Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon: A Time For Sheep and a Time For Goats

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2015, Easter 4B
Psalm 23; John 10:11-18; Acts 4:5-12

A Time For Sheep and a Time For Goats

It’s beautiful stuff, to be sure.
If John 3:16 is the most memorized and most immediately familiar individual verse in the whole Bible, I’d guess that Psalm 23 is the most immediately familiar longer passage. It’s almost impossible not to know if you’ve spent even a small part of your life in the church. You can go in your average “Christian” bookstore and be bombarded with books about this one psalm. If you were to thumb through your hymnal you’d notice that the hymn we sang a few minutes ago is far from the only version of this psalm in the hymnal; in fact there are six different versions, total, and they are hardly exhaustive of the number of settings of this psalm that have been made. I’ll bet that a lot of you had trouble with the responsive reading earlier in the service, not because the psalm wasn’t familiar enough, but because it was too familiar – it was hard not to slip into the old King James Version of the psalm, with all the “thy”s and “thou”s, wasn’t it?
Just as the lectionary for the second Sunday of Easter always points us towards the story of Thomas, this fourth Sunday of Easter always features Psalm 23, and always pairs it with some portion of the tenth chapter of John’s gospel; this year, as you have heard, the passage that begins with Jesus’s “I am the good shepherd” declaration is featured. So sometimes this Sunday gets called “Shepherd Sunday,” and sermons and songs about the shepherd-ness of Jesus are preached. This is of course highly appropriate; the care Jesus shows to his “flock” – comfort in time of fear, laying down his life for his sheep – are the stuff of faith, and should be preached and taught.
But, as is almost always true with these extremely familiar verses or passages of scripture, the scripture – or more accurately, our treatment of that scripture – can become a problem.
In this case, we get caught reading these passages about Jesus, full of attributes of Jesus, as if they are somehow about us. John’s passage really doesn’t address us at all. There is some contrast with the “hired hand,” one who is not the true shepherd and does not know the sheep, who cuts and runs when the wolves show up. Aside from a brief “I know my own and my own know me,” there really isn’t much in this passage about us, the presumed sheep under the care of the shepherd.
Psalm 23 is not quite as focused, but even there the way we respond to the shepherd is framed in response to the shepherd’s care for us. We fear no evil because the shepherd is with us. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever because the Lord is our shepherd. What the psalmist sings is the goodness of the shepherd.
Where we get confused is in the unspoken, yet no less powerful, assumption that if our Lord is the shepherd, then we’re supposed to be sheep. Other psalms are complicit here; Psalm 100:3 goes there explicitly, saying “we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” and other verses from other psalms make similar claims.  Christians have naturally taken such a leap of logic and run with it.
How many of you know, for example, the children’s song called “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep”? That’s the title, for real. Anybody? [sing] “I just wanna be a sheep….I just wanna be a sheep…” And if you really want to do it right, you “baa” like a sheep between those phrases: “I just wanna be a sheep (baa baa-baaaaaa baa!) I just wanna be a sheep (baa baa-baaaaa baa!)…
Our two scriptures for today, though, don’t particularly direct us to go there. Even that passage from Psalm 100 is pretty clearly an isolated reference, not even part of an extended metaphor like Psalm 23 or John 10.  Our first warning, you might say, is not to read into scripture what isn’t actually there.
This is probably a good idea in this case, because sheep are not really very good role models.  I don’t know how many of you, if any, have much background with livestock. I certainly don’t, but you don’t have to be an expert to know that sheep aren’t something you want to emulate.  Perhaps the best way to say it is that sheep are very problematic animals. They aren’t necessarily stupid – for one thing, they’re actually incredibly good at recognizing and distinguishing faces – but they are possessed of so strong a herd instinct that whatever capacity for judgment they have is overwhelmed.
They go astray. Remember the parable about the man with a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost, and the man leaves the ninety-nine to find the one? Well, the man would be lucky if only one got lost. All it takes is a good-looking clump of grass ready for munching, and if you aren’t keeping the herd together well it’s gone.
On the other hand, if not distracted by all that grass, a sheep will follow whatever’s in front of it, no matter what, even if it leads it right off a cliff.
Sheep literally have to be made to lie down for their own good. As long as the grass is available they’ll keep munching away even when the weight of all that grass threatens to hurt them.
They are largely helpless against any kind of predator. No real defenses.
They are largely helpless if they get into water, particularly running water. That wool picks up a lot of water, and sheep can’t swim. If that sheep isn’t rescued it will drown.
When you get right down to it, it seems like the reason that the shepherd metaphor works so well is that we humans are a little too much like sheep for our own good. We go astray—boy, do we go astray. We’re not above excessive physical indulgence. And we are prone to follow bad leaders, right off a metaphorical cliff sometimes. Being sheep is not an aspiration; it’s the problem with us, one it takes a Good Shepherd to solve.
Now all of that is one potential problem with being careless with such popular passages as these. Here’s another; if you spend much time at all in the Bible, you end up running into a lot of examples in which Christ’s followers, when at their best, are anything but sheep-like.
Our passage from Acts today is a pretty good example of this. You might remember from last week’s scripture that Peter and John had drawn a crowd after healing a man who had been paralyzed from birth, and that Peter had launched into a restatement of his Pentecost sermon. This was happening in one of the porticoes of the Temple, and it did not escape the notice of the Temple authorities.  The authorities showed up and actually had the two arrested and held overnight! The next day the two were brought before the council, with all the big names present – not just the current high priest, but the whole high priestly family – and interrogated as to how this healing had happened: “By what power or by what name did you do this?
Peter and John stick to their story – this man was healed in the name of Jesus, whom these same Temple authorities had induced the Romans to crucify. No backing down.
Not very sheeplike, is it?
Not only is Peter preaching the very same sermon that had gotten him and John arrested, he’s doubling down; not only was the man healed in the name of Jesus (verse 9), there is no other name besides the name of Jesus by which such healing can happen (verse 12). Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” is being bold and headstrong in the face of the very authorities of his religion. The religious authorities tried to intimidate Peter into backing down, but Peter and John were having none of it.
Not very sheeplike at all. If anything, Peter and John are acting a lot more like goats than sheep here. Where sheep are regarded as docile and easily led about, goats are anything but. Headstrong, rebellious, difficult…that’s a goat for you.
Are they following Christ in obedience to the Holy Spirit? You bet. But doing so in this case is anything but sheeplike behavior.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink makes this point;
Christians have been instilled with a sheepish docility that has played into the hands of the Powers for centuries. Obedience has been made the highest Christian virtue, obedience that was to be paid to Christ's representatives on earth, the rulers and the clergy. As a result, Christians have colluded in their own injury. They have accepted without resistance totalitarian rulers. They have been submissive in the face of tyrannous hierarchies in church and state, corporations and schools. Women have submitted to battering, economic exploitation and wage inequality. Men have been led off to war like sheep, flocking to their doom without resistance, as if to do so were the height of glory.
Sheep. Bah![i]

Wink goes on to observe that not only were Peter and John being anything but sheeplike in their behavior, but that this behavior was actually pretty characteristic of both Jesus and those who had been his followers. Verse 13 adds the observation that the Temple authorities saw the two as “uneducated and ordinary” men – in fact, the Greek word here translated “ordinary” is the word from which we get our modern insult “idiot” – and yet were being extremely bold before people of whom they were supposed to be afraid. And that, they had already seen, was characteristic of these followers of this crucified Jesus. 
They weren’t living fearfully – these disciples were a long way from the people who had been hiding back on the day of the Resurrection. They weren’t being intimidated. They were speaking boldly, proclaiming the name of this crucified Jesus. They weren’t sheep. They knew their scripture, and didn’t let the authorities intimidate them into accepting their “authoritative” interpretation.
And remember: they were showing this boldness, this “goat-like” stubbornness, to their own co-religionists. We Presbyterians can be a little bit intimidated sometimes in the face of a larger church that has some of its authorities who are really highly willing to tell the word that they are the only ones who Really Know Their Scripture. We have it, and we’re going to tell you how you have to read it. We’re going to tell you what you have to believe about it. Listen, folks: I am really, truly NOT INTERESTED in you “believing in the Bible.” I’m really not. I’d much rather you grab your Bible and read it. Read it whole, and when those authorities start to sell you some soap about what this verse says, you be ready to throw a whole bunch of other scripture at them.
Boldness, not sheeplike docility. Following the prodding of the Spirit, not the orders of the authorities. Being faithful to the life and teaching of Jesus, no matter how much others might distort his witness.  When it’s time to call out whoever – be it the world at large or our fellow Christians, when it’s time to be led by the Spirit, let us never be anything less than bold. But let us know that we are being led by the Spirit.
For the ability to be a goat instead of a sheep when the Spirit calls, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH 90): “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art” (457); “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” (192); “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (276)

[i] Walter Wink, “Those obstreperous idiots: Acts 4:5-12,” Christian Century (April 13, 1994), 381


Monday, April 13, 2015

Sermon: Of One Heart

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 12, 2015, Easter 2B
Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

Of One Heart

One of the curiosities of the modern design of the Revised Common Lectionary, that guide or starting point for planning worship or sermons that most pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA) work with these days, is that out of all of the twelve disciples, the only one who could really be said to have his own “day” in the lectionary is Thomas. Peter certainly shows up more in scripture, in Acts as well as the gospels, and James and John are certainly more prominently featured, but Thomas’s rather spectacular moment in the days after Jesus’s resurrection somehow proved so compelling that in all three years of the lectionary cycle, the Sunday after Easter is given over to the story that, combined with some of his other appearances in scripture (mostly in John’s gospel), give him for decades the somewhat dubious nickname “Doubting Thomas.”
For modern preachers, the constant return of this story seems to have provoked a particular reaction; rather than piling on Thomas, look at the story from a different angle. Is that label really fair? Does Thomas deserve to be labeled a doubter any more than the rest of the disciples, for example? What exactly was Thomas guilty of, anyway?
To be sure, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is perfectly appropriate to point out that for all the grief we give Thomas for his declaration that “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he wasn’t really asking for anything more than the other disciples had already received. It’s not as if Peter and John had come back from the tomb shouting at the tops of their voices about the resurrection; they saw the empty tomb and…went home.
It remained for Mary Magdalene to be the first to see the risen Lord in John’s telling of the story. She was the one who remained, weeping, while the other disciples had gone home. Only that evening did they see Jesus, behind locked doors. We don’t get any indication that they had been terribly responsive or enthusiastic about Mary Magdalene’s report.
So, when the disciples told the absent Thomas what had happened, his reaction wasn’t necessarily all that different than the reaction of the disciples themselves had been to Mary Magdalene’s report.
Something we often overlook in this story is that Thomas had a whole week to chew on what he had been told; verse 26 tells us it was a week later when the disciples were gathered together again in that same house, Thomas present this time. Once Jesus appears to them again, he goes right to Thomas (or brings Thomas right to him) and puts him on the spot: you wanted to see, did you? wanted to touch the nail scars in my hands and side? well, here they are.
And to be fair, Thomas goes from skeptical to worshipful, instantaneously; he is the first of the disciples to make the theological leap from Jesus as Messiah, as Son of God, to the point that “Son of God” equals, well, God. It is a dramatic moment of confession and worship – “My Lord and my God!” is hard to beat as confession. 
For all of the Thomas redemption one can see in much modern preaching and commentary, I don’t think we can completely let the fellow off the hook.  Yes, it’s a little unfair to dump on him for wanting to see what the other disciples had been given the opportunity to see, but there is still one question that can be laid at Thomas’s feet:
Why wasn’t he there in the first place?
When the disciples were gathered in that house on the evening of the first day of the week, where was he? We don’t know why he wasn’t there, and in a way that’s a problem. Somehow the other disciples managed to come together – whether in response to what Mary Magdalene and Peter had seen or for some other reason – and were thus available for the miraculous appearance of Jesus. Thomas wasn’t there, and wasn’t available.
The point is not to turn Thomas into a pariah again. You and I cannot possibly imagine the heartbreak, the fear, the confusion and paranoia and terror that the disciples and other followers of Jesus must have been experiencing. But at the same time, Jesus’s followers had been told this was coming. Had Thomas forgotten all that Jesus had said? Or had he simply decided it had all been a fantasy, a nice dream that had collapsed when confronted with the reality of The Way Things Are?
Whatever was the case, Thomas missed out. There’s a warning for us in this. I am not going to promise you that miracles are going to happen in every Sunday morning service. (On the other hand I’m not going to promise that they won’t either—who knows what the Spirit might decide to do?) Nor am I going to condemn people who go on vacation – I’m going to take vacation myself sometimes, so knocking you for doing so would be pretty hypocritical. And if you’re contagiously sick, you really shouldn’t be here.
But withdrawing from the fellowship, pulling away from the body of Christ, weakens both that fellowship and especially the person who pulls away. We aren’t there to support one another; we aren’t there to grieve with one another; we aren’t there to rejoice with one another, and we all suffer for it – both those present and those absent.
It seems as if the nascent church learned this lesson pretty quickly. The description of the fellowship found in today’s reading from Acts frankly sounds wildly idealistic to our modern, jaded ears. Actually there are some who find such a description threatening, especially that stuff about having their goods in common and nobody claiming ownership of their possessions – that kind of thing goes rather badly against the modern grain, you know.
But see how the fellowship is described; “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…”. What a beautiful description. What a beautiful way to appear to the world. What a beautiful way to respond to the resurrection, which, after all, isn’t very far in the past at this point.
What this little dropped-in description of the fellowship – not even a church yet, really – also tells us is that this closeness, this unity was noticed. When the apostles gave their witness to the resurrection, it wasn’t just their message that was making waves in the world around them; it was also this unity, this being “of one heart,” that made an impression on those who saw this community, this “group of people who believed.” As the author speaks of “great grace” that was upon them all, it reflects the fact that this group was being noticed for its own grace, its own cohesiveness, its unity and compassion and care for one another. People saw that, and what they saw from these people (who weren’t even being called “Christians” yet) gave credence to the message that the apostles preached. It wasn’t just the apostles bearing their witness to the resurrection, it was that this group of people who were gathered around this witness to that resurrection were living in community in such a way that this whole resurrection story suddenly seemed to matter. It seemed like something that people wanted to know more about. If this group has been so dramatically changed by what they witnessed, by what they experienced, can I be part of that? I want to be part of that.
I don’t think I have to tell you that churches don’t always have that impact on the world around them today. If anything, churches are getting pretty good at giving off the opposite message – we don’t want you here. You’re not good enough. You’re not our type. Churches are more concerned with keeping out those who don’t look like us, don’t think like us, don’t act like us than they are with being ‘of one heart.’
Notice that it doesn’t say “of one mind,” or “of one belief.” We have no idea what disagreements might have existed at this point. A few chapters later we’ll see disagreement over how certain widows in the fellowship were getting left out of the provisions, according to some; in response, the apostles appointed a group to oversee those provisions and the community continued on. 
But for a time, this little group was a striking example of what could be. In time some of the leaders would be killed or arrested, and many of them would be scattered away from Jerusalem. But for this time, however long it might have been, this group lived so completely with and for one another that their whole culture had to take notice. They stayed together. They stayed in the fellowship.
I like to imagine that Thomas was there, fulfilling his apostle role, encouraging the members of this “group of those who believed” to stick together, to be there for one another, to be there. “After all,” he might have said, “you never know what you might miss when you’re not here.”
For “one heart,” thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from PH '90):
#121 That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright
#114 Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain
#507 I Come With Joy To Meet My Lord 
#123 Jesus Christ Is Risen Today

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sermon: The Unfinished Gospel

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 5, 2015, Easter B
1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

The Unfinished Gospel

Really, this is the word of the Lord. No fooling.
OK, I’ll admit it’s not the most satisfying ending, but there it is. Every shred of evidence insists that Mark, or the author of what is in fact an unsigned gospel, ended his account with what we label the eighth verse of this chapter, with the announcement that the women who came to the tomb and saw it empty were on the run because they were afraid.  Yes, you can probably look at your pew Bible and see a bunch of other verses, but you can also see some the longest footnotes in your Bible explaining that the best evidence shows that these verses were added later, by another author.  So, despite the title on this sermon, this gospel really does seem to finish with this strange ending.
C’mon, pastor, is this really the scripture to preach today? I mean, there might be visitors present. 
Just hang on, folks.  Not only is this most likely how Mark meant to end his novel, but if you spend time with it there’s a really good reason he did so. But in one way this gospel of Mark is a lot like those tricky mystery novels my wife likes to read so much; you really do have to remember what happened in previous chapters for the ending to make any sense.
It helps if we spend a moment with verses six and seven of this chapter.  The unnamed messenger waiting at the tomb breaks the news to the women – “he has been raised; he is not here” – and even invites them to see the place where he had been, now empty.  It’s simple enough, and not unlike similar accounts in other gospels Matthew and Luke. 
But the messenger doesn’t leave the news there; there are instructions.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” “Just as he told you?” Here we need to look back to several verses from this gospel; from chapters eight, nine, and ten, in which Jesus repeated his warning that he must be rejected by the religious authorities and be crucified and raised again.  We also need to look back to chapter fourteen, the night when he was betrayed, the night he broke bread and poured a cup of wine to give those disciples a sign and seal to hold them (and us) together as the body of Christ.  It was that awkward moment when Jesus told them that “you will all be deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But even here, Jesus instructs them again, “but after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”  Even in that bleak and despairing moment Jesus is preparing them for what is to come, for a resurrection – one that at this point is just assumed, “after I am raised up” – and the order to go out to Galilee to meet him.
Now I’m not going to pretend that after this, verse eight and its portrait of fear is anything but a disappointment.  After what should be news both joyful and familiar, we get instead something quite the opposite.  Still, as strange and uncomfortable as it sounds, it might be exactly the message we need to hear this day of all days.
For one thing, in the context of Mark’s gospel it completes a theme that was apparent from its early chapters; the ones closest to Jesus repeatedly don’t get it.  Just to give a few examples; in those three examples in chapters eight, nine, and ten in which Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, in every case the disciples immediately reveal themselves to be more concerned with very earthly ideas of power and influence.  Another example follows after not one, but two miraculous feedings recorded in the gospel.  The famous feeding of the five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish is recorded in Mark 6, and two chapters later a second feeding, in which four thousand are fed off of seven loaves and a few small fish.  Still, just a few verses after that second feeding miracle, the disciples think Jesus is lecturing them over forgetting to bring bread on a boat trip across a lake. If anything happens here, these women who had been following Jesus from very early in his ministry have their moment of weakness every bit as much as the twelve who fled when the authorities arrived to arrest Jesus in the garden.
And if these disciples, these women, who shared so much time and so much travel and so many meals  and so many miracles and experiences during the ministry of Jesus, if they failed and fell short so spectacularly in the time of trial, we who follow at a remove of so many centuries, cannot necessarily expect to do better. When we fall short in following we can at least know that we aren’t the first to do so, and that we are preceded in this failing by those closest to Jesus.
Of course, logically we can guess that at some point, somebody must have said something.  After all, if nobody had ever announced that Jesus was out of the tomb, if nobody had ever followed up on Jesus’s command to meet him in Galilee, why would Mark even be writing this gospel? Why would there even be some community, some church to whom Mark would be compelled to write?  The word is out, and people are gathered together in community around the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Mark has his reasons for not sharing these things, or relaying the kind of post-resurrection appearances that Matthew and Luke and John do.
Our reading from 1 Corinthians also points out that there are stories about the life and death and life again of Jesus that our gospel authors don’t necessarily tell.  In his letter to the church at Corinth (which was actually written down before any of the gospels) Paul, in this chapter near the end of his first letter, lays out the most basic tenets of the faith as shared by Paul and countless others, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Then, to support this story, he cites witnesses; Cephas (or Peter), and later to the twelve; and then Paul mentions an appearance to “more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time,” and another to James (whether the apostle or to his earthly brother Paul does not say).  Some of these we can possibly equate to appearances recorded in the gospels, but they don’t contain anything quite like that appearance to more than five hundred. 
So if Mark is choosing to withhold any stories of Jesus appearing to his followers, what is his purpose? What’s he’s trying to do? Maybe the answer has to do with what Mark wants to do in response to this gospel.
The women were charged to tell the disciples – and Peter, even Peter, poor foolish Peter who denied Jesus three times – that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee, and that they should get on their way. What if that’s our challenge as well?  What if we come to the end of this gospel, and we are confronted with the question of whether we will follow Jesus who has gone ahead of us, not content to wait around an empty, useless tomb?  What if that’s our question to answer today, this holiest of days?
What if, instead of a comfortable, happy ending, Mark is intent on provoking us to action?  What if our calling is not to linger at that empty tomb, but to go where Jesus is leading us? Not to seek closure, but to continue the story?
For indeed, in perhaps the most important way, this is an unfinished gospel after all.  Mark has no intention of wrapping up the story and putting a pretty bow on it so we can feel good that it “all came out right in the end.” We, like those original followers, like those in the community to whom Mark writes his gospel, have a job to do. We have a living Christ to follow back to the place where it all began, to following and living with Christ and living with one another in a Christ-like community of faith.  Death took its best shot, and could not keep Christ down. So for us, it’s time to get back to work, to get back to proclaiming the good news, to be about the business of telling the world about how “the kingdom of God is near,” as Jesus proclaimed back at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, and how now is the time to “repent and believe in the good news.” 
Ultimately there is joy and celebration at this news, but unless we are following where Jesus is leading us, breaking through the surprise and fear and telling this good news, that joy and celebration ends up a bit pointless. This tomb is empty, and Jesus is gone ahead of us; it’s time for us to follow, to continue this unfinished gospel and live out and live into this kingdom of God come near.
For the empty tomb, the unfinished gospel, and Jesus gone ahead of us, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns: (PH ’90): “Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!” (104); “Christ Is Alive!” (108), “The Day of Resurrection” (118)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sermon: Betrayal At the Table

Grace Presbyterian Church
April 2, 2015, Maundy Thursday B
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Mark 14:17-25

Betrayal At the Table

Sometimes the dinner table is the place to share big news.  Julia and I have used it that way before.  Once we used a dinner with her mother and sister down at Disney World to spring on them the news that I had finally landed my first non-temporary teaching job, and in West Palm Beach to boot – not quite two hours from her parents.  Springing the surprise and sharing the good news was fun, although perhaps not for other guests at the restaurant, since the shriek let out by her mother was such that it probably disrupted radar buoys in the Gulf of Mexico.
Even in this age of meals on the go or devoured in front of the television or distracted by other electronic gadgetry, I suspect most of us probably can understand the idea of a meal shared together as a place for sharing good news, celebrating a special event, or simply enjoying the company of those with whom we are sharing the meal.  Sharing food and drink lends itself well to that kind of exchange with one another. 
On the other hand, we may have also known the experience of more difficult or stressful meal occasions.  Perhaps it was a holiday gathering, in which family that has moved to different places across the country starts to chafe under the strain of unaccustomed togetherness; or maybe it’s a gathering that includes an unexpected and unwelcome encounter with an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend or even ex-spouse; or possibly the somber meals that follow in the wake of the loss of a loved one.
Although the gospel of Mark does not describe it as often as other gospels do (he tends to tell stories about things happening when they were traveling), this kind of fellowship around a meal was a common part of the life of Jesus and his disciples.   Only a few verses earlier in this chapter Jesus was “at table” in the home of Simon the leper when an unknown woman broke open that container and anointed Jesus.  And it is the gospel of Mark that records not one, but two feeding miracles – five thousand are fed in chapter six, and four thousand in chapter eight.  As early as chapter two Jesus is disparaged by the scribes and Pharisees for “eating with tax collectors and sinners” (2:15-17), for dining at the home of the tax collector-turned-disciple Levi. At least it’s enough of a history to suggest that things happened at the table.
Nothing like this, though.
Nothing like this announcement – “one of you will betray me”.  Nothing like the frenzied, panicky reaction of the disciples, each one trying to convince himself the he wasn’t capable of that sort of thing. Nothing like the pall of gloom that kind of announcement casts over a room, knowing that a traitor is in their midst and not knowing who it is. 
We, the readers of this gospel, have the advantage.  We know, because Mark told us so back in verse ten of this chapter, that Judas has already conspired with the religious authorities to betray Jesus to them.  We know, because Mark has told us that all twelve of the disciples are there, that Judas is among those around the table, maybe even among those crying out “Surely, not I?” We know what’s going to happen, in a way that the disciples do not and cannot know, even though Jesus has told them at least three times over the course of this gospel. 
And yet, even with this weight of uncertainty and fear hanging over the room, the word of betrayal is not the last word in this last meal together.  The last work of Jesus in this place is to bind the community together, even as one tries to tear it apart.
Amidst the commotion of the meal, and amidst the observance of the meal associated with the first night of Unleavened Bread, or Passover, Jesus reached out to the disciples with one last sign, one last gesture for the disciples to hold on to in the days and weeks and years to come, one last way to bind these fractious and sometimes rather dense followers into a family. 
The means by which Jesus does this are pretty ordinary, especially in this context.  It’s not as if Jesus has never broken bread or shared wine with the disciples before; as we’ve already noticed they’ve seen Jesus do an awful lot of bread-breaking in at least two settings, and the company of disciples and other followers has probably lost count by now of the number of meals they’ve shared.   Loaves of bread or cups of wine have passed among the group plenty of times. 
It is this commonplace, even routine gesture that Jesus gives to the disciples, but in doing so in this place, on this occasion, these ordinary objects are given a new life, invested with new meaning. They become the markers both of something they’ve heard before, and of something new.
In one way this is one last foretelling of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  Jesus has already done this three times, in chapters eight, nine, and ten of Mark’s gospel.  Each time the disciples failed to understand; once Peter rebuked Jesus for even suggesting such a thing, and got called ‘Satan’ for his trouble; the second time the disciples fell to arguing among themselves who was the greatest; and the third, James and John had the nerve to asked for preferred seating at Jesus’s side in glory.  This time, the disciples won’t have a lot of time to misunderstand; events have already been set in motion that would bring the crucifixion to pass.  Even so, in verse 25 Jesus also points beyond the crucifixion to a time “in the kingdom of God” when he would taste of the fruit of the vine again.
But there is also something new in Jesus’s words; a “covenant, which is poured out for many.” The language of “covenant” itself is not new; it echoes all the way back to Exodus, to the covenant God made with Moses and the Hebrew people, even to the events that are marked in the observance of Passover itself.  For Jesus to speak of a “covenant” here points to something new, something different about the way God would be among and with humanity.  It was still not something that the disciples were ready to understand yet, but it would not be too long before they were living in it.
With time rapidly sliding away, with the specter of betrayal looming, with the unspeakable agony of crucifixion drawing ever nearer, Jesus’s last gesture to his followers was one meant to forge a bond between them, one in which Jesus’s own life and traveling and teaching with them, meals shared and miles walked, would continue to be lived out among the disciples and all of Jesus’s followers and those who would join them in later days and later years, all demonstrated with the simplest of elements, bread and wine. 
And even to this day, it is in this act that the church in worship is most the church in worship.  For all the other things that happen in a worship service, nothing else quite captures what it is to be followers of Jesus, the body of Christ, than this simple act instituted by Jesus among his followers.
And remember, Judas was there.  In a time when so many calling themselves “Christians” cannot wait to show the world their belief by refusing to do business with someone, or by harassing persons of different faiths, or by otherwise pushing people away, we are confronted in this text with the fact that Jesus extended this covenant, shared this final act of grace and fellowship and binding together and, yes, love, with his own betrayer seated at the table.  Knowing that Judas was going to go and betray him, that his disciples would run away from him in fear, that Peter would deny him, not just once or twice but three times, Jesus pulled them all together in this act of communion, pulling them back together even before they had fallen apart.
And it’s not as if we’re immune.  As the novelist and pastor Frederick Buechner put it, “Judas is only the first in a procession of betrayers two thousand years long.”  We followers have turned to betrayers too frequently and too easily for those two thousand years, and there are many followers out there as betrayers even today.
And yet the table is still spread, and the bread is still broken and the wine still poured, and all of us, followers and betrayers alike, are still called to come to the table.  All our denials, all our failure to live in anything like the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit cannot and will not ever cause Christ to dis-invite us from this table.  The new covenant poured out for many will not be defeated by hatred, by jealousy, by anger, by shame, or even by death itself.  No matter our failures, Jesus bids us come and dine. 
And this is, in short, the good news on this heavy, sorrowful night.
For a table always spread for us, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “An Upper Room Did Our Lord Prepare” (94), “For the Bread Which You Have Broken" (508), “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" (101)

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