Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Call to Serve: The Church at Home - Love

One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”

The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.

While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “Why do the legal experts say that the Christ is David’s son? David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, said, The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right side until I turn your enemies into your footstool.’ David himself calls him ‘Lord,’ so how can he be David’s son?” The large crowd listened to him with delight.

As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” --Mark 14:28-44 (CEB)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, and from the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter. Amen.

What a week! I don’t know about you, but I’m already getting tired of this new normal. Tired of sitting at my computer screen. Tired of not being able to meet someone in person for coffee. But, thank God, for social media. Because it lets me know I’m not alone. And it makes me laugh.  Here's something fun I saw posted on Twitter.

I think all of this change made me a little grouchy. If you’ve seen my Facebook feed over the past couple of days, you probably already noticed that. It kind of started on Wednesday at pantry.

Now, we have been working on trying to figure out how we do food pantry in a way that is safe. For our volunteers. And for our pantry members, especially for those who are vulnerable. So, we were able to set up this rather elaborate system last weekend. And, honestly, this week, it worked pretty good. We were able to get last minute information out to a pretty large group of people. And, inevitably, that information was shared even outside our typical pantry circles. 

On Tuesday afternoon, after our first day, I returned voice mails, while Susan worked to re-stock and set up for Wednesday. One of them was from someone outside our usual pantry circle. She lived in Prospect. Now, you and I know that Prospect, like this area, is fairly affluent. Yet you and I also know that those who are poor are often very hidden in our communities. She was calling because she had heard about us and wanted to know if she could get food for herself and her husband. I signed her up for the next day. 

Along with all of the other changes we’ve made, We have a new system of welcome. Because Susan is so warm and friendly and because her graciousness is so contagious (in a good way!), on pantry day her job is to greet everyone who comes into our parking lot. And, then, to keep everything in motion so that we don’t get behind. I do check-in. Making sure the person is in our database, making sure they wash their hands (Yes, this is a new pantry requirement!), and explaining to them how our pantry operates. So, that next day - on Wednesday - we both met that lovely woman I had talked to the afternoon before. 

Soon after we got her registered and her hands washed, she then moved into our shopping area with a helper. Susan came up to me and mentioned quietly that, as she greeted this woman, she had engaged her in conversation. And found out that her son was a pretty “big deal” at a very large church here in Louisville. A pretty “big deal.” It was this woman’s son who had referred her to our pantry. 

That next morning, after a restless and short night of sleep, I got up and did the reasonable thing - I got on Facebook. (I’ve been working really hard to stay off Facebook. But it’s hard now, because it’s one place to find connection.) So, I got on Facebook. Shared this story (without any names) and I began to rant. 

Now I’m not naming names, but you see the problem here? This lovely woman’s son - a “big deal” in a big local church - couldn’t even take his mother grocery shopping, instead referring her to a food pantry.

So, do you see why I was a little grouchy? I was really bothered by this. In fact, I was angered by it. So much so that I tossed and turned all night long, thinking about it. And, of course, I had already been reading this text for a couple days. In particular, the part in verse 38. “Watch out for the legal experts - the religious leaders,” Jesus tells the disciples. “They like to walk around in long robes. They wanted to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”  

And, I know. I should give her son the benefit of the doubt. There’s that 8th commandment, right? Perhaps, I don’t know the entire story. Perhaps, I’m jumping to very wrong conclusions. Perhaps, I’m just overreacting. I mean, most people are good people, aren’t they? Most people wouldn’t do this, would they?

And, then, I got a private message from a nurse I used to work with in Texas, who’s now a nurse practitioner. He shared a story with me of an acquaintance of his. Who posted picture after picture on Facebook of his son getting into and driving his new Maserati. Which my friend’s acquaintance had just bought for him. So, what’s a Maserati cost these days? Seventy grand? Maybe more. And yet this same acquaintance had the nerve to share a GoFundMe page on Facebook put up by his aunt, who was trying to raise $2,500. “I couldn’t believe the gall of this dude. Just give her the money and shut up,” my friend wrote. 

Is this who we have become?

I have to wonder. When I look at the empty grocery store shelves. The lines of people waiting outside the grocery store or Costco to get in and buy up everything. When I hear stories from our own pantry members who can’t find baby formula for their children. And the only stuff that’s left on the shelf are the containers of formula that cost $40/each, and there’s no way these families could afford that. Especially, not in the times we are in right now. 

Is this who we have become? 

Like the community leaders of Jesus’ day, who parade around, spouting their religion, expecting to be greeted with honor and offended if they aren’t? Cheating widows out of their homes? In the NRSV, it reads that “they devour widows’ houses.” 

Is this who we have become?

This is not who God wants us to be. 

Throughout all of the Hebrew and Christian scripture, God makes it clear that what is important is a commandment in two parts: Love God. And love neighbor. There are a lot of other little rules and regulations. Just like we have our little rules and regulations, often unspoken, in our faith and in our church. But the one commandment - the one, two-part commandment that is at the heart of everything that God teaches us, that is more important than all ritual and sacrifice, more important even than our worship, is that we love God and do justice for our neighbor. And not just the neighbor we know, but, particularly, the neighbor we don’t know. 

If we miss this big picture, we miss everything.

And, then we come to the story of the widow’s offering. When I first read this at the beginning of the week, I laughed. Because the idea of a stewardship sermon at this time, when everything seems to be crashing down around us, was a little much for me to even wrap my head around. But, as I studied this story, I found out that there’s a long line of thought around it - that this story isn’t really about Jesus lifting up this woman as a stewardship example. 

If you look closely at the story, nowhere does he really commend her for her offering. It’s more just like an observation: that she, more than the others, has simply put in the greatest percentage of her wealth, minimal as it may be.  And this line of theological thought suggests that this is really a condemnation by Jesus of a system, of a community that would allow this woman - that would expect this woman - to even have to give an offering, given her poverty. That the failure is on the part of the whole community because they have allowed these deep divisions of wealth to even exist.

Wow. That’s convicting, isn’t it?

But, let me tell you another story from this week. On Thursday, one of our faithful volunteers offered to take my place at check-in so I could get a little work done. You know, don’t you, when I’m in the sacristy changing in or out my alb, or when I’m in the office at church, I hear a lot of stuff. (Just sayin’!)

The office door sits right next to the table where we offer produce to our pantry folks. As I worked there on Thursday morning, over and over I heard pantry members as they were offered produce, turn much of it away with these words, “Why don’t you give it to someone who really needs it?” This, my friends, is the example of who we are to be. Lovers of God. And lovers of neighbor, of stranger, of those who are vulnerable. It’s why, for instance, we self-isolate. Not, if we are healthy, to protect ourselves. But, to protect those who aren’t.

Last week, I mentioned a conversation with a member in which we wondered if what was happening in our world wasn’t part of some big cosmic change. 

When I witness what I’ve witnessed this past week, all I can think is “I hope so.” Now I know that this may be a very frightening thought. That everything we know could change. Yet, we know that God will preserve and protect us. Because, simply put, God has promised to do this. And God is faithful.

So, yes, I do hope that the God, who loves us, who wants us to understand that we are connected with one other and with all creation, and the God who has promised to turn things upside down so that the widows of this world will eventually be on equal footing with the powerful - I do hope that we are in the midst of a huge cosmic change. And, mostly, I hope and pray that God is right there in the middle of it, bringing justice that rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 

May it be so, God. May it be so. Amen.

Preached March 22, 2020, online, for the community of Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Lent 4
Readings: Deuteronomy 10:12-13, Psalm 89:1-4, Mark 12:28-44.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Call to Serve: Authority and a Few Other Things

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father; from Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior; and from the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter. Amen.

These are unusual times we are living in, aren’t they? Such dramatic change in just a week. The cancellation of major festivals, major sporting events, school classes, even worship. A declaration of a world-wide pandemic. Travel restrictions. The shutting down of offices and other buildings. The upheaval in the stock market and the oil market. It might almost feel for us as though we are in the midst of a cosmic change. 

Similarly, the direction of my sermon has changed dramatically from where I first started. Because everything is just changing. Quickly. So, today, I’m going to touch on six different topics that may seem completely unrelated. It is my hope (and my prayer!) that, by the end, I will have been able to weave them together. So, here they are: Authority. Vineyards. Economic systems. David Brooks. Pandemics. And Luther (and a little bit of Bonhoeffer!). 

Topic number one. Authority. The question of authority is at the heart of our text today. It isn’t part of our Gospel reading, but, if you back up to the very end of chapter 11, to the part that just precedes today’s reading, the questions that Jesus is asked by the chief priests, the legal experts, and the elders - in other words, the religious leaders. The two questions they ask of Jesus are: “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? And who gave it to you?”

You see, since the very beginning of Mark, Jesus has been throwing his authority around all over the place. Healing people who are sick. Restoring sight to the blind. Releasing demons from people. (Demons, who, by the way, know and recognize Jesus’ authority.) The authority of Jesus has been oozing out all over the place. So, when he is asked this question by the religious leaders about his authority, his response is to tell them a parable. About a vineyard. 

Jesus spoke to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the winepress, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. When it was time, he sent a servant to collect from the tenants his share of the fruit of the vineyard. But they grabbed the servant, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Again the landowner sent another servant to them, but they struck him on the head and treated him disgracefully. He sent another one; that one they killed. The landlord sent many other servants, but the tenants beat some and killed others. Now the landowner had one son whom he loved dearly. He sent him last, thinking, They will respect my son. But those tenant farmers said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ They grabbed him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

“So what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this scripture, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?”

They wanted to arrest Jesus because they knew that he had told the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd, so they left him and went away. --Mark 12:1-12. 

Topic number two. Vineyards. The image of a vineyard is common in scripture. I counted it up yesterday and the word is used 118 times through both testaments. In the Hebrew scripture, there are 95 references alone to the imagery of vineyards. Last fall, we heard a love song about a vineyard in Isaiah 5. Well, really, it was a break up song about a vineyard and its owner, where Israel was portrayed metaphorically as the well-tended, but unproductive vineyard of Yahweh. 

Would it surprise you to learn that the description of the vineyard in today’s reading is the same description as the one in Isaiah, which was a vineyard with a pit for a winepress and a watchtower?Planted by a man who characterizes the vineyard as his beloved Israel. This beloved community that he has cared for and guided and served. And that has responded, in turn, with injustice and bloodshed.

In Mark’s gospel parable, there’s still a landowner. And a vineyard. But there’s a little twist, added characters to the story. Tenant farmers. And slaves. And a son.

Now, we with our 21st century understanding, might be a little offended by this parable and, particularly, of the imbalance of power between the wealthy landowner and the tenant farmers, who are really sharecroppers. But, if we remember that parables use common elements that are understood by the audience to teach them something they don’t understand, we have to look at this parable with first century eyes.

Because this practice was common under Roman rule. It even has a term connected to it - latifundia. These were great landed estates specializing in crops for export, such as grain, olive oil, or wine. They were the closest example in ancient times to our industrialized agriculture. And their economics depended entirely upon slavery.

Topic number three. Economic systems. If this economic system of Rome sounds familiar, it should. Because, it’s a practice that has been carried down through centuries. Such as by European monarchies who often gave large grants of land to reward services by people to them or their empire - exactly how parts of the US were settled. It’s a model we learned well as we created a similar economy built on slavery. On people. Human beings imported as chattel to prop up and sustain unjust economic systems. That pit poor people against other poor people. That benefit the wealthy. Economic systems that still persist today. 

Whatever we understand about this vineyard, it is clear that something is amiss. That there is a power struggle happening here. Between the owner and the tenants. First, the tenants try to flip the power. Then, the owner takes back the power and gets in new tenants.

Now, I have to stop for just a moment and make a corrective here. For way too long this parable has been used as a parable to talk about the end of Israel as God’s beloved and Christians as the “new tenants” in the story. That the Jews had their shot and now it's time for Christians. This is simply wrong. And hurtful. Because there’s an interesting word in verse 9. The word translated “destroy.” In Greek, it’s a term that is used to describe the destruction of evil as a result of an apocalyptic upheaval. Its use here suggests that the destruction carried out by the landowner is not about a people, but a cosmic battle between good and evil. And that Jesus, the cornerstone, is in the midst of this battle. A battle that will result in the destruction of evil and of evil systems that continue to exploit people and creation. 

And, if you still don’t think that this parable is about economic systems, then look at the very next part of the story. When the religious leaders realize that Jesus is talking about them, they get angry and they want to arrest and destroy him, but they can’t because of the crowd. So, they send others to entrap him. By talking about nothing other than money. And taxes. Boom.

They sent some of the Pharisees and supporters of Herod to trap him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?”

Since Jesus recognized their deceit, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin. Show it to me.” And they brought one. He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” His reply left them overcome with wonder. --Mark 12:13-17. 

The religious leaders send two groups - Pharisees and Herodians - who approach Jesus with flattery and false praise, and then hit him up with a question to which there is no good answer. And Jesus knows it. So, he answers with a non-answer. But, first, he asks them for a coin. And they give him a Roman coin, with a picture of Caesar on it. By giving him this coin, they implicate themselves - that they have bought into an economy that they decry. Because, as Jesus points out, if you participate in an economy, then you have a responsibility. To pay taxes.

But, do you notice that Jesus doesn’t have a coin with the image of Caesar in his pocket? Is this a message that, perhaps, he is rejecting the entire economy of the empire, particularly one that exploits the poor? 

Which brings me to topics number four and five. David Brooks and Pandemics. On Thursday, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in the NY Times about what pandemics do. How they drive people apart. Because in these moments, fear can drive people. It can drive us away from each other as the possibility of death drives away concern for no one but ourselves and our loved ones. Witness the hoarding and panic buying over these past few days. Witness the privilege that allows us to be able to afford to hoard, when we know that pandemic always hits the poorest and most vulnerable in our community the hardest. All out of fear.

But, it’s not only fear that drives people in times of pandemic. So does shame. Because in the midst of pandemic, hard, life-and-death choices have to be made. They’re being made today. By doctors in Italy, for example, who because of a limited number of ventilators, are having to decide who gets one and who doesn’t.

But, these hard choices are not all that drives shame. As Brooks was researching the 1918 flu pandemic for his column, he was surprised by how few books or plays had been written about it. He wrote that roughly 675,000 American lost their lives in that one year, compared with 53,000 dead in the four-year period of World War 1. Yet, little was written about it. It seemed to leave almost no mark in culture. Why? Because, when it was over, people would not talk about it because they were ashamed at how they had responded. With one exception. Healthcare workers. Who responded then, as they do today, with heroism and compassion.

Which brings me to my final topic. Number six. Luther. (And that little bit of Bonhoeffer!) In 1527, ten years after the Reformation, the bubonic plague, which had been winding its way through Europe, struck Wittenberg, Germany. The political leader of this area, Elector John, fearing for the safety of Luther and the other professors at Wittenberg University, ordered them to leave town. Luther, along with another professor, refused. Instead he stayed to minister to those who were sick and frightened. Seventeen days later, there were 18 deaths, including the wife of the mayor, who died in Luther’s arms. Eventually, the plague receded. Yet soon after, clergy from a neighboring town now affected by it, wrote him a letter to ask his advice. Whether they should stay to serve the community or whether they should leave to preserve their own lives.

Here’s what he had to say. “This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running….If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him….”

In addition, he also said was that, in the process of serving our neighbor, we were to use our brains. To follow careful safety precautions. To use care to prohibit spread. All of the things that we are doing today.

Now, just a little bit of Bonhoeffer. After being arrested, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for some time as he awaited his fate. It was in this time that he truly began to reflect what it meant to be human. And to be true community. To be a beloved community. He wrote: "To be Christian does not mean to live in a specified religious way...but, it means to be human, not a particular human type. Christ creates true humanity in us. It is not religious acts that a Christian does, but participation in the suffering of Christ in worldly life.” 

Dear friends, we are in unusual times. Are they part of some apocalyptic cosmic change to overturn unjust economic systems in our world? I don’t know. But, what I do know is that we have been created to be in beloved community with one another and with the world, especially where there is suffering, because this is where we will find Christ. We have been called to serve those here in our congregation and in the world who are most vulnerable and at risk. To take care to stop the spread of this disease. And, mostly, to love and support one another in this time of fear and anxiety. 

We do this, not because it will gain us salvation, but because salvation has already been gained for us. By God’s authority in Christ, who is our chief cornerstone and our true vine. Who frees us and, then, nourishes us so that we might go out into the world and with the Holy Spirit beside us bear fruit in the beloved vineyard of God. 

May God guide and keep us in this time. Amen.

Preached during virtual worship on Sunday, March 15, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Lent 3
Reading: Mark 12:1-17

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Call to Serve: Amazed and Afraid

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God, our Father, and from Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Amazed and afraid. This is how our text opens today. The disciples are amazed and afraid.

Since we moved into the New Testament and into the Gospel of Mark, we have heard a number of stories, which we’re going to take a moment to review. I’d like you to put yourself in the place of the disciples and others following Jesus. How would you have felt if you had experienced each of these things? We’re going to add a little movement to this. So, if you would have felt amazed, throw your hands up in the air in amazement. If you would have been afraid, put your hands over your head and duck down, as if you are hiding. If you’re a combination of the two, I’ll leave it up to you what you do.

So, how would you have felt if you were there when:

  • Jesus is baptized and Spirit descends on him?
  • Jesus heals the man lowered through the roof on a mat?
  • Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed?
  • Jesus casts out demons from a man?
  • Jesus predicts his own suffering and death?
  • Jesus is transfigured on the mountain?

All of these stories are about the power of God’s kingdom, which was our focus before Lent began. As we have been learning since Ash Wednesday, today Jesus teaches us what it means to be a part of God's kingdom - what it means to serve. I invite you to follow along as I read from Mark, chapter 10, beginning with verse 32.

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

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.”

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. --Mark 10:32-52 (NRSV)

This chapter in Mark is, as one theologian puts it, “the third revolution of a tripartite.” Tripartite is a really fancy word for three-part. Here in Mark 10 is the third time we have seen this three-part cycle. Once in Mark 8. Again in Mark 9. And now in Mark chapter 10.

Each cycle begins with Jesus attempting to teach the disciples what will happen to him once they reach Jerusalem. Then, the disciples show in some way that they have not understood. (One theologian characterizes this as “If the disciples don’t at first perceive, fail, fail again!) Then, after each misunderstanding, Jesus teaches them about discipleship and shows them what it is to be one of his disciples. 

In today’s story, we have this very same pattern. Jesus and the disciples have begun the walk up to Jerusalem. We read, as I mentioned before, that the disciples were both amazed and afraid. One wonders what was driving these feelings. The disciples were not unaware of the hostility Jesus would meet in Jerusalem. They’d already had a taste of it in the countryside. Perhaps they were afraid for Jesus. Or, perhaps (and more likely) they were afraid for themselves. Then, perhaps, they were amazed because of those mind-blowing, awe-filled miracles of Jesus. Miracles that they had had difficulty performing themselves. One wonders why. Was it a lack of faith on their part? 

Whatever it was, we know that they did not yet fully get the “why” of Jesus. Like the healing of the blind man preceding this entire three-part series, the first time doesn’t stick. It seems as though this is a metaphor for the disciples and their own understanding. That as much as Jesus teaches them about his upcoming passion, as much detail as Jesus goes into this third time - how he will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, then condemned to death, then handed over the Romans who will mock him, who will spit on him, who will flog him, who will kill him - as much as Jesus teaches them, they don’t get it.  They don’t get that his sacrifice, that his humility and service is to be their example. 

We see this in part two of today’s story.

James and John. Just like when your children or grandchildren come up to you and say, “Promise me you’ll give me what I ask for,” James and John are no different. They approach Jesus in the same way. When they ask Jesus for the favor, Jesus says to them,” What do you want me to do for you?” Their answer is our clue to knowing that they don’t get it. That they think that, even if they are good disciples here on this earth, they are going to make sure that in the next life they will be at the seat of power. On either side of the triumphant Jesus. 

And, if we thought that maybe it was only these two who didn’t get it, soon we hear that the other disciples are angry at them. Likely because James and John beat them to it. They all fail to perceive. To understand that the Son of Man, this Messiah, has come, not to be served, but to serve. And to give his life for them. 

Interestingly, the close of this three-part series is a healing of the blind man. Sound familiar? It's how the entire tripartite began. This time it's Bartimaeus. The only subject of Jesus’ healing who is named throughout all of Mark. It is Bartimaeus who will show the disciples what discipleship is.

Let’s contrast him with the Twelve. He immediately calls Jesus the Son of Man. A Messianic title. (Remember the promise to David that the Messiah, his descendent, would remain forever on the throne?) Bartimaeus knows who Jesus is. And Jesus asks him as he had just asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Then, look at what he asks for. Not power or prestige. But a basic need. His sight. And, then, after Jesus calls to him, in his exuberance to run to Jesus, he casts off his outer cloak. That thing that is keeping him from Jesus. Because he sees the life-giving power of Jesus. And, after he is healed, he immediately begins to follow Jesus.

Bartimaeus is a direct contrast to the disciples. The disciples seek status. They are so blind, but don’t even see their own blindness. Bartimaeus simply seeks mercy. And, although he is physically blind, he is the one who has 20/20 spiritual vision. He sees Jesus. And he is willing to follow Jesus on the way. On the path of sacrifice.

Friends, what do you want Jesus to do for you? Is it all about you? Is your focus internal and on getting those things you want for yourself? Or is it about sacrifice, about serving others? With a focus that is external, that is about showing mercy and grace to others in the very same way Jesus shows it to us?

We are in frightening times, in this time of a possible world-wide pandemic. How will we respond? Will our focus be on ourselves? On hoarding food and supplies - hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and masks, as examples - for ourselves? Or will our focus be on living as the disciples Jesus desires us to be? Serving others. Being a non-anxious presence in a very fearful world. 

“Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” This is who Jesus calls us to be. To not be afraid and focused on self. But, to turn to our neighbor and to those who are the most vulnerable, to serve in our community. Then, to simply be amazed at the healing and life-giving power of Christ in our midst.  

May God grant this. Amen.

Preached March 8, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church.
Lent 2
Readings: Mark 10:32-52; Isaiah 53:3-6; Psalm 34:11-22

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Call to Serve: The Eye of the Needle

As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”

--Mark 10:17-31 (CEB)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father; Christ, our Savior, and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter. Amen.

I have an honest question for you. Over my past few sermons have I seemed just a little angry to you? If you said no, I’d say you were being too kind. If you said yes, I would have to agree with you. 

There are just times - perhaps you’ve experienced them, too - when I just feel angry at the world. Maybe it’s the political situation. Maybe it’s the research and study I’ve been doing these past few weeks, as I’ve been learning about the ways we have damaged our environment. Maybe it’s the weather, as I long for warmer days and sunshine. Maybe it’s just life in general.  

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s these darn disciples in Mark. Do they frustrate you like they frustrate me? They always seem so clueless. Even though Jesus is standing right in front of them. There are times when I want to reach into Scripture and just shake them and say, “Wake up, you idiots! Wake up!”

But I’ve learned from experience that, most often, when I am angry at the world, it’s often not because of what is happening externally. Instead, it’s usually my own stuff. Things that are going on internally. Remember what Jesus said to the disciples and to us just a few weeks ago? That evil things don’t come from the outside, but that they begin inside and contaminate us.

But, more on this in a few minutes. Let’s turn to today’s story.

It’s important that we understand the structure of this part of Mark. Last week, we heard Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ. I mentioned that, just before this lesson, there is a healing by Jesus. Of a man who is blind. It takes Jesus two tries to heal this man. 

Immediately after, we have the story we heard last week - of Peter’s confession. It’s at this point that Jesus begins to teach the disciples about what will happen to him. To begin to help them understand “why” Jesus, the Christ, has come to earth. And to cement Jesus’ teaching, he is transfigured on the mountain and the voice from heaven speaks to the disciples, telling them to listen to Jesus.

But, still, they don’t get it. Like the blind man, they don’t understand on the first try. Or even the second. Because, this past Wednesday, we heard the story of the disciples and their argument on the road headed to Jerusalem. The argument about which one of them is the best!  And we heard Jesus’ response - that whoever wants to be first in the kingdom of God, must be last. Then, to illustrate his point, Jesus takes a child in his arms and says to them that God's kingdom belongs to people like these. Like children. Who, as we learned, in Jesus’ day had no status at all and were likely to die before reaching adulthood.

This story immediately precedes our story today. Jesus is walking on the road to Jerusalem. Suddenly, a man runs up, asking what must he do to inherit eternal life. He seems respectful and sincere, even when Jesus tells him - good Jew that Jesus is - that he must keep the entire law. And we hear the man respond that he has kept all of it since he was a boy. He seems truly sincere. 

It’s at this point, that I’m always blown away by Jesus’ response. In verse 21. “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. We’ve heard Jesus rebuke the disciples when they didn’t get it. One has to wonder why Jesus doesn’t unload on this fellow. But, for some reason, Jesus just looks at him intently. And then he loves him.

It’s pretty convicting, isn’t it? At least, it is for me. Especially as I’ve been so angry at these disciples, who just seem to get it. It reminds me of the times when I would get frustrated with my son growing up, when he just wouldn’t get things either. And I’d scold him. Then, he’d look at me with such a hurt look on his face that I often ended up apologizing to him and picking him up, then, and hugging him. But, Jesus? He looks at the man and he loves him.

I’ve been reading a book titled “30 Day Journey With St. Hildegard of Bingen.” Hildegard was a female Christian leader in the medieval church, one of several who we today call the Medieval Mystics. She received visions from God and, eventually, wrote extensively about them, also founding an abbey for nuns in Bingen, Germany. She became very famous and corresponded with bishops and popes and even the major political leaders of her day. I’ve read some of her writing before and picked up this book especially because many of her themes relate to creation and to things in the natural world. So, I thought it would be a good way for me to prepare for our Lenten conversations around this same topic.

Earlier this week, I read an excerpt from a letter she wrote in the late 12th century. In it she refers to a world suffering from “already festering wounds” that is in dire need of healing. And that, if you apply scourges (a scourge is generally understood as a whip used to punish). If you apply scourges to an already festering wound, all you will do is bring forth poison mixed with blood. But to show mercy is to simply refrain from applying more scourges. 

Isn’t this what Jesus is doing to this man? He could easily have applied scourges to this man. Shaming him for his unwillingness to put Jesus first in his life by giving up all of his wealth to the poor. But, he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus looks at him intently. And loves him.

How often do we apply “scourges” to “already festering wounds” in our world today? A world that seems to be hurting so deeply, witnessed in part by the large number of mass shootings this year, one this past week. How often in a world that seems to be walking wounded do we respond like Jesus simply with love? I think it’s no accident that today’s story is preceded by the story of the little children. Because children have no wealth. They have no power. They have no advantage in our world. Yet, in the subversiveness of God’s world, their advantage is their helplessness. To not be possessed by those things that end up wounding us. Those things that lead us away from life. Instead, in their helplessness they simply believe. And trust. And love. 

Because, ultimately, it’s not our wealth that makes it hard to get into heaven. It’s our unwillingness to give up the things of this world that possess us, that draw us away from God. That keep us from passing through the eye of the needle.

So, what was making me so angry over these past few weeks. It’s because, in preparing my sermons, I myself was completely convicted. I like the disciples saw, but failed to perceive. Heard, but did not understand. Refused to allow my blind eyes to be opened. 

But, that’s the thing about Jesus. If his healing act doesn’t work the first time, he keeps trying it until our eyes are opened. Because, just as Jesus looked at the rich man, he looks at us. And loves us. And never gives up on us.

In this discipline of Lent, may we practice showing this same mercy to a world with festering wounds. By sacrificing. By loving. By trusting. Because Jesus promises that our childlike discipleship will not be futile. No matter how hard it may be. 

“Many who are first will be last. And the last will be first.” Amen.

Preached March 1, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY

Lent 1
Readings: Mark 10:17-31, Deuteronomy 8:11-14, Psalm 19:7-10