Temple of being a “den of robbers.”  With that their anger had been kindled against this man.  It was all fine and good as long as he stayed out in Galilee doing healings and that kind of thing, but now he had come to the seat of their power and started making trouble.  He had to be stopped, before the people were totally bamboozled by his act.
And now here he was, having the gall to show himself again in the Temple after that display.  It was time to deal with this troublemaker once and for all.
First came a challenge to his authority; at the end of chapter 11 we see the challenge, “by what authority are you doing these things?  How dare you?  Who do you think you are?  The Galilean rabbi threw the challenge back in their faces by reminding them of John the Baptizer – still a popular figure among the people even though he had been dead for some time.  The scribes and chief priests and elders were in a quandary; if they insulted John’s work by claiming it had no divine sanction they risked angering the people, but if they acknowledged divine sanction for John’s work they brought themselves under condemnation for not supporting John.  So, they were stuck. 
Then this itinerant rabbi turned the tables on them with a story, or parable.  In this story Jesus invoked the image of the vineyard, long a shorthand in the prophetic literature for the people of God.  One of the most striking examples of the “vineyard” theme is found in the reading from Isaiah, in which the “vineyard,” here as often standing in for the people of Israel and Judah, or the people of God, is called under prophetic judgment for failing to produce the right kind of fruits – bad grapes.  Verse 7 makes explicit the nature of the “bad grapes”:  he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
In Mark’s vineyard parable, the object of the story is not the vineyard itself, but a group of tenants, or overseers, left in charge of the vineyard by its master.  When the time came for the fruits of the harvest, the master sends one of his workers to collect from the tenants, who instead beat the slave up and tossed him about.  The pattern is repeated many times, with the violence seeming to escalate against the master’s messengers, with some being beaten and some killed.  Finally the master of the vineyard sends a “beloved son,” but the tenants reject his authority as well and kill him, thinking this will make the vineyard theirs.
The scribes and elders and chief priests didn’t need to be hit over the head to know who they were in the story.  Again, though, their fear of the crowds – who were definitely on Jesus’s side, at least at this point – overcame their desire to haul the troublesome rabbi off to the authorities, so they left him.  They didn’t give up trying to trap him, though, sending first a group of Pharisees and then some Sadducees to throw some trick questions at him, both of which he foiled.  Finally, one of the scribes, breaking away from his group, did something radical; he engaged the rabbi in an actual conversation instead of a trap.  The lone scribe’s question was genuine: “Which commandment is the first of all?  The rabbi gives an answer that is familiar to us even today:
The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

The scribe, in typical scholarly fashion, breaks down the answer into its component parts and finds it wise, implicitly separating himself from his fellow scribes and elders and chief priests.  Jesus’s response – “You are not far from the kingdom of God” – was perhaps more striking and arresting to the crowd than all of the rebuttals and parables had been on this day. 
Preachers tend to avoid this passage from Mark, at least those first twelve verses, because it has a sordid history of misuse in the church.  There have too often been those who sought to define the “tenants” of the vineyard as the whole of Judaism, and have used the passage to justify the evils of anti-Semitism.  Let’s spike that now; that kind of use is a lie, and a damnable one.  The parable’s tenants are the religious leaders, not an entire nation.  After all, the first followers of Jesus were Jews themselves, as was Jesus. 
The lie becomes particularly pernicious when it allows religious leaders – Christian ones, in this case – to be able to evade responsibility for their stewardship of the church even today.  How many Christian leaders do you see out there who are acting rightly as stewards of the church?  When the news headlines include a pastor seeking $65 million from his congregation for a jet, or one who hauls his congregation across the country to scream the words “GOD HATES” – no matter how you finish that sentence, it is not one that any human being ever has any business uttering – or herding their flocks into a particular political party, or indeed leading the church in any way other than as a witness to the love of God, it’s not hard to find a few parallels to the “wicked tenants” of Jesus’s parable. 
If anything, Jesus’s exchange with the lone scribe should stop us cold – all of us, not just misbehaving preachers.  The two greatest commandments – each one directed at each one of us and all of us together – should absolutely stop any of us cold when we feel the urge to start wielding influence over the church.  The moment we start trying to draw lines between us and the folks outside these walls, the instant we start positioning ourselves as judges of who’s in and who’s out, the second we appoint ourselves as judges over any other person’s life…we are the wicked tenants, bucking to be thrown out of the vineyard. 
Jesus doesn’t mince words; the owner will “destroy” those tenants, and give charge of the vineyard to others.  “Destroy” is uncomfortable language for us.  We are not much accustomed to that kind of word coming out of the mouth of Jesus.  At the bare minimum it should bring us up short, cause us to be circumspect and humble in our stewardship of God’s vineyard.  How, then, do we remain as “faithful stewards” and not live in peril of putting ourselves against God’s purposes?
One: remember whose vineyard this is.  We are not the owners.  The vineyard, or the church if you will, is not our property in the sense that matters most.  We are God’s stewards; our charge is to be responsible only to the true shepherd.  God is sovereign – this is one of the primary tenets of Reformed theology.  Anything that we might follow instead – tradition, culture, our own Bible-verse cherry-picking – violates that sovereignty, period.
Second, we need to remember what makes Jesus angry.  We’ve been on this subject for a few weeks now; from the table-tossing in the temple to the leper doubtful of Jesus’s desire to heal him, to these wicked tenants not giving the vineyard’s owner his due, Jesus’s anger is raised up against anyone or anything that gets in the way of any person’s connection to the Father.  The moment we presume our judgments on others instead of our welcome, the moment we build walls instead of extend hands, we are these wicked tenants, bucking to be thrown out of the vineyard.
The third point to remember is that we follow a Christ who was so determined to break down these barriers, who was so insistent on the kingdom of God coming near and bringing good news to all, that it ultimately cost him his life.  As early as chapter three Mark records that the scribes and chief priests and elders were determined to eliminate Jesus.  After the incident in the Temple the authorities were all the more determined.  This direct challenge was too much.  The rest of the chapter includes two more challenges, from the Pharisees (a challenge that gives us the instruction to “give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God”) and the Sadducees, trying to trick Jesus on a question about marriage, before the lone scribe finds common ground with Jesus.  By chapter fourteen, after more teaching, the authorities are committed to kill Jesus.
Fourth, remember the two great commandments, as Jesus described them to the lone scribe.  How you love God and how you love your neighbor are more significant, more Christ-like than all the rituals and rules we can follow.  Another way to look at is that it’s challenge enough for each of us to keep our own walk with Christ going; none of us – not one – is in any position to be the judge and jury over anybody else’s relationship with God.  We just aren’t that good, and we certainly aren’t infallible or perfect or sovereign enough.
Finally, maybe the most important part to remember is that God really does want everybody.  Our picking and choosing, our wanting to give our welcome only to those we like or those who are like us or those who make us look good – this is not God’s desire.  On the other hand, when we open our doors to all who seek the Lord, when we truly love our neighbors – not just the folks we know – as ourselves, then – as Jesus told the lone scribe – we are not far from the kingdom of God. 
Even when Jesus speaks of destruction and throwing them out, the door always remains open for the one, like the lone scribe, to return and to know the kingdom of God drawing near.  Let us never be the ones to stand in anybody’s way.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation (417); What Wondrous Love Is This (85); Lord, Make Us More Holy (536)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon: When the Community Is Broken

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 15, 2015, Lent 4B
2 Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45

When the Community Is Broken

April Riley.  Betty Squires.  Dominic Bruzzese.  Dub Geiger.  Barbara Griseck.  Dorothy Nevill.  Dick Ramer.  Annette McGee. 
When a pastor looks at a Prayer List like this (and this is only the beginning, as you well know), and then looks at the healing stories from both Old and New Testaments upon which he has committed himself to preach the coming Sunday, said preacher feels a bit like an idiot.  Particularly this is so when said preacher remembers that if he’d simply stuck with the lectionary’s appointed readings for the day, he could be preaching on John 3:16.  (On the other hand, attempting to preach on such an extremely familiar verse has its own plethora of pitfalls, so perhaps that would not be so much easier.) 
The persistence of illness and injury among our number, as with any church, makes preaching on a healing story a difficult and sometimes painful challenge.  Still, there is something in this particular story, brief though it may be, that we as would-be followers of Christ must struggle with and ultimately take into our own lives.  It’s too important to bury on the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany, a Sunday that doesn’t even happen when (like this lectionary cycle) Easter falls early enough in the year that the approach of Lent truncates the season of Epiphany after only five Sundays. 
Since it’s been over a month ago that we were last in this first chapter of Mark’s gospel, it might be a good idea to refresh our collective memory on how this chapter has proceeded so far.  John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, where Jesus came to be baptized by him, and as he came up out of the water Jesus saw “the heavens torn apart” (v.10) and the Spirit coming upon him like a dove, with a heavenly voice saying “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.  (v.11)  Immediately Jesus was driven into the wilderness to face temptation, after which he returned preaching the core message, his thesis statement, the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (v.15).  He calls his first handful of disciples, casts out an unclean spirit while teaching in the synagogue, and heals Simon’s mother-in-law, which leads to large crowds of would-be patients seeking healing.  From this place Jesus, after going off to “a deserted place” to pray, gathers his disciples and heads out into the neighboring towns of Galilee, with the intention of engaging on a preaching and teaching tour.  That’s where Jesus is at the end of verse 39. 
Given that background, verse 40 almost seems like an interruption in the story rather than its continuation.  Mark doesn’t make it entirely clear whether this leper appears in the middle of this preaching tour or not; it doesn’t seem to be in a public place like the previous casting out of the unclean spirit, and it’s not even clear whether his disciples are present to witness the incident.   It could have almost been dropped into any section of the gospel without its point being particularly damaged in any way.
But here it is, and an unusual story it is.  The reading from 2 Kings reminds us of another somewhat familiar story of a man being healed of leprosy.  It’s a different story of course; the leprosy victim is not an anonymous stranger, but a powerful and famous general from another land, one that threatens Israel with its might.  The agent of healing is not even present in the story; the prophet Elisha sends out a messenger to give Naaman instructions on how to have his affliction cured.  The prophet is certainly obedient to God’s command, but you might say he’s not all that emotionally involved.
Aside from leprosy being involved, this account from Mark seems totally different.  The leprosy victim is quite anonymous, and seems almost to think that the healer he has approached will refuse to heal him – “if you choose,” he says.  And Jesus’s reaction is anything but detached. 
The Bible translation you read probably says something along the lines of “moved with pity” or “moved with compassion” in describing Jesus’s reaction to the leprosy victim.  Many of the manuscripts and fragments that contain this passage use that word (or the Greek version of it), and it is perfectly logical and believable to think of Jesus being moved – moved all the way down to his deepest parts, it says – this way.
But there are other fragments or manuscripts, of equal antiquity and credibility, that have another word instead of “compassion” or “pity.”  Jesus was moved, they say, with anger.
Anger?  Since when does Jesus get angry?  Of course, those who remember last week’s sermon remember another occasion, much later in Jesus’s ministry, when amidst the commotion and noise of Temple commerce Jesus started flipping over the tables and loosing potential sacrificial animals and “teaching” about the Temple as a “house of prayer for all nations” being turned into a “den of robbers.”  In that case, Jesus was angry at a system in which The Way Things Are became an impediment to the worship of God and prayer, instead of its aid. 
Even though that’s a later story, it might just help us make sense of this story too.  You see, in Jesus’s time leprosy was at least as powerful a social stigma as it was a disease.  It wouldn’t necessarily kill you, but it would, could, and did bring an emphatic end to your public life.
You could neither be touched nor touch another person.  You could not enter a city or town.  You could not be around other people.  If you were walking on a road and saw other people ahead of you, you were required to cry out “unclean! unclean!” in order to warn those people to stay clear of you.  And obviously, forget about making a sacrifice or praying in the Temple; the only possible reason you could think of going near the Temple was to approach a priest to have him confirm that you were healed, to be declared legally and ritually clean.
So the man who approached Jesus was about as alone, isolated, and cast out as a person could be in Jewish society of the time.  Even to approach Jesus was a violation.  And there were possible consequences for Jesus, too; he himself could be rendered ritually unclean if this person came in contact with him.  There’s a lot at stake here, folks.
So we could argue that, as in the later incident in the Temple, Jesus is again angry at a system that cuts people off, leaving them isolated from community in this case with no hope of restoration, leaving them governed by the fear and ignorance of others rather than allowing for any hope of healing or restoration.  Given what we know of Jesus, that makes sense. 
Of course, we moderns would never do such a thing.  We would never turn others into pariahs, cut off from society and community because of illness.  After all, there was never any stigma against victims of AIDS in this country, right?  No hysteria driven by fear and ignorance, no societal condemnation, none of that, right?  No hysteria over the ebola virus, locking people up as virtual prisoners because they had been doctors trying to exterminate the disease. 
Oh, wait, those both happened, didn’t they?
So, I suppose we aren’t really in that much of a position to judge, are we?  There’s always some big scary disease somebody can convince us we have to treat as cause for expulsion or exclusion.  We are no less hasty to turn into frightened, angry people ready to throw others out at even the slightest hint of disease. 
In terms of systems of behavior, laws and customs that cut off the vulnerable and weak from society, this is another situation that could be read as provoking Jesus’s anger.  And given what we know of Jesus, this kind of anger would make sense as well. 
I can’t help but think, though, that there’s something else that Jesus might be angry about as well.  Remember that this story is happening very early in Jesus’s public ministry.  The way Mark tells it, it’s happening virtually immediately after that eventful day of Jesus’s public debut – the casting out of an unclean spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum, the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, the numerous people of Capernaum who crowded around to be healed thereafter.  A lot of human brokenness in one day.  And then, just as Jesus is leading his disciples off to the Galilean countryside to get back to preaching and teaching, another broken body appears.  Another soul whose physical illness had led to isolation and exclusion. 
Here, whether we read our text as pointing to Jesus’s compassion or anger, here is another clue to understanding what Jesus seeks: wholeness, completeness, fullness.  Anything that breaks that wholeness or completeness or fullness moves Jesus, agitates him, “churns up his insides” as my mother would have said.  Again, I don’t think we have to stretch too far to understand.  How many of us are even now experiencing the feeling of frustration, exasperation, or even anger at the many of our church family who are facing illness or physical brokenness right now? 
Three years ago this August I was diagnosed with rectal cancer.  I had just finished my second summer of seminary language school, getting ready to start my second full year of study.  Even though no doctor associated with my treatment ever suggested this diagnosis was in any way terminal – it was caught early, it wasn’t too aggressive, it was easily operable and treatable – don’t for a second think I didn’t have my share of anger, anxiety, depression, and frustration.  Really, God? Here I’ve walked away from a career I loved to do this crazy seminary thing and pursue being a pastor, and this is what I get to deal with?  Oh, yes, I was angry. 
I was also worried about being cut off from a community I had found at seminary, much to my surprise.  Although it’s true that seminaries now welcome many more “second-career” or other older students (right, Dorothy?), it was still true that a majority of my classmates were an awful lot younger than I, the age of people who would have been my students just a year before.  And yet, in this case, those “kids” stepped up and didn’t let me get cut off from community.  I wasn’t left in isolation.  This is what the church does when it’s working the way it’s supposed to; we step in and care for those felled by illness.  We draw them in.  We don’t let them slip through the cracks.  We take turns carrying one another.  We don’t resort to fear or ignorance.  We continue to love and care for our sisters and brothers in need.
But there is one more thing.  I kind of wish there wasn’t but there is.
Jesus, moved by compassion or anger or maybe even both, reaches out and touches the leper, heals him, and sends him off – practically barking at him to go present himself to the priest to be declared clean.  He does so with one word of warning; “See that you say nothing to anyone” (v. 44).
It’s part of that confusing thing scholars call the “Messianic secret,” a repeated pattern in Mark in which Jesus repeatedly orders those he has healed not to talk about it.  There are possible theological reasons for it (if you want to know more you can join us for the Lenten reading group next week), but some scholars also suggest a very practical reason; the more word got out about Jesus’s healings, the harder it was for Jesus to be about the work of preaching and teaching.  And sure enough, exactly that thing happens here.  Ignoring Jesus’s warning, the man goes off and blabs to everyone and anyone, and Jesus couldn’t even go into towns anymore without being mobbed, and even staying out in the countryside he and his disciples were swarmed by multitudes. 
Alyce McKenzie, professor of preaching and worship at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, describes the failing this way:
To be a disciple in Mark's gospel is to "follow" Jesus (akoloutheo). This is not just a spatial following, but is, rather, a technical term for discipleship. The healed and exorcized are to "follow" Jesus as a mark of their full restoration (Thurston, 11). The leper accepts his cleansing but fails to accept his commissioning. He confused bragging about his blessing with living out the good news of sacrificial love for others in imitation of Jesus Christ.
If we're going to truly have a blessed day, it will necessarily involve being a blessing to others.[1]

If we’ve been blessed, if we’ve known healing in our own lives, it’s our vocation – our calling – our responsibility to live out that healing in ministering to those who are bound by illness or brokenness.  Yes, we rejoice, but not to the point of failing to live out our discipleship in our community and in the world.  You’ve probably heard the saying “blessed to be a blessing”; this – reaching out in compassion and community and love – is how it works.
For restoration, for fellowship, and for discipleship, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “O For A Thousand Tongues” (466), “O Lamb of God Most Holy” (82), “When We Are Living” (400)

[1] Alyce McKenzie, “Blessed to Be a Blessing: Reflections on Mark 1:40-45,” Patheos Preachers “Edgy Exegesis” 12 February 2012, found at

Credit: 2/6/12

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sermon: When the Temple Is Broken

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 8, 2015, Lent 3B
1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Mark 11:15-19

When the Temple Is Broken

Basically, it was a typical day at the Temple.  Business was humming.
You have to understand, the Temple wasn’t just a Temple; it was for all practical purposes the economic engine of Jerusalem.  You might say it was the biggest tourist attraction in the entire region, and it kept an awful lot of businessmen in business.
You see, for the Temple to operate properly, there were a great many business transactions that had to be carried out.  For example: the temple coins.  If you want to be able to buy anything out there in the Roman world, you had to use Roman currency.  No surprise.  But if you wanted to leave an offering in the Temple, you had to have Temple currency.   The coins issued by the Romans had images of the emperor on them – no surprise, given that the emperors wanted to make sure everyone knew who was in charge.  But the Temple couldn’t accept outside currency.  Even though the Temple was run by the Romans to some degree – they actually appointed the chief priest who oversaw the Temple – you still couldn’t use a Roman coin in the Temple.  So you had to exchange your coins for Temple currency.  And of course, the moneychangers have to make a living, right?  So there was possibly an “exchange fee” involved.  Naturally these exchange tables would be set up right there, as you were making ready to enter the Temple.  For your convenience, of course.
Another example would be those locales offering animals for sacrifice.  The rules for sacrifice found back in the Torah allowed for a great variety of offerings, based on everything from the specific purpose for the sacrifice to the financial status of the one seeking to offer a sacrifice.  A rich person might be mandated to offer, say, a bull, while a poor person might offer a pair of doves or even pigeons.  Whatever the offering, the animal was required to be “without blemish.”  Spotless.  Flawless.  But of course, who is to be the judge of whether or not a dove or goat was flawless? 
So, even if, say, a relatively poor family from Galilee wanted to bring their two doves to offer for a sacrifice, they would still have to pass inspection at the Temple.  After a long journey who could possibly guarantee that the sacrifice remained flawless?  Of course, even if your doves were rejected, there would naturally be someone there who could supply you two “flawless” doves for the sacrifice – for a price, of course.  And who were you to judge whether the offered doves were really more “flawless” than the ones you brought with you? 
This was not atypical.  And there were other things that might need to be addressed – a place to stay if you were traveling from a great distance, food, and any number of other issues.  The visit to the temple, an obligatory thing for a faithful Jew, could become quite a burden.  But we need to understand that these were typical conditions around the Temple.  The things we have described were quite ordinary for a visit to the Temple.
Furthermore, we should understand that Mark has not given us any suggestion that there was any malfeasance going on.   Mark doesn’t charge the moneychangers with any kind of cheating or swindling.  The animal dealers are not being accused of dealing unfairly with the visitors to the Temple.  Sometimes when we hear this story we want to jump to the conclusion that the Temple patrons were being ripped off or mistreated somehow, and maybe it was happening, but Mark does not say this is so; the scene that Jesus would so rudely interrupt was a pretty typical scene on any average day at the Temple.
Nonetheless, Jesus took one look at the scene and set off a commotion.  He began to drive out “those who were selling and those who were buying,” flipping over the tables of those exchanging money (remember, you need those special, non-Roman coins) and those selling doves, preventing anyone from carrying anything through the Temple, and … teaching.  It does seem a strange combination of actions, doesn’t it? 
So what was the problem?  What was it about this average day at the Temple that provoked such a reaction from Jesus?
It may just be that the best answer is that it wasn’t that anything was wrong; it was that everything was wrong. 
To have a sacrifice offered at the Temple could mean going through moneychangers, animal dealers and inspectors, and any number of other obstacles, not to mention waiting in line with who knows how many similar would-be worshipers on a given day.  The noise and, probably, smell of all the transactions going on in that outer courtyard, all around the central part of the Temple itself, probably didn’t do much to help the worship or prayer experience. 
In short, the hubbub of activity around the Temple – the usual activity, the Way Things Are for a person seeking to offer a sacrifice at the Temple – was itself an impediment to prayer.   Jesus cites two prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, to contrast God’s ideal for the Temple with what Jesus saw as its current, flawed, even damaging condition. 
No matter how normal the day was, all the moneychanging and selling, and maybe arguing and haggling (a pretty typical Middle Eastern way to do business), was getting in the way of God’s purpose for the Temple – to be a “house of prayer for all nations.”  That was enough to provoke a “freakout” from Jesus, flipping tables and cutting off sales.
A house of prayer for all nations.”  Let that roll around in your minds for a moment.  There is no nation, no people that God does not seek to draw to Godself.  It is God’s will that all have access, that all are able to enter into God’s house and open to God in prayer.  That line I use at the beginning of the service about God’s house and God saying that all are welcome?  Not an accident; the basic call of God to God’s people.
Again, understand that nothing about the Temple activity that Jesus disrupted was “wrong”; none of the moneychangers or animal inspectors would have thought they were doing anything to disrupt prayer in the Temple – if anything, they most likely would have said they were helping Temple visitors pray or worship “the right way” – making sure they had the right coins and the right animals and the right prayers. 
What happens today?  Like all those functionaries clustered around the Temple, I seriously doubt that anyone connected with any church today would ever think that they were putting obstacles in the way of those who seek in our churches a place to worship, to pray, to find some way to be open to God’s working within.  If anything, they’re helping.  Helping folks to look right, to sing the right songs, not to sit in somebody else’s pew, to worship the right way.  You know, like us.
Would Jesus agree?  Or would Jesus enter our churches and start upsetting pews and tossing hymnals around?
Do our churches truly offer a welcome to all nations?  Or are we really more interested in replicating ourselves and our ways of doing things?  What do we as Christ’s churches, Christ’s body on earth, present to those who seek God?  Do we provide a place of welcome, an opportunity to pray or worship?  Or are churches unwittingly putting obstacles in front of those seeking a place of prayer? 
This is what sets Jesus off.  It is worth remembering that our Gospels don’t portray Jesus getting angry often, but when Jesus does get angry, it’s not at an individual.  Jesus doesn’t “freak out and flip tables” over the foibles of an individual sinner.  Jesus “freaks out and flips tables” over a system that provides obstacles instead of welcome to the true seeker of God.  Jesus “freaks out and flips tables” over The Way Things Are, the way that is more concerned with Doing Things the Right Way instead of making our lives and our worship signs that point toward the love of God. 
It’s a way of talking about “radical welcome.”  It’s about our churches being truly open to all, not merely giving lip service to the idea while seeking out those who look and talk and act like us to fill our pews.  The pastor and preacher Fred Craddock, who passed away this week, expressed the idea thus:  Wherever and whenever, for whatever the reason, anyone is not welcome to sit at table with you, to eat with you, then you do not have church.”  It’s about taking down the unspoken walls and taking the locks off the gates that we didn’t realize were there. 
In Mark’s gospel this story takes place during the last week of Jesus’s life, after the triumphal “Palm Sunday” entry into Jerusalem.  It is seemingly the last straw for the Temple authorities, who come out of the incident bound and determined to get rid of this troublemaker once and for all.  After all, they were highly invested in The Way Things Are and in making sure people were Doing Things the Right Way.  It kept them in business.  It kept them in power.  It kept order.  Being open to all – not just in word, but in deed – has the potential to be disruptive, to upset old orders, to [shudder] change things.  And yet this is what God expected of the Temple – in fact this is what God wanted the Temple to be, and it is what God wants our churches to be.
Where do we modern Christians start?  What would it look like for our churches to be radically open and welcoming?  What does it mean to be a “house of prayer for all nations”? And just how much trouble might it cause for us? 
How do we look at our churches and see the unintended walls and fences and gates that hinder others from coming?  How do we look with different eyes to see what it looks like from the outside?  What would it take for us to be truly, completely, a welcoming church?  And how will that change us, the modern Christian church in twenty-first century Gainesville, or Florida, or the United States, or the world?  And how willing are we twenty-first century Christians to follow the Christ who freaked out and flipped tables rather than let those barriers to worship and prayer for all peoples stand?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “How Great Thou Art” (467), “My Song Is Love Unknown” (76), “The Church of Christ, In Every Age” (421)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sermon: Deny Yourself?

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2015, Lent 2B
Mark 8:31-38, 9:30-32, 10:32-34

Deny Yourself?

Do you ever have those experiences where, just when you’re riding high and everything seems to be going amazingly well, everything comes crashing down and you’re at about as low a point as you can possibly be?
Maybe it was a moment of professional triumph followed immediately by great personal loss.  I’ve known that experience before.  Even worse, though, is when some great accomplishment of yours is followed by a serious episode of putting your foot in your mouth.  I’ve known that one too, and I suspect some of you have as well.
Peter has that experience in today’s reading from Mark 8.  Just before our passage starts, it is Peter who puts in words what none of the other disciples were able to come up with when Jesus asked the million-dollar question, “but who do you say that I am?” (8:29).  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” and, as we know, he was right.  Jesus didn’t react quite the way Peter might have expected, though.  First, Jesus told them in no uncertain terms not to go telling others about this, something that was already becoming a pattern in their experience with Jesus as recorded by Mark.  Then Jesus launched into what must have seemed to Peter and the other disciples to be utter nonsense.
For the first time recorded by Mark, Jesus begins to talk about the suffering and rejection that he would undergo, culminating in his execution and resurrection.  The disciples, not surprisingly, latched onto the bad news and somehow didn’t catch that last part.  But still, we can be a little sympathetic.  After all this time the disciples have spent with Jesus, this is how he talks about being the Messiah?
After all, that word “Messiah” came with expectations of great things. Things like throwing off the Roman Empire.  Restoring a real Kingdom of Israel, like in David’s time.  And maybe other things, too.  But suffering and death were emphatically not among them. 
So when Peter, fresh from triumphantly identifying the Messiah in their midst, hears Jesus talking about these things, it’s not surprising that he reacts like the impulsive, sometimes hotheaded character he is.  The Greek word here translated as “rebuke” is actually even a little more forceful than that; one could even read it as Peter ordering or commanding Jesus to stop talking like that.  At any rate, it’s not a nice way for a disciple to talk to his teacher.
You can never be exactly sure what kind of reaction Peter thought he was going to get.  He probably didn’t expect to be called Satan, though.  Whatever the firmness of Peter’s rebuke to Jesus, he got it back tenfold or more.  And not only did Peter crash to a new low, he also found out that his previous high wasn’t nearly as high as he thought it was.
Jesus had to point out that Peter’s idea of Messiah was not at all what Jesus was bringing.  Peter had to learn that his ideas about following Jesus, as hopeful as he thought they were, as understandable as they were, were all wrong, with priorities misplaced and objectives all out of focus.  Just in case it wasn’t clear enough, Jesus called the whole crowd (not just the disciples) together to make it that much clearer:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Writer Bruce Maples makes an interesting point about that phrase “deny yourself” (to put it in the singular).  It’s an often-abused phrase, one that is at times used by those who seek to dominate or abuse others, to convince those others that submitting to that abuse or control is the only proper thing to do.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  What it means is much harder, actually.  It goes back to that previous verse, where Jesus rebukes Peter for having his mind on human things instead of on divine things. 
Do we get how hard it is to set our minds on divine things?  To take our eyes so completely and deliberately off the “things of the world” and to see only those things that Christ would have us see?  To step away from our own wants and desires and to be so caught up in the mind of Christ that our only concern is to live out Christ’s will for us?  To be unconcerned about the one we see in the mirror and to strive to serve those we see when we look away from that mirror? 
This isn’t what comes naturally to any of us.  This isn’t about being “nice” or any of the usual ways we strive to get by in the world.  This is about being changed, being so remade and reoriented by the kingdom of God come near that our desires and interests and even needs are oriented around that kingdom come near. 
Let’s be clear; this is not about some kind of self-destroying, self-abusing kind of denial.  This is not about the kind of self-abasement that makes a person into a doormat or a punching bag or a target for abuse.  That kind of self-denial is not only unhealthy, it renders a person unable to live fully and completely into our place in the work of God’s kingdom.  It cannot help but include being nourished by the scriptures and the fellowship of the body of Christ, the church.  It demands soundness of body and mind.  It requires wholeness and health.  And it takes all of these things and directs them toward the building up of the body of Christ, the work of the kingdom of God, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit among all peoples.  This is not about self-abasement, or self-flagellation or any other kind of punishment; it is about fulfilling the kingdom of God in our very lives.
Jesus goes on to two more instructions; to “take up your cross” and “follow me.”  Again, it’s easy to misunderstand and instruction to “take up your cross.”  There are times when we find ourselves beset by difficulties or burdens, and we let slip the phrase “well, this is my cross to bear.”  I don’t mean to dismiss what we go through in the hard times, but this isn’t quite what Jesus means about “taking up your cross.”  Sometimes it means going towards the suffering.  It means seeking out those in need and reaching out to those who are lost.  It means standing with those who are oppressed, and even standing against those doing the oppressing.  And it means doing so by choice, not by compulsion.  Ultimately it all falls into that last instruction; “follow me.”  Live the life Christ lived.  Do what Christ taught. 
The sad part of this story seems to be that Peter and the disciples seemed to have trouble understanding what Jesus was about here.  As we heard in Mark 9 and 10, Jesus felt compelled to repeat his warnings about the fate he would ultimately meet.  In those cases nobody was quite as rash as Peter, presuming to rebuke Jesus, but in each case it becomes clear that the disciples didn’t understand based on what happened next.  In Mark 9, he catches the disciples arguing about who was the greatest, and in chapter 10 James and John make the ridiculous request to be seated at Jesus’s right and left in glory.  No, they didn’t get it, and it’s awfully hard for us to get it sometimes as well. 
There are so many times in this gospel when the disciples “don’t get it.”  They think that the world’s standards of success – power, influence, maybe wealth or position – transfer over into the kingdom of God just fine, when that’s just not how it works.  We humans often act as if we can just call ourselves by Christ’s name and go about our usual business and Christ will follow along, when if we look at the life Jesus lived and the teachings Jesus taught we’d realize just how foolish that is.
We are not left on our own to pull this off.  We are supported and sustained and even carried sometimes in this following.  Indeed, Jesus promises something extraordinary in verse 35; “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  It sounds backwards, counterintuitive, and just wrong.  But in the giving away of ourselves we find what real life is, the life that is ultimately rewarding and sustaining and filled with meaning and purpose.  Striving and struggling and fighting for all those things, seeking to stuff our lives with “winning” and “honor” and “fame” and all the things the worldly way of thinking urges upon us leads, paradoxically, to the losing of life.
Again, one can read this too literally.  Jesus is not saying that every Christian has to be a martyr in order to receive eternal life (don’t laugh; there have been those who wanted to read the verse to say exactly that).  But for the one who denies self, takes up cross, and follows, this is the hope – no, this is the result.  This is how life – real life, here and now, not just in eternity – happens. 
Oh, and that does bring up another caution.  Maybe you’ve heard the expression that describes a person as being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good”?  Hopefully by now it’s clear that this is not at all what Jesus is calling for in this passage – in fact, quite the opposite; being “heavenly minded” in this context is actually all about being “earthly good.”  It means living out Jesus’s call, the kingdom of God come near, here and now, in this world that does not know and will not recognize the kingdom of God come near.  The world does not know and will not recognize it because it is busy striving and fighting for all those worldly things listed before, and frankly, it does not now and will not recognize it because so many of those who most loudly and belligerently call themselves “Christians” are among those who are most consumed with accumulating honor and power and riches and fame here on earth, and lording their power over others – in other words, living something very opposite to the kingdom of God come near.  May it never be so with us.
Sometimes we have to stop and look in that mirror.  We have to examine ourselves.  We have to interrogate ourselves.  Who do we serve?  What are we striving for?  Whose kingdom are we seeking?  Have we taken up our cross and followed Jesus?
For hard calls and crosses to choose, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (81), “Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said” (393), “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” (84)


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sermon: Through the Waters

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 22, 2015, Lent 1B
1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Through the Waters

How often do we think about water?
Maybe when we’re thirsty.  Maybe, though I suspect many of us have other liquids that come to mind first.  But I suspect for most of us water is just…there. 
Every now and then it makes headlines, when too much of it falls from the sky or crashes destructively on shore.  Or sometimes it makes headlines because of how we abuse it; only this week  at least five different accidents – four in North Dakota, one in West Virginia – caused either oil or the waste products from oil drilling and refining – to be spilled into sensitive wetlands or into rivers that supply drinking water to nearby towns and cities.  The West Virginia accident was along the same waterway system affected by a massive chemical spill that rendered water undrinkable in a number of that state’s cities for months.
Suffice to say we’re not always very good stewards of what is a basic human need. 
I doubt we’re the first civilization to be cavalier about water, though I question just how toxic the abuse of water in previous generations was by comparison.  Maybe the shocking part is that we know better and do it anyway.  At any rate, the human relationship with water is ambivalent at best, destructive at worst.  And I have not even gotten into how we commodify water, the way it gets bottled and sold at three bucks a pop in some locations.
I wonder how many of the folks who wrote down the books that are found in the Bible would view our seeming disregard of water.  When you spend time with scripture, water turns up in key, if not always noticed, roles in many of our well-known Bible stories.  Even the story of creation features God separating the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth – giving us a story to account for such things as springs, or rain.  Then the waters are separated from the dry land.  The story of Moses’s birth and adoption plays out against a backdrop of the execution of Hebrew boy children, in which Moses’s life was saved by hiding him in the water grasses to be found and taken in by a Pharaoh’s daughter – Moses was delivered through the waters. 
Of course the big water story in the Old Testament is the Noah story, in which the world is overrun with water, and only Noah and his family survive.  Water was the source of trouble and danger in this case, and Noah – as Moses would be in the later story – had to be prepared to survive the tumult of the waters that flooded the earth, with forty days and forty nights of rain.  The author of our epistle reading today explicitly ties that story to the practice of baptism, saying that Noah’s being “saved through water” presaged our being “saved through water” in baptism. 
It’s a funny phrase to use, when you think about it; in the case of Noah, the water itself was the threat, while we really don’t think of that font and pitcher of water down here as particularly hazardous.  Maybe in those traditions that practice baptism by immersion the metaphor is a little clearer; when one goes down into the water for those few moments, unable to breathe or see, maybe that instant carries something of that threat. 
But no, we’re not going to dunk Kailin today.  Still, the epistle and gospel both point to something that she and her parents, and all of us as well, will want to remember.  These are not magic waters.  They don’t turn into a superpower, some kind of magical shield that keeps all trouble or pain away from you.
It’s a terrible thing to think as young as she is, but Kailin will know sorrow in her lifetime.  I hope and pray it’s not soon, but someday, something will happen that will break her heart.  She may know scorn, or mistreatment by her friends, or some other kind of disappointment that will cause her grief.  With the life ahead of her will come disappointment, inevitably, and passing through these waters will not prevent any of it.
In 1 Peter we see that the group of believers receiving this letter is evidently going through some sort of difficulty.  It is never made explicitly clear whether the community of Christ-followers is actually being persecuted for their beliefs, or undergoing some lesser sort of difficulty over them, or simply suffering some kind of setback unrelated to their faith.  Whatever it was, the community was struggling with how these things could be happening to them, demonstrating if nothing else that the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is an old one indeed.
The gospel presents a different story, but one that also shows us something important about baptism.  Jesus comes down to the Jordan to be baptized by John, and upon coming out of the water he sees a sight both wonderful and terrible; “the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him.”  Other gospel writers who include this story are much milder, simply saying things like “the heavens were opened to him” (Matt. 3:16) , but Mark (as you might have noticed by now) is all about the drama and even conflict.  This baptism wasn’t “cute”; it was the beginning of something unusual, something that made sure this wasn’t going to be an ordinary life. 
And the first thing that Jesus does afterwards, after this baptism and this wild and uncontrollable tearing open of the heavens, was … to go off into the wilderness.  Not voluntarily, mind you; he was “driven” into the wilderness, by the Spirit no less.
So there Jesus is, out in the wilderness for forty days, undergoing temptation directly from Satan himself, and with wild beasts present as well.  Unlike other gospels, Mark doesn’t get into specifics about the temptations Satan put before Jesus – no turning stones into bread, no throwing himself off a high cliff for the angels to catch him.  We are only told that he was “tempted by Satan,” that “he was with the wild beasts,” and that “angels waited on him.”  We are left to imagine what those temptations were, or what wild beasts might have been about.
It might be hard to imagine what particular temptations Jesus might have faced, but it’s not hard for each of us to imagine, or perhaps to recall, the kind of temptations and struggles we might have faced or might face in our own lives. 
Kailin will face her own temptations, and unlike Jesus is likely to give in to them.  It’s entirely possible that some time this week or this month or this year, she just might dump her food on the floor instead of eating it, even though she is being baptized today. As she grows up the struggles and temptations will become more complex and maybe more challenging.
Baptism will prevent none of those things. 
What baptism does, among many other things, is remind us that before we pass through these ordinary waters, Christ has already passed through the waters.  Christ has gone before us, facing temptations like we face, facing the struggles and frustrations and scorn of the world, facing nothing less than death itself, and through Christ’s unkillable love we are already preserved through the waters, saved through whatever temptations and failings and darkness may yet come.  We are reminded, as Jesus says in verse 15, that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is come near.”
I don’t know how often baptisms occur on the first Sunday of Lent, but in this case it might well be very appropriate that we do so. For, as Kailin is baptized into the one holy and universal church today, we are also reminded of our own baptism.  We are reminded that we do not cross through these turbulent and dangerous waters alone.  We are not baptized alone, left to fend for ourselves in the wilderness.  We are baptized into the body of Christ. We are baptized into one another, you might say; we become that fellowship that pulls together in time of trouble, the body that suffers when one member suffers and rejoices when one member rejoices.  We pick each other up when we fall, and we know that the members of the body will pick us up when we fall.  Baptism reminds us that Christ’s life and death and life again have made us his own, and that our redemption is not thwarted or ruined when we fail.  To borrow words from A Brief Statement of Faith (as found in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions), baptism reminds us that “In life and in death we belong to God.” 
And indeed Kailin belongs to God, not because we’re going to splash some water on her in a few moments, but because God has loved and claimed her from the very first.  And God will love her and claim her until she is full of days and goes on to meet her Lord face to face.  In life and in death, Kailin belongs to God.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.    

Hymns (PH ’90): “This Is My Father’s World” (293); “Lord Jesus, Think On Me” (301); “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” (498)


Friday, February 20, 2015

Ash Wednesday Sermon: The Fast God Chooses

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 18, 2013, Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The Fast God Chooses

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
It’s one of those phrases that is so familiar, we assume by default it must be in the Bible, but it’s not; it’s from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, dating at least back to 1662.  It is part of the burial service, reminding those in attendance that all of us are subject to the same finality as the deceased.  Not surprisingly, a phrase about ashes pops into the mind of many when the subject of Ash Wednesday comes up. 
Ash Wednesday is not an inappropriate time to consider our own mortality.  It marks the beginning of the season of Lent, the culmination of which finds us at a crucifixion site outside Jerusalem, where even our Savior tasted of the pain and indignity of human death.  It is not inappropriate for us to keep in mind our own finiteness, the knowledge that our days are numbered, and that we don’t know exactly what that number is going to be.  In a few moments you will be invited to take up a Lenten discipline and to come forward and receive a mark on your forehead or hand, a cross of ashes, and you will hear the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It is not at all inappropriate to remember and reflect upon our finiteness on this day.  The challenge is: what will we do with that knowledge?  How will that reflection affect us?
There are good ways to be affected, and there are bad ways.  There are positive ways to carry forward that realization, and there are negative, even damaging ways. 
Matthew cautions us against some of those negative ways.  In these verses Jesus warns his followers against the kind of piety and fasting that damages.  Matthew records Jesus’s warnings in the context of three different kinds of pieties; giving alms, praying, and fasting.  In each case Jesus weighs in against the kind of giving, praying, or fasting that exists mainly to be noticed by others.  As crazy as it sounds, an influential person might well have had a trumpeter at hand to “announce” his gift before the public.  (Today we just hire publicists or spin doctors for the same effect.)  Likewise, it wouldn’t have been unusual to see such a person out on the street praying in a particularly ostentatious manner.  (We have “prayer breakfasts” for that now, I guess.)  And a person on a fast might well go about with a face pulled down into a frown, all the better to provoke others to ask “oh, dear, what’s wrong?”
Note that Jesus is not warning against giving alms or praying or fasting; in fact Jesus presumes his followers will give alms and pray and fast – “whenever you give alms,” “whenever you pray,” “whenever you fast.”  But the heart of the matter is why his followers pray or give or fast; is it to receive the praise of others?  To check off a couple of boxes on the Official Good Person Scorecard?  Or is it to give honor to God? 
Isaiah adds a slightly different dimension to the question of practicing pieties like prayer and fasting.  For Isaiah, it’s not just a matter of the public nature of the piety; it’s also about whether the whole life matches up to that public piety.  For example:
If you sit down to your meal, but those who labored to make that meal possible are living in poverty or abuse despite their labor, is that the fast God chooses?
If you pray and sing and make all sorts of joyful noise in worship, but turn a blind eye when others of whatever faith cannot worship in peace without being harassed or even killed, is that the fast God chooses?
Short answer: no.
To the degree that we do not pursue justice in all its forms, to the degree that we tolerate or even profit from oppression or exploitation, to the degree that we assume hunger or homelessness or poverty or lack of educational opportunity or any of the conditions that plague women and men and children around us, our fast is pointless or worthless.  It is no service to God whatsoever. 
This is how our mortal days, our knowledge of our finitude and limited time, is to move us; to refuse to live with the way things are, to refuse to live in ease because of the oppression and exploitation of others, to loose the bonds of injustice, to set free the oppressed, to share our bread with those in need of bread and on down the list that Isaiah gives us, that is the fast God chooses.  This is our rightful service.  This is what goes hand in hand with the purification the psalmist sings in Psalm 51, and with the right-minded piety Jesus teaches in Matthew 6.  The piety that comes from our deepest longing, the piety that cares only to be seen before God, the piety that changes the world: this is the fast God chooses.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “The Glory of These Forty Days” (87); Psalm 51 (196); “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (81)