Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sermon: Only the Beginning

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 15, 2015, Ordinary 33B
Mark 13:1-8; Hebrews 10:19-25

Only the Beginning

Wars, and rumors of wars…”. I think we’ve got that covered.
This is not the week I’d have chosen to preach this passage. In fact I’d quite likely not have chosen to preach this passage any time soon, to be blunt about it. It’s a pretty disturbing and unpleasant thing to preach on, and it’s the very kind of passage that is so easy for a certain kind of preacher, one who is more keen on using the Bible as a code book for deciphering end times than a revelation of Jesus, is so readily wont to abuse. Frankly, part of me thinks I am taking my study leave a week too late. However, the lectionary leaves it sitting here right in front of me, and I’ve been busily working through the gospel of Mark in the lectionary this year and even sometimes going off lectionary to stay with this gospel. It would be a pretty shameful thing for a preacher to do to bail out with just this one scripture left to go.
And besides, perhaps this is the week we really need to confront this scripture. Perhaps this week, reeling from the headlines as we are, is the very time we most need to confront a scripture like this, words directly attributed to Jesus by Mark, and be clear about what it does say to us, and what it does not. Perhaps we need to confront this disturbing passage with its pointing towards the future and sort out what it means for us here and now.
It happens while Jesus and his disciples are in and around Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly life. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the event we celebrate on Palm Sunday, has already happened, and the final supper with his disciples is just a couple of days away. Jesus has been in the Temple already this week, creating a major disruption in cleaning out the Temple’s marketplace one day, and teaching to the embarrassment of the scribes and Pharisees another, with a brief bit of commentary on a poor widow along the way. And it is on the way out of the Temple, for some time for reflection on the Mount of Olives, that one of the disciples looks up and notices the Temple. It’s a big and thoroughly impressive structure, to be sure, but after the challenging and provocative discourse Jesus has been giving in the Temple this particular week, maybe this wasn’t the time to get all goggle-eyed about it. In response, Jesus utters a bit of prophecy; this impressive and magnificent edifice would all be thrown down and destroyed.
Depending on when you believe Mark wrote his gospel, his immediate readers have either seen this event come to pass, or can see it coming and are under pressure to declare their allegiance. In the year 66 revolt broke out against the Roman government and military. Initially successful, the revolution was set back when new Roman forces advanced on Jerusalem. However, unrest in Rome interrupted the campaign in 68, but the final crushing defeat of Jewish forces in the year 70 brought the revolt to a close, as well as bringing about the destruction of the Temple (along with other parts of Jerusalem). So, Mark’s readers were either seeing the rebellion going on but in trouble, if you believe the gospel was written before 70, or they had witnessed the destruction of the Temple, if you believe it was written after that year.
Either way, this leads us to the first lesson in dealing with apocalyptic passages like this one: never forget we are not the first readers of scripture. For all we are eager to glean some divine plan for our lives out of such a text, we must remember that the first people who read this gospel had very specific reactions to the text and knew very clearly the horrors of which Mark wrote, and that our attempts to interpret those texts for ourselves cannot trump the meanings the text had for them. The “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” that Jesus mentions in verse 14 might seem mysterious to us, but Mark’s readers didn’t need to be told what it was to see Roman soldiers rampaging through the Holy City of Judaism.
Another caution to keep in mind; don’t claim to know what Jesus doesn’t know. I’ve picked on this one before. As Jesus goes deeper and further afield on the sufferings to come for his followers, one question he refuses to answer directly is when all of these things will happen. In fact, he very specifically avoids giving much of anything away. While Jesus is quite willing to speak of signs that will come, of persecutions to be endured and deception to be practiced by false prophets, Jesus will not be nailed down to any specific time frame. It is made bluntly clear in verse 32: “no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This is not an invitation to turn every last bit of difficult scripture into a code to be broken or a puzzle to be solved. You don’t know. You are not going to know. If some preacher tells you he (and it always seems to be “he” in this case) knows when it’s all going to come crashing down, run! Get away as fast as you can. You are in the presence of one of those false witnesses.
The third, related lesson in dealing with this chapter is perhaps the most important for us, in the brutal and violent times in which we live. Apocalyptic scripture is not an excuse to quit, and not an escape route. We don’t get to look at this chapter or other apocalyptic passages like it as a means to drop out of life. Our call to live in “the Kingdom of God … come near,” that message Jesus proclaimed way back at the beginning of this gospel, is not changed by this chapter one bit.
The reading from Hebrews captures this dynamic very effectively. Following on the account of Jesus as “great high priest” that serves as the theme of this extended sermon, the preacher’s counsel to his readers is pretty simple: keep your hearts true, in full assurance of your faith; hold on to hope, “without wavering”; and continuing to find ways to  provoke one another to love and good deeds.” For good measure, the preacher even cautions the flock about “not neglecting to meet together”! If you’ve ever been looking for a direct scripture command to keep gathering together like we do each Sunday, here it is! And these instructions don’t change in the face of impending, unknown … whatever. If anything, we keep on doing what we are called to do “all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Whatever we are to make of apocalyptic literature, whether this passage from Mark or even more elaborate writings such as are found in Daniel or Revelation, none of them are a reason to stop being the body of Christ. If anything they are reason to be even more faithful and more determined in doing Christ’s work in God’s world. A barrage of violence such as we have seen in just a few days, in Beirut, in Baghdad, and in Paris, is not a call to drop out. It is not a call to take up arms in ill-fated revolt. It is a call to keep being God’s people, or even to be God’s people even more. It’s a call to keep praying, to keep mourning, and yes, to keep rejoicing. It is a call to keep singing hymns and praying prayers and studying God’s word. It is a call to keep feeding hungry people, housing those with no place to live, caring for the sick and the dying, and even more so. It is a call to double down on imitating Christ, and nothing less.
We don’t know when “these things will come to pass,” and all the “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes and famines that we can see around us, as Jesus himself says, are not the end, and not even the beginning of the end, They are only the beginning. Our call does not change. We are to keep awake, yes, but we are also to keep working, to keep being followers of Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (all PH ’90): “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above” (476); “Near to the Heart of God” (527); “My Lord! What a Morning” (449); “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” (84)

Again, nails it.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sermon: Last Call For Jerusalem

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 8, 2015
Mark 10:46-52

Last Call For Jerusalem

This is not a miracle story.
“Hold on, pastor,” you say. “There’s a blind man who gets his sight back right here in the middle of the story. How do you say this isn’t a miracle story?”
True, there is a man, named Bartimaeus, who is blind when the story begins, and whose sight is restored by a word from Jesus. There is a miracle in this story. But it is not a miracle story.
There are miracle stories in Mark, lots of them. We’ve encountered quite a few over the course of this year in this gospel. There were two dramatic mass feedings; five thousand in Jewish country, four thousand in Gentile territory. There were two dramatic “water miracles,” so to speak; Jesus first calms a storm in chapter 4, and later Jesus walks on water in chapter 6, offering his disciples a spectacular if misunderstood theophany, or vision of the divine. There was strange transfiguration story.
And there were healings. There were many, many healings. Early in this gospel it seemed as if Jesus would never be allowed to get on with his teaching for being so pressed with so many seeking healing.
Demons were cast out. A leper was cleansed. A paralyzed man was made able to walk after his friends tore a hole in a roof to get him to Jesus. Jesus healed a man’s withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, an incident which set Pharisee and Herodian to the task of destroying Jesus. And all of these happen by chapter 3, verse 6.
Later, another demoniac is exorcized, a little girl is restored to life and an old woman is healed just by touching Jesus’s garment. Healings also happen in Gentile lands, with people bringing the sick into town centers and marketplaces to be healed by Jesus – imagine people bringing the sick into Butler Plaza or the Oaks Mall to be healed. A Syrophoenician woman pesters Jesus into healing her daughter.
There was, late in chapter 8, a blind man restored to sight. It might be useful to look at that story quickly to see what these miracle stories tend to look like. In Bethsaida, some locals bring a blind man to Jesus, begging that Jesus “touch him.” The action in the healing gets quite elaborate in this case. Jesus takes the blind man to a spot outside the village, spits and puts the saliva on his eyes, and lays his hands on them. At first the man can see only in part; people “look like trees, walking.” Jesus puts hands on him again, and the man can see clearly. Jesus sends him home, telling him not to even go back into the village.
I hope you’ll see that in comparing that healing story to our reading for today, there are a lot of differences. For one thing, today we have a name. The recipient of healing isn’t anonymous in this case; we are told he is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus (which is actually what “Bartimaeus” means). We are also told he is a beggar, sitting by the roadside on the way out of Jericho to Jerusalem. We are also told that he himself is the one seeking healing for himself; in many of the healing stories others are bringing to Jesus the one needing healing, or interceding on behalf of a sick person not even present. But Bartimaeus is pleading for himself, and far from having friends help, he is being shushed by the crowd.
Bartimaeus also seems to have some unusual insight about Jesus. We are told that he doesn’t begin calling out until he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth passing by. It’s an interesting choice of identification, given that the only other characters who call him “Jesus of Nazareth” up to this point in Mark are the demons being cast out in Capernaum, way back in chapter 1. As Bartimaeus continues to cry out to Jesus, he himself calls Jesus by yet another unusual name: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Not that “Son of David” is all that unusual to us in general, but this is the first time anybody has called Jesus by this name in the gospel of Mark.
Whether it was this unusual form of address or the beggar’s sheer persistence, Jesus stops and orders the crowd to call Bartimaeus forward. And Bartimaeus does not hesistate!  This is no ordinary verb for getting up from the ground; Bartimaeus sprang up! he jumped up! and somehow makes his way to Jesus through the crowd.  The text even tells us he threw off his outer cloak – a gesture of haste, maybe?  Throwing off anything, down to the last possession, that might keep him from getting to Jesus?  We can only guess what was going through Bartimaeus’s mind at that moment, we can only speculate how his mind was racing and his heart pounding as he sprang up and burst forward, maybe stumbling, maybe crashing into others in the crowd before finally (as far as he could tell, in his blindness) getting to Jesus. 
It might seem strange that Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s also curious that this is virtually the same question Jesus asks James and John in verse 36 of this chapter. Their answer, to be seated at Jesus’s right and left in glory, demonstrates just how blind they are, still not understanding or not willing to understand what Jesus had just said to them about his death and resurrection. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, has no illusions about his condition. He knows his own blindness. “My teacher, let me see again” is all he asks. And Jesus’s answer isn’t unprecedented; the woman with the blood issue is told something similar.
No, what sets this story apart from miracle stories is its ending:
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
Do you see the difference?
“Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
This is not a miracle story.
This is a discipleship story.
Bartimaeus followed Jesus, just as James and Peter and John had followed Jesus, leaving behind their fishing boats in chapter 1, and just as Levi followed Jesus, leaving behind his tax collector’s booth in chapter 2. Bartimaeus didn’t have as much to leave behind as they did; we are only told that he threw off his cloak as he jumped up to go to Jesus, and as far as we know that’s all he had. But for all that Bartimaeus left all and followed Jesus, something that is not recorded as happening in any of the other miracle stories in Mark.
Now the main thing that sets Bartimaeus’s story apart from those other discipleship stories is its timing. Peter and James and John, as well as Levi, got up and followed at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, jumps up and follows very near the end. You can look and notice that the very next story in Mark, in chapter 11, is the story of Palm Sunday, Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We are approaching the end.
The way on which Bartiameus follows Jesus is not just the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of suffering, of humiliation. It is the way that Jesus has chosen to travel, and Bartimaeus follows him on that way.
This is a discipleship story and this is a call story, for us.
We are called to name our blindness. When Jesus asks us “What do you want me to do for you?” how do we answer? Do we seek glory and power, continuing in our blindness like James and John? Or do we, like Bartimaeus, name our blindness? Do we confess our sinfulness? Do we lift up our weakness and fallenness and name them before Jesus? Bartimaeus’s response is our call; to name our blindness and to give it up to Jesus’s healing.
We name our blindness, we receive Jesus’s healing, and then we follow Jesus on the way. The way that leads to the cross. Nothing glorious, nothing that brings us power or fame or public renown. Just a cross.
Bartimaeus follows a fool. As novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner describes, “God shows us a man who gave his life away to the extent of dying a national disgrace without a penny in the bank or a friend to his name. In terms of men’s wisdom, he was a Perfect Fool, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without making something like the same kind of a fool of himself is laboring under not a cross but a delusion.” And yet, Bartimaeus follows him on the way.
Do we dare follow? Do we dare give up our blindness, our illusions of power or self-sufficiency or influence, and follow the way of humility, of sacrifice, of the cross?
Will we be something more than mere Christians? Will we be disciples?
For Bartimaeus’s sight, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (PH 466), “When God Delivered Israel” (PH 237), “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” (GtG 418), “Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons)” (GtG 716)

Not sure what I'll do when I'm preaching a text that doesn't have an cartoon.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sermon: ... and Always Being Reformed

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 25, 2015, Reformation Sunday
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-26; Psalm 46

…and Always Being Reformed

October 31 (this coming Saturday) marks the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his so-called “ninety-five theses” to the door of the cathedral of Wittemburg, Germany, an event considered seminal in the Lutheran Reformation. That date, or the Sunday before it, has been frequently observed over the centuries as a special day in many Protestant churches – not quite a full feast day, but one significant enough to inspire a sermon at the minimum.
One has to point out that October 31,while observed fairly widely as Reformation Day, is significant in the Lutheran tradition specifically. Though we moderns are prone to speak of “the Reformation” as if it were a single monolithic event, in fact the impulse of reformation broke out in multiple parts of Europe at various times over at least a couple of centuries. The insert in your bulletin points to an early movement, well before Luther’s initial act, spearheaded by the Bohemian Jan Hus, who staked his position on scripture as ultimate authority in the church, ahead of any priest or bishop or pope, and lost his life for it.
As Presbyterians, our branch of the Reformation is seated primarily in the work of John Calvin, a French-born scholastic who became a principal leader of churches in cities such as Strasbourg and especially Geneva, and Calvin’s pupil John Knox, who brought Calvin’s teaching to his native Scotland. Calvin’s efforts are perhaps noteworthy as much for what he did not succeed in implanting in those churches as for what he did. For example, if it had been up to Calvin, the churches of Geneva under his leadership would have practiced communion on a much more frequent basis, even as often as the church was gathered in worship – that would be weekly, at minimum – like the churches under Luther’s leadership. The elders of Geneva were not persuaded to go along with that innovation.
While the churches that emerged from these varied traditions of reformation grew in sometimes strikingly different directions, one trait they held in common was a focus on the primacy of the reading and proclaiming of scripture in the church’s worship. This focus was taken to a greater extreme by Calvin than by most other reformers, as Calvin sought to cut back other elements of worship in favor of scripture and preaching. For example, while the text of our first hymn this morning is attributed to Calvin, he would have been horrified to hear it sung in worship; to him the only texts suitable for singing in worship were texts from scripture, particularly from Psalms, the biblical songbook. That practice is represented by this morning’s other three hymns, which are all psalm settings. Clearly that tradition has continued and become widespread, as witness the final hymn in this service: a psalm adaption from modern-day Indonesia! But Calvin would still have been troubled; these hymns have harmonies and accompaniments, and are accompanied by piano and/or organ, which Calvin distrusted as too much a distraction from the scriptural text.
One goal that the various reformers shared in general was a desire to facilitate the proclamation of the Word, as noted above, by making the Word available in the languages of the people, rather than in the fine but no longer spoken language of Latin, and to make scripture available for all to read. Even as far back as the 1300s, the English pastor John Wycliffe met his violent end at least in part for translating the Bible into English.
Suffice to say that our modern Presbyterian churches are quite different from anything Calvin or Knox would have recognized. On the other hand, Calvin might well have anticipated such change. One of his most famous quotes, after all, described the church (in Latin): reformata, et semper reformanda. Reformed, and always reforming – or better, always being reformed. The church is, under the moving of the Spirit and the Lordship of Christ, is not static, but always growing towards the mark, towards God’s design for us.
I get it; that’s not the way we tend to think of the church. An awful lot of churches these days are trying to go backwards. You know what I mean. The church wants to go back to the days when the pews were full. Back to the time when everybody went to church, even if over half of them were only there under social pressure. Back to the time when we Christians had all the influence, even if that influence turned out to be pretty damaging to our witness. All the dreams, all the hopes of that church are directed backwards.
But Calvin and other reformers saw that this isn’t how the church works. God had no interest in glory days or the church existing merely to be at the top of the social ladder.
The vision offered by the prophet Jeremiah, in the short passage we have heard today, points to a vision – a dream, one might even say – that goes far beyond even the most fervent yearnings of any of the reformers with their vernacular preaching and translations. “The days are surely coming;” the prophet says that the Lord says “the days are surely coming” – but is clearly not here yet in Jeremiah’s day. “The days are surely coming…when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
That last sentence gives a clue to the state of Jeremiah’s people. He writes to a people already divided, and not just divided but conquered (Israel) or soon to be conquered (Judah). The two kingdoms were weak, their people living demoralized or even in despair, and quite distant from any relationship with the God who had covenanted with them so many years before. The promise of a “new covenant” was hardly new, but Jeremiah insists this covenant will be different, not like the covenant of the past, with their ancestors. Jeremiah can’t resist getting in a dig at his people, reminding them that they, not God, had broken that covenant, but then goes on to describe the difference in this “new covenant.”
It turns out that the difference is not in content. It isn’t a list of new laws or new promises. Rather, this new covenant will not be one carved into stone tablets or scribbled onto scrolls or any other document. No; this is a covenant in flesh and spirit, one that God will “write…on their hearts.” The covenant will be so intimate, so direct, that there will be no need for tablets or documents.
Or for teachers or preachers, for that matter. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…” I will be quite out of a job. All of us preachers, Sunday school teachers, elders…quite superfluous, when God’s word resides in each of us, written on our hearts. And to be clear, like so much of what scripture teaches us, this isn’t a “me” thing; their hearts, them, their, they…the pronouns are all plural. This writing of the law is a unifier, bringing God’s people together; we will be God’s people, all of us, together.
I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out that we’re not there yet. If anything, our world is more fractious and divided than Jeremiah’s, and our proliferation of churches and denominations (seriously, how many different kinds of Presbyterians are there any more?) point to the degree that we are well short of having God’s law written within us.
Yet we do not despair, not if we’re doing this right. We continue to teach and support one another, studying the scriptures until they really do reside in our hearts. We encourage one another. We live in the kind of service Jesus showed us how to do, and commanded us to do. And we do it a certain way because we are inheritors of a particular heritage. We inherit a tradition that says scripture matters, profoundly, above the power of any preacher. We inherit a tradition that insists that the church is of its people, governed by those selected by its members (we call them “the session”), and that the pastor is never the “boss” telling members what to do. We inherit a tradition of an educated clergy, a mandate to serve and to bear witness, to teach one another and encourage one another, to proclaim a gospel of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love, the one that Jesus lived.
Those are very much ideas of reformation; Luther’s great breakthrough was the realization of the words of Ephesians – “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” – did much to set him on his course. By no means should we presume to have any kind of exclusive grasp on this gospel, by no means. But it is our heritage.
For grace, for love, and even for being Presbyterian, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art” (PH 457); “God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength” (PH 191); “When In the Night I Meditate” (PH 165); “Hallelujah! Sing Praise to Your Creator” (GtG 18)


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon: The Inevitable, Necessary Stewardship Sermon

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 18, 2015; Ordinary 29B
2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Mark 12:38-44

The Inevitable, Necessary Stewardship Sermon

It is one of those things for a new pastor. You know it’s coming. It’s inevitable. It doesn’t quite fall into the category of “things they didn’t teach you in seminary,” but it’s close.
It’s stewardship time! Woohoo!
In all seriousness, this is nobody’s idea of fun. Nobody, except possibly certain folks who gravitate to public radio or television, likes to ask for money. I certainly don’t. I’m quite sure Lois would rather not have to go through this. We’d really rather be able to go on about things and not have to go through the whole business of pledge cards and all that.
I’d certainly rather not have to conjure up a “stewardship sermon” out of scripture that really doesn’t want to be used that way. While in the Old Testament, or at least much of it, the people of Israel did have an established Temple that certainly required financial maintenance, in the New Testament there wasn’t really a “church” out there that was in need of a financial plan. By the time Paul and his contemporaries are helping the body of Christ spread across Asia Minor and into southeastern Europe, there are a handful of “house churches,” meeting primarily in the homes of some of its members, without the overhead of a modern church building. When money was required, for care for the poor or sometimes for taking care of a visiting teacher like Paul or others, it was collected.
That’s the kind of collection going on as Paul writes to the Christ-following community in Corinth in today’s epistle reading. Paul is trying to gather up funds for the believers at Jerusalem (who had fallen on hard times), and he begins the chapter by telling the Corinthians about the generosity of the Christians in Macedonia, who despite their own hardships had given with great generosity towards this collection. We do that kind of collection on occasion; we have, you might have noticed, been seeking contributions for the purchase of new hymnals for the sanctuary, and on occasion we collect goods for individuals served by the various ministries in which we participate.
But as far as regular budgets go, that’s obviously not how this church, and most modern churches in the US, work. We have a building. It’s a good building. There are some repairs needed, as most of us can see. There are regular expenses for things like electricity and water, keeping the grass from getting too long, having materials for study, and so forth. The choir needs music. Committees need funds to varying degrees to carry out their work. Staff people need to be paid, even me. And to be certain that we can meet those obligations, we ask that our members commit to giving as we are able to do.
Paul’s verses sound quite uplifiting; “God loves a cheerful giver” … “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance” …  You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity” … really, some great stuff there. And Jesus’s comments about the widow also are pretty effective at encouraging us, those of us who are not blessed with great material wealth, that our generosity matters, and that our generosity will be rewarded.
It all sounds so good, doesn’t it?
But there’s also a very disturbing and dismaying aspect to verses and stories like these, of which we are reminded in the verses before Jesus points out the widow to us. Teaching in the Temple, during the last week of his life, Jesus calls his disciples’ attentions to the scribes. It’s pretty unlikely that Jesus means to sweep every single scribe into this condemnation, as only a few verses before he has had a much more encouraging encounter with one of their number, but he’s had enough bad experiences with the scribes that he’s drawn some sharp and critical observations about them.
One of the behaviors Jesus calls out involves the very kind of people he observes in the later verses of our reading today. First of all Jesus disdains their propensity for seeking attention and flattery, for claiming the best seats at the table and generally being quite impressed with their own authority and power. But amidst this is an accusation that might catch us off guard: “They devour widows’ houses…”.  We don’t have an absolute fix on just what kind of action Jesus is condemning here; it might be the practice of “Corban” that was mentioned earlier in this gospel (declaring resources that might support such a person as “dedicated to God”), or it might be the exploitation of widows by traveling teachers who make themselves guests in those widows’ homes and consume their limited resources. Whatever it is, Jesus calls it out, and puts forward the declaration that for their excesses “Whatever it is, Jesus calls it out, and puts forward the declaration that for their excesses “They will receive the greater condemnation.”
It’s not hard to find modern descendents of those scribes – in fact, if you’re of my generation it’s hard not to. It’s pretty easy to draw a line between these scribes and their modern descendents, if you’ve grown up in and lived in the age of the televangelist. I know some of you, maybe a lot of you, remember the likes of the Bakkers, the Swaggarts, and so many more who became infamous for extracting sums of money from the widows of our own day, persons on fixed incomes giving large chunks of those fixed incomes to those televised preachers. Frankly, any preacher of my generation trembles at preaching from these verses just because of that ugly abuse for which they’ve been used before.
So to some degree a stewardship drive, in which we ask you at least in part for your money, needs to be accompanied by a pledge by those charged to lead the church – from me and other staff members through the session and committee chairs – that we will not be exploiters of what you pledge and give. We must commit to you that what you give will be used wisely, prayerfully, and with no other goal than the support of this church in its ongoing call to do Christ’s work in God’s world.
Even with this past hanging over today’s scripture, we can’t just dismiss the widow in the Temple as some kind of dupe. We don’t know her individual story; were it not for Jesus’s description we wouldn’t necessarily even know that she was giving everything she had. We’ve never heard of her before, and we never hear of her again.
But for all of the mystery about this woman, one thing we can know is that she is the opposite of the protagonist of last week’s sermon. Remember him? The so-called “rich young ruler,” who came asking Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life only to go away sorrowing because Jesus told him to sell it all and follow? He was too attached to his possessions to follow. He was plenty willing to give his actions – remember how he declared he had kept the law since his youth? His wealth, though…another matter entirely. He had to hold on, to keep control of his stuff.
Our widow, though? No such fear. To borrow a slang term from modern poker, the widow has chosen to go “all in.” A player whose chips are limited might choose to push them “all in” when a hand demands it. The widow has little else to fall back on; she chooses to commit it all in the Temple.
We do not ask for all your money. We do, however, ask for all of you. We need not just your money – though we do need that – but we do need your time. We need your gifts of talent, your ability to teach or sing or give or lead or anything you can do. We need you, and we need all that you have to offer.
Yes, fill out those pledge cards and turn them in. But that’s only a first step.
For commitments large and small, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “God of the Fertile Fields” (GtG 714); “As Those of Old Their Firstfruits Brought” (PH 414), “We Give Thee But Thine Own” (PH 428), “God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending” (PH 422)

Again, from the indispensible

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sermon: Last and First

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 11, 2015, Ordinary 28B
Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Last and First

So, did you hear about the Apocalypse this week?
No, I’m not kidding.
As has happened a number of times in the last few years, another obscure religious group came out of the woodwork with a prediction about the end of the world – in this case, this past Wednesday. In this case, the group was something called the eBible Fellowship, based in Philadelphia, and they put forth in pamphlet and video form (and an interview in the British newspaper The Guardian) that the world would face its end on Wednesday, although curiously, the leader of that group said he planned to go about his week as normal. It’s entirely possible, I suppose, that the whole thing was done tongue-in-cheek, but the group leader – while admitting that the October 7 prediction was clearly incorrect – still professes that the end will happen “soon.”
Since I don’t normally start putting my sermon in print until Thursday anyway, I don’t suppose this latest predicted demise affected my week that much either. But it did put me in mind of how often some group or preacher out there is coming forth with this day or that day for the end of the world. Perhaps most famously in recent years, the radio preacher Harold Camping got caught in error for having predicted the end of the world on May 21, 2011. Such fevered predictions date back to at least the nineteenth century in this country, when sometime preacher William Miller predicted that the world would end in 1843. These predictions, of course, seem rather ill-advised in the face of Jesus’s own words, in Mark 13:32: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.” And yet the predictions keep coming.
It seems at least in part that there are some people who insist on having “insider information.” They wish to claim secret knowledge, things that are not available to everybody, but are only revealed to or discernible by a select few, those who “read the Bible in your special ways,” and are obsessed with reading meanings into symbols and turning metaphors into lead-pipe cinch predictions. As the result of this obsession, these would-be scholars are bound and determined to put themselves first, ahead of their fellow followers of Jesus Christ, as if by their interpretation they are earning greater favor with God.
You see, there’s more than one way to put yourself first. Today’s reading from Mark focuses on another, or actually two other such ways of privileging oneself that get wrapped into one. Sometimes you hear the main character of this story called the “rich young ruler,” but Mark’s description doesn’t mention anything about his age or any kind of rule; the only description we get is that “he had many possessions.”
He asks Jesus what he must do to “inherit” – to κληρονομεω – eternal life. This is a rather interesting request; not how to “get,” or how to “earn,” or “to be blessed with” or any other construction we could imagine, but “to receive as an heir.” In that sense Jesus’s answer seems a little odd; after first engaging in some questioning about what it means to call Jesus “good,” he recites some of the familiar commandments, mostly from the “second half” of the Ten Commandments. It’s a list of things to do – or more precisely, in this case, not to do, with one exception. And in some ways it might seem like a low hurdle to surmount, but by this reference Jesus brings all of the law into play.
In that regard we might be surprised to hear the man proclaim that he has “kept all these since my youth,” but in Jewish thought of this time this wasn’t that shocking a thing to say; such devotion to keeping the law was the very animating premise of that group known as the Pharisees that has popped up on occasion in our journey through Mark. And you’ll also notice that Jesus doesn’t particularly seem to consider the claim that outlandish; no “oh, please, you cannot possibly have kept the Law that well” or any such retort. Jesus reacts, in fact, according to verse 21, with love. Jesus sees into this man and loves him.  As the author of Hebrews writes, we don’t turn for our salvation to a savior who doesn’t understand our needs and temptations and afflictions; we turn to Jesus, the “great high priest,” who knows all the temptations we’ve ever known. Jesus is not insensitive or unaware of the condition of this man’s heart.
But that love requires a hard answer, an answer that cuts right to the heart of what the man was lacking despite all his keeping of the law. And when he heard Jesus’s words, “he was shocked and went away grieving,” with those possessions weighing on his mind.
Now let’s be clear; this is not a story that is meant to be a blanket condemnation of rich people. Jesus loved the man, but he knew that the man’s attraction to his possessions – not the possessions themselves – were standing in the way of the man’s ability and willingness to follow Jesus. But the man wasn’t the only one shocked by Jesus’s words. Verse 24 describes the disciples as being “perplexed” by Jesus’s words, and verse 26 says they were “greatly astounded” at what Jesus says. You see, Jesus is having to teach his disciples yet again that human standards for status or power or influence simply don’t count for anything in the kingdom of God. The disciples, and probably most of Jesus’s audience, actually does assume that the man’s wealth probably did indicate that he was destined for eternal life. Jesus says that’s not enough, and that it may well get in the way.
Just as Jesus has had to challenge his disciples to welcome “the least of these” – children, the poor, those without any status in society, now Jesus has to get his disciples to understand that the rich and powerful are not deserving just by dint of their wealth.
We read later in the New Testament, in 1 Timothy 6:10, that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” It seems, however, that it isn’t just those who have money who love it. We see it enough in our own time; we see so many who are besotted with rich people. I’m sure I’m not the only person here who remembers the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, am I? We envy the rich, we want to take after the rich, we want to be approved of by the rich. Sometimes we even want to make the rich president.
But again, wealth or the attraction to it isn’t the only possible impediment out there, not the only thing the desire for which can impede our readiness to follow Jesus. I’ve already suggested that our desire to have special status or special knowledge can lead people astray. What about the desire for pleasure? Or the desire for comfort? The desire for strength or physical prowess, maybe (or should I not dare mention that in a town so taken with a particular sport that trades on that physical prowess so readily)? The desire for control, or power over others?
None of these things, except possibly that controlling others part, are particularly evil in and of themselves. But if our desire for them becomes an impediment to following Jesus at any cost, they are to us what possessions were to this man.
Even as Jesus says that “for God nothing is impossible,” it seems that good old Peter is starting to get concerned about just how hard it seems to be to enter the kingdom of God. After all, Jesus says plainly in Mark 10:24, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Not just for the rich guy, but for anybody. Peter, knowing that at least he walked away from family and a decent fishing business to follow Jesus, begins to wonder out loud if it was all for nothing. Jesus provides a strange reassurance – a promise of blessing both for the now and for eternity, but a promise “with persecutions” – the world will not receive you kindly if you follow Jesus. And then the final blow: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
So, what of all our striving? Many who are first shall be last. The ones who accumulate and hoard the most shall be last. The one who dies with the most toys…shall be last. The one who claws and fights and gouges his way to the top against all those “losers”…shall be last. The one who crows about his or her own power or beauty or prowess…last. And the last shall be first.
But who are we? Are we willing to lose it all, whatever “it” is, for the sake of following Jesus? Or are we still trying to get to the top, to have it all, to know more than the next person or to have special status in some way? Are we too busy trying to be first to follow?
Dear Lord, deliver us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Eternal God of Time” (N.P.); “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” (PH 265); “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore” (PH 377); “O Jesus, I Have Promised” (PH 388)

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon: Not Our Kind

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 27, 2015, Ordinary 26B
James 5:13-16; Mark 9:37-42

Not Our Kind

The Epistle of James is an odd fit in the New Testament canon for many. Particularly when contrasted with Paul’s works, with their constant emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, James comes off for some as being awfully works-obsessed. Probably the most well-known verses from the letter demonstrate this: 1:22, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” and 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?
What people often miss about James, though, is that—despite how 2:14 sometimes sounds in the ear—James is not trying to convince his readers that they “get saved” by doing good works or by particular rituals of holiness. Rather, as 2:18 goes on to say, it is by the works we do that we show our faith. All the platitudes and flowery God-talk we can muster is not and will never be sufficient to demonstrate that genuine faith is at work in our lives, when our deeds and behavior do not match those words.
Another point often missed, one demonstrated in today’s reading from this epistle, is that his instruction is directed not at the individual, but the community, a trait that he does share with Paul. Note how the pronouns in this brief passage are so plural – “they,” not “he” or “she.” The community prays for one another, confesses to one another, in the time of illness and need. To a great degree, this falls into line with such famous passages as the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, or chapter 12 in Paul’s own epistle to the Romans, in which the way the body of Christ lives in and with one another.
Sadly, the disciples, at least as portrayed in Mark 9, don’t seem to have gotten this particular memo.
We are picking up from where we left off last week, when the disciples had been caught arguing among themselves who was the greatest only to have Jesus challenge them to welcome “the least of these,” in this case in the form of a child. Somehow John, and probably some of the others, seemed to think that the best way to respond to this challenge was to tattle on someone else. Really, that’s about the best way to describe it.
Apparently some of the disciples had seen someone else casting out demons, and doing so in the name of Jesus—evidently successfully. Perhaps their reaction masked some jealousy, since the disciples had been unable to cast a demon out of a small child earlier in this same chapter. Perhaps there was a certain protectiveness of their status as “the twelve.” Maybe there was even some fear involved. Maybe this person was, as the phrase might go today, not our kind.
For whatever reason, the disciples’ reaction to this unaffiliated exorcist was to try and stop that person from casting out demons. Somehow the disciples could not see the good being done, or if they did it was less important to them than the fact that they didn’t know who the exorcist was.
So, once again, Jesus has to talk his disciples down from the cliff. One almost imagines Jesus letting out a fairly depressed sigh just before doing so. *SIGH*
First, Jesus has to point out that a person who does a “deed of power” in the name of Jesus is not going to be able to turn around and curse Jesus in his or her next breath. A person who is casting out demons, something that anyone in Jesus’s audience would have recognized as a deed of power, is not the enemy here. It’s as if the disciples had forgotten about Jesus’s reply to the religious leaders who had charged Jesus with being in league with Beelzebub – “by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” back in 3:22. As Jesus replied then – “how can Satan cast out Satan?” so might he have replied to his disciples in this case. The man (we assume it was a man; we honestly can’t say for absolutely certain) was doing no evil; he was doing good. Why, Jesus would like to ask his disciples, would you want to prevent that?
Verse 40 is familiar to us, probably – “Whoever is not against us is for us” – but we’ve probably become accustomed to hearing it in reverse – “whoever is not for us is against us.” Whether in old movie westerns or modern diplomacy, we’re accustomed to that “drawing the line” demanding allegiance to … what, exactly? To us, and to “the boss” and to the way we’re going to do things? It’s an ugly expression, and the person who utters it never means well towards those to whom it is directed.
But that’s not Jesus’s way. We never find out who this anonymous exorcist is, but Jesus is not at all threatened by this unknown person, even though this person is invoking Jesus’s name in performing these deeds of power. The power of Jesus, the healing of Jesus, the good of Jesus is not a thing to be hoarded, or kept hidden or locked away for a select few. Jesus is not exclusive, folks. He really does love everybody, and want to heal everybody and make everybody whole and bring good to everybody.
We Christians don’t like this, when you get right down to it. You know the hymn “Standing on the Promises,” that we’ll sing at the end of this service? Well, we stand on them, all right, nice and firm so that no one else can get to them. The behavior of the disciples makes it clear to us that this kind of closed-ness has been the case since well before anybody was using the word “Christian” as a way of drawing some in and others out.
I am always amused by those contemporary types who bemoan the existence of denominations or the splitting of churches or any other modern evidence of the division and disunity of the church, while pining for some time in the church’s history when the church was one, whole, unified. Folks, if the disciples themselves were trying to draw some in and some out before Jesus had even made it to Calvary, who are we kidding? The early church disagreed, and sometimes fought, and sometimes even divided over whether new converts should have to go through circumcision to be Christians (Paul tells us a lot about that). The church in later years disagreed and fought and divided over what day of the week they should gather for worship – the Sabbath day or the Lord’s Day. The church disagreed over the nature of the Trinity, over what it meant for Christ to be “fully human and fully divine” at the same time, over when Easter should be observed, over the nature and number of the sacraments, and ultimately over more subjects – some very serious, some quite mundane – than I have time to describe right now.  That mythical time when all were in harmony? Well, “mythical” is a good word for it.
What Jesus says next, though, is a warning against making an excuse out of that frequent division. Seriously, verse 42 ought to send a chill down the spine of any Christian:
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a giant millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

Read that again. Hear those words. Remember that a millstone is huge, the kind of thing that required several beasts of burden to rotate in order to grind the grain. The millstone would weigh more than you, much more. To have your head jammed through the center of that huge millstone, and to be tossed into the sea…that is a point of no hope.
You. Would. Die.
And yet, in Jesus’s words, you’d be better off to have that done to you than to be a stumbling block for, or to cause to stumble, any of these “little ones who believe in me.”
It does not matter if they are white or black.
It does not matter if they are gay or straight.
It does not matter if they are liberal or conservative.
It does not matter if they are female or male.
It does not matter what way they differ from you or disagree with you.
This does not mean we do not speak out against injustice or abuse or hatred done in the name of God. Don’t be confused here; that is not serving God; that is not following Jesus.
But those who do seek to follow, no matter how imperfectly, Jesus claims as his own. And the one – no matter how Christian you think of yourself as being – who causes such a one to stumble … you’d be better off pinned to the bottom of the sea.
Many of you know I’m not a cradle Presbyterian. I was raised in another denomination, and went so far as to get a Master’s of Church Music degree at a seminary in that denomination. But that happened at about the time that denomination was undergoing its own division, and my best professors, pastors, role models were the ones getting punished. So I couldn’t stay. This was one of those sermons, like many are, that the pastor need as much as anybody else in the congregation, if not more. Even when we’re the ones getting punished or vilified or being called “not Christian” by other parts of the church, we don’t get to be stumbling blocks for anybody else out there who is doing good in the name of Jesus. Never.
And yes, even for that, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above” (PH 483), “Help Us Accept Each Other” (PH 358),  “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (PH 298), “Standing on the Promises” (GtG 838)

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon: The Greatest

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2015, Ordinary 25B
James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37

The Greatest

Float like a butterfly,
Sting like a bee
I am the greatest!
Muhammad AAAAA-LI!
I remember this distinctly from my youth; a younger child than I, at my elementary school I think, mashed up these Ali quotes and started chanting/shouting all over the playground. This was well into the 1970s, mind you, significantly after that boxer’s controversial early career and well into that period where he was simply the best boxer, and one of the most popular athletes, in the USA. The distinctive timbre – slightly raspy but highly animated, tending to rise in pitch, with a cadence that must have inspired a few early hip-hop artists…it was hard to miss or to mistake for anyone else.
For someone of that generation, though, the image of “The Greatest” that crashed into the public consciousness some twenty years later was a harsh and rude awakening. At the torch lighting ceremony for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the man who had driven opponents crazy with his brashness and cheek, the man who had fairly danced around the ring, was revealed at the climax of the event as a man mostly immobile, gravely stricken by Parkinson’s disease after all those years of pummeling and being pummeled, seemingly straining mightily to lift his arm to bring the torch to the igniting wire that would set the Olympic flame ablaze. The price Ali had paid to be “The Greatest” proved to be a particularly sharp and cruel one.

It isn’t always so physically evident or debilitating as Muhammad Ali’s decline, but human quests for greatness have a bad habit of ending up in a similar condition. Napoleon meets his Waterloo, Richard Nixon meets his Watergate. Designs on power, or wealth, or status, or fame – the usual ways we tend to measure “greatness” in this human world – flounder on the basic and inescapable fact of our human, fallen nature and its pronounced tendency to cause us to betray ourselves if somebody else doesn’t do it first. And even those who seem to make it to their moral finish line still at a peak of human “greatness” end up discovering that they die just as dead as everyone else, and that in fact the one who dies with the most toys does not win. With so many millennia of evidence, you have to wonder why anyone even tries.
And yet we are as a human race addicted to greatness, or the pursuit of it. If you have any doubt about this, you have a little more than a year’s worth of presidential campaign to remind you of this. If we’re not the ones who are maddened by the quest to be the greatest, then we have this awful habit of glomming on to such figures as if they are our saviors.
Not all such dreams of greatness are quite so grandiose. We just want to be the best in our office or at our job, or on our softball team or whatever. We want to root for the greatest team (or for our team to be the greatest), dine at the greatest restaurants, and so on. We are somewhat unhinged by our urge to compete. And sometimes, as is the case with the disciples in today’s gospel reading, it keeps us from hearing what we need to hear.
Earlier in this chapter Peter, James and John have witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus, and then they came down the mountain to witness a fiasco in which the rest of the disciples have been unable to cure a small boy. This would seem a strange time to be arguing about who among you is the greatest, when none of you have been at your best recently. As they are traveling, finally having found a way to escape the crowds so Jesus can teach his disciples in private, those disciples are confronted – for the second time, the first having come in chapter eight – with Jesus deeply disturbing claim that he was going to die. More specifically, he told them “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” No one quite reacts as badly as Peter in the previous case, telling Jesus that it must not be so only to be rebuked with the stinging reproach “Get behind me, Satan!” Still, their response wasn’t great. They didn’t understand, but they didn’t dare ask. Any teachers among you, or any one-time students for that matter, know that is never really the best answer.
Apparently, the disciples then fell into the argument about who was the greatest.
Now it’s not hard to imagine how any of us might have reacted to a group like this if we were the ones tasked with leading or teaching it. It’s not hard to imagine going on a tirade to put Jim McElwain to shame, and feeling quite justified in doing so. At the very least it would be hard to hold back from ripping into these obtuse clods something fierce.
Jesus, though – master of the “teachable moment” – had a different reaction in mind. All this time he has been trying to show the disciples what it meant to live in the “kingdom of God come near” – that thing he proclaimed back at the very beginning of this gospel, calling on people to repent and believe the Good News. He has been perhaps besieged at times by the crowds who know him as a healer and exorcist, and maybe at times hasn’t been able to teach as much as he would have liked. But now he has the disciples together, and in their moment of great ignorance, he sees the opportunity to show them, in a clear and vivid way, what that Kingdom of God is like.
First he tells them, then he shows them.
The one who would be first, he says, must be “last of all and servant of all.” It takes us no effort to see just how backwards that is. First isn’t last. First is first. No one is going to give your Gators credit for finishing first in the SEC East if they lose all the rest of their games this season. We know that’s not how it works, and if that’s where Jesus had left it, we’d frankly understand their continuing to be confused or maybe even put off by such talk. Life doesn’t work that way.
But then he shows them.
From the crowds that had either followed them to, or gathered around them in Capernaum, Jesus pulls aside a small child.
At this moment, for us moderns, the temptation is pretty strong to switch into “cute mode.” You know, the way we tend to react by default when children are put before us in pretty much any setting, but particularly in the church. We “oo” and “aww,” silently if not out loud. We might chuckle if they do something cute or funny, even if it wasn’t necessarily meant to be so. It’s that mode of approaching children that might cause us, in person, to pat the child on the head or pinch the child’s cheeks. Some of you might know it as “being a grandparent.”
This is, to some degree, a pretty modern way of viewing children generally. It isn’t widespread before say, the nineteenth century. At other times in history, a child might have been viewed simply as an extra hand to help with the household labor, or (negatively) as another mouth to feed. In the Greco-Roman world in which Mark’s gospel is disseminated, a child was, to be blunt, not much. A child would be a figure of absolute minimum social importance, superior only to slaves who would have held no such status at all. Children were nursed by nurses, raised by the equivalent of nannies, taught by tutors, and generally kept out of sight.
So socially, it’s a radical enough thing for Jesus to call attention to a child in such a public setting. But for Mark’s readers, this only scratches the surface of just how topsy-turvy Jesus’s instruction is here. To welcome one such as this child in Jesus’s name, he says, is to welcome him, and to welcome the One who sent him.
Welcome. It’s a loaded word. Welcoming is (as you well know) far beyond merely saying hello or inviting someone in. There is, in welcome, a depth of listening and hearing, of not clutching onto the power of being the host but sharing and making all well for the one being welcomed. It’s not just about physical comforts, though providing for those is certainly a part of welcome, but also of being fully open to the guest, not lording it over them or treating them as lesser. It’s a radical concept, and Jesus is here telling his disciples that the one who welcomes “the least of these,” as he puts it in another gospel, welcomes him.
Who is that for us today? In our society, children have been (in some circles at least) idolized and romanticized so that they might not exactly fit into this category. But who does? Who is it out there that is so status-less, so bereft of any standing or fame or stature or power in the world that we may well not even see them there?
Whoever they are, wherever we see them finally, that is who Jesus is calling us – challenging us – to welcome, and in so doing, to welcome Jesus himself.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Hear the Good News of Salvation” (PH 355); “O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee” (PH 357); “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!” (PH 341); “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” (GtG 727)