Monday, August 31, 2015

Sermon: Rule-bound

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


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

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

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sermon: Storm Stories

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

Storm Stories

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

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

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

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sermon: Plenty Of Bread 2--The Second One

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

Plenty of Bread 2: The Second One

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

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