Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: Hope, Not Fear

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2015, Advent 1C
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Hope, Not Fear

May I be the first to wish you a Happy New Year?
As I’m sure you know, the season of Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year; we commence with a time of waiting and anticipation of the coming of Christ, followed by the celebration of Christ’s birth. That season of anticipation marks the beginning of a new cycle of scripture readings that lead us through the life of Christ, culminating in his death and resurrection, and then through early church history; and also lead us into a fairly (but by no means completely) exhaustive survey of the scriptures.
That season of anticipation, though, is a two-headed coin. Our scriptural choices direct us through many Old Testament passages that recall for us the waiting and anticipation, and even hope, that the people of God experienced in the years of the kingdoms of Israel in anticipation of the coming of the long-anticipated Messiah. But they also look forward to life reunited with Christ, the Advent for which we ourselves wait.
It is a brief excerpt that we read from Jeremiah, but one that covers much ground. Jeremiah speaks to the people of both Israel and Judah, not in this case to chastise them for their failures but to remind them of the promises of God and the faithfulness of God to fulfill those promises. It seems simple enough, in a way; the Lord will provide a faithful, righteous leader (in the lineage of David, as Jeremiah’s hearers would understand), who would “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” The kingdom would live in safety, and the Lord would be the righteousness of the land.
Sounds simple, but in the time in which Jeremiah wrote such promises seemed unbearably remote, and perhaps even cruel. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were no more. Israel, the northern kingdom, had been overrun almost two centuries before, and Judah, the southern kingdom in which Jeremiah lived and wrote, was being conquered even as he wrote. For that matter, Jeremiah himself lived in what should have seemed a personally hopeless situation, imprisoned by the failing king for the unforgivable crime of speaking truth and prophesying honestly, as the Lord led him.
To proclaim safety, to preach justice and righteousness in the face of such devastation must have seemed foolishness indeed. And if those prophecies had been dependent on the faithfulness of the people of Israel or Judah, or even of Jeremiah himself, they would have been foolishness indeed. But the promise, the hope, is not of human hands. The hope Jeremiah proclaimed was solely grounded in the faithfulness of a God Who insistently remained faithful, who insistently fulfilled the hopes of the people of God no matter their foolishness and disobedience. The hope was not that everything was going to change immediately; the hope was in a faithful and loving God.
We could stand to be reminded of this, you know. Our situation is not quite like Jeremiah’s, but we are surrounded by situations and voices that would encourage us to give up hope in favor of its enemy, fear.
Let me be blunt here. We see awful destructive things happen in the world. Only two weeks ago we were reeling from the news coming out of Paris, the horrific attacks in that city, not to mention other attacks in Beirut and Baghdad. In those two weeks we have been subjected to a belligerent cacophony of voices encouraging – no, demanding – that we fear. And these loud voices always have a convenient target to offer for our mandated fear, even if they aren’t remotely the ones committing those acts of terror we are supposed to fear. But never mind that – be afraid!
No. That’s not how it works.
We don’t live in fear. Not if we are following Christ, not if we are trusting in God, not if we are living in hope. It is not possible. The two cannot exist in the same space.
We live in trust. Today’s psalm makes that clear. Our soul is lifted up to God; we trust in God. We live in humbleness before the Lord. We submit ourselves to God’s instruction, trusting God to teach us the path in which to live. We wait upon God’s salvation. We rest in the mercy and the love of God. To do these things leaves no room for fear.
We live in gratitude towards God and towards each other. This is the lesson from today’s epistle reading. Written from an apostle bound in prison because of his witness to a congregation facing the first struggles of living faithfully in a world that doesn’t encourage it, this letter shows us how Paul – the imprisoned apostle – is consumed not with fear or anger or despair, but with love, gratitude, and hope expressed towards that congregation in Thessalonica.
If we are truly going to live into the hope of Advent, the hope of a God who is faithful even when we aren’t, then we will not live in fear, no matter how much fear is shouted at us. That is what Advent is. That is what keeping Advent calls us to do.
The painting you see in the narthex, by our own Jay Collins, captures this so well with the image of a lighthouse. When the weather is fair and seas are calm, lighthouses are pretty. You can climb to the top and see for miles. You can take pictures. It’s pleasant. But when skies darken and seas are storm-tossed, the lighthouse matters. It’s not cute anymore; it’s a lifesaver. So it is with the hope we proclaim in this season of Advent. Hope isn’t about the good times; hope is for the stormy times.
So I invite you to be countercultural. Live in hope, not fear. Live in hope because God is faithful, even when we aren’t.
And for that, Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Hymns (all PH ’90): “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (9), “Jesus Comes With Clouds Descending” (6), “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” (1)

Jay Winter Collins, "Hope ... Advent painting #1"
(used by permission -- I hope!)

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.