The Holy Family – Mary

Luke 1: 26-38, 46-55

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her…

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Sermon Text

 Our second week of Advent brings us to reflect on Mary, the Mother of God. She was a poor woman, from a four acre town in what was once called Israel. We know very little about her family, only that she had a cousin named Elizabeth who we will talk about next week, and another cousin named Zachariah who we already talked about last week. Little else is known about the woman who brought Jesus into the world. We do not know how old she was when she conceived, we do not know what she did with her daily life outside of raising Jesus and his siblings, and we do not know what happened to her after the close of the first few chapters of the book of Acts.

Despite this relative obscurity, Mary has captivated the Church for centuries. Legends describe her lineage, her battles with dragons and with demons, and in certain traditions her eventual ascension into Heaven. I do not think that Mary was likely taken up into Heaven like Elijah or Enoch, but there is no doubt that the Mother of God made her way to be seated in the company of Heaven. Wherever her grave may be, it goes unmarked and unremarked upon in the modern day. We do not know where Mary ended up, and so we are left with the few pieces we can be certain of. The most comprehensive narrative we are given in scripture to tell us about Mary are the one’s which we have read today, the annunciation – where Jesus’s entry into the flesh was announced – and the Magnificat – where Jesus’s life was foretold.

When we are told that Mary was visited by an angel, the exact stakes of what she is being told may not snap into our minds immediately. When an angel comes and tells you that you are going to be miraculously pregnant, that can be very good news. Zechariah was excited to hear he would have a child even though he had previously thought such a thing would be impossible for him. Yet, to have this kind of birth foretold when you are not married carries different kinds of baggage with it. The angel was not just telling Mary she was going to carry a child, but that she was about to become an object of public interest, of ridicule, and perhaps even an object of violence.

Formally, Roman rule in Judea had discouraged capital punishment among Jewish citizens. While Rome had the right to kill non-citizens for any number of crimes, local governments were more limited in their ability to execute criminals. Add to this the general perspective among the prominent rabbis of the time that capital punishment was needlessly cruel, “increase[ing] the number of murderers among the Jewish people,” and you get an environment where capital punishment for crimes outside of Roman law was unlikely.[1]

Now, why is this relevant to Mary and the news that she was going to conceive a child? Well, she was an unmarried woman in first century Judea. To an outside observer that would suggest that Mary had had relations outside of marriage. That in itself was not necessary a problem, assuming that this was a matter between herself and her betrothed Joseph. While probably a faux pas and certainly something discouraged, relations of this kind were not considered beyond the pale in the society of the time.[2] However, we know from other places in scripture that Joseph had considered breaking off the engagement before he fully understood what was happening. If that had happened, or if that had gotten out, Mary could have been in big trouble.

An unfortunate truth, as true today as it was in Jesus’s time, is that even when those with the theoretical authority to pursue death sentences have given that power up, people in communities will place that supposed power upon themselves. Mob violence, or even just an individual with the wrong sort of sense of superiority, could have caused great harm to Mary in the months leading up to her giving birth to Jesus. It is my earnest belief that, one of the reasons we see Mary move in with her cousin Elizabeth during the early part of her pregnancy was to protect herself and her unborn child. Something she was able to do even better once Joseph was fully on board with what was to come, but something that still took several months to sort out.

The blessing the angel brought, of Mary being able to carry the incarnate Word of God into the world, was therefore not a small thing for her to take on. She was being asked to face immediate danger for the sake of her child. A child who, we know from reading ahead in this story, she would ultimately have to give up to death on a Roman cross. The grief of a mother who had to face public scrutiny before their child was born, be jeered at by those who misunderstood his work during his life, and then pitied her after he died a criminals death, it is all just unimaginable to me.

Yet, the image we get of Mary is not of a broke woman grieving, but of a strong and confident prophet proclaiming the salvation of God to anyone who is willing to hear it. Mary takes on this assignment, not with apprehension or fear, but with a desire to understand more. “How can this be?” quickly transforms to, “Let it be with me as you have said.” I’m not foolish enough to say that Mary probably did not have any worries or fear, but her faith was sufficient to overcome them. She did not know everything coming down the line, but she sure did know that God was going to see things through to the end.

This is made most clear when she arrives at her cousin’s house. Elizabeth, as we will see next week, greets Mary and confirms that she isn’t just dreaming. She really is carrying a savior, one that will turn the world on its head. Mary does not miss a beat from the moment she receives this confirmation. The quiet and thoughtful Mary launches into her longest recorded speech – what we now call the “Magnificat.”

Following the example of prophets like Miriam before her, Mary describes the faithfulness of God throughout history. She begins with herself, saying that God’s actions even up to this point have shown her to be blessed. She is blessed to be the bearer of God into the world, she is blessed to be a mother who is going to go through Hell to bring Heaven to Earth, she is blessed in a way that no one will be able to deny in the future. She then speaks to God’s more general goodness. God takes the proud and knocks them off their pedestals, but God lifts up the lowly who know their real worth. God feeds the hungry and denies the rich. God brings justice wherever there is injustice, and God settles the score wherever earthly courts fail.

Mary is someone who we in the Protestant church too often neglect. While I understand some of the hesitancy we tend to express, I think that it is to our detriment. We may not regard Mary as the sinless mother of God, immaculately conceived and bodily assumed into Heaven, but she is still the mother of God and worthy of our respect. We can learn a lot from her, even just by thinking about what it means for her to have taken on her role, to have been the first evangelist in history. Some may point to John the Baptist, or to any of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible as the first bringing of good news, but I am admittedly being a bit more specifically Christian in my argument. If we define evangelism as bringing the Word of God, and the salvation that Word brings, to all the world, then I cannot imagine a better prototype than Mary.

She carried that Word of God within her for nine months. She gave birth to a child, naming him “God is salvation,” and then raised him up to love the scriptures and to be a part of the community he lived him. She gave him up to his ministry, eventually joining him in his travels when her husband died. Then, worst of all, she gave up her Son to the cross, standing beside him as he breathed his last breath. Even the resurrection, the confirmation that her prophecy before his birth was spot on and that she would see her Son again rightfully seated on the throne of Heaven, meant that she had to send her beloved child away, far from where she could see him or hear him call for her when he needed her.

We are all of us imitators of Mary. Though we do not suffer our separation from Jesus in just the same way, we still can feel some of what she feels. We come into the Church and accept the Word which is given to us. It grows within us, transforming us into people who more resemble the one who saved us. We then share that Gospel with all we can, through love and service as well as through proclamation and testimony. We wait earnestly the day we see Jesus face to face, and for the work to be concluded and our rest to truly begin. We imitate Mary in every step of our spiritual journey, and so to not give her, her due is a shame.

In a moment we will celebrate Holy Communion. Here we receive the gifts of bread and the vine, here we proclaim all that Christ’s salvific work has done for us, is doing for us, and will do for us. Then we all take it, and we receive it into ourselves. We grow strong through this gift of God and then go forward into the world in that strength to share the grace of God with all the world. Each action of the Church, as it pursues service to Christ, calls us to remember some aspect of those who knew Christ while he walked this earth, and few people know any person better than their mamas. On this, our second week of Advent, let us remember the fearless evangelist who brought our savior to the world. Let us all consider, and imitate, Mary in our devotion to the Gospel. – Amen.

[1] Mishnah Makkot. 1.10 Available at:

[2] Genesis 24: 67 captures one such instance of relations preceding any formal marriage.

The Word Upon our Heart – Lectionary 10/31/2021

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Sermon Text

How do we do what is right? How do we live a life that is worth living? Those two questions undergird a large part of our life. The two feed into each other, or at least they should. When we are asking ourself what makes life worth living, we should hopefully be thinking about how our actions impact our lives and the lives of those around us – hopefully for the good. Contrariwise, if we are asking ourself what is good and what we must do, then hopefully we are looking for it out of something more than simple obligation. We should tie the actions we take and the perspectives we form to our ideas about what makes life worth living. To use put a dollar toward some fifty cent words, we must make sure our praxis – what we do – reflects our theory – what we believe.

The Church, not as any establishment but as the full body of believers, is not always good at following up the things it believes with action. While I can list many things happening here in this church and in every church throughout time that are good and in line with what God has taught us, I can also see a disconnect – again as individuals and as a community – that seem dissonant with God’s vision for the world. While this contrast between ideals and actions is as old as humanity, the Church has a particular set of beliefs it must keep in tension that cause it to lean toward this imbalance. The Church is constantly balancing the instructions which God has given us, those standards laid out in God’s teachings, and the grace God has shown us through Jesus Christ.

God has always shown mercy to the world. From the moment Adam and Eve were given clothing as they left Eden, through the time of Abraham and Moses, even up to the Babylonian Exile – God is a God of grace. While we often split God’s word in two, saying that the Old Testament tells one kind of story about God and the New Testament tells another, the reality is not so simple. We as Gentile believers, that is people who are not first century Judeans, do interact differently with the Torah than the first Christians. We read the prophets differently than Jews do today, connecting even obscure texts to the life of Christ. Even poetry like the Song of Songs we shape to reflect our understanding of the Church, when it has traditionally been considered a story of love between two people. We are part of the tradition that predates Jesus’s ministry on earth, but we are also somehow distinct from it.

The grace which Jesus brought, the mercy of salvation, is universal in its scope. We will never understand all that Jesus’s time on earth meant until we see it completed on the Day of Resurrection. We are people living in the middle of God’s story, at the end of it the mysteries we have been told and the questions left unanswered will suddenly find an answer in God’s salvation of creation itself. Yet, one of the key aspects we can understand about what God did in sending Christ to us is that we, non-Judeans two thousand years later, were able to be included in the same family which began in Ur of Chaldea with Abraham’s call to enter Canaan. We were allowed to know the God of Israel fully, through the work of Christ which removed all barriers to us.

Unfortunately, we often teach that one such barrier was God’s instructions – the Torah. We read Romans and the Gospels selectively enough to think that Torah, often translated as “Law,” is somehow a dirty word among God’s people. We cannot talk about the “Law,” without visions of legalism. We see the commands of scripture in harsh, consequentialist terms, “You will do this, or you will suffer that!” We project our anxiety about obligation onto the Hebrew Scriptures and say that, “Before Jesus, everyone was trying to work their way into Heaven, after Jesus we were enlightened and knew that only God could save us.” We created a false sense that in the Old Testament, God was a God of Works, but now we know God differently, as a God of Grace.

The truth is that God has always been a God of Grace and that God remains today a God of Torah. I mentioned earlier that the translation of “Torah,” as “Law,” is simply that, a translation. I usually do my best to translate Torah directly from Hebrew. Anytime we read a passage from the Hebrew Bible and see “Law,” we must understand that the word used actually means “Teaching.” When the Hebrew was turned to Greek, the translators chose to use the word “Law,” in place of “Teaching,” shaping how we read both Hebrew and Greek even into the modern era. While people like Paul understood both realities, speaking Greek but knowing Hebrew, we often see God’s teachings in the same way we do tax law – they are hard and fast strictures that are boxes meant to be checked.

In some ways, that is a natural response to how the New Testament discusses Torah. Jesus was often in conflict with holier-than-thou members of the religious establishment. Whether they were Sadducees or Pharisees, writers or lawyers, he constantly butted heads with people who were more concerned with being technically correct than actually good. Yet, Jesus was also perfectly clear that his business was about fulfilling the Law and not throwing it out. Paul, in his sprawling reflection on salvation in Romans, sought to equalize his Jewish fellows and Gentile believers – both of whom had begun to fight over who was “really,” the Christians in the room. Paul spoke describes the Torah in this argument, as a “Law of Death,” which has led us as Christians to often think of it as something we have moved beyond. However, Paul also explains that God gave us a good gift in the Torah, we are the ones that made it into a tool to judge others rather than transform ourselves. We made it a Law of Death, not God.

One of the key problems with how we try to talk about God’s teachings is that checklist mentality we talked about a moment ago. Similar to how we sometimes see God as a vending machine where certain inputs get us certain benefits, we see any list of rules as something we must do and then be satisfied we did it. This is formally called “obligationism,” the idea that we do good things because we are asked to them. In obligationist thinking, life is all about actions in themselves and not what is behind them. Jesus fought with obligationists who could list every way they kept the letter of God’s law, but never cared to talk about the Spirit of it. When you only think of the world in terms of obligation, you do not think of doing “good,” you think of doing what you have been asked.

Let me put it more relevant terms. If I believe obligation is what makes me a good person, then every day I will wake up and make a list of things to do. I must go to the office. I must type up worship materials for Sunday. I must call three people. I must go home. I must greet my wife when she gets back from her Church. I must clean the house. I must make dinner. I must say a prayer or two. I must sleep at least five hours. None of the things I listed there were bad things to do. Some of them contribute to good in the world. Yet, let me go to just one part of that list. If I give you a call, as your pastor, and you were to ask me why I called, would you at all be happy with the answer, “As a United Methodist Minister, visitation and pastoral care is part of my job description, and I am meeting that requirement in calling you.” Is there anything more soulless than that?

No, God does not give us instructions so that we can become better at checking boxes. God gives us teachings so that we can become better people. As we practice good things we become good people. Always we live in the flesh, limited and prone to doing wrong, but if we really believe God has spoken to us through the Word and the Spirit, we have to do more than just what is asked of us – we have to actually change how we think and how we are. Rather than focusing on life as a series of obligations we have to meet, we should see it as a series of situations we must respond to. It is not enough to do something because we have been told to do it, we must grow to want to do good regardless of whether or not that good is asked of us specifically.

Let us think of our relationship with obligations through another lens. I gave you a simple checklist vision of my job, but let us understand going beyond obligation through the prism of marriage. Hopefully those of us here who are married are willing to say they love their spouse. If they are here with you today, I encourage you let them know that. I’ll even take a moment to let you. Marriage has certain obligations to it – we are obligated to care for one another, to be faithful to one another, to live a life in concert with one another. However, that last one makes it so no list is sufficient to explain all we have to do for a spouse. I can empty the dishwasher all I want, that does not mean I’m growing closer to my wife. She can refocus my thinking when I’m in a depressive episode, but if she is only trying to meet an expectation it probably will not help.

The truth of God’s teachings, wherever they present themselves, is that they are meant to be internalized. We understand rules first as obligations. We do not hit our siblings or our friends so that we are not punished by our parents. We do good because it makes people in our lives happy. Our obligations are tied to consequences. Yet, when the rubber meets the road, we will find more situations that do not have fixed answers than situations that do. I know I am to feed the hungry, but what does that actually look like beyond handing someone a sandwich? I know I’m to love my neighbor, but what does mean when it gets to be November of next year and I have to cast a ballot for one politician or another?

Scripture gives plenty of commandments. We know ten that are easily brought to mind, but we often number the full scope of teachings in the Torah to 614. 365 things that God called Israel to do and 249 they were not to do. Just building off of the Ten Commandments I hope we can see that they are good to keep. We should love God above all else and we should honor our parents and we should definitely not kill anyone or steal anything. However, if I only learn not to kill, I am not any better a person than I was before – unless I was especially violent. The knowledge that I should not kill, or that I should honor my parents, means nothing if I do not grow from the practice of seeking peace and of showing honor.

God did not give Israel a list of things to do win their way into Heaven. If nothing else, there was no belief in an afterlife in Israel until the time of the prophets, so they weren’t working for anything beyond this life we are living now. God gave Israel rules to live by with the hope that they could become more like God, more loving, more holy, more willing and able to bring justice to an unjust world. God is a God of grace, God saved Israel because God loved Israel and not for anything they did. God extended that grace to the world through the work of Christ, and that grace likewise can lead us to become good in the same way the Torah was meant to make us good.

The Spirit works within us and the Word of God we read shows us the fullness of God’s teachings. In the myriad laws of the Torah, we should not see a checklist to fulfill and be done, but a set of standards that reveal something about God and ourselves. My house does not have a roof I can stand on, so the Torah’s teaching about parapets meant to keep people from falling off of them is not relevant to my life. However, that teaching lets me know that life is sacred, and that not taking necessary precaution to save lives is the same as taking a life. An especially important lesson in the world we live in today where even this piece of cloth can be a life or death measure.

The command that our scripture for today has is one of the key teachings of the Torah. God’s word is asked to be written all over the lives of God’s people. “Put it on your doorposts! Put it on your arms and your heads. Tell it to your children! Do not let it leave you for a second. Most importantly, etch it into your heart, where nothing can ever take it from you.” The word of God, once it is within us, digs deep roots and offers us real fruit – to grow into the kind of people God would have us be. The prayer God gives us, “Hear of Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your being, and all your might.” Reminds us of what transformation looks like. When we write God’s word on our heart, it transforms us into people who seek to do genuine good. When we seek to do genuine good, every part of us is shaped to reflect that new disposition. When we are transformed our actions likewise become good.

We must all study scripture, Hebrew and Greek, Old and New Testament. We must all seek to keep God’s word, not quibbling over which teachings are more or less important, but seeing the virtues behind the commands rather than the virtue of the command themselves. We must all allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit, so that even when we fail we can attest to the fact that we are pursuing perfection in our will, attempting to reflect the goodness of God. We do not do this to be saved, God has saved us already without us contributing anything but our own sinfulness.[1] Now though, God invites us to become Good for the sake of all people, including ourselves.

Write the word of God on your hearts today. Let God’s teachings bring life where once there was only bitterness and decay. Go forward and learn what it means to love, not by just doing enough, but by actively seeking to go above and beyond. – Amen

[1] This sentiment is often attributed to Jonathan Edwards. While a similar sentiment can be found in his Sermon 153 on Romans 4:16, I could find no actual evidence that Edwards said these words. It seems likely this quote is a general truism rather than an authentic quotation.

Son of David, Have Mercy – Lectionary 10/24/2021

Mark 10: 46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Sermon Text

            The connection from one week to another of preaching is not always obvious. As a preacher, I have not often been one for sermon series – that is changing come Advent – but up till now I tend to take each week on its own. For the past three years of my ministry, I have also made use of the “Revised Common Lectionary.” This resource is a helpful tool to pull scripture from all sorts of places. The lectionary lets me pull from some scriptures which might not otherwise make it to the pulpit. The downside to this is that, from week to week, the selected scriptures can sometimes go in very different directions. To utilize a lectionary is to let some control be taken away from you. This opens up another door for the Spirit to draw connections we might not see until we open our ears to hear them.

Last week we looked at two disciples asking for Jesus to make them great. The week before we saw how Job called out to be heard and then received his audience with God. Today these two themes meet in our scripture. Here someone cries out to God, they ask to be saved, and they find their prayer answered. They do not seek glory as James and John did, not to be heard as Job had, yet in his answered prayer the deeper truth of both becomes clear. God listens to us, and God desires to give us the things we seek after for our own good. Today, as we look at scripture, we are not going to find a surefire formula for answered prayer, but we are going to see the love God has for us and the strength which we can depend on.

Our scripture opens with the briefest summary I’m aware of in scripture regarding Jesus’s ministry in any one place. We are told Jesus and his followers went into Jericho and the next we hear of them is Jesus and company leaving Jericho. What wonders happened in that town that were left unwritten? What teachings landed in the soft soil of the people’s hearts, but were never put to paper? Even if Jesus was just passing through, I find it hard to believe he did not have plenty to do. The no nonsense writing of Mark rushes us forward to a specific work of Christ. We are introduced to a blind man named Bartimaeus and the exceptional healing which changed his life.

Blindness, and more generally disability, was not treated consistently in the ancient world. As much as I would like to offer a single perspective that all people held in Jesus’s time, it is sadly never so simple. If we look to scripture, we do get several ideas for mindsets that were contemporary or that predate Jesus. The purity codes of the Torah treat some injuries or conditions in the same way sin is treated – excluding certain people from full participation in community (Deuteronomy 23:1, Leviticus 21:19-20) Jesus is asked several times if Sin produced the trouble that people faced spiritually and physically. (Luke: 13:1-4, John 9:2) Disability is sometimes even described as someone having “evil,” qualities in their limbs or organs. (Matthew 6:22-23.) These all suggest a fairly negative view of disability in the ancient world.

While other, more positive, or at least neutral perspectives exist in scripture and other ancient texts, there was an undeniable negative trend in perspective. Jesus stands out in his ministry because he was sure to separate out sin and suffering. Despite the insinuations of the crowds around him, Jesus did not blame anyone who was sick or disabled for the situations they found themselves in. Jesus extended a hand to those who needed help. There was never an interrogation of them about what they had done, how they became injured or disabled, only ever a desire to restore them to the community they lived within. Jesus listened to the cries of those in need and answered their prayers in the way they asked for them to be fulfilled. Jesus listened and loved with wisdom and mercy.

The story of Bartimaeus is the sort of story most ancient writers would skip. He was a person of no social importance who lived on the outskirts of a city. Yet, Mark tells his story and skips Jesus’s time in the city. Mark wants us to understand that Jesus does not prioritize the same things we do. Somehow the faith of one man, of a social outcast without any means of his own, is more significant than an entire narrative of teaching among “polite” society. Mark shows us Jesus again living the lessons he preaches, helping those who have nothing to offer him and releasing people from things keeping them from participating in the world around them. Jesus looses the chains of an unjust world from the hands of the downtrodden.

The cry of Bartimaeus to Jesus carried over the roar of the crowd. His shouts were condemned by those who stood around him. “Do not bother Jesus, he’s too busy for you!” “Stay quiet and accept what life has given you!” “Do you see the scene you are making right now?” Yet all these cruel words just inspired Bartimaeus to keep shouting. Jesus hears these cries and stops, standing still suddenly along the road. Jesus sends for people to bring Bartimaeus to him. The crowd that chided him now encourages him to approach Jesus. Bartimaeus has thrown aside his clothing, rendering himself completely vulnerable before Jesus. The man stands before him and asks that his vision could be restored, Jesus complies, and he sees once again.

The faith of Bartimaeus has given him a name to be remembered for all time. We hear about his faith every time we read this scripture and he more than most rests in our imaginations. What exactly about him captures us? More than anything, I think we admire his boldness. Bartimaeus wanted to be near God and he would not let anything get in the way. He wanted to stand in front of Jesus and know what God’s mercy felt like. I do not know if Bartimaeus expected to see that day, but I know he expected to be heard. His cry to Jesus utilizes a voice in Greek that is meant to get a person’s attention. Like calling someone by their full name, the vocative is meant to perk up someone’s ears.

There is much we can take from this story, and we only have so many minutes this morning to talk about them, so we will try and be selective in our reading for today the key takeaway that today’s verse has for us in our daily life is what it looks like when we pray. When Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, he was offering a sincere prayer to be made whole. While we typically associate cries for “mercy,” with avoiding punishment the phrase has more to it than that. To seek mercy is to ask for God to make us whole, to restore us to somewhere or transform us into something. The lesson that should be most obvious to us from reading about this event is that we do not have to fear that our prayers go unheard. When we cry out to God, God stops, stands up straight, and brings us close to hear what it is we need. We should boldly approach the throne of our salvation.

Prayer is as simple as that and yet we cannot pretend we understand every aspect of prayer. Not unlike our look at Job, the mystery of God’s relief of our suffering is sometimes just as obscure as God’s presence in the midst of our suffering. We offer prayers here every week, some of them we see answered in immediate and obvious ways, and others – if they are answered – are not answered quickly or in any noticeable way. When we pray for disease to be healed, sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. When we pray to avoid disaster, sometimes disaster still finds its way into our life. When we pray, even just for peace, sometimes we find that we cannot escape the dread that seeps in behind our eyes.

A cynical mind could easily see something fickle about this. Why does one prayer seem to be answered, sometimes in astounding, fire from heaven kind of ways? While another seems to go unheeded? If we knew that answer, I think that we would be in possession of some of the most precious information we ever could. To know the secrets of how God pours grace on the earth would be to know how miracles fall from Heaven to earth. I’d give a lot to know that.

Yet, like so many things, we do not know how God answers our prayers, only that God does hear us. Sometimes we will try and explain prayer as being stopped by demons or blocked by sin, but to do so almost always shrinks God into someone who can only answer prayers that are worded just so or are spoken by just the right kind of person. That presentation of God is not consistent with scripture, it certainly does not look like Jesus does in this passage we read today. When it comes to the kind of work that God accomplishes through our prayer we should not idly speculate on mechanics. Instead, we need to look at what is plain to us about prayer and what God accomplishes through our prayers, even when we might feel they have not been heard.

Firstly, we cannot deny that prayer brings us closer to God. When we take time to intentionally reach out to our creator, we find our creator reaching back toward us. Every time we pray, whether we say something silently in our heart or aloud, whether we are in private or in the presence of other people of God, we are present with God. The same fire at the center of creation that put light behind the stars is the warm presence we feel within our hearts as the Spirit settles within us. The one who set the foundations of the earth is the one who holds us in a single strong hand. To pray is to be close to God and to be close to God is to be where we are meant to be.

Prayer also brings us closer to one another. When we pray for one another, the space between us dissolves. Whenever we gather together on Sunday, we are all fairly close together here in this sanctuary, but we are not the only people gathered this morning. All those worshipping at home, watching on Facebook, are here with us as we worship and pray. All the people we mail the service to every week join us in prayer, whether they wait till Sunday to read and pray alongside us or open their letter as soon as they get it and pray ahead of us. Prayer brings us together, it makes our love for one another stronger, it makes us be intentional in caring about each other.

 This is not just spiritual or sentimental in nature, but an observed neurological reality. When we make a habit of praying and when we pray for any length of time, our brain begins to reshape itself. In his book, What God does to Your Brain, Dr. Andrew Newberg explains that habitual pray can temporarily limit the use of our parietal lobes. This is, for reference, the part of your brain closest to your ears. Among its many functions, it helps us to differentiate ourselves from our environment. When it turns off, we become less aware of ourselves as individuals.[1] The reality of our identity as, “the body of Christ,” is most obvious to us when we are praying. We are not just our individual selves, we are part of something much bigger.

These considerations would be acceptable to anyone. I could tell you prayer makes me feel closer to God and an atheist could agree I probably feel that way. I can show you the science of how the brain reroutes itself during prayer and even the most seasoned skeptic would at least be interested in reading that research. What makes prayer so important to us, what makes it more than just a thing we do to feel good, is the fact that it does produce results. If it did not, we would not keep doing it. People are healed by prayer, strength is given to us by prayer, God does work wonders on this earth because prayers are offered up. The story of Bartimaeus, if it ended just with everyone feeling a little bit closer together, would still be significant, but it would not be the kind of story that we tell again and again.

I can tell you myself of miracles that I have seen happen through tireless prayer. A woman I know felt that God has promised her a child, and after dozens of tests showed her that her baby was going to be stillborn, she still held onto that hope. She had her baby, and that daughter should be graduating college right about now. I know that a minister of mine growing up fought Parkinson’s for years, and through prayer he went into remission – something that is not physically possible for Parkinson’s – for five years. Even recently, when Grace’s bottle of Adderall she takes for ADHD was accidentally thrown away, I prayed that she would find it before she needed it most. The next few weeks were a struggle, but when she had her yearly DCOM interview, she found a single capsule of Adderall in her pill box that helped her go into the meeting fully able to show her brilliance.

I cannot answer why prayer does not always seem to get the result we want. I pray often for my wife’s fibromyalgia symptoms to lessen, or her migraines to be relieved, and oftentimes that does not happen. Yet, whenever a prayer does seem to be answered, I know that I can glory in what God has done. That God answers any prayer shows that God loves us and listens to us, that knowledge should tell us that even when our prayer is not answered in an obvious way, God is still beside us listening and acting to help us. Christ, dying on the cross, the most gruesome death imaginable, cried out to God, and in that moment, Christ felt well and truly alone. Yet I believe Christ, both as a member of the Trinity and as a human being, never let out a cry that God did not hear. Even in the darkest moment of his life, even when all seemed lost, God was still listening, and God still cared deeply for God’s son.

As children of God, as people saved by the work of Jesus Christ. We all must cry out to God. A few weeks ago, we spoke about letting God know about our pain, now I ask us to let God know our needs! We must have faith that God will hear us, and hope at all times to see our prayers answered. The worst that can happen is that we grow closer to God and one another. If that is the worst outcome of taking a step out and shouting my prayers to God, then I only stand to gain through offering up my prayer. So let us all, whenever we can and whenever we need it, join Bartimaeus in crying out, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!”. – Amen.


The Greatest Disciple – Lectionary 10/17/2021

Mark 10: 35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Sermon Text

            We talked a few weeks ago about how the disciples fought with one another over who would be greatest. The lesson they received soon after their argument on that Judean backroad was that only the most lowly among them would be considered great in God’s kingdom. God sought to move our definition of strength and power away from simple doctrines of might making right and toward an understanding of a Kingdom ruled by slaves, putting even the greatest of rulers to shame by the love and mercy they showed to those around them. This teaching was not simply a positive encouragement to do what is right. Jesus remained clear that an inability to repent would be equally as dangerous as repentance would be blessed. The life of the Christian is split between the reality of our sin and the promise of our righteousness.

Jesus would teach for some time in Capernaum. He taught on the importance of fidelity in marriage, the dangers of wealth, even upon the sanctity of children within his Kingdom. The people gathered were amazed at his teaching, they were challenged by his words, yet they listened on. They listened, that is, until Jesus again returned to his most difficult teaching. This teaching being that the end of his ministry was not going to be in a triumphant victory over worldly powers, but a shattering of death itself through the death of the messiah. Jesus taught, once again, that the victors in this universe would ultimately be found among the broken, the poor, and the servant, not among kings.

The response that Jesus gets to this teaching is almost identical to the previous time he taught this. However, rather than all the disciples arguing behind Jesus’s back, two have learned well enough that they can approach Jesus with questions. They have, all the same, failed to learn what about their ministry draws them closer to Jesus. Rather than asking Jesus how they may be better servants or how they might better prepare themselves for Jesus’s passion, they simply as for Jesus to give them places of honor.

The other disciples find out about this and lash out at James and John for their boldness. Jesus, ever the teacher, sees that he is still fighting an uphill battle in leading his disciples into the Kingdom. When we look at the Gospels, Mark tends to be the most direct when it comes to telling Jesus’s story. However, because Mark is so direct, there is more obvious repetition of certain events. While Matthew and Luke fill the space between the disciples continued questioning and misunderstanding of Jesus, we see almost from one page to another how the disciples continue to struggle with Jesus’s identity. The alternative community which Mark is offering in the way he tells Jesus’s story is a lofty goal for the disciples to become a part of and reading through Mark we find again and again what details are most important and what obstacles stand the most firmly against us.

The repetition of this lesson also shows us how Jesus’s disciples are growing in their understanding of Jesus and his ministry. The first time Jesus taught that he was to be killed, it led to a public confrontation with Peter. The second time it led to the disciples fighting over who among them was “the best.” Now there are at least two disciples who, while still not fully understanding of Jesus, are at least speaking directly to Jesus about their desires. As self-serving and convoluted as their request to be placed beside Jesus is, it shows that they have begun to realize that if they want to know about the Kingdom of God, Jesus is the person to go to.

Jesus responds to his disciples’ request in a way that acknowledges that growth. Rather than chastising them, he redirects their thinking away from questions of who will be top dog toward more practical concerns of weathering the storms of this life. Jesus poses the question, “Can you drink from the cup I am about to drink and be baptized with the same baptism,” but regardless of how James and John answered this question the conclusion of Jesus’s teaching would be the same. If they stayed in Jesus’s ministry they would suffer as Jesus suffered.

That was the basic expectation, they were not afforded any special privileges for simply doing what was the natural conclusion of their work. Jesus was clear that to follow him was to give up any expectation we had of a life free of sacrifice. The anger of the other disciples when they learn what James and John had asked is likely tied to two equal yet opposite ideas. On one hand, James and John were likely seen as acting unfairly by asking such a question.

The disciples rejected them asking for honor out of a perceived righteousness they saw in themselves, saying something along the lines  of “I would never ask such a selfish thing!” On the other hand, the disciples may have been frustrated that James and John had thought to just walk up and ask Jesus such a question. This concern takes form, not because they see this request as wrong, but because they had not thought to ask that question themselves. The sons of Zebedee had realized that asking Jesus led to answers, while the other disciples still believed they could argue their way into the kingdom. The disciples, in either case, pushed against James and John for doing something they had not tried – trusting Jesus enough to directly ask for what they wanted.

Where Jesus gently redirected James and John, his response to the other disciples has a harder feeling to it. To disrupt the angry crowd his followers had suddenly become, Jesus speaks in his most direct language yet regarding the attitude his disciples should apply to their lives. Jesus accuses the disciples of acting like Gentiles seeking Roman political power. Counter to the idea they may have had that they were being pious by having these arguments, Jesus places their behavior as secular at best and “Gentile,” at worst. In first century Judea, that sort of insinuation would have carried weight.

Jesus goes on to describe this Gentile-Leadership mindset. The NRSV, and most other translations I read, does a poor job at rendering Jesus’s words here. While the translation we just read speaks of people, “Lording,” authority over one another and acting as “tyrants,” Jesus’s words are more general than bad leadership.  Jesus is speaking here to how people lead generally, not just to the worst examples of leadership. Despite the strict hierarchies and power struggles present in the world around them, Jesus called his disciples to see their greatness coming from a willingness to serve one another. The people of God cannot see one person as exceedingly great over any other, because all people are servants – from the oldest and most senior elder to the newest member.

The Church does not always follow Jesus’s model of leadership. We can point to periods in history and plenty of our own personal anecdotes that show the people of God seeking power and influence and control rather than trying to serve one another.  This problem is most obvious among clergy because we have more opportunity and systemic backing than most people in the Church. Yet, the tendency to seek after power is not limited to any group within the Church, it is a temptation we all can give into. It is something that can appear in friendships, workplaces, even in our families. The desire to get what we want, no matter that cost, that is never far from us.

Of all the teachings of the Methodist Church, few are more important than how we see the organization of the Church. As any of us gathered here may attest, the exact organization of the Methodist Church can seem arcane at times. Committees and charges and districts and conferences all flow into a complex web of oversight and reporting. Despite this reputation, the intent of our structure is to be as egalitarian and democratic in nature as possible. The chair of the council of bishops is not any more important or spiritually significant than any believer seated in a pew. If you are a Christian, the United Methodist Church sees you as just as worthy and capable as any other Christian.

Leadership in the United Methodist Church is therefore meant to be seen as people being called to take on leadership among equals. When someone accepts a nomination to a committee or a call to ministry, it is not as though they suddenly become more important or holy than others, but that they are living out their service to God in a particular way. Even Bishops, having taken on as much responsibility as they have, are no more significant than any other faithful member. We are all of us servants to one another, even if our gifts lead us to serve one another in specific ways or through leadership positions, we can never assume we are greater than one another, because we all serve with the same expectation to seek one another’s good.

This does not always seem to be the case and it often is not the case. We all see our positions in life as ways to get what we want, at least occasionally. Whether that is gathering praise and benefits for our work or getting our name attached to a successful ministry, we adore the idea of climbing the ladder. In some ways, this is not inherently bad. “A worker is due their wages,” after all and we should celebrate the achievements of those around us. (Luke 10:7) This includes standing up for ourselves and standing together in solidarity with others whenever we can.  Whether that be in Unions or one on one advocacy, asking to be respected and seeking our honest due is no sin. The problem emerges when the desire for more authority and power overcomes our desire and real capacity to do good.

When we live a life in line with Christ, we will find opportunities to take the lead. Sometimes this means career advancements, other times just the chance to raise another person in the faith. I say “just,” because we often times see things like that as lesser than any career goal we may have in mind. The reality is, of course, that there are few manifestations of love and servanthood as obvious as helping one another grow.  This can be growth in knowledge, in the trust we show toward God, or any other number of skills – but that growth should always be tied to growth in general goodness.

Jesus tells us that the greatest people in the Kingdom of God are those who serve one another. Jesus goes further still by removing any criteria about what will define glory in the world to come. The only guidance we have is to live into Christ’s teachings through our service to one another. If we apply this attitude to all aspects of our life, then we will benefit. We will benefit, not because of any rank we attain, clout we collect, or wealth we acquire, but because our service to one another will be a gift even in itself. Jesus speaks as though Heaven may have some hierarchy, but even this seems an earthly way to describe something presently beyond our comprehension. If we truly seek only to love and serve one another, then no title or power will overcome our plain desire to love and the satisfaction that comes from selflessness.

If we wish to be great in God’s economy of Grace, then we must ask ourselves often and honestly how we can serve one another. This mindset begins at home and goes out into the world. We often encourage our children to think about how they can serve their parents, but I encourage parents to ask the same question for how they can serve their children. Spouses should ask this of themselves. We should ask it about all the people we regularly meet in our life. Why don’t we do that now?  Because we are used to only one person in a relationship putting that kind of effort in. Truly, unless we are all willing to put service before self, we will see inequalities from some people doing what is right and others taking advantage.

Yet, if we want to transform the world we live in, we have to begin living a life of service in every way we can. If we can begin that here in this church, by loving and serving one another in our household and this sanctuary, we will begin to see transformation. We will all grow together; we will see the blessings of the Church made plain to us. If we go beyond asking to see blessing and begin living as a blessing, then we will truly know what it is to be great and what God’s kingdom really looks like. – Amen.

Revised Common Devotional – 10/13/2021

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Meditation Text

            What defines a person who is living a life worthy of God’s calling? This kind of question is entrenched in pretty churchy language. We do not understand our daily life in terms of “worthiness” or “calling,” but we cannot escape what these words mean to us. To live “worthily,” into what God would have us do is not to earn our way into Heaven – that would be impossible. Every aspect of our life, nonetheless, has something evaluative behind it. I cannot simply say that I have a job or that I am married, we naturally follow up any category of our life with, “Am I good at my this thing?” Am I good at my job? Am I contributing to a healthy marriage? Beyond the simple categorization of our life into what we are, there is the question of whether or not we are truly living into what that categorization would suggest we believe.

            The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of my favorites in all of the Gospels. In it we see a comically rich man eating at a table covered in every kind of good thing while a poor man sits at his gates every day, sick and tired, and starves. The two men are not described as having lived particularly holy lives, yet when death comes to call the rich man finds himself in a place of torment and Lazarus finds himself comfortably seated with Abraham. The rich man is baffled, but Abraham states the matter plainly. Because the rich man received an abundance of wealth and food and comfort in life, he now faces torment in death. The poor man, however, who knew only pain, now experiences eternal comfort. There is no complex formula here, the rich man’s desire for more and better has left his eternal destiny to be consumed in less and worse.

            As we make our way through life, we need to define how well we are living in terms that are not tied to how much money we are making or how much stuff we have. We can have all the stuff in the world and never be satisfied and after a certain point, money is no longer a means to take care of ourselves but just a way to get more that we do not need. Wealth is a dangerous thing, and possession of it quickly turns to love of it, which we all know is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10.) We must all be careful that we are not too enraptured by the wealth we have around us, it will ultimately lead us closer to Hell with every penny we acquire. Only generosity can define how much a soul has accepted Christ, because Christ is, at the end of all things, hospitable beyond measure.

            While we live in a country that demands a great deal of money from us in order to have even basic necessities, we cannot deny that simply living above the poverty line in the United States makes us incredibly rich in global terms. It can be difficult, in the midst of paying bills and repaying loans (especially student loans in my case,) to remember the great amount of wealth that regularly passes us by. We know more plenty today than anyone in history has ever known. How do we use it? Do we spend money to get more things? How often do we ever use our money to help people in this world? Especially those who live all around us.

            The fact is that we all love money more than we ought. Returning to our opening question, we are usually more concerned with living a life worthy of money, of Mammon, than we ever are worried about living a life worthy of the Gospel. We collect money to buy more clothes, or electronics, or entertainment. When we come to our final rest, what will our bank account show we loved? God and God’s people, or consumption and leisure? We have to connect our financial habits to our moral disposition, not for any other reason than Jesus clearly does. I do not pretend to be sinless in this matter, but even as I write this out I feel conviction seeping from my wallet. The sting of every dollar meant for the poor I spend on myself, and every check I could write to help the needy I use to feed my own desires.

            Let us all strive to love God and one another more, much more than we love money.

Our Bitter Complaint – Lectionary 10/10/2021

Job 23:1-9

Then Job answered:

“Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I

Sermon Text

 The book of Job is a tragic masterpiece. Though often overlooked or relegated to specific times in our life, it is a wonder of poetic and rhetorical composition. Few books contain such raw emotional force or as decadent of meditations upon pain as what we see in Job. The story of a man who loses everything, of someone doomed to suffer seemingly in spite of his goodness – captivates us beyond any feel-good story we might otherwise be drawn to. The protagonist of our story is someone we can relate to throughout our lives, a good man who suffers, a good man who seeks answers, a good man who can ultimately only shrug at the enormity of his own question.

This book is often said to be the first canonical book of scripture to be written. Before Moses composed the law or the Chronicler wrote the history of Judah, someone wrote the story of Job. This is partially true. The plot of Job takes place in the Patriarchal period. We are meant to read Job as being alive at the same time as Abraham. Similar stories to Job were written as far back as 3,000 BCE, predating the oldest parts of the Torah by nearly 2,000 years. However, the present version of Job we have today was written after Babylon conquered Judah. Likely, the book as we know it today was still being edited and finalized when Jesus walked the shores of Galilee.

Job, it should also be said, is only a story. Unlike most of scripture, it is not a recounting of historical events. Like the book of Esther or the Song of Songs, Job is a narrative written to teach a lesson, but not a record of history. This is why we see images of a divine court in Job that resemble ancient throne rooms, why Satan and God can bet one another about what Job will do. We are not meant to read Job and receive literal accounts of how God and Satan interact or how a man named Job suffered, we read Job to understand how we as human beings respond to grief, and through the Spirit of God how we can push on through even the hardest times.

To refresh our memory about what has happened to Job up to this point, we go to the very beginning. Job was a man who was blameless before God and humanity. If Job ever did wrong, he begged forgiveness and paid restitutions. Job was rich, but also generous, he had money and family and cattle a plenty. Satan, God’s prosecuting attorney, turns his attention to Job after God brags about his righteousness. Satan scoffs and assures God that if Job did not have all his riches, God would immediately see a different side of Job. God allows Satan to kill Job’s family, his livestock, and to even steal away his health after all else was gone. Job loses everything, keeping only his life, his heartbroken wife, and three friends.

 After sitting in total silence for days, Job speaks. He does not thank his friends or offer any wisdom. Instead, he begs to die. More than this he asks God to wipe out his entire existence. Job asks that God would reach back in time and uncreate the day he was born, letting it sink into the “shadow of Death,” that existed before creation. Where Job’s friends had hoped that healing would have come out of Job’s silence, they were now faced with the reality that a few days was not enough. Job did not cry out hallelujah, he just let out a cry. Weeping, the broken man asked God again and again – “Why me? Why me? Why?”

Job’s friends stepped in and offered numerous answers. They blamed Job, saying he must have sinned, or else God would have spared him this pain. They looked at God and said, “God is good, so this much actually be a good thing that is happening to you.” The friends took their own understandings of God and applied it to this moment, refusing to budge an inch. They believed, not that they might not understand God, but that they knew everything about God. They look at their friend and, counter to everything they know about him, decide he must secretly be a villain, rather than allow themselves to question whether or not there might be more to suffering than crime and punishment. Still Job, now having to defend himself, returns to his question, “Why?”

The section of Job we read today captures a moment when Eliphaz, the first to accuse Job of wrongdoing, has just finished laying another laundry list of possible sin at Job’s feet. Job takes a deep breath and refuses to budge. He looks to Heaven and asks for an audience with God. The courtroom we saw at the opening of the book is the place Job longs for above all others. Job wants to see God, to tell God all he has suffered, to voice his pain even just a little. “If I could only do that,” Job says, “Then God would at least listen to me.” Job does not want to fight God, he just wants God to acknowledge his pain, to have God admit his suffering is unprovoked, to be healed simply by knowing he is not acting irrationally.

Yet, Job is sure that wherever he goes, he will not find God. Job knows God is real, he dreams of an audience with him, but he feels he will never get that chance. The knowledge of God is not enough for Job, he craves more, he seeks to understand why his is suffering, but more than that he just wants to know that he is not alone. Where he had three strong friends at the outset of the book, he now seems to only have three bullies in front of him now. Instead of peace, he finds more reason to cry as they speak to him. Job just needs a single person to stand up for him, even if it is after he is dead, he wants one person to tell the truth about his life.

The book goes on back and forth with Job testifying his innocence and his friends arguing falsely about both Job and God. Finally, God decided to show up. Job received his audience and is told all about the things God does daily. God fights sea monsters and giant personifications of chaos. God makes the stars to sing and feeds every animal and person. God lifts up the enormity of creation and Job responds simply by saying, “I’ve seen enough!” Job’s final words are him refusing to speak again. This does not mean that Job is saying God has answered his question fully, but that Job has now accepted that his question has no real answer. God chastises Job’s friends but commends Job for standing up for himself and for God.

There are times where we, like Job, have to stare suffering in the face. We lose someone we love, we are diagnosed with a dangerous condition, or we fall into a run of plain bad luck. The response we have in those moments says a lot about how we have oriented our lives. Sometimes grief tears us apart, leaving us trapped in its darkness. Other times it can cause us to lash out, seeking to take control through violence. Still, another response might be to simply stop feeling at all, to let the trouble stand on its own and seek peace some other way. I do not believe anyone should be held too closely accountable for their first, instinctual response to trouble. Job took days to even be able to speak, perhaps because his first responses to suffering were too raw to share with others just yet.

Yet, when Job does speak, he gives us a model for how to talk to God when we are in pain. Job does not sugar coat his feelings, he begs for death and demands that the unfairness of his suffering be made known. Job does this while constantly affirming God’s goodness. Job is not upset that bad things happened to him, he is upset that a good God has allowed for them to happen. Job asks to speak to God face to face because he trusts God, he loves God, and his experience of God is currently in conflict with what he knows to be true about God. God looks at Job at the close of this book and affirms his feelings of hurt and confusion, because God knows that Job is justified in feeling that way – it proves Job’s trust in God.

When we experience hurt, we in the Church often rush to explain why we are not really all that sad. Our loss is seen in light of Heaven, our pain is written off as part of God’s plan, our sadness as just a hiccup in a life of joy. None of that is wrong in itself, but when our piety prevents us from truly feeling our grief, we harm ourselves and those around us. When we feel life is unfair, we should let God know. When we cannot see a light at the end of the road, we are on we need to shout our for a lantern. We are called by Paul not to “grieve as those without hope,” But we are never told not to grieve. (1 Thes. 4:13) Life is hard and life can really hurt sometimes. We, like Job, should raise up our bitter complaint to God whenever it is needed. We cannot silence our weeping when it is our tears which bring us healing.

The dangers we face as a Church when we do not know how to mourn is that we become like Job’s friends. Standing in the ash pile with people who have lost everything, we offer up platitudes in place of support. The book of Job is dangerous to read because four out of the six speakers in it are actively lying throughout it. Job’s friends – Bildad, Eliphaz, Zohar, and the elusive Elihu, all offer up really religious answers to explain Job’s trouble. “Job, this is just what happens to sinners, you need to repent!” “Job, God works in mysterious ways.” “Job, you deserve worse, be glad you had anything good to begin with!” The chorus of Sunday school answers to life’s biggest question drowns out the central truth of Job – we just do not know why good people suffer.

The question, “How can a good God allow for evil to exist?” is answered in many ways. This line of questioning is called, “Theodicy,” and usually assumes God is three things – all good, all powerful, and all knowing. The problem with answering why bad things happen is that in order to reach an answer, we usually have to remove or limit one of God’s “all,” attributes. We say God limits knowledge of the future, or allows free choice, or has concepts of “good,” we cannot understand. The problem with making any of these arguments is that, if we imagine God as a three-legged table, then shortening one leg of the table makes the whole thing wobble. To attempt to answer why suffering happens is to immediately reach an unsatisfactory answer.

The book of Job is a template for us in our response to pain because it is honest about what grief feels like. It hurts to lose those we love; it isn’t fair that the wicked succeed and the good suffer, there is something fundamentally wrong about this world we live in. This can cause us to doubt God, to question our faith, but it does not have to lead us to despair. Job shows us that we can trust God is good, we can know in our hearts that there is an all-loving advocate for us who oversees all of the universe, and still feel things are unfair. The cry of Job to be seen and heard by God is answered by the end of this book and I believe we all will receive an answer to our own cries we let out to God. If and only if we are unafraid to voice them. We have to trust God is big enough to take on our worry and disappointment alongside our praise.

God, throughout all of scripture, is willing to suffer alongside us. God does not stand up in Heaven and watch as we all go through the hard things of life. We are constantly given examples of God bending down to interact with us, to lift us out of the trouble we are in and into something more. The ultimate manifestation of this comes in the incarnation. God could not tolerate any separation between humanity and divinity any longer. God took on our flesh so that God could feel all our pain, know all our fear, see all our suffering. God knows what it is to lose a parent, a friend, to suffer illness and pain – Jesus felt it all. There are days we would rather weep than praise, and we can feel confident doing so because Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb. There are time we have questions for God, and we have to remember Jesus’s frantic question on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We can look to the hope of the resurrection because Christ did his time in the grave.

The lesson for today, if we may take one way, is that God is willing to hear us cry out when we cannot make sense of our pain. The question of “Why?” is never going to have an answer we can accept, but God wants us to ask it anyway. When we cry out, when we let loose our fear and worry and sorry, we allow God the chance – if not to answer it – then to come close to us. We trust God because when we asked God to show God truly cared, God stepped down from Heaven and suffered beside us. The story of scripture is a story of a world that is broken, of God calling people to come together to fix it, and when that project does not work out, of God sitting with us in the ash heap. We await joy and resurrection, but if that is not where your heart is today, then let God know it!  God waits for us to voice our bitter complaint. God hears you. God sees you. – Amen.

God of All People(s) – Lectionary 10/03/2021

Ephesians 4:1-6

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Sermon Text

The celebration of communion is something we have discussed together at length. Once a month this ritual gives us a chance to think deeply about what it means to come together and this Sunday in particular calls us to look beyond even our usual definitions of community. Today, as we celebrate “World Communion Sunday,” a formerly Presbyterian tradition, we look at how the entirety of the world comes together at God’s invitation. We are asked to be intentional about our thoughts, to see beyond life in this town, in this nation, and see instead the life we share with all believers. As we pray we are able to hear, distant and remote, the prayers of all the Church – in every language and style, in all places and at all times.

The Church began, almost 2,000 years ago, as a small group of believers who came together to form their own distinct branch of Judean faith. Amidst the apocalyptic fervor of the first century, under the oppressive thumb of Roman occupation, light burst out into the darkness of this world. Out of the ancient scriptures of Israel, a young teacher out of a backwater town began to preach. Just thirty-odd years-old, yet all who heard him knew he taught in a special way. He made scripture come alive, he healed the sick and freed the demon oppressed. Jesus of Nazareth, God given flesh, worked his wonders.

Jesus would be executed by the Roman government in order to keep the peace after his opponents painted him as a dissident. The followers of Christ, once numerous, were scattered across Judea and shrank away. When Jesus reappeared, resurrected into a new life in line with his eternity, it took weeks for the Church to reunite. Soon there were just over one hundred believers, waiting and praying for God to send the Spirit to them. When the Spirit did come, pushing them into the world like a strong wind, they began to preach in every language and mode of speech they could. The Gospel was going out into the nations, and nothing could trap it.

Yet, there was an instant concern in the Church. You see, with the Roman occupation, and the Seleucid before it, there was not a single “Judean,” identity anymore. Some Jews spoke Greek, others Aramaic, and only some used Hebrew scriptures – others using Greek or other local languages. Samaritans, the remnant of post-Assyrian Israelites, were shunned from mainstream society even as they worshipped the same God as the Judeans. Still more confounding was the introduction of Gentiles into Jewish worship spaces. Since Judaism had spread across Roman territories, non-Jews had become interested in this ancient faith. While conversion to Judaism was not yet possible, these Gentile “God-fearers,” were allowed partial participation in the community.

The Church was then forming amidst a diverse group of people. This naturally produced challenges. Are Greek Jews equal in dignity to native Judeans? Can God-fearers join Christian Community? If so, do they need to adopt Jewish practices? Beyond these general questions, bigotry set in between all groups and prevented equitable solutions to be found. Judeans saw Hellenists as inferior, relegating them to their own synagogues. Hellenists were more diverse in their attitudes than Judeans, but were often extremist in their adherence to the Law, pushing back on accusations they were not “Jewish enough.” God-fearers and other Gentiles often, upon joining the Church, seemed to think they were better than Jews because they had Christ alone to save them.

This diverse and problematic jumble is where the Church was born. Stranger still, it is where the Church flourished! How could that be possible? On one hand we can point to the Spirit which worked within the Church, but the Spirit did not magic the Church into being. God called people to lead the Church that contributed important perspectives on the problems they faced. With the diversity of believers being what it was, diverse leadership was necessary to bring the people together.

The first conflict of the Church related to the identity of its members is recorded in Acts 6-7. Here, Greek widows are not receiving the same amount of food and resources as Judean ones. It is never stated if this is an intentional act of discrimination or a supervisory oversight, but either way the disciples are quick to respond when this racial inequality is brought before them. Rather than claiming innocence, the disciples accept that they have not been leading properly in this regard and appoint seven deacons to oversee the giving of food. They appoint these Deacons out of the body of Greek believers, doing ministry with the affected group, rather than imposing their ideas of how it should be upon them. They built a bridge alongside those they were building the bridge to.

Despite this action, there was still a wedge between Greek and Judean believers, and still nothing being done for Gentiles. God responded to this by raising up an unlikely apostle. Saul, as he was known in Judea, was born to a Greek-Jewish family in Tarsus, a port town in modern Turkey. Saul was raised in Jerusalem and rejected his identity as a Greek. He wanted to be a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” and actively fought against the Church and its syncretic tendencies. (Phil. 3:5) The story of Acts is, in part, about how Saul grows to accept, not only his place in the Church, but his own ethnic identity. After his conversion, he returns home to Tarsus and reconnects with his roots, soon referring to himself exclusively as “Paul.” While this is often taught as a name change on Paul’s part, it is more likely that “Paul,” is his birth name, something he gave up when he came to Judea.

Paul would go beyond reconciling Greek and Judean believers and began the first major ministry efforts the Church launched to the Gentiles. Only two other apostles had undertaken such initiatives up to this point, Philip and Thomas. These two founded, indirectly in Philip’s case and directly in Thomas’s, two communities that would become the oldest surviving Christian populations of our modern era. Any guesses where they are? They are the Ethiopian Coptic Church, which traces itself back to the Eunuch baptized by Philip in Acts 8, and the Thomistic Christians of India. My brother-in-law, incidentally, is part of this community of Indian Orthodox Christians.

Keeping in mind the cultural potpourri which the Church began in, I hope that we can begin to remove the rose-colored glasses we often apply to Scripture. When we read the Epistles or the book of Acts, the people described are far from perfect. They are bigoted, they are mean, they are prone to fighting over anything they can get their hands on. The letters of Paul are as intense as they sometimes are because the Church has always been a broken group of people, even at its most Spirit-filled moments. We of the Church love to fracture ourselves on social and ideological bases. We in the United Methodist Church are poised to split at our next general conference because we cannot abide the idea of coming together beyond our differences. We are proud to shatter the Church because we see conflict and rejoice in our “righteousness.”

The Church is, however, definitionally non-homogenous. It was founded by native Judeans, brought in Greek speaking Jews, then Ethiopian God-fearers, and then people of all tongues and nations. There were Roman citizens, the enslaved, freedmen, and people of all social strata. If we think that there were not divisions among these first believers, we would be deceiving ourselves. Yet, the Church moved from more divided to more united over time, not the other way around – at least in those early days. Scripture is a story of people coming together, not of people pushing one another out.

The first step to achieving an awareness of one another sufficient to overcome our problems is to remove ourselves from the center of the story. Beyond the fact that the Church only has one “protagonist,” that is Jesus Christ, we must not see Christianity as a single block of people with no differences between them. Even just in North View, we have multiple Churches with different styles, ideas, and beliefs – but all worshipping the same God and hopefully working to do that God’s work in the world. Globally, the picture of Christianity is much different than the people gathered in this room.

Close your eyes and picture what you think the average Christian looks like in the world. Picture their clothing, their skin-color, the language they speak, the particular denomination they are a part of. What kind of music do they sing in worship? Are they Protestant or Catholic? What are their political ideas? Now open your eyes. While I cannot give a definitive answer to what the average Christian looks like and believes globally like I might for American Christians alone, the Pew Research Center conducted research to give us a rough idea. The average Christian in the world is Catholic, they live South of the Equator, and they speak one of three languages – Spanish, French, or Portuguese. While I cannot tell you which nation they come from specifically, or what politics they hold, we can assume that they are far more diverse than we can imagine.

The point of me drawing this sketch of the average Christian is not to centralize any specific identity in the Church. Instead, I hope we can decentralize our own images. The Church is not white, it is not Protestant, it is not American, and it is not any one political or ideological strain of thought. It is the people of God called together to go out and live into the Kingdom which God has made for us to be a part of. The differences between us are real, the cultures we have are important and worth celebrating, but they are not the primary identity a Christian should hold.

We are a continuation of the same Church that Paul worked to spread across all the world. Yet, we are not even willing to work out our differences with our neighbors, between pews, with those who look, and act like us. How can we ever grow beyond where we are, when we cannot even be of one body together? We saw a call to racial reconciliation last year that was bigger than anything we had seen since the Civil Rights era. Yet, little has changed since then because we have let the differences between races and cultures overcome even the most basic aspects of our common human identity. We were told to acknowledge other people matter and all we could do was list the people we would rather prioritize than the people who were crying out.

The greatest threat to the Church is always division, it has never been differences. I will say it again, the greatest threat to the church is division and not difference. Country folks are different than city folk, they can still be a Church together. White folks are culturally different than people of color, but these differences are superficial and not definitional. Liberals and conservatives are different, but until recently they could come together in pursuit of the common good in society, in their home, in their church.

Difference is the consequence of being individuals. I think differently than all kinds of people but those I relate to I come together with me to form communities. Cultures are born out from the unity of the past and present, they can be particular to a space as small as a Church and as large as language group. When cultures meet, there can be conflict, but there can also be untold beauty that comes from their union. Difference brings contrast into the world; it allows for life to flourish in a way that monochrome existences never could.

Division is not a consequence of difference, but a tool of evil to drive different people apart. Division segregates differing voices that are in conversation and sets them at odds. Division is a Spirit that grows angry at the mention of this group or that group, of this idea or that one. Division disguises itself as discernment, as a wisdom that separates good from bad, when really it simply seeks to keep the body of Christ from coming together to do God’s will. It should also be said, briefly, that acknowledging and asking for problems to be dealt with is not “being divisive,” but that is a conversation for another time.

Our scripture today asks us to identify our faith with something beyond our race or politics or nation, to see it within Christ and Christ alone. We are not brought together to be one thing or another, but to be identified with an unassailable unity. We are one body, in one Spirit, called by one Lord, through one baptism, and brought to worship one God who is Father of all, who rests upon us all, and who is in us all. This uniting identity asks us to look at others firstly as people called to serve God, or if they have not answered that call, to see them as beloved of God. Our primary identity is never white or American or Republican or Democrat, it is only ever Christian.

What this means is that we cannot let our own identity become the axis on which the world turns. Christianity cannot be defined as people who are “like us.” It does not matter that people worship like me or vote like me or look like me, it matters that we together seek the good of one another and the will of God. It means that we should not see a need to make people more like us, but that we should see a need for all people to be more like Christ. Christ the first century Jew, Christ the homeless preacher, Christ the pacifist killed as a rebel. We all are far from what Christ was like, if we wish to be more like him, it will take all people of all nations.

Yet, to gather in that way takes work and time. What can we do today? I recommend reading a book by someone from a different country or of a different race. Watch a news channel you wouldn’t normally watch. Give a chance to those who are different than yourself. Still be a discerning consumer of information, listening only to people acting in good faith and telling only the truth, but we must begin the hard work of understanding those who are unlike ourselves. We must come together as people who are different, because this table we will soon eat at has been set for more people who are unlike us than those who are like us.

Will we greet them as friends in the one Christ who moves through us? Or as strangers we never knew? That choice is ours alone. Choose to understand and choose to bridge gaps rather than tear down roads. – Amen.

Those Who are For us – Lectionary 09/26/2021

Mark 9: 38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“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 great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Sermon Text

            The scripture which we read a moment ago immediately follows the scripture which we read last week. Jesus, having walked along a backroad with his disciples, came to rest in a home in Capernaum and began to teach them. The teachings are all in response to a conflict which happened along the way. Jesus had told the disciples that he was going to be handed over to the authorities and killed. They responded by debating who among them was greatest, perhaps even with an eye to replacing Jesus in his ministry. Jesus knew about this argument and confronted them about it, asking them to realize that to be great in the Kingdom of God was to be a slave to all the world and that to resemble Jesus was to be a welcoming, loving, suffering presence.

Jesus’s teaching concluded with him embracing a child he had brought into the midst of the disciples. Last week we did not talk much about this gesture but let’s take some time now. In Jesus’s day, we would be wrong to say people did not love and cherish children just like we do now. We can read letters between parents and to their children that show that human beings have always doted on their children. However, socially, children were toward the bottom of the hierarchy. In ancient household there were strict understandings about who was most honored and who was least honored. Children ranked just above slaves, and even in their low position, they were further ranked based upon birth order and sex. A first-born son had more honor than a second born and both had more honor than a daughter.

Jesus called his disciples together and picked the lowest member of a household to lift up and praise. He told the disciples to welcome children as though they were welcoming him, to serve people who could do nothing for them. If you welcome a child, says Jesus, then you will begin to understand what it means to follow me, then you will know what it is to be part of this mission I have to all the world. If only you can serve those who offer you nothing.

John’s statement at the start of our reading for today then seems to interrupt the flow of Jesus’s conversation. Jesus returns to talking about “little ones,” after answering John’s inquiry, but he has to address something that John has brought to his attention. We might be tempted to see the two conversations as unrelated, a retelling of a moment John butted into Jesus’s words mid teaching. However, Mark in writing the Gospel was purposeful in lining up this conversation as it is recorded. We are supposed to see John bringing up the exorcists that they had met as part of the lesson the disciples need to learn about servanthood, and it is only by taking this section as a whole that we can begin to see exactly what Jesus is getting at.

Jesus speaks strongly in this passage. He goes immediately from telling his disciples not to stop those doing work in his name to warning them about the dangers of Hell. The passage ends with the ominous truth that “all will be salted with fire,” and we are left to really examine ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. What do all these moving parts have in common? Children we must welcome, sin we must avoid, work that we must not inhibit, and Hell we must avoid at all costs. I would argue that the central theme of this passage is about how we welcome God into our life and how we often choose not to welcome God any further.

Jesus is told by John that there are people working wonders in his name, and John proudly tells Jesus that they told them to stop. John saw these outsiders as working across purposes to Jesus’s ministry. It was, after all, the disciples who were being taught how to bring about the Kingdom. If people started seeing others doing good work in Jesus’s name, they might be confused who was really the authorized leadership of the Church. How disappointed John and the other disciples must have been when Jesus turned the issue around and said they were the ones in the wrong for stopping the men from doing what is right.

Returning to the child he had before him, Jesus asks the disciples to examine their conduct. What are they doing that might cause this child to stumble in their pursuit of God’s goodness? Whatever it is, it has to stop, if not for their own sake, then for the sake of the children they will teach in the future. Jesus tells them to remove anything from their life that causes them to sin, more specifically I would say, any evil that they commit that other people might feel inclined to emulate. As much as this warning of Hell and an incredibly hungry worm is a personal matter, it cannot be denied that Jesus is speaking to a group about issues that effect the group. “If you wish to follow me, you have to be fit for purpose and you cannot be a career sinner and call yourself a saint.”

Jesus here does something we are terrible about doing in the modern era, and probably have struggled with long before that. Jesus asks the disciples to shift where they see threats to the Church coming from. They have revealed in their discussions that they saw people doing good in Jesus’s name and thought they were causing trouble, yet they are unwilling to see how they are harming Jesus’s ministry and by extension the community of the faithful through their own actions. Just a few moments ago, Jesus had them all come to terms with the fact they were discussing who would take over when he had died, and now they wanted to look at outsiders doing God’s work and judge them on whether or not they had good intentions.

The Church has often applied harsh criteria to those outside of it. More than that, cultural units within the Church add their own rules and regulations so as to make the pews of a sanctuary nearly impossible to properly enter. We look at the vast mission field around us of people who have yet to enter into God’s kingdom and we try to pick out those who are most like us. Those who are most willing to go along with what we are already doing. Those who might serve us, rather than those we might learn to serve.

Jesus was antithetical to this in how he taught. We see Jesus going into the world to find people not like himself. Samaritans who worshipped the same God, but with different scriptures. Gentiles who, though not his main focus, always tracked him down and sought his grace. The poor who could offer him nothing. The people with bad reputations and worse behavior who ultimately were just as beloved by God as any well-to-do member of the local temple. Jesus finds these people and preaches to them about a coming kingdom that will change everything. The poor will be lifted up, the rich cast down. The repenting sinners will be honored above even the most righteous of priests. There will be life, and life abundant for all people who wish to join into the community which God has begun.

Yet, to those who were in the community already, Jesus had harsher words to say. His disciples, perhaps more than any other group, were constantly given stern warnings about what they needed to do to truly be part of his Kingdom. Hell, or as Jesus called it, “Gehenna,” was a place that you could only fear if you truly believed in it. Despite what we might presume, it was not universally held that such a place existed in Jesus’s time. Sadducees, for example, held to the orthodox belief that death was the end of all life, and that you ceased to exist when you stopped breathing. It was only among Pharisees and other prophetic groups like those who surrounded Jesus that Hell was taught, and even then, views on what it was differed.

What stands out about Jesus’s teachings is that Hell was not something he used to scare people into joining his movement. As he says elsewhere, it is God’s righteousness that brings us to repentance, not God’s judgment. Hell was instead, almost whenever he spoke of it, a warning to those who should know better. The rich who tithed heavily in the Temple but did not care for the poor outside their doorsteps. The Pharisee who prayed loudly in public but could not keep away from his many affairs. The Disciple who gave up everything but could not part from their pride.

We do not use Hell in discussions of our own sin because we have presumed for far too long that Hell is just something we talk about before people get in the Church. Once we are in, we believe that we are saved without a question, and that any speculation on our own salvation somehow doubts God’s efficacy. I do not believe that to be the case though. It is the doctrine of the Methodist Church that a person may lose their salvation if they cast God aside, if they recant their baptismal vows, if they are unwilling to live as God has called them to live. Not because we are saved by works, but because our works necessarily flow out of the position and attitude of our Spirit. If we wish to engage in any sort of Hellfire and Brimstone preaching, it must begin by preaching those words to ourselves.

There are two forces at work within us, alongside the general inclinations to good and evil which are obvious to all of us. These are our assurance that we are truly saved through faith, and our contrition that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The one brings us to praise God for saving us from ourselves, the second acknowledges that we have not fully given ourselves over to what God would have us do in this life. One allows us to be confident that we have been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, the other instills a healthy concern for what it would ever be like to lose that blessed state. Hell, aside from all fire or torment it might contain, is ultimately the separation of a soul from God. Sin is what separates us from God. We must hate our Sin, we must be better than we are now, because if nothing else it puts a wedge between us and God. Why should we tolerate any distance between ourselves and God when all that is in the way is our own unwillingness to change?

Today when we come to our time of prayer, I invite you to take a moment to really think. To look at your life as it is and decide if you are happy with it. Is the money you have comforting you more than helping those in need would? Is the lust of your eyes as comforting to you as genuine relationships might be? Is the anger and fear and resentment worth it or is it time to give love a chance to reign in your life? The fact is that we all need to repent throughout our lives. More than that, repentance is not just saying “I did something bad, forgive me!” That’s confession. Repentance is actually changing that behavior, and we all have something we have held onto far too long I’m sure.

There is much to be said about what it means for “those who are not against us [to be] for us.” When I set out to write this sermon I meant to do so with a focus upon the divisive nature of our modern culture, the unwillingness of us to work with people who differ even slightly from ourselves. We will have time for that I think, but the Spirit moved me differently as I sat down to write. They asked me to write of Hell, not to scare any of us into anything, but to remind us that we must come together as a Church and fix ourselves – each individually – if we wish to fix the world around us. There is a gulf between us and God, one that Christ has placed a bridge over through his work on the Cross. We choose everyday if we want to keep walking across that bridge or if we are content to sit as far as we’ve walked and no further. However, I hope we all cannot tolerate any longer and distance between ourselves and our savior.

Let us examine our hearts, let us be ever more invested in our service to God and one another, and in so doing let us be better at being friends to all people whom we meet. – Amen.

Afraid to Question – Lectionary 09/19/2021

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to 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.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Sermon Text

            I like questions. I like to ask them, and I like to answer them. Curiosity is how we learn and inevitably curiosity leads to questions. When we go into the world and look around, it is best that we let our mind wander to the things we see. The bird that flits from one tree to another is amazing. The dog barking far away from us is a suddenly attracts our interest, and the flower blooming between two fence posts speaks to the power of life itself. These sights all produce wonder in plain ways. The miracle of creation as expressed through the living things within it are among the first things to call us to look toward God. Those experiences of nature, those first furtive questions which we allow ourselves to have, are often lost to us as we age.

The ability to question naturally extends beyond how we react to nature and into the relationships we have with one another. It is all well and good to ask about birds and dogs, its even better to study them and see how they come to be in the way they are, but it is in conversation with others that we truly learn. More than simply speaking, we are able to join together to perfect two senses within us. The first is our sense of hearing, or more specifically, the ability to engage with what we are told as we are told it. Secondly, we engage with our sense of Wonder, the awe that comes when we meet something new, or that is somehow different than us.

When we speak to one another, we convey more than just information. The tone of our voice, the volume of our speech, and even the particular words we choose, all carry a great deal of meaning beyond their literal definitions. When we really listen to one another, we are not just picking out words and running them through a dictionary. Instead, we are engaging with a person’s soul. As we said last week, our mouth and our heart are closely intertwined, and if we allow ourselves, we can learn a lot from just shutting our mouth and opening up our ears. Whether we are seeking to know nature, one another, or God, we will always find that reaching out beyond ourselves produces some amount of wonder – the realization of a world beyond and bigger than ourselves.

In our scripture today, like so many describing Jesus’s ministry, we see that the truth of Jesus’s teachings are often sidelined because his audience is unwilling to really listen and, as a result, unwilling to question. The path Jesus takes from Galilee to Capernaum is meant to be a long way off from the crowds that usually surround Jesus. As many of us have done in our life for people we care about, Jesus is taking the backroad so that he can spend a bit more time with his disciples. This is not just sentimental on Jesus’s part, but also allows the disciples to have unrestricted access to Jesus. Yet, when given the chance, we are told that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus anything.

It is impossible to say why the disciples were afraid to question Jesus. I think Mark may be purposely vague here, hoping for us to see ourselves in the petrified disciples. Perhaps they, like us, were afraid that questioning Jesus would set them up as outsiders among the disciples – as someone who did not “get it.” Maybe they were once confident they knew Jesus well, but this most recent teaching hit their ears and made them doubt their knowledge of God. Most dangerously of all, the disciples may have reached a point where they were confident they knew everything about Jesus and simply ignored the possibility that he had anything new to offer them.

This teaching in particular would challenge people at any level of faith in or knowledge about Jesus. If Jesus really meant what he said, then this whole countrywide ministry was going to end with Jesus dying by public execution. Even with a promised, almost immediate, resurrection, this would have lodged in the pit of the disciples’ stomachs and left them perplexed. There was no single idea about what the Messiah was going to be like in Jesus’s day, but none of the differing perspectives included death on a cross. To die in such a way was shameful, not the work of a victorious savior! If Jesus really meant this, then the Kingdom was not to be found in crushing Judea’s enemies, but in something else. To question Jesus here would shatter everyone’s world because the question, “Do you really mean it?” Would necessitate a “Yes.”

Whatever fears we have in questioning something, it is seldom worse to know an answer than to not know it. “In much Wisdom is much vexation,” (Ecl. 1:18,) yet that vexation is worth more than ignorance. The more we learn about the world around us, the more troubled we will become. There are a lot of things wrong with the world and the deeper you dig the more tangled the roots seem to be. Yet, at the same time it is only in digging through those roots that we begin to find the real fruits of knowledge. Adam and Eve erred by seeking knowledge from a goodly looking fruit on a high branch, if only they had sought something more terrestrial, we might still be in Eden.

When we begin to learn of God, we usually experience something similar. We initially rush into the Kingdom when we see the salvation we are offered, but then we get caught up in the muck and mire of this life. We study scripture and find ourselves confused by its teachings, or perhaps disturbed by some of the history it records. We live in the Church and find that the people inside the walls are often as broken as anyone outside of them. We experience the raw pain and frustration of life, and we realize that there is more to life than singing, “Trust and Obey,” on a Sunday morning. Yet, even in the midst of all that, the light of God shines through. As we learn more, as our heart is grieved by the brokenness of the world and the challenges we face, there is always hope that God can explain things a bit more clearly or that our tears may turn sooner than we expect into laughter.

Sometimes, all the same, we do not want to dig any deeper. We become content in what we know and look at these difficulties we face and try to cram them into the worldview that has served us just fine until now. For the disciples, this meant denying a suffering Messiah by arguing amongst themselves who would be greatest – not only in the world to come, but in their imitation of Jesus. If they were really imitating Jesus though, they would be seeking to live a life like his – a life that ended on a cross for the crime of loving others too much. The disciples were so sure of themselves that when Jesus told them he must suffer, they could only think of what that meant for their own good fortune. They were not listening anymore, they did not allow themselves a single question, because they knew everything they cared to know.

Today we have a term for this sort of intentional ignorance that comes from an over estimation of our knowledge and abilities. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a theory that describes several stages of knowledge. People who know nothing about something know they are ignorant, and those who know a lot tend to be realistic about what they don’t know. Yet, there are two dangerous points on that progression from one to the other, the first being a state of extreme confidence, and the second being a complete lack of the same. The high point of our confidence at the lower end of our actual capabilities is often called “Mount Stupid.” This term is a bit critical, but effective in what it conveys. It is here where we make a lot of ill-informed statements or give simple answers to complex questions. The second low point is sometimes called, “The Pit of Despair,” and is where we are likely to give up questioning for a different reason, out of the desperation that we will never truly be able to learn about a subject.

Both these places are dangerous to be in as we pursue any subject in life, but especially in our pursuit of God. From the height of one extreme, we command those around us to see God exactly as we do, to do and speak and act as we do. From the depths of the other extreme we abandon God except in rote repetitions of old prayers and creeds. At one point we are the Sanhedrin condemning God to die for supposed sins against our sensibilities, at the other we are Job finally throwing up his hands and giving up his interrogation of God. Neither is a good place to be, although I think one is more dangerous than the other. A person who is convinced they know nothing causes harm to their own wellbeing; a person who thinks they know everything harms anyone who listens to them.

What would the world look like if we allowed ourselves some honesty about what we knew and did not know? More than that, what if we remained inquisitive all the way along the paths of life which we take? There is something beyond the heights of pride and the depths of self-doubt and that is the humility of true knowledge. Beyond those hills and valleys is the understanding that we do not know everything and that that is ok. It is also the knowledge that we can have questions, we can ask them, and that by asking them we will find some kind of answer to see us through the struggles of this life.

Primarily, we learn about God through scripture. As daunting as these pages can seem, they are a source of knowledge which we can always depend upon. When we are unsure what the scriptures mean, then we turn to scholars, commentators, and pastors to help us understand what they have for us. Sometimes finding honest examples of these is difficult, but if you ever have a specific question or interest, let me know and I will try and find out. Beyond these two textual sources, there comes the knowledge we gain together. As we share our troubles and our joys, we hopefully begin to see God working in the community of faith we call our own. In the moments we find that nothing seems to have a satisfactory answer for us, we can at least rest in the knowledge we have one another, and we have God to sit beside us in uncertain times.

The key to all our pursuits is to take hold of the opportunities we have to learn, whatever form they take. Together, that means listening carefully to one another. With God that means studying scripture carefully. In prayer, it means being unafraid to ask, “How Long O’ Lord.” At every turn we must see the way from where we are to where we must be as it is presented in our scripture today. We walk alongside Christ and one another. Do we take time to argue and elevate ourselves? Or do we seek after God and ask questions of God and one another that lead to us all growing and flourishing? Today, let us commit to question everything, not out of mistrust, but trusting that we will receive an answer. – Amen.

With Many Words – Lectionary 09/12/2021

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Sermon Text

           To speak is to wield a deadly weapon. Our tongue is an implement sharper than any sword and its reach stretches far beyond its simple frame. To open our mouth ant to pass air through our larynx is to make a large move toward either goodness or evil. No pitfall is dug more quickly than the one we dig with idle talk, and no mess is harder to clean up after than the mess left in the wake of hurtful words.

The dangers of speech should be plain to us. James spares nothing in how harshly he expresses their effects here. More than just what we have read, we should see how much of our own lives are consumed in the outcome of words. The serpent in Eden did not conquer us through force, but by a few spare words. The pages of a few telegrams were enough to launch a world war. Marriages end, friendships crumble, and even Churches fall when we let our words get way from us. Though actions speak louder than words, it is the multitude of our words that ultimately sinks us. Perhaps that is why Jesus taught us as he often did, not only in simple parables, but in admonitions against wordiness.

To our tendency to tell tall tales and make false promises, Jesus forbids oath taking (Matt. 5:33-37.) The words we speak are lifted up as one of the fruits of either a good or bad life (Matt 12:33-37.) The Lord’s prayer is taught to us so that we do not overcomplicate our prayers, but keep them brief, earnest, and to the point (Matt. 6:7-8.) Jesus builds upon a wealth of wisdom from scripture to make clear time and time again that we are to guard our tongue. It is, perhaps more than any other tool we use in life, the most closely linked to our heart – for good or for ill. The things we say, and how we say them, matter.

There is a tendency for us, when we begin to study passages that speak about how evil roots itself down into our hearts, to respond in one of two ways. Either we direct its lessons outward and try to attack others or we over emphasize our own fallenness to the point of absurdity. The former looks like the impulse many of us likely had as I read our scripture. This impulse take the form of a long list that populates the moment we hear about gossips and people who speak carelessly. We think of them with a dismissive chuckle and thank God we are not nearly so sinful.

The second impulse is antithetical to the first, and more subtle in its danger. We sometimes hear of the wickedness of our heart and decide that we must be completely evil as a result. We decide that, since we are really so dirty and sinful, then there is no meaning to us trying to be good, and all that matters is that we can acknowledge how bad we really are. Yet, the reality sits somewhere between these two ideas. In every person is both good and evil, two trees that feed off of very different streams. As se inspect our own souls, we cannot presume either tree is greater than the other, but we must seek the truth honestly.

The difference between appearing to have found the truth and actually living into is demonstrated, I think, by a Facebook post I saw long ago. The author was responding to someone else they did not name, about how foolish it was to try and be “authentic.” They described what it would mean if they were authentic in their thoughts and feelings. The listed about how they would yell at people who made them angry, that they would tell people they looked ugly when they asked how he liked their hair, and that he generally would be vicious to anyone and everyone he met. To be authentic, he argued, was to be cruel, and we were better off pretending than acting in a way consistent with our hearts.

In a way, he was correct. It is better to not say something cruel even if we think it. However, I hope we can see in his self-examination, an example of something that straddles both extremes of our less productive responses to our own sinfulness. On one hand, the author successfully identified that he was a mean person, and so living into the meanness would be more hurtful than it would be helpful. However, his conclusion was not then that he should change that disposition of his heart, but instead pretend it did not exist. Thus, he could triumphantly say those arguing for “authenticity,” were the real fools, because lies alone preserved society.

We must be more nuanced in our self-examination. Everyone here is a sinner, myself included. Yet, no person here is completely evil, myself included. We all have good and we have bad, the good which God grows within us and the evil we have grown up ourselves. If we are honest when we look in the mirror, we will not think too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but honestly assess both our strengths and our weaknesses. Returning to the idea of “authenticity,” the authentic Christian is not someone who tries to be the best version of who they presently are but is constantly in a state of becoming. We are presently both good and bad, but we must seek to be more good and less bad as time goes on. This goodness and badness is something, again, which we must see in how we speak just as much if not more than how we act.

It is appropriate to draw my example from Facebook, because social media is where much of our daily conversation happens these days. Not just on Facebook, but on Twitter and Tiktok, and to a lesser extent Snapchat and Instagram, we are constantly broadcasting speech to the world. It is in these places that we see ourselves in our most idealized and raw states. On one hand the keys on our phones and laptops give us distance to manicure an image. Our photos can be of us and our things at our best lit and most put together.

We share and write posts that put forth an image of who we hope people see us to be. Contrarywise, that same distance makes those we disagree with seem unreal. Suddenly, the well manicured image we have made disappears as we remove the mask to yell at strangers across cyberspace.

Entire online industries depend on this outrage. Videos of one person “destroying,” another are shared with incredible ferocity. We love to see our opponents humiliated by people we agree with. Every comment and share is an affirmation of the violence which our words work in the world around us. I think that much of the perception which people, especially older people, have of a more sensitive world is actually an acknowledgement of a more aggressive one. Our words cut deeper, our actions that follow likewise are intensified. We go for the jugular of one another the moment the chance presents itself, often to the harm of all parties involved.

These issues are not limited to violent or cruel language, abut also to dangerous falsehoods. Lies spread quickly these days and the faster they fly the harder it is to untangle or stop them. Sometime last year in the midst of one of the many popular scandals that was flying around, I had a loved one say something to me that I knew was untrue, but that I could not satisfactorily debunk at the time. Digging into the matter took me several hours. In that time I found the original quote that was then misquoted elsewhere, then misrepresented somewhere else, that was then lied about in yet another place.

By the time I knew the cause of this lie, I had a full plate of evidence. Yet, in that time those lies solidified in the mind of my relative, they were now part of their worldview. No amount of evidence could change that.

This weekend we observe a solemn remembrance of the September 11th attacks. Much has changed in the two decades that have passed since then. Most striking of all is the change in how we speak of things, sometimes for good and often for bad. I think that our response, literally how we talked about the attacks and what followed, has revealed a great deal about ourselves. To articulate what I mean a bit more concretely, I want us to look at a medium most of us can relate to on some level – namely country music. Though I am personally more a fan of alt-rock and metal, I am too much a West Virginian to not have some affinity for Alan Jackson and Reba.

Alan Jackson is one of the musicians to respond to the tragedy with his song, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning.)” The song is a ballad that captures how it felt to live in a world that suddenly changed faster than anyone could respond to. It captures feelings of sorrow and anger and fear, but it rests on a thoughtful refrain asking us to really think about what it means to live in a world that has been shattered. The other song that was archetypal of our speech following the attacks was Tobey Keith’s, “The Angry American.” Keith had written a battle hymn that dreamt of a fiery revenge against America’s enemies, and glorified those attacks that had already been launched against Iraq and Afghanistan. These two responses capture a variety of valid emotions, but one is rooted in thoughtfulness and carefully chosen words, and the other puts emotions before anything else. For myself personally, twenty years later having only the slightest sense of a world before the attacks, I take much more from Jackson’s words than I do Keith’s. In particular, it is Jackson who quotes scripture, saying that though he knows nothing else, he knows, “Faith, hope and love, are some good things [God] gave us, but the greatest is love.”

Despite my own predilection, I think Keith and his style has won out in modern country and in our disposition as culture. We are more combative than ever and Country music, and indeed most genres of music, now are confrontational when they are not vapid. There is much to critique in Country music, and in rock and pop and any other kind, but perhaps the most distressing thing our musical tastes show is our continued willingness to fight with one another. Though Keith wrote “The Angry American,” about revenge, his later songs were more pointed towards those he disagreed with generally. That tone, dismissive at best and violently oppositional at worst, defines how we speak to one another. Exacerbated by tragedy, our words have torn each other apart more and more over the years.

Before I pontificate on “cultural issues,” or become just another minister complaining about “today’s music.” I want to return to more obvious ways words affect us, but looking at a case study of when my own words got me into a bit of trouble. Once a dear friend of mine and I had a falling out because of five words I spoke without thinking. I was working at WVU, sitting at the Bennett-Lyon residence hall desk, and after a few hours on duty a coworker came down to speak with me. After a bit of back and forth, she shared concerns that my friend was mistaking her friendliness for romantic interest. I shook my head and told her not to worry because, “He thinks everybody loves him.”

Fast forward almost a year. My friend decides to ask a different woman we worked with if she has feelings for him, afraid that she was going to be hurt when he did not reciprocate. She snapped back at him for this. In her response to his question she said that she had heard about him, and the fact that he “thought that everybody loves him.”

It did not take long for him to track those words back to me, and he was rightfully angry. He did not speak to me for several months after that, an impressive feat because we lived in the same building and worked together. The silence broke when he asked me to help him at a food bank. We went and worked and, on the way back, he said this to me (slightly edited to avoid colorful language.) “John, there are a lot of crappy people in this world, but I guess you are one of the least crappy.”

These words, backhanded as they were, began the process of healing. Several months would pass before our friendship looked even passingly like what it once was all the same. The story, unfortunately, does not end especially well. We both went on to separate callings, moved away and fell out of touch. Distance and circumstance worked into the cracks of what we had rebuilt and pushed apart the ruins into nothing. I still think of him, and a few others I’ve hurt in my short life, and the weight of what was and could have been sits heavy in me.

The image of fire that James uses is appropriate because when fire burns a forest down, the same trees that burned are seldom what grows back. When we speak without thinking, we hurt others with wounds we cannot just take away with apologies or gifts. The damage is done and even if the earth should heal, something else must grow in the place of what once was. Our words matter because they are deadly in a way weapons could never be. Lies, insults, even just inconsiderate speech, these all burn away the bonds of love faster than anything else ever could.

What then is our cure? Can there be hope for us? There is always hope, hard won though it may be. Firstly, we must be honest about the damage our words have caused in the past. If we confess our sins before God and one another, we can identify the wounds they have caused.

Next, we must not simply ask for forgiveness, but offer penance for the wrong we have committed. How can we trust those who have hurt us? By seeing them prove they are committed to repairing the damage and healing the relationship that was severed. Absolution is only complete when the damage that was done is healed to the satisfaction of those who were wronged. Sometimes that means things go back to how they were, sometimes that means that they must sadly end, and sometimes that means something new and in-between must take that place.

As a confessed sinner by way of my words, I must acknowledge how James begins our passage. Not all should be teachers, for we are held to much higher standards, and we should be. As your minister, I seek in all things to speak truly, but also kindly and considerately. If I ever breach my responsibility to any of these callings, keep me honest. If you do not wish to speak to me directly about something I have said or done, go through the PPRC, they exist to mediate such trouble. While I strive in all things to be compassion, considerate, and to listen more than I speak, I still a sinner with a speech impediment dependent on God’s mercy. Correct my wrongs.

If we do this together, then we will see growth. If you keep me in line, I’ll try to the same for you. We all must work together to grow, to mind our tongues, and to learn to bless rather than curse. We must reach out to one another and to the world with love and peace on our lips more often than anything else. We will still fight, we will still disagree, but we can do so with love and respect for one another.

That respect means honoring one another feelings, opinions, identities, and backgrounds. That love means seeking one another’s good above self-interest and self-satisfaction. We must avoid petty fights, because we all must agree, it is easier to prevent a fire from happening than try to put it out. Let us seek together to be better in controlling our words and through this exercise together let us someday learn how to perfect every aspect of our conduct toward one another. – Amen.