Advent 1 2021

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What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. (T.S. Eliot Little Gidding sec. V)

And so is Advent.

Advent is a new beginning, a new liturgical year, a new gospel to explore, the anticipation of the birth of a child, the anticipation of the birth of a new age, a new kingdom with images of spring buds.

It also closes out our calendar year. It competes the circle of our story cycle beginning in Luke where we ended in Mark two weeks ago. It anticipates the end of the current age in chaos and destruction, but it also looks toward the new heaven and new earth born out of this struggle.

And so we begin our reading of Luke with the end in mind in the middle of Holy Week.

Jesus is in Jerusalem. We are past his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the temple.  Jesus is now teaching in the temple and he had just foretold its destruction.

At this point, Jesus’ timeline begins to warp. He is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD one minute, then about his second coming which we are still awaiting at the next. It is easy to get bogged down in trying to sort these two out and to try to pin Jesus’ second coming down to our own timeline, but this is missing the point. In Matthew’s version of this story Jesus ends it saying, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heave, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36)

Jesus’ primary message in today’s reading is one of hope.

We are living in difficult times. More difficult than most of us can remember. Those of you in your eighties may remember World War II, but only a few people still remember the Great Depression. I can remember the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the race riots of the 1960’s, but I can’t say they caused me personal fear or deprivation. Crawling under my desk during air raid drills was a diversion from the rigors of study more than anything else. The economic downturns of the 1980’s was inconvenient, but not devastating for my family.

Today’s children live in a world of contradiction. Better health care than ever before and the threat of COVID 19, face masks, social distancing, and bouncing back and forth between in person or remote schooling. According to NAMI, 21% of adults in the US suffer from some form of mental illness. HRSA reported about the “Loneliness epidemic.” We have access to a greater variety of goods and services than ever before and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home to shop, you just don’t know if they will ever arrive, and inflation is the highest it has been in 30 years according to the NYT. The average home has more conveniences that ever before, yet homelessness in the United States has been rising for the last 5 years and there is a huge shortage of entry level housing. Add to that rising political and social unrest, a soaring rise in violent crimes and unemployment and I think we need a little hope at the moment. As the character Mame would say “We need a little Christmas.”

Jesus describes chaos and disruption on a cosmic level. The sun, the moon, the stars, the earth and the seas will be shaken.  “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the earth.” (Luke” 2`:26).  Then Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28) Things may be falling apart, but we are called to hope and to walk without fear.

Jesus reminds us of the cycle of the seasons.  Fig trees, like many of our deciduous trees here lose their leaves in the winter and are nothing but bare sticks sticking up out of the ground. In the winter you can’t tell a dead tree from a live tree, but in the spring, a living tree will put forth buds that will turn into leaves and flowers and eventually fruit in summer or fall. Human lives are like the fig tree in the cycles of the seasons. We have periods of growth, and periods where everything seems to go dormant, periods where things are fruitful, and periods where our leaves fall off.

Unlike the seasons, God’s Word is changeless. It is outside the boundaries of time and space. It survives all the chaos and confusion of our world.

The stability of God and God’s love for us is hope in the middle of chaos. The knowledge that God is ultimately in control and that Jesus has already defeated sin and death is hope for us when we feel out of control. The promise that Jesus will return and call us back to him is hope in the most desperate of times.

But Jesus gave a warning alongside the message of hope. We are called to stay alert. We are not to allow life’s hardships to draw us into inappropriate behaviors and we are called to pray for strength to withstand the trials and tribulations we encounter. The Gospel of Matthew follows this warning with the parable of the Ten Virgins. Five stayed alert and kept their lamps in good order, and five were lazy and tried to borrow oil from the other five when it came time to follow the bridegroom into the wedding feast. In their laxness they had let their lights go out. As they ran to buy more oil, the gates closed, and they were not allowed in.

I know it is popular right now to believe that everyone gets into the kingdom of heaven, no matter what, but that is not what the scriptures say. None of us can earn our way into heaven, but we are called to be prepared and to be faithful. The scriptures call Christians to live in this world as though they were citizens of another. We are called to be citizens of God’s kingdom and we are to honor Jesus as King of that kingdom looking to him for guidance and obeying his commands.

How did the earliest Christians respond to this call to stay alert? They were obedient. Jesus told them to wait for the Holy Spirit which they did and received at Pentecost. They were told to be witnesses, to tell the stories about Jesus “to the ends of the earth.”  Which they did. They were told to make disciples of the nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Which they did. They baptized those who ‘welcomed’ their message. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers, as we promise to do in our baptismal covenant. They showed goodwill to one another, shared with one another, and they used the power that God gave them to heal and support one another. Advent is about beginnings and endings. Advent is a time to put closure to those things we need to leave behind in 2021 and to begin those practices we want to carry into 2022. Advent is a time for introspection and expectation. Traditionally, we have discouraged “Christmas” decorations at this time, but through the years I have begun looking at Advent in the same was a mother expects her newborn. She does not wait until after the baby’s arrival to decorate the nursery or have a baby shower. I would only encourage you to not let the preparation be more important and celebratory than the event itself. May you have a meaningful Advent.

25 Pentecost 2021

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There are things in life that we take for granted as a given, until they are no more.  I can still vividly recall the final scene in the first Planet of the Apes movie when Charleston Heston is riding down the beach and finds the half-buried Statue of Liberty and realizes that he is home, but home has changed forever.  Later, I and probably many of you watched on television as the twin towers of the World Trade center were destroyed by hijacked airplanes full of travelers who never anticipated that day would change life forever for so many people. This was not a movie, this was reality.

Jesus is standing in front of the Temple with his disciples and they are looking in awe at its magnificence.  The original temple had been built almost a thousand years ago by Solomon.  They would have heard stories of its destruction, but it had been rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah  some five hundred years ago and then brought back to its former glory under Herod the Great.  It was the ultimate symbol of their identity and it seemed eternal as they marveled at its grandeur.

Jesus is well aware of the fleetingness of the works of humans.  Knowing his own death is now only days away, he tries to prepare his disciples for changes that would be coming that they cannot fathom at this time.  Just forty years from now, the temple would be gone, forever.  It would be destroyed by the Romans in the first Jewish-Roman war in 70 AD. Prior to this war, Nero would blame Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD and use it as an excuse for severe persecutions.  Everything was changing and Jesus wanted his disciples to be aware.  He did not want them to be lead astray.  He talks about wars, earthquakes, and famines and describes them as the birth pangs of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus assures the disciples that “the Son of Man” will come in clouds “with power and glory” (Mark 13: 26) but he does not set up a time table for when that will happen.  Instead, he tells them to “keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33)

We have over the centuries watched kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. Every generation has had its people who just know Jesus will come back in their lifetime. Yet we have failed to stay alert and we have failed to learn history’s lesson for us. We have grown comfortable in our routines and we think we have life figured out.

Writing in the 5th century BC the Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated, “The only constant in life is change.” Yet, change is the one thing congregations struggle with the most.  The phrase clergy have heard the most is, “that is not the way we have always done it.”

I have no doubt that God will work his purpose in spite of our refusals to let go of our habits, our security blankets that keep us frozen in a time that is passing us by. God’s purpose will move forward with or without us, but how much better for us if we stay alert, if we grow and transform in accordance with God’s purpose as the world around us becomes more difficult to navigate.

I don’t have to tell you that our communities have changed drastically in the last fifty years and that change has impacted our congregations across denominations, across geographic regions, across economic groups. COVID has escalated that change.  We see congregations shrink, age and some of them close their doors.  But we don’t have to stand by and let that happen.   What we must now do is re-imagine what it means to be a parish in the 21st Century.  Over and over, I am hearing the call to return to the apostolic church.  Bp Curry mentioned it in his sermon to the House of Bishops the other day.   But what does that look like and how do we get there.

Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains, describes the church today as being in much the same position as Lewis and Clark were when they came upon the Rocky Mountains.  They were boatmen who were prepared to paddle across North America and anticipated the second half of the journey to be mostly riding the river down to the ocean.  Instead, they hit the Rocky Mountains which they were told they would need to cross, but which had had little meaning for them when they started their trip.  Their experience of mountains was like the Blue Ridge we have here. They had to leave their canoes behind and become mountain climbers with no maps to guide them and a totally different skill set than what they now needed.

That is where we are now as a church.  We have hit the Rocky Mountains and we must figure out how to get over them to reach our goal, our destination. All the things we thought we knew about being the church must be re-evaluated.  We must keep what is essential.  We don’t want to leave behind those things which will keep us fed and warm and safe.  We don’t want to leave anyone behind.  We need to determine the best way to help everyone cross the mountains together.

Looking forward is essential when everything changes.  Looking back to what used to be can be helpful to remind us of how far we have already gone, of reminding ourselves of the challenges we have already overcome, but it will not help us overcome the challenges ahead of us.  For that we must look at the mountains in front of us and figure out the best way to cross them which means, not in the canoe we planned to use.

Trust is essential when everything changes.  When churches were large and everyone was expected to go to some church on Sunday morning,  it was easy to move from church to church without any significant commitment.  We could be assured that church as we knew it would always be there with or without us  and would still be there whenever we decided to show up.  But as we approach this more difficult season in the life of the church, we are like a team of mountain climbers.  Every person needs to contribute with the skills that they have and we must learn to rely on each other.  Things have become much more complicated and the pastor cannot do it all and do a good job. 

As we begin to close out 2021 and look to 2022, we as a parish, need leaders, lay volunteers as well as paid staff who are willing to put forth the time and effort necessary to analyze the present, visualize the future, and problem solve to help us get from point A to point B.  If we sit down at the base of the mountain and long for yesterday, we will run out of resources where we sit.  We need leaders willing to tackle the mountain ahead of us and I would love to hear from some of you that you are up to the adventure.

The apostolic church was forward looking.  It was based on community, trust, and involvement of everyone to the best of their ability.  It meant looking out for one another and engaging the broader community.  It meant traveling light, Jesus told those he sent out to leave their stuff at home.  It meant helping one another, showing hospitality, and going the extra mile.  It meant being willing to take up a cross – for them it could be a life-or-death decision. For us it means giving of our time and treasures, being willing to give up some of our comforts to gain the kingdom of heaven.

I am not going to pretend that the road ahead is easy, but what an opportunity for adventure.  Are you ready?

All Saints 2021

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“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”

Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus, but oh that we evoked a similar response from any who should chose to remember us.

We are doing two things today in our liturgy.  We are honoring and giving thanks for those who have come before us in the faith.  Others, who by the example and often times sacrifices of their lives have made it possible for us to stand here today and hear the Good New concerning Jesus Christ.  The other thing we will be doing is renewing our commitment to Christ and his ministry, particularly through this congregation and our mutual ministry.

I recently listened to one of the Great Courses called Jesus and the Gospels.  The lecturer was Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar and early church historian at Emory University. In this course, which I would commend to you, Johnson compares and contrasts the image we get of Jesus in the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and John with other apocryphal gospels, especially those written in the first and second century, in other words, ancient writings about Jesus that did not make it into the Bible as we know it today. You may have heard of some of them, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary that have had some recent popularity.  He made several observations, but a few in particular stuck out for me. Beyond just being the four oldest known gospels written, these four, over and above all the others emphasized the humanity of Christ and the community of his disciples grounded in their Jewish roots. Why do we care about these things, and why in particular today when we are focused on the saints and our own personal commitment to Christ?

The story of Jesus’ saving of humanity is deeply rooted in a promise and a commitment that God made with Abraham, with Jacob aka Israel, and with David.  We cannot understand what Jesus was doing on the cross and at his Resurrection if we do not know what God was doing with and through Israel since he called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans and promised him a land, a family, and that his family would bless the entire world.  How do we know this?  Generation after generation told their children the story of what God had done in the past, what God was doing in the present, and what they believed God would do in the future.  These are our earliest saints, not just persons canonized by the church, but the people who preserved the story of God’s mercy and God’s judgement for each consecutive generation.

I am sure there were times when it was difficult to tell the stories because it was difficult or painful to see where God was working in the present.  When the children of Israel first crossed the Jordan River, Joshua gave them a choice. They had just spent 40 years wandering the wilderness because they had refused to obey God. They could now choose to follow the God of their forefathers or they could choose to serve other gods, the gods of Egypt that their parents had served or the Baals of Canaan where they had just arrived, but one could not serve both.  They chose, at that time, to serve the God who had spoken to Moses in a burning bush and had guided Abraham and the patriarchs before him.  Community and a devotion to God sustained them.  What, I would ask, sustains us?

After the fall of Jerusalem and during the Babylonian exile it was hard to share the stories of God’s mercy and judgement.   In Psalm 137 the psalmist says

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *when we remembered you, O Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up *on the trees in the midst of that land.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: * “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song * upon an alien soil?

Yet they did not lose faith, they did not forget or fail to sing the songs of Zion.  How do we know? We have them today, the Psalms.

Are we failing to sing the songs of our faith?  Are we allowing them to become lost and forgotten?  One of my favorite memories of my grandmother is listening to her sing old hymns while she washed the dishes.  Most of us now load the dishwasher while the TV is playing.  What are our children losing was we let go of the daily proclamation of the gospel through word and song?

For the earliest Christians, it must have been difficult to sing and tell the stories of both the Old Testament and God’s keeping of his promise in the coming of Jesus when the name of Jesus could cost you your life, and yet, we have an amazing abundance of literature concerning Jesus that was written before Constantine legalized Christianity.

I mentioned the four canonical gospels put more emphasis on the humanity of Christ than the apocryphal gospels that were written during this time frame.  Why is that important? The tendency today for those who wrestle with the Christian doctrines is to want to make Jesus a wise and nice person, period. What we find in these ancient apocryphal texts is a denial of Christ’s humanity in favor of a more spiritualized Jesus.  His divinity was not an issue. His humanity was, because the physical world was seen as corrupt therefore Jesus could not have been really human since he was divine. What this resulted in was groups and individuals who isolated themselves from the rest of humanity seeking an interior and personal Jesus that did not require them to live out their faith in community. The 4 canonical gospels do just the opposite.  They call us to live out the good news in the messiness of community.  This is especially so in Luke’s version of the beatitudes that we read today.  Luke does not spiritualize poverty, hunger, pain, or hate.  He has Jesus embrace and transform these very human experiences.

Today what we seem to have is the opposite theological conclusion of the apocryphal texts with a similar result.  Many have humanized Jesus to the point that he has become our favorite analyst, talk show host, or BFF. He has been removed from the Trinity making God, the Father, distant and ethereal.  In doing so, we have eliminated the need for Christian community as we have privatized our relationship with a very human Jesus separate from his heavenly and divine Father. The results have not been a growth of Christian community and a spread of the gospel as we are commanded by Christ, but isolation, loneliness, and emptiness.

We need both – we need the human and divine Jesus, we need a personal relationship with Jesus lived out in a community that worships the Trinity because it is only in community with other humans and in relationship with God that we are fully human, the creatures God created us to be.

How will our children know these truths? Only if we continue to share the story of the Good News of what God has been doing down through the centuries and especially through Jesus in our communities. Only if we remember we are part of a long line of the saints of God and we tell their stories and our own as part of God’s continuing saga.  Only if we continue to meet in community as part of God’s people will we still have a story to tell.

23 Pentecost 2021

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Have you ever thought about how confusing we must sound to the rest of the world when we say “God is love”, “Love God.” Love your neighbor.” Without any further explanation?

I googled songs with the word love in the title and here a just a few of the top hits: “Stupid Love” (Lady Gaga); “All You Need is Love” – (Beatles); “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Elvis); “I Love Me” (Demi Lovato); “Love Lies” (Khalid); “Kill this Love” (Blackpink); “Addicted to Love” (Robert Palmer) “Love Child” (Diana Ross & the Supremes); “Love Shack” (B-52’s) and there were a lot of other strange references to “LOVE.” So what do we as Christians mean when we talk about love.

Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”   This morning we hear that the two greatest commandments involve loving God and loving our neighbor.  A very circular formula, but what does it all mean? Clearly modern culture sees love as something very different from what Jesus is speaking about and often does not see it as positive.

We heard this morning in our Gospel reading, Jesus’ response to the question“ Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus is quoting from the Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament) when he makes this statement.

His first statement is from Deut. 6:4.  “Hear, O Israel” – Hear in Hebrew implies not only taking the sound into your ear, but obedience to what you have heard. “ The Lord is our God. The Lord alone.” This Is the NRSV translation from the Hebrew in Deut. “The Lord, our God, the Lord is one” is the NRSV translation from the Greek in Mark.   The Hebrew encompasses both of these meanings. There is only one God and we are called into relationship with God.

Monotheism is a given for a great many people today who accept that there is a god, but that was not the case in Moses’ time.  Every town, every tribe had a pantheon of gods they worshiped.  Moses is clarifying for the people that for them there is only one God, this is the God of Abraham, the God the gave his name to Moses in a burning bush, the God that delivered them from Egypt and kept them safe in the wilderness, the God that was bringing them to a new land across the Jordon.    This was their God and this God is a unity into God’s self.  Christians still adhere to this belief, but we describe this unity as revealed in Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Nicene Creed begins “ We believe in one God” and then describes this triune God.

Deut 6:5 continues : You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  The Hebrew word for love tends to be almost as variable as the English, so what is Moses saying?

Moses continues first with the reminder that one should “Recite them [God’s commandments] 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.”  Loving God must in some way mean keeping the relationship between you and God as the most important thing in your life.  It is important enough that you should teach them to your children always, at home or away from home.  It is not confined to when at church.  It should be your last thought at night, when you lie down, and your first thought in the morning, when you rise. The Jews devised traditions to help them remember. 

Moses then gives warnings to fear God, to serve God, to make oaths only in the name of this God (Jesus will later say, don’t make any oaths at all) and most importantly “do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are around you.”  It one point in time I would have said actual idolatry is not an issue for us here in the United States.  The idols of which we must be aware of are things like power, money, and physical desires, this hasn’t changed, but more and more the practices of eastern religions and indigenous religions, including worship of other gods, is creeping back into practice.  I am including indigenous Europeans in this.  Druids have made a great comeback in Great Britain. In Scandinavia, the national governments now recognize multiple pagan cults as religious groups. In Germany, neo-pagans are reviving a pantheon of pre-Christian Germanic gods. I have run into some individuals who consider themselves Christian, yet participate in pagan rituals. We cannot assume we live in a monotheistic culture, but part of loving God means turning away from all other gods and being faithful by constantly nurturing our relationship with the one and only God.

The second thing Jesus said was “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus is quoting this time from Leviticus 19:18.  “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  This passage was originally interpreted with neighbor being your kinfolk, your tribe, perhaps even your nation, but there were commandments even in the Torah about how to treat foreigners.  Exodus 22:21 states “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Jesus goes even further:  He tells the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  He describes a man who has been attacked by robbers and left for dead.  He describes two “holy men,” a priest and a Levite,  who cross to the other side of the road when they see the man lying there.  They may have thought they had good reason to avoid him.  If he was dead and they touched him, they would not be able to perform their duties in the temple until they had completed the appropriate cleansing rituals, but Jesus puts the welfare of a person ahead of the rites of the temple.  He describes a third person, a Samaritan, who would have been an outsider, an alien – different race, different denomination, not liked and not trusted because of who he was.  This man stopped, performed first aid, put him on his donkey – which meant he now had to walk,  took him to an inn, paid for his immediate care and offered to cover any additional expenses.  This person did not worry about who he was helping, only that the man needed help.  This person did not worry about the cost to himself, but only that the man was cared for.  When Jesus asked the crowd who was the “neighbor” the response was “The one who showed mercy.”  He said, “Go and do likewise.”  Loving our neighbor means first recognizing that our neighbor extends beyond our immediate family or community or denomination.  Our neighbor includes anyone who needs our assistance that we are able to help.  None of us can save the whole world, but we can all to a little bit.

There is a story (first printed in 1969 by Loren Eiseley) of a young boy who was walking down the beaching picking up starfish that had washed ashore and was throwing them back into the water.  An old man observed him and asked him why he was doing this.  It was impossible for him to save every starfish that washed up on the beach, but the young boy, reached down and picked up another one, and tossing it in the water commented that he was aware of that, but that “at least I made a difference for that one.” Note: Don’t try this at home.  It can injure the starfish.

I think LOVE as described in the Bible is about making a difference through building relationships and doing what we can to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  It is not a “feeling.”  It is a commitment.  It is an act of the will whether we feel like doing it or not.  I think we will find however, that the feelings of joy and peace will follow our acts of LOVE.

22 Pentecost 2021

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As some of you know, I began physical therapy on my shoulder last week.  I had high hopes of some new and exciting “cure” and instead was issued a series of old and boring exercises to do twice a day. I should not have been surprised, my music teachers still make me practice scales.  It reminded me of the old Karate Kid movie from the 1980’s.  I’m reaching back a bit, but hopefully many of you still remember it.

In one of the early scenes Mr. Miyagi agrees to take on Daniel as karate student, but instead of giving him lessons on punching and kicking, he leaves Daniel a list of chores and goes fishing. Daniel is obedient, but angry, feeling like he is wasting his time, until Mr. Miyagi demonstrates for him that his apparently meaningless chores have built strength and muscle memory in his arms that prepares him to defend himself from attack.

Spiritual growth follows a similar path.  We must become disciplined in practicing those things that are foundational.  Those things found in our Baptismal Covenant. We must “continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers… We must resist evil, and whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord…. We must proclaim by word and example the Good New of God in Christ… We must seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as [ourself].. and we must strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”  These are our spiritual exercises.  These are the scales and chords which allow us to create the music of the soul.  These are the daily exercises which allow us to navigate this crazy world defensively in a state of peace and serenity.

One of our exercises is reading the entire Bible including difficult books like the letter to the Hebrews and seeing how it fits in with the other writings in scripture. Our lectionary and daily office help us with that discipline.

We have been reading from Hebrews for several weeks.  In the previous six chapters of Hebrews the framework was built to underscore the importance of the  statement made in today’s reading about the permanent priesthood of Jesus compared to the transitory priesthood of all those who come before him. This is the apex of this letter.

In Chapter 3 the author emphasizes that it is even more important to follow Jesus’ commandments than it was to follow Moses’ commandments because the stakes are higher. When Moses, under the aid and direction of God, delivered the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, his goal was to take them across the Jordon River to a land promised to them by God where they would no longer be slaves, but would enjoy a Sabbath’s rest, much as God did after the creation of the world. 

Much of Moses’ instructions to the Hebrews may have seemed like meaningless chores to the people but God through Moses was attempting to train them to defend themselves both physically and spiritually from the dangers and temptations of both the wilderness and the Promised Land. 

Self-discipline was required to get through the wilderness then and it is required to get through the wilderness now. Bible Study, prayer, attending worship services, acts of charity, and other things we are called to do as Christians do two things: 1) they build our spiritual muscles in the same way a workout in the gym builds our physical muscles; 2) they open our eyes to see ourselves as we really are, desperately in need of God.

In our gospel story, Jesus heals a blind man.  This was a physical healing, but it was included to make us aware that there are other types of blindness.  Those who refused to recognize Jesus were spiritually blind, in need of healing, but refusing to ask for help.

A couple of weeks ago you heard,  

“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

The word of God primarily refers here to scripture, the way in which God communicates to us through the written word, but the “Word” of God has a much larger and fuller meaning that can’t be ignored here either.  The word of God was the creative force of God that called the world into being at the beginning of time. The word of God was the Torah both written and oral that informed the Hebrew people how to live in every aspect of their lives.  The word of God was the oracles of the prophets believed to set in motion prophecies they proclaimed, both destruction of the wicked and restoration for the repentant. The word of God is incarnate in the person of Jesus the Christ.  

And before him/it no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Whether we are speaking of the written word of God that convicts our heart when we read and study the scriptures or the Incarnate Word of God in Jesus Christ that convicts our heart when we pray and meditate on his teaching, the Word of God reveals our inner most self.

In the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve became aware of their disobedience, their first response was a desire to cloth themselves, they felt naked and vulnerable when confronted with their sin.  Before the word of God, our hearts are naked.  We may carefully hide our thoughts and desires from our neighbors, but before God, nothing is hidden.

In Psalm 139 David proclaims,

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away. 
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely…

This is a beautiful Psalm and I would encourage you to read all of it.  But David knew that even as king, he was naked before God who formed in him his mother’s womb and was with him when he took his last breath.

And Job who dared to confront God ended by saying

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;

therefore I despise myself,

and repent in dust and ashes.’ (Job 42: 5-6)

God’s greatness exceeds our ability to articulate, but the author of Hebrews does not leave us in the dust and ashes.  He reminds us,

Since… we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:14-15).

The job of the high priest was to make intercessions for the people to God, but through Jesus, the incarnate word of God, we have direct access to God. Job faced the God who created the heavens and earth, but we a blessed to have a savior who knows what it is to be human.  Jesus experienced the same trials and tribulations, the same temptations we experience but without giving in to those temptations or falling away from God.  Jesus understands all that we are going through, yet has the strength to help us overcome our brokenness.

Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16).

We no longer need to feel naked before God.  We need only to call upon Christ to access the mercy and grace of God. 

Toward the end of the Karate Kid, there was a fight in the parking lot.  A terribly misguided teacher was abusing a student for coming in second place.  Mr. Miyagi calmly walks up and says, “Let him go!” It recalled for me Moses telling Pharoah, “Let my people go!”  The other teacher attempted to take out his anger and frustration on Mr. Miyagi but only ended up bloodying his own hands by hitting a car window, not once, but twice.  Mr. Miyagi then judged him by his own words, “no mercy.”  Jesus tells us “Do not judge, so that you might not be judged.” But even though he was in a position to execute that judgement, Mr. Miyagi let the man off with nothing more than a humiliating tweak of the nose. 

Our God is both powerful and merciful.  We are called to live disciplined lives following the commandments of Jesus.  This is not because God wants us to work hard and have boring lives, this is because God wants us to be spiritually strong. When Daniel questioned Mr. Miyagi why he let the bully go his response was that living without mercy in one’s heart was the greater punishment.  Jesus’ summed up the law and the prophets by saying  

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

The author of Hebrews told us it was even more important to follow the commandments of Jesus than it was for the Hebrews to follow the commands of Moses.  Jesus’ commands may sound simple in comparison to the laws of Moses, but in reality, they require discipline, discernment, humility, and perseverance. 

Be disciplined in your spiritual workouts and fill your hearts with love but when you fall, as we all do, know that you serve a merciful God and have Jesus to serve as our great High Priest.

21 Pentecost 2021

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“…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…” – Jesus (Mark 10:43)

Wikipedia will tell you that Robert K. Greenleaf is the founder of the servant leadership philosophy, probably because he wrote the pamphlet “The Servant as Leader” in 1970 which caused an awakening in the business world.  In that pamphlet, Greenleaf attributes his epiphany to a story by the German poet Hermann Hesse, but I don’t think either Wikipedia or Greenleaf have looked back far enough.  In 2003, Ken Blanchard, the American business management guru wrote The Servant Leader, with Phil Hodges. Blanchard, who is very open about his Christian affiliation begins by quoting Jesus, which is where I believe we must start.

In Jesus’ world most of life was top-down management.  The government was top down from Caesar, religion was top down from the high priest, family was top down from the patriarch, the oldest male member of the family, finance was built on patronage, politics by primogeniture. 

One of Jesus’ goals during his walk with us on earth was to put in motion the upending of that system because it was a system which more times than not lead to tyranny by those at the top toward those at the bottom.

The notion of servant leadership actually pre-dates Jesus, but Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophesy.  Isaiah, very contrary to most notions of the Messiah, speaks for God when he states in chapter 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom my soul delights.  I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; … (Isaiah 42 1:-3) and he goes on for several more verses.

Luke describes how Jesus claimed that role when he read in the synagogue from Isaiah 61, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me he has sent me to bring good news poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”… (Luke 14: 18, quoting Isaiah 61:1)

I found a list of Ten Principles of Servant Leadership : Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to the Growth of People, and Building Community. (Chris Huff published the list on his website, but they are derived from Greenleaf’s writings). I think we can find all of these characteristics in Jesus and many in the apostles, but I would like to look at some specific examples in scripture and see how they might apply to us.

I would name the first as “willingness to respond.”  Mary responded to the angel who called her to be the mother of Jesus.  Jesus responded and was willing to take on human flesh.  The apostles responded when Jesus said follow me.  Scripture notes a few that responded reluctantly like Moses who complained he did not speak well and Jeremiah who complained he was young, but both eventually took up the task to which they were called.  Scripture also records a few who walked away like the rich young man we read about last week.  God offers us many opportunities to be servant leaders, but first we must be willing to commit to that life.

Along the same lines as “willingness to respond” is “humility”.  When we are called to some perform a task, we will not respond positively if we think that task is beneath us. I have made it a practice not to ask anyone to do something I am unwilling to do.  We may not have the skills, and we may need to ask for help, but we shouldn’t just push it off on someone else. You never know the impact it may have on someone else.  Brother Lawrence was a poor monk who had the worst job in the monastery. His job was to wash the dishes, but he did it with such love and devotion to Christ that people have talked about it for over a thousand years.   Jesus washed his disciples feet on his last night with them, a job considered only for the lowest of servants, because he wanted them to go a do likewise.

Jesus walked among the people and met them where they were.  He often delegated tasks, but he did it as a teaching tool.  Show them how, supervise them doing it, send them out to do it themselves such as when he sent the 70 out to heal and cast out demons in the neighboring villages.

When Jesus met the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not approach them with the authority due his role as a male in his society or as a defender of the law as a religious leader.  He gently persuaded them that he had something better to offer them than what they had experienced in the past and with the woman caught in adultery, he gently persuaded the others that they were not in a position to accuse others.

One can be a servant without being a leader or a leader without being a servant.  Christians are called to servant leadership. We are leaders because we claim to know where we are going, to have a goal in mind.  In the list above with might call this conceptualization and foresight. We might not have all the details worked out, but we have a vision, a trajectory, a path and we believe enough in that vision to ask others to follow us.  We are servants because we are also realistic about sacrifices may be required along the way. We willingly accept that there will be times we have to put the needs of others ahead of our own to accomplish our ultimate goal.

When Jesus said “Follow me” a great number of people did just that.  He never pretended the way would be easy.  In fact, he knew it would lead to a cross for himself, and sacrificial living for those who followed him, but he instilled such a trust in people that they followed him anyway and have been doing so for two thousand years.

Moving back to the list,  I don’t think Jesus demonstrated what today passes as good listening practices, in that he did not restate what others said or ask clarifying questions very often.  Instead he listened even deeper.  He listened to the very hearts and souls of individuals and ascertained not only their words, but their motives.  He then responded, sometimes before they even spoke.  Most of us are not that skilled, but true listening will help make us aware of other’s feelings, strengths, and weaknesses.  It will allow us to show proper empathy.

Even in the best of circumstances, we all misjudge situations, speak without all the facts, react without taking time to think about the consequences.  Being willing to ask for forgiveness and being willing to reconcile with those who have injured us shows the heart of a servant leader.  When Peter betrayed Jesus and the other disciples abandoned him, Jesus could easily have written them off as not worth his trouble, but Jesus came to them after his resurrection and offered them his “peace.”  He initiated a conversation with Peter, saying, “Peter, do you love me” giving Peter the opportunity to be healed emotionally and drawn back into community with Jesus and the others.

We are each called to be servant leaders.  We can choose to be servants, always doing the will of someone else.  We can choose to be tyrannical leaders, using our power and authority to force others to do what we desire, or we can choose to be servant leaders, leading others by example out of kindness and patience. I would encourage you to become familiar with Jesus’ leadership style as you develop your own.

20 Pentecost 2021

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My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

These poignant words from the Psalmist, later spoke by Jesus on the cross and even what John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul” are affirmation of relationship.  

We don’t miss people of whom we have no knowledge, and the more someone’s life is intertwined in ours, the more we miss them when they are not within eyesight, or earshot, or the grasp of an embrace.

Job declares, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him” (Job 23:3).  Life has become pretty miserable for Job.  He lost family, possessions, and even his health.  He lives in a society that believes in cause and effect to the point that they believe it something bad happens to you, you did something to deserve it.  Job is convinced that if he could only have a conversation with God, he would be able to plead his case and prove that he is innocent.  Job’s cry, longing for a God whose presence he does not currently feel, is also an acknowledgement of a past relationship.  Job believes that God is a righteous judge and is convinced that God will redeem him in the end. 

The story of Job leaves us with as many questions as it does answers but Job never stops believing in God and God never abandons Job.  Their relationship is what one might call complicated, but I think sometimes we forget that the name given to God’s chosen people was Israel.   After Jacob wrestles with an unknown person in the desert, he is re-named Israel, “God perseveres.” We are told that it is because he, Jacob, wrestled with both men and God and he persevered, but the name he is given is Israel, “God perseveres.”

There are many moments, as a parent, that you wish you could hold on tightly to your child and keep them from harm, but if you did they would never grow: when as a toddler they take their first steps, when they learn to ride a bike or drive a car, when they begin to form adult relationships, and the list goes on, but you have not abandoned them, you have just given them some space to become who they were created to be.  So too with us,  sometimes God gives us space to grow and to fall down, to crash and burn, to have our hearts broken, and to get up and learn from out mistakes and try again.

Our Psalmist, too, is in a crisis.  Very probably he is deathly ill and feels like people are hovering over him like vultures over road kill, rather than offering comfort, they are fighting over who will get his stuff when he dies.  Despite his feelings of abandonment, he takes comfort in remembering the relationship God has had both with him as an individual and with Israel, his forebearers. 

For us, as Christians, we see this poem as prophesying the crucifixion of Jesus.  Jesus even begins reciting it as he hangs on the cross.  What we don’t hear in this reading is the ending.  “To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust and I shall live for him.  Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to be people yet unborn, saying that he has done it. “ (Psalm 22: 29-30)  What begins in a cry of abandonment and dying, ends in hope and faith and life.

While our Old Testament lessons begin with cries of abandonment, our Gospel reading is a call to abandonment. It is a call to abandon all that stands in the way of our following Christ.

Back in the first chapter of Mark, Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John while they were at work.  They were fishing or mending their nets, very necessary things for people who make their living from the sea.  They were probably following the path of their parents and grandparents, and possibly many generations of their ancestors.  Jesus called them to “come fish for people”  and they dropped what they were doing and followed him.  Now another young man has stopped Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Up to this point he has done all that the law required.  He has learned and followed the ten commandments and we are told that Jesus looked upon him and loved him.  Jesus saw potential in this young man, but he also saw something that was holding him back.  The young man “had many possessions” which took first place in his heart.  Jesus tells him to sell them, and to follow him.  Jesus offered the man a choice, follow me or continue on the path that you have been traveling.  The young man wanted both, but when forced to choose, he abandoned Jesus rather than abandon his stuff.

Jesus recognized how hard it is for those who have material wealth to let go to make room for spiritual wealth.  He said it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10: 25) Much discussion through the ages has been had of this statement.  Some have said that camel is a misinterpretation and that is should have been a thick rope, others have imagined a narrow passage in the Jerusalem wall which was so small a camel must unload its burdens and get down on its knees to pass through (this is a beautiful image, but there is no evidence to support its existance).  But however you interpret it, Jesus is talking about how earthly possessions begin to own us rather than we own them.  They can easily become our gods.  We put our faith and trust in financial security, social status, comfortable homes, etc. rather than trust God enough to put God first.

Peter observed that he and the other twelve disciples had walked away.  They did not necessarily sell everything they owned.  We know that Jesus stayed at Peter’s house at least once, and possibly often.  We know the four fishermen go out in their boats and continue to fish while they are following Jesus, because Jesus walks on the water past them in their boat on one occasion and calms a storm while he is in the boat with them on another, but they put Jesus first and everything else second.

Jesus tells them that they will not do without in this lifetime.  God will provide for them all those things they gave up, but Jesus also tells them they will be persecuted.  This will not be simply trading in old stuff for new stuff.  This will be a journey that will have its share of hardships.  But for those who persevere, they will inherit eternal life.

We are all in different places in our walk and we will be in a variety of places throughout our lifetimes.  If you are feeling abandoned and wondering where God is in all this madness, you are not alone, and God has not abandoned you.  I pray that you can find comfort in the scriptures as you remember all the times others felt abandoned only to know that God was right there all the time, just giving them space to grow.

If you feel that God is calling you, but you are wrestling with the cost of that call, remember that God promises to care for you, but does not promise that the way will be easy.  In fact, he promises a cross, but also resurrection.

For many others, you may feel like the twelve with Christ in your midst, but with so many questions still.  Remember that the joy of any relationship is getting to know the other person and still finding you can be surprised, even after many years.  

19 Pentecost 2021

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Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Some subjects have been controversial, and yet unavoidable since the beginning of time. 

What I would like to do this morning is put this text in context and also compare it with some other biblical passages concerning marriage and finally speak about what it means for marriage to be a sacramental act.

Jesus and his disciples have been slowly making their way toward Jerusalem, where Jesus knows he will be crucified.  I keep repeating this statement every week, but I think it must have been constantly on Jesus’ mind by this time as he tries to explain it to the disciples who are apparently oblivious.  We must not be too hard on them.  We live after the fact.  They are like people who on a beautiful sunny day are told where they are standing will soon be devastated by a terrible storm.  Until you live through it, it is hard to comprehend.

The significance of what Jesus is telling them is that all their expectations are incorrect.  They expected him to be a glorious warrior who would overthrow Rome and re-instate Jewish control of the region.  They wanted to be his top advisors who sat in seats of honor and would be respected by everyone in the community.  He knows that his moment of victory will begin in what looks like defeat, public humiliation and crucifixion between two criminals.  His ultimate victory will not be in defeating the Roman army, but in reversing what we call “The Fall”.  Sin, death, and all the evil that accompany those two actions will begin to be reversed when he is resurrected.

The Pharisee’s are trying to force Jesus to align himself with one political party or another.  How one interpreted the laws concerning divorce was a litmus test question which identified you with one or other of the various parties or sub-parties of the time. 

Jesus sidesteps all their political games.  First he asks them to answer their own question. They say, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  Jesus acknowledges that this is correct, but comments that it was an accommodation made because of the human’s “hardness of heart.”  One should never enter marriage with the idea that divorce is always a way out if you change your mind.  Sometimes it is the best of the possible bad solutions, but it is never the ideal.

Jesus demonstrates this by going back to what God intended in the marriage relationship at the time of humanity’s innocence and before humanity’s rebellion and rejection of God’s will.

Augustine described the Trinity as the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love between them – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Genesis says we are created in the image of God.  Part of that image is the need for relationships. I know people who prefer the company of their animals over the company of humans, but Genesis says that God determined that the animals were not sufficient to meet man’s need for relationship and so he created woman from one of his ribs to be his helper.  While this story is mythological rather than scientific, the theological point is that couples somehow complete by complementing one another and that this relationship is natural.  It should be  holy and is God ordained. It is intended for mutual support.

After the Fall, everything, including that relationship gets distorted. The distortion is the consequence of sin, not what God initially intended.  Jesus is restoring, much slower than most of us would like, the world to the way it was in the Garden of Eden before the fall, including the marital relationship and we are called to be part of that restoration.

When Jesus gets back home, his disciples question him further.  They had expected something along the lines of “only if she has been unfaithful” to “as long as you give her a letter of divorce it is ok.”  Instead Jesus tells them “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  In Mark it is pretty cut and dry.

Matthew softens it a bit by making the exception for unchastity on the part of the spouse – but the disciples in Matthew comment that if that is the case, one is better off never marrying and Jesus begins talking about celibacy. Earlier in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus comments that to lust after someone is the same as having committed adultery, and adds that to marry someone who is divorced is to commit adultery.

So how do we put this in perspective and offer a pastoral word for those who have already been divorced, or who are currently in destructive relationships?  

First we must remember who Jesus was speaking with.  Those who initially asked the question considered themselves righteous because they followed a complicated system of laws and rituals.  Jesus says you missed the point.  He points to the Garden of Eden and to children and says you must come to God in simplicity and in the relationship of a child to a parent.  God desires what is best for us and that is holy relationships.

Second, I think we must look at the story in John of the woman caught in adultery.  Those who wanted to stone her were within their rights according to the laws of Moses, but Jesus turned the tables on them.  I don’t know what he wrote in the dirt.  Perhaps it was the Ten Commandments.  Perhaps he wrote names and places that reminded her accusers of their own guilt, but he did not attack the woman, physically or verbally.  He did not tell her she was going to hell.  He did not ask her to justify her behavior.  He skillfully caused her accusers to withdraw and then asked her who was left to accuser her.  When she said “No one, sir.” His response was “Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

We cannot always undo the consequences of poor decisions we have made in the past, but we have the assurance of God’s mercy, through Christ, and we have a new day every morning  to try to live more fully in to the kingdom of God.

Christian marriage is a sacramental act.  In it we embrace the icon of relationship – God’s love for his chosen people and Christ’s love of the church.  We declare to our intended spouse to keep that a pure and holy relationship.  We as a congregation promise to uphold the couple in that relationship.  It is not something to be entered into lightly.  That is why the Episcopal church requires you have an ongoing relationship with a parish, that you prepare by going through pre-marital counseling with your priest, if this is not your first marriage, you declare to the bishop that you are not abandoning your previous family to take on another and that you have seriously considered what when wrong the first time, to avoid repeating your mistakes.

All our lives are held in tension between acknowledging on one hand that we are broken and sinful, unable to do what we should on our own strength, often failing and having to ask for a do-over and on the other hand embracing the strength to live into the kingdom of God though the mercy of Christ, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the supporting arms of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Those of you who are married, I pray that God may strengthen your relationship and draw you closer to one another through your mutual love of Christ.  Those of you who have chosen to remain single to dedicate your time and energy to serving others, know that God honors that, as he did with Jesus, and Paul, and a great many of the saints.  Those who hope to marry sometime in the future.  I would encourage you to be intentional in your choice of a spouse, keeping God and the church as a pillar to help stabilize your relationship and keep it holy.

18 Pentecost 2021

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This morning’s gospel reading may seem to you to be a bizarre and disconnected collection of sayings by Jesus and you wouldn’t be totally wrong.  I suspect Jesus did not say them randomly back-to-back as they are listed here, but Mark has chosen them to make a point and I hope we can tease this out of these verses this morning.

Earlier in this same chapter we have Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top.  Peter has suggested they set up camp and stay awhile, and God the Father tells Peter, James, and John “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) Listening was not their best skill. As they come down from the mountain, the other nine disciples have been trying to heal a boy “with a demon”.  The demon in this case sounds a lot like epilepsy, but whatever the cause, the disciples are unsuccessful in curing the boy.  Jesus steps in, and as the father of the boy describes what has been going on he begs, “if you are able to do anything, please have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22) Jesus, sounding a bit offended, repeats the man’s statement, “If you are able!” and reminds him that “all things can be done for the one who believes.” (Mark 9:23) The man confesses his belief while at the same time asking Jesus to help his unbelief.  Jesus promptly heals the boy to the amazement of all, especially the 9 who had been trying unsuccessfully to heal the boy in Jesus’ absence. “Why could we not cast it out?” they ask. (Mark 9: 28) Jesus tells them “This kind can come out only through prayer.” (Mark 9: 29)

Right after this story, Mark states that Jesus, who we know is making his way toward Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, denied, tortured and crucified is trying to explain to his disciples what is about to happen to him, but they just don’t get it . Then he catches them arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus gives them a lesson in humility and servant leadership using a child as his illustration.

Mark (believed to be a disciple of Peter) is never particularly flattering of the disciples and chapter 9 is no exception.  Next Mark has John saying to Jesus, “ Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” 

The disciples have caught an outsider accomplishing what they had just been unsuccessful at doing, and they are offended because this outsider is doing good in Jesus’ name. John is now telling Jesus expecting to be complimented and instead Jesus chastises him.  “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.” (Mark 9: 39).  The person John has witnessed using Jesus’ name may have seen Jesus’ name as nothing more than a powerful incantation, but Jesus is about to have a great many people speak ill of him.  Someone who has been calling on Jesus’ name and seen the power it carries is not likely to be accusing him of blasphemy. In fact, Jesus tells them,  people who are kind to you because you belong to me will be rewarded.

We are called to be kind to one another, to ease the burdens of one another, simply because we are God’s children, members of a heavenly family. We are not to do it to be rewarded, but the consequence of acting with compassion brings its own rewards.

Mark now turns this situation around and Jesus uses rather shocking language to get his point across.  “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,” in other words, if your actions cause someone who is faithfully following Christ to be diverted off of that path. Jesus says rather graphically, you would be better off dead. “It would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  (Mark 9: 42). He gives you a good visual to make his point. This goes all the way back to the story of Cane and Abel in Genesis chapter 4 when the Cane, having just committed fratricide asks God, “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4: 9).  God’s response is basically, ‘YES’. 

How do we lead others off the path?  By involving them in our own sins, encouraging them in destructive behavior, and by causing people to doubt.

Jesus again illustrates rather graphically how important it is, not only that we do not lead others astray, but that we stay on the straight and narrow path ourselves.  I don’t think that he was advocating self-mutilation, but was stating that physical disability is nothing compared to spiritual corruption.  In Jesus’ life-time and before, physical disabilities separated one from their community and made them “other”.  There were limitations on their ability to participate in religious rituals as well as the difficulties of caring for themselves. Many of the people who followed Jesus suffered from physical disability as witnessed by the many healing stories about Jesus.

Jesus gives an equally graphic description of the fate of those who do not heed his warning.  He warns them that they will go to Gehenna.  We translate that into English as hell, which brings about visions of Dante’s Inferno, but Gehenna was a real place with a wretched history.

Shortly before the Babylonian siege, destruction, and deportation of Jerusalem and its inhabitants the prophet Jeremiah makes this statement at the command of God at the entry of Topheth – the place of fire, aka “the valley of the son of Hinnom” or lamentations aka Gehenna. 

“O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.  This says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of every who hears of it will tingle.  Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have know, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind; therefore the days are surely coming, says the Lord when this place shall no more be call Topheth or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter… (Jer. 19: 3-6) and Jeremiah continues his dire and graphic warnings for several more verses.

Jesus is describing a place cursed by God because of  the idolatry and murder committed there.  The fire that burns there is the memory of the fires of sacrifice which later became trash fires at dumping ground for sewage, diseased animals, and disreputable human beings denied a proper burial, a place where worms, probably magots, are always present.  The place is still much the same to this day.

Human sacrifices stopped in Topheth/Gehenna long before Jesus, but idolatry and murder, and in some since sacrificing our children to the false idols of money, fame, and power still occur. 

Jesus next statement is a reminder that we are all sinners and we all need to rid ourselves of those things that separate us from being who God created us to be. Jesus says, “For everyone will be salted with fire.”  Mark has taken the references to fire in the previous statement and linked it to this different use of fire in this statement.  This is the refiner’s fire.  When precious metals are extracted from ore, they are put to the flame, the pure metal metaling off and the baser elements being eliminated. This is the fire that God uses. 

Paul tells us “that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5: 3-4) James, the brother of Jesus tells us “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1: 2-4)

Finally, Mark takes this “salting with fire” and transitions into the image of us as salt, that which preserves food and gives it flavor, served as a medicine, and was even used as money in ancient times.   Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace in the world.” ( Mark 9: 50) When salt is pure, it serves its purpose well, but when salt is diluted or contaminated with other substances it losses its saltiness.  When we dilute the holiness of our lives, filling it with meaningless and unnecessary things, we are at risk of losing our effectiveness in being salt to the world.

I think Mark is reminding us of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world.  We do not have the market on Jesus cornered, others, perhaps who seem different from us, may still do good deeds in Jesus’ name and we are to encourage not condemn them.  We are to encourage others on the path, being careful not to fall away ourselves, or to lead others away.  We are to remember that God will use our trials and tribulations to strengthen our character and in doing so, we become salt for the world, but in all things, we must remain humble remembering we are called to servant leadership not power and glory on the worlds terms.  

17 Pentecost 2012

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When my boys were young, we had boxes of superheroes and super villains, all sorted by story line: He-man, GI Joe, Star Wars, and Dick Tracy.  Even though there were a dozen characters in each box, there were sure to be arguments, especially if there were more than two children playing.  With 2, one could have all the good guys and one all the bad guys, but with three, someone got neither the most powerful superhero nor the most powerful super villain.  Nothing has changed in the last two thousand years.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is addressing power struggles.  To begin with, he is trying to explain to his closest companions that he is about the turn the current world power struggle up-side down.  The world, at least the part of it known to the disciples, is under the influence of the Roman Empire.  This is not all bad.  Under the Romans, roads and great water systems were built.   If you were a Roman citizen, obeyed Roman law, and did not get too heavily involved in Roman politics, you lived a comfortable and safe life. But the price was very heavy against those who disturbed the peace.

For the Jews living in Palestine, this could be good or bad news.  The current ruler, Herod Antipas, was quite happy living as a puppet to the Roman Emperor.  For many of the religious leaders, Rome was not such a bad despot.  Rome was tolerant of the Jews rather odd religious practices provided they behaved like good Roman citizens: paid their taxes, didn’t cause any trouble, etc.  But other Jews believed that only when Israel was an independent nation with full political as well as religious control of Palestine would they be living the promise of God to Abraham, Jacob, and David. Their vision of the Messiah is one that will make that happen.

Jesus has tried many times to explain to the disciples that before he rules, he will die on a Roman cross, but they just don’t get it.  When Jesus goes before Pilate, Jesus tells him you think you are in control, but you are not, God is.  (John 19:11)  Crucifixion was a way of demonstrating complete control over an individual.  You couldn’t even kill yourself when the pain became more than you could bear because your hands and feet were nailed to a cross.  Your family and friends could come and stare at you but could not give you any comfort because you were beyond their ability to help you.  Yet Jesus claimed by the power of God, he was going to take this demonstration of Roman power and prove it to be powerless.  By allowing himself to be crucified, Jesus was able to demonstrate that he was more powerful than death, and the Roman Empire.

Somehow the lesson does not sink in because the minute Jesus’ back is turned, the disciples go back to playing superheroes. “I’ve got super powerful web shooters and I can climb tall buildings.”  “Well, I’ve got this really neat power saber and I can cut off your powerful web shooters.”  “Jesus is going to pick me to be Secretary of State.”  “Well he’s going to pick me to be Vice President.”  It’s almost like an episode of Big Bang Theory, intelligent grown men acting like little boys.  When Jesus asks them what they have been talking about, they are silent.  They probably realize how ridicules they sound, but they have no clue what they are asking for.  In Matthew’s version of this story, the mother of James and John is even involved, asking that her boys might sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his glory, visualizing a three seated throne room.  Jesus visualizes three crosses on a hill and tells her she does not know what she is asking. (Matt. 20:20-23)

Jesus then presents to the disciples two illustrations of what it means to be first in his kingdom.  “If you would be first, you must be last, you must be diakonos.” (Mark 9:35) This term diakonos indicted one who executed the commands of another, in particular, a king.  Jesus is that king, and his command is that we love God and our neighbor, not just in theory, but by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, and caring for the sick.  Diakonos was also used of those who waited on tables.  Servants whose job it was to wait tables did not eat until everyone else had had their fill. It is the term from which we get the order of deacon. The first deacons made sure everyone at the table got fed.  In either case, you were serving another and putting aside your own needs until the needs of others had been met.

Then Jesus picks up a little child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9: 37) This was before Disney, McDonalds, and Mattel altered the power structure and put children at the top of the power pyramid, at least in terms of advertising and marketing dollars.  In Jesus’ day a child had no status.  They had no rights and were not capable of caring for themselves. They were dependent upon others for their existence.

I was at a baptism once and heard the bishop make an odd statement but one that seemed so appropriate to this text.  He commented that one of the blessings of children is that they are so inconvenient.  Now blessings and inconvenient are not words that are typically used together.  But his point was that children draw us out of our selfishness by virtue of their neediness.   Infants and toddlers require adult assistance for their most basic of needs.  All children need adults to teach them, to take them places, to pay for things.  I raised two generations of children, that was 40 consecutive years, and I can tell you for a fact, you cannot be completely selfish and live with a child.  They will force you to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own and in that sense, they are good for the soul.

As a parish, it is important that we have children in our midst.  Without children there is no future, and where there is no future there is no hope.  But just having them in the building is not enough; we must not be content to treat the children as though they were not quite human.  Jesus reminds us that children give us the opportunity to function as God intended, as servants one to another.  When the Israelites first entered the promised land, Moses tells the people, “You must love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul and all your might… and you shall teach these commandments diligently to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, when you are walking down the road, when you lie down at night and when you get up in the morning. “(Deut. 6:5-7)

My prayer for this parish is that we can live together as servants, one to another, putting the needs of the those who are least able to help themselves at the top of our to do list, and trusting God to see that our own needs will be met. I also want us to have a vision and a plan for something that does not exist today but is so important.  We need a plan to engage the children and youth in our families and in our neighborhood.  This includes a plan that attends to their safety and honors what they bring.  It means preparing before they come.  If this is a vision you also have, please come talk to me so we can make it happen.