April 12 : Easter

The gospel according to Mark, the 16th chapter“Glory to you, O Lord”

Mark 16:1-8

1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus’ body. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 

5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 

8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 The gospel of our Lord

So… that’s it. That is the end of the gospel of Mark.  Isn’t it great? It’s my favorite ending of the four gospels – I think it’s perfect. There are other endings – two of them, actually – that you will find in your Bibles, but they are believed by virtually all scholars to have been added centuries after the original writing. They were written by monks who were charged with copying the scripture by hand, and thought Mark was really bad at endings.

And we can see why.  Because, while Mark starts this familiar narrative in the usual way – it’s early Sunday morning, it’s still dark, the women are going to the tomb to tend to Jesus’ body, the sun rises, the stone is rolled away, they hear hear the word that Jesus has been raised, and they’re sent back to tell about it -it is at this point that Mark seems to have lost his notes for the ending.  The women run away from the tomb, full of terror and amazement – and they say nothing to anyone, because they are afraid.

This can’t be the ending! First of all, it’s the only resurrection story in the New Testament where Jesus doesn’t actually makes an appearance. Ever! He said he would meet the disciples in Galilee, but we don’t know for sure. So, that’s something…

And secondly, the women disciples utterly fail. Which seems a little surprising. The women have been Jesus’ best, most intuitive, disciples in many ways. And here the young man in white has met them with the classic greeting that always signals good news: “Do not be afraid.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Throughout the Bible — from the prophets of old to Gabriel greeting Mary — every time someone starts a speech with “Do not be afraid,” we know that what they’re going to say will be be good news. So the young man greets Mary Magdalene with the signal that what he’s about to say is wonderful news, and then offers the best news the women could have imagined: “Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised. He is not here.” He gives them clear and simple instructions: “Go and tell his disciples  and Peter (even Peter who denied him!) that he is going ahead of you to Galilee … just as he told you.” And yet, after all of this, they fail — miserably — fleeing the tomb and saying absolutely nothing to anyone.

And so there we have it: a resurrection scene without Jesus that ends in failure and silence and fear. Not much of an Easter story, actually. 

Well, maybe Mark just wasn’t very good at endings. To be truthful, he’s not all that great with beginnings, either. There is no genealogy in the opening verses of Mark’s gospel like there is in Matthew linking Jesus back through all the generations.  There’s no version of a Christmas story with Mary, Joseph, shepherds, or angels which is how Luke begins. The opening verses of John’s gospel are beautiful, profound theological poetry – a hymn to the Living Word. But look at Mark: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God..” period.  That’s all. No drama, no poetry, not even any verbs, just thirteen little words that sound more like a title than an introduction, and then he changes the topic and starts talking about John the Baptist. He would never get published today!

But, this ending actually fits into a pattern that shapes the whole gospel. The first part goes like this: The people who should know what’s going on, like the disciples, don’t. Jesus constantly has to explain things to them. He predicts his passion, his death, three different times – and yet they still don’t understand, they are still surprised by what happens, and don’t believe what he said. 

Again and again, the disciples miss the point.  The women had the courage to stay with Jesus to the very end and have come back to his tomb to make the final preparations for burial, but now – at the very end – they fail like the rest of the disciples. The people who should know what’s going on….don’t.

The second part of the pattern goes like this: The people who do realize who Jesus is can’t be trusted. Take, for instance, the legions of demons who possessed the man living among the tombs in chapter 5. He recognized Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The demon knows who Jesus is, but would you trust a demon for honest testimony?! 

And at the end of the gospel there’s the Roman centurion, who immediately after watching Jesus die states, “Truly, this man was the son of God.” But would you count on a Roman centurion to tell you the truth?

So there we are. All the people who should know, don’t. And those who do, can’t be trusted. Their testimony won’t hold up in court. Except … except there’s one other person who has seen and heard everything Jesus has said and done. There’s one other person who’s heard Jesus’ predictions and then watched as they came true. There’s one other person who listened to the amazing news at the empty tomb and heard the instructions to go and tell. 

That person is you. And all the readers and hearers of Mark’s gospel, from every age and in all places and circumstances.

Mark writes an open-ended account of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus that threatens to end in failure…. precisely to place the burden of responsibility for telling this ‘almost too good to be true’ news squarely on our shoulders. 

Mark isn’t so terrible at endings. As it turns out, he’s rather brilliant; and by ending his account in this way, he invites us into the story, to pick up where the women left off and, indeed, to go and tell that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, who has been raised, is going ahead to meet us, just as he promised.

Once you realize that Mark is better at endings than we thought, we get a different idea about the beginning, too. When Mark says, “This is the beginning of the good news,” he doesn’t mean just that one verse; he’s talking about his whole gospel. All sixteen chapters are just the beginning of the good news because the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ resurrection and the women running away in fear and amazement; it continues, moving forward all the way up to our own day and into our own lives.

And this is the important part – shake yourself awake for this: What was true for the disciples, is true for us: our fears and our failures are not the end of the gospel, our doubts don’t have the last word. We too, are an open-end of a never-ending story, a once-and-for-all resurrection that shows itself again and again, generation after generation in lives that are somehow changed.. transfixed, transformed…  The stones have been rolled away from the tombs in which we are sealed. Will our lives, your life, announce that good news through word and deed?

For those who have felt the claim of redemption and new life, Mark’s remarkable ending is a reminder that this resurrection is a beginning, not an end. And for those who are skeptical or curious about this seemingly impossible claim, it invites us simply to go to Galilee, to go to wherever Jesus meets us, finds us, and see for ourselves. It dares us not simply to write our own ending to the story, but to enter into the ongoing story of God.

We may not always see it, we may never understand it, … but God will be there, because Jesus promised to go ahead. Whatever is broken, whatever is wounded, whatever is ashamed or heartbroken or guilty, whatever is perfect and hopeful and true – Jesus has gone on ahead, and we are called to follow.

Those faithful women approached the tomb early in the morning very long ago. They got caught up in a story with an ending that, while it may not have been what they expected or wanted, was nevertheless precisely what they needed. 

And so also, I believe, have we.
Christ is Risen– thanks be to God!

Maundy Thursday Sermon

 “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread…” These familiar words of institution come from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Mark changes how the timing is marked: “On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed…”

The passover lamb refers to the night of ancient Israel’s salvation – their escape from slavery in Egypt. They were to slaughter a lamb without blemish, take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they ate. “This is how you shall eat it:” the Lord tells them. “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, … when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. Throughout your generations you shall observe this day as a perpetual ordinance. It shall be a day of remembrance for you, a festival to the LORD.”

The passover lamb provides a sign to God to spare those protected by its blood.

Then Jesus took a cup of wine, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. Then he said to them, “This cup is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”    

We can’t hear that as his Jewish disciples would have heard it. It might sound a little icky to us – an allusion to drinking blood, but to the disciples who have just drunk from that cup, condemnation and confusion would mingle with the wine.

Hear the prohibition from Leviticus:

Thus says the Lord your God: “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the body is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel: No person among you shall eat blood. For the life of every creature — its blood is its life.”

The very reason for the original prohibition is now the reason Jesus offers the cup as his blood. It is a new covenant for life, for new life in relationship to God.  The Passover meal with its many cups – the Passover event when the spirit of death swept over those protected by the sacrificial lamb’s blood – a cup of salvation that saves those who drink of it – but the cup of wine is convicting, it is blood. A new covenant forms within an old.

In Mark, it is not the act of betrayal of innocence, or Jesus’ willing, sacrificial death and martyrdom that sets the conditions of salvation. It’s not atonement in that way. In Mark, God enters anew into an ancient act of salvation. God resurrects the old covenant – to new life for a new rule.

This time God is not passing over, but entering into, becoming salvation within us, through the human life of Jesus, through his human/holy blood. God’s life is in God’s blood. And that life – through Jesus – is offered for you, given for you, for many, for all.

These are called the Words of Institution – they are not the words of an institution, of the church, of the building, or the creeds and laws and traditions. They are the words instituting, inaugurating, a new covenant, the new life of relationship with Christ and our neighbor. They are words of sacrificial love.

The incredible power of this meal is shown to us by the presence of Judas. “When it was evening, Jesus came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me now.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one among you who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.” While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”

There is no mention of Judas by name here, no indication that he was called out in any way, that the other disciples knew what he has been up to, or that he suddenly stood up and burst from the room. He was one of the 12. He was there and was given the bread to dip. He received the cup of salvation along with all the rest, though heaven only knows what he was thinking or feeling at the time. 

The significance of this detail is that betrayal, resistance to God, denial, rejection – is not out there among some other group of people. There’s no scapegoat. It was within the 12 who ate the meal. It is within each of us.

“When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters…”  And they did.  

But betrayal is not the last word and judgment.  And we are not quite done with the cup. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

In Gethsemane, on the mount of Olives, Jesus prays to be delivered from the symbolic cup that he will drink in his death. And, as if to act out this image, Jesus refuses the last cup, the pain-deadening wine mixed with myrrh that the soldiers offer him before they crucify him. But as he dies, as he cries out the first line of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” he drinks the sour wine that’s offered him from a sponge on a stick. 

This sour wine, from the vineyard managed by the wicked tenants of his parable, is the new wine of the kingdom. Sour wine offered in mockery at a place of torture and death, the sour wine of wild grapes – this is the cup of salvation – the glorious wine of new life received still in this world, in suffering. This is the kingdom of God? A cry, tortured sip of sour wine. This is salvation in the making?

 We’ve read all along, that the kingdom of God is hidden. And we hear – though we cannot see – that it is revealed in Jesus’ death.  We who hear the story are invited to live in the company of God’s life-giving, death-defeating, fear-ending-mercy-come-among-us resurrected Christ. And, like the disciples, we, too, are invited to drink this cup, the cup of his death which becomes the cup of the arriving kingdom, sour wine turned sweet. For it is the sweet blood of God. And life is in it.

Henceforth, there is no place of sorrow or death where God in Jesus has not gone on ahead. In Jesus, God has come to where God cannot be, to the places where our experience says God is not.  Places that are not holy, not powerful, not transcendent. But it is in these exact places, those of deepest abandonment and pain, where the Spirit of God has set a cup of sweet wine, furnished a banquet in the presence of our enemy, and invites us to feast.

Reflection

At the beginning of Lent, I asked for reflections on the topic of Intentionality. Our Lenten services were short-sheeted. But this is an important topic. Your thoughts and reflections are welcomed on an ongoing basis!

 Living intentionally. Being mindful. Daring yourself to the vulnerability of being who you really are no matter what others might think of you or criticize.  Seeing your life, your heart, your authentic ‘self’ without judgment, but with compassion, with kindliness, with forbearance – even fondness – for those unique and quirky parts.  These reflections carry on our lenten consideration.

From Luke’s account – our passage du jour: “Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. But Martha was distracted with all the preparations she had to make, so she came up to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? Tell her to help me.” 

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her.”

Can you recognize the One Thing, the priority, the best use of your time and energy? Or are you hopelessly caught up in a “to do list” of distractions and busyness, frustrated, waiting for your real life, someday?

Intentionality, purposeful living, our attempts, successes and failures at finding the One Thing was to be our theme for the 5 weeks of Lent. The COVID-19 virus changed many plans. But as I reconsider the theme, I see importance in reflecting on how we each regard our lives in these days.

Thank you to Bill Krueger and Shawn Mai for these written reflections.

Although it was written a week or two ago, Shawn’s thoughts add to or expand the themes of his verbal reflection on this week’s ‘Sounds of Home – Rummage, part 2‘.


Mark 13: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.”

During this Lenten season Linda has invited us into greater vulnerability and authenticity as a spiritual practice.  This invitation has helped me to uncover a bad habit…allowing my wounded 6 year old self to reign freely in making meaning in my life.  When is it ever a good idea to put a 6 year old behind the wheel of a car during rush hour?

Mike Miles referenced Walter Wink on Saturday in the West Denmark text study.  I believe Walter Wink’s thoughts on “A Third Way” applies to what I want to talk about.   I can violently fight my inner demons, I can passively submit to my inner demons, or I can respectfully disagree with my inner demons.  In this case my inner demons are shame, fear, and regret first experienced by my 6 year old self.  

Part of my spiritual practice is finding space inside.  Shame is an emotion (like anxiety) that closes down space.  What I’m talking about is when I’m anxious or shameful I can actually feel it in my body.  My chest gets heavy and closes off.  When that space disappears I am no longer creative, imaginative, or hopeful.  When I’m “in my skin” I literally feel my chest open up.  When my chest space opens up I have the capacity to imagine all sorts of new possibilities and ways of thinking.

This weekend while we were walking, Chuck and I talked about being pulled out of the present and either being overtaken with thoughts from the distant past or yanked into the future by fears of what might be.   I had a little ‘a-ha’ moment as we processed.  I never formulate anything silently on my own, I’m an external processer so I work out a lot of things on our Saturday morning walks.  Thank goodness for effective witnesses like my husband in my life.   

Recently, I’ve fallen into mulling over work decisions from a year and a half ago.  I inherited a troubled, ineffective staff inhabited by a group of rogue independent contractors who prized resistance and undermining over a shared vision focused on the needs of our discipline.  There’s no judgement in that sentence, now is there.  

I made some difficult decisions to help some unhappy members of the team move on.  Gaining clarity and support from my leader, I pushed my team in ways they hadn’t been pushed.   As a people pleaser, this was challenging work.  Ultimately, members of the team forced my hand in drawing hard lines.  I created performance improvement plans that resulted in at least one difficult leave taking.  Again, as a conflict avoider, I had to learn to flex new muscles.  

I have since left that position but have found myself ruminating on the past.  My young people pleasing, conflict avoidant parts are not looking back kindly on the difficult decisions I had to make.  Recently, my young parts had begun sowing thoughts and feelings that are the “go to” thoughts and feelings of my 6 year old self.  

This is where the Saturday morning stroll comes in.   As Chuck and I walked, I felt this familiar rising of shame and regret coming up.  Not taking a moment to wonder what that feeling might be attached too, I made the leap to the events of a year and a half ago.   I began to rehash the old history again with Chuck.  Unfortunately, he’s had to listen to these thoughts and feelings way too much.  As I began sharing (yet again) he stopped and said “I can’t listen to this.  I’m sorry but my capacity to rehash this with you is limited and I’ve hit my limit.”  Of course, I felt defensive and a victim of not being heard…the indignation of my 6 year old self was palpable.  

Recognizing the poutiness of my 6 year old self gave me pause.  How can I make the leap from the beauty of this walk to events that are long over?  Why do I breathe life into the characters trying desperately to be resurrected in my mind, that are long dead?

Shame for me can be addictive.  Not that it isn’t real in the moment but is it easier for my brain to latch a hold of past events that have made a rut in my brain?   Instead of recognizing what’s taking place in the moment, my brain grabs a hold of the past and gets an endless infusion of the drug of shame.  In my case, an easy target for shame to feed on is the easy target of those events of a year and a half ago.

As I took a breath, I had a transformative thought.  Might my brain just have gone on auto pilot and taken a swig out of the bottle labeled “bad work decisions?”

What I did for the rest of my Saturday is thought about how this all might be the emergence of a new spiritual practice?  How might I breathe into the present, keep awake (in the spirit of Mark’s Gospel), and disassemble the old temple of worshipping negative experiences, and instead build a temple out of gratitude and thanksgiving?  How can I reclaim a more authentic connection with my self and other people that isn’t based on “fake news” (I ruin people’s lives and make horrible decisions)?

So what does this have to do with the fig tree in Mark?  How do I soften my heart and  become like the branch of the fig tree that is preparing for the unfolding of new leaves?  Instead of staying in the frigid, frozen bleakness of gray winter, how do I soften toward the new life of spring.  

It begins by treating myself like I would treat my neighbor, with some respect and grace.  When I’m not stuck in self blame and degradation,  I can start to soften.  Thoughts that pave the way for softenness include:

-“you did your best with what you knew at the time”
-“you are a good person and you are human”
-“times were different and don’t apply current reality to a different time in history”
-“there’s a lot of arrogance in being in that kind of control”
-“Other people have moved on, you probably can too”
-“What are you grateful for that you’ve been able to do?”

With these questions I can gently invite the 6 year old who I’ve put in the driver’s seat to sit next to me and I can teach him as my adult self takes the wheel and navigates through the sometimes rough terrain.  I can then honor all of who I am and continue the work of transformation that I believe we are called in Christ to be about.   ~ Shawn Mai

Scottish people all over the world celebrate “Burns Night” on January 25th.   It consists of singing, dancing, kilt wearing, poetry reading, addressing the haggis and, of course, a “wee dram”.  I recently witnessed this annual ritual, attended by one of Mr. Burns descendants. One of the poems recited was the famous “To a Mouse” with the line “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew…”.  

The things we want and hope to do usually involve a plan to make things happen or, at least, taking advantage of an opportunity if it arises. We act with purpose to realize our goals, such as  saving money for a house or car, meeting new people to expand our horizons, or even taking a chance on love.
In doing these things we know that sometimes things don’t work out, although they often do. In the course of trying to realize our aspirations we become vulnerable to circumstances out of our control, such as economic downturns, the fickleness of human emotions or, in the present case, the global pandemic.

This is being written from a cruise ship in the Bay of Bengal. Our adventure was cut short just past the half way mark due to the Covid 19 crisis. No more stops other than for fuel and provisions. We cannot set foot off the ship. 
Connie and I have no idea how or when we will get home. We don’t spend much time worrying about it or trying to make arrangements since at the moment there are no known options. The 91 Americans and 16 Canadians on board hope to know more by April 13 when we are scheduled to be back in London.

We have become the mice whose nests have been plowed up. 
I like to think that Robert Burns’ mouse made a new nest and tried again. We are doing the same, optimistically laying plans for future adventures.  Meanwhile, this one continues.  ~ Bill Krueger

April 5 : Palm Sunday Worship

Bells

Welcome          ~            Pastor Linda Rozumalski

Hymn: Prepare the royal highway (264) verses 1,2          ~       Chuck Parsons, organ

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna to the Son of David.

Let us pray.
You come, O Lord, riding on a donkey.  And in the shadow of your passing, we witness the kingdom begun.  Hosanna, dear Lord, save us.  Save us from the traps of regret and envy, from the rocky ways of fear and doubt, from the dark days of isolation and illness. Redeem us from the graves of grief.  Unbind your daughters and sons from our burdens. Turn us to reconciliation, dignity, and peace. You come, O Lord, riding on a donkey.  And in the shadow of your passing, we witness the kingdom begun.  Hosanna in the highest.    Amen                  

  Psalm  from Zechariah 9 ~    Harry and Chris Johansen

Rejoice greatly, O | daughter Zion,
Shout aloud, O daugh- | ter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you,
triumphant and victor- | ious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal | of a donkey.

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse | from Jerusalem;
the battle bow shall be cut off,
he shall command peace | to the nations.
The Lords dominion shall be from | sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends | of the earth.

As for you also, because of the blood of my 
cove- | nant with you,
I will set your prisoners free
from the wat- | erless pit.

Return to your stronghold, O prison- | ers of hope;
today I declare that I will restore | to you double.
On that day the LORD their God will save them, for they are the flock | of his people.
Give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good;
God’s mercy en- | dures forever!    

Gospel:  Mark, from the eleventh chapter, verses  1-10 ~ Henrik Strandskov

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ ”  

They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  The disciples told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  When they brought the colt to Jesus they threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Context

Nothing is quite as it seems. The procession into the city with waving branches and happy shouts foreshadows a much darker procession out of Jerusalem that is soon to come. The people lining the road shout for the coming of the kingdom – a physical, earthly kingdom – a return to the days of their ancestor David. They see Jesus riding a colt. That’s what kings do. Solomon rode the royal mule of David on his way into Jerusalem to be anointed as King of Israel. Zechariah prophesies that the king will come riding on a donkey “triumphant and victorious commanding peace to the nations; with dominion from sea to sea…2Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope,” says the Lord your God: “For I will restore to you double.” 

Jerusalem is their stronghold. They’ve been waiting. For that return, that restoration; and the power of God evident in Jesus fuels their expectation.

Branches waving, cloaks spread on the ground trigger an ancient hope for freedom. This is the welcome for a victorious warrior, for the return of the king. The kingdom Jesus ushers in does challenge powers and principalities  — but not in the way they expect. The colt Jesus is riding is not David’s donkey transferring kingship and continuity – it is an unbroken colt, a symbol of a new rule. Jesus is not a new David … he’s a new kind of king. one that doesn’t meet their expectations. The discontinuity set up between these images and the excitement on his way into Jerusalem – and then Jesus’ arrest and public humiliation later in the week, becomes the pivot point for the crowd’s sudden turn and betrayal as shouts of praise turn to Friday’s shouts of “crucify.”

Gospel:    Mark, the 14th chapter, verses 1-9             

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth – and kill him; 2for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’ 

While Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came forward with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?  For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.  

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.  For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.  She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” 

Sermon ~ Pastor Linda

Two actions will be remembered whenever the story of Jesus’ suffering and death is told. The chief priests, scribes and elders have been trying to find a way to get to Jesus without upsetting the crowd. In the same moment that Jesus commends this woman for her generosity and devotion, one of the Twelve is bribed into a murderous plot against him. The woman is embalming the body that Judas is soon to deliver.

To the very end, the disciples are a floundering lot, hoping to get the right answer to Jesus’ questions, trying to get their minds wrapped around their enigmatic teacher. Realization of Jesus’ identity is a willow the wisp. They see it, but then it’s gone. They hear it, but can’t understand it. It’s not in their realm of possibilities. And why should it be. Today’s passage shows how difficult keeping up with Jesus’ mind can be.

Because, the diners are right in their concern for the poor. They’ve got that right. They have heard Jesus tell a wealthy young man that the one thing keeps him from the kingdom of God is his wealth – he must first sell all he has and give the money to the poor. They have heard Jesus and a scribe agree that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength and mind and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself – to show the same quality of mercy, the same generosity, the same forgiveness that you allow yourself, you are to grant to the least of these. They have heard parables directing them to care for the poor in their midst, to be compassionate stewards of their wealth and resources, keeping the needs of the indigent and orphans always before them.

Now they see a woman with a beautiful stone jar – and watch her waste even the fine, translucent alabaster vessel by breaking it, pouring out the fragrant nard onto Jesus’ hair, letting it flow down. Lavish, costly, wasteful – sensual – what were the disciples to think, but that her actions were inappropriate – wrong – a complete misuse of very expensive resources? It’s worth a year’s wage.

But things are not as they seem. In their culture (and not only in their culture), men were in charge. Men were respected. Men were the leaders of all things religious, political, economic, social, familial. Men had power and status. Men were thought to be closer to God. They assumed God was masculine. And all of that power and standing and stature and identity made it all the more difficult for men to see what God was really doing, to hear what Jesus was really saying. “The last will be first”; “the greatest, least”; “the Lord of all, servant of all”. These are only words – and slightly upsetting, offensive notions – if your entire worldview and every expectation is based on gender superiority: and it’s yours. Women had the social standing of a good rug. A woman’s role was to serve – first within her father’s household and then within her husband’s. 

Jesus said, “She has done all that she can do.” She has served him in the only way she has available – through an act of instinctual abandon – which is love, and her actions become the memorable scent of paradise.  This bodily regard for Jesus makes no sense to people who have power, but the way of a servant is self-giving.Their ‘self’ is all they possess to give. As Jesus gives his broken body, sheds his precious blood out of love for all, so she breaks her beautiful jar, spills its precious contents to mark his kingship and to lavish her love. It is the difference between control, power, calculating costs, having the resources to budget, plan, and steward, scooping out a teaspoon of fragrance – the men’s world and obligations – and the stewardship of servant love that cracked that stone vessel of nard like an egg and poured it all out, used it all up, emptied it all, not holding anything in reserve, giving it all – She has done all that she can do. She expressed her love and devotion through this action that is symbolic of anointing a king. The fragrance of all that nard would have stayed with him – on his clothing, in his hair through the rest of the week, through his arrest, scourging, trial and death. I imagine the fragrance of the woman’s act of love would have lingered on the body they took down from the cross.

The way of the kingdom of God is this uncomfortable, vulnerable, exposed servant-form – compassion for and from those at the bottom, not leverage among those at the top. The role of women was to serve and nurture and tend to the weak ones, the children, the old ones; to anoint the dead body and prepare it for burial; to be fully present in the water and body and blood of birth. These actions made women ritually impure, untouchable. Pushed out of the communion of temple worship, and community life, because they are too much a part of life.   If the women in the gospel seem to be the true disciples of Jesus, it is because they were positioned to see more clearly, and assume more easily, the posture of a servant. To be fully present, midwifing the times of transition between heaven and earth – birth, fertility,  death –  gave them eyes to see, ears to hear the true needs of life, the true purpose of faith.

The purpose of religion isn’t worship. It isn’t about getting it just right, or making sacrifices and holy smoke, or having perfect pitch for the emotional hook that brings people in to worship.The purpose of religion is to show love; to practice servant love. We’re not doing it right if it leaves people- keeps people – on the outside of some perimeter we have designed for right order.That’s what the Pharisees and scribes did in the gospel story. The purpose of Worship is to redirect us, point us again and again in the direction of love enacted in the world. Lovingkindness aimed at our neighbor and beyond.

Jesus said, “Leave her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.  Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed, what she has done will be remembered.” She doesn’t have a name. Maybe it’s because of the patriarchal society in which she lived and in which Mark wrote. But maybe it’s because the spirit wanted to leave room for the feminine example in the ways and will of God’s love.

Judas Iscariot will also be remembered. The love story continues:

Gospel:   Mark 14:10-11

“Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.  When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.” 

Palm Sunday CreedPhilippians 2:5-11 ~ led by Molly Tulkki

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, 
though he was in the form of God,  did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.


Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.    Amen.

Prayers of Intercession ~ Christy Wetzig

Sharing the Peace 

The Offering ~ Paul Petersen

Offertory ~ Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery 

Thanksgiving for the Word

Lord’s Prayer                

Benediction

Closing hymn ~ My song is love unknown    ~     Chuck Parsons, organ

Additional music: Piano, Chris Tou; Recorder, Pastor Linda

March 29 : Fifth Week of Lent

The spread of the COVID virus has shown us how connected we are as people of the earth, and how vulnerable, fragile, our lives. In tragedy and struggle the differences between people are erased – even for those we might call enemies – compassion rises to the top. The Song of Peace speaks to that communion.

This is my song, O God of all the nations, A song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is, Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.But other hearts in other lands are beating, With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine. 

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine. But other lands have sunlight too, and clover, And skies are everywhere as blue as mine. O hear my song, thou God of all the nations, A song of peace for their land and for mine.

Welcome

We come with our hearts full, with our living spaces perhaps too empty, with new responsibilities and cares  – we come in the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.    Amen

God is in us’ is a meditation for worship written by Susan Palo Cherwien*  May it help quiet your many distractions as you enter these words:

Perhaps we do not remember it, … as loving arms held us. And water of new belonging splashed over us. Each Ash Wednesday we see the sign again revealed. We had forgotten it on ourselves; we had neglected to see it on others, But it persists. That sign. That cross.

A smudge of mortality. A nudge of remembrance. A remembrance of water poured. A remembrance of anointing. A remembrance of a way made straight for God.

You have been sealed… With the cross… Forever. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

Prayer of the Day

O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as your beloved. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of compassion and wisdom as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we pray. Amen.

Psalm 139

We find ourselves intently focused on our health these days, our bodies, and on our  isolation. This psalm reminds us that we are never alone or unknown. God is in all things and all things find their being in God.

Lord, you have searched me out. 
O Lord, you have known me.
2 You know when I sit down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You trace my journeys and my resting places
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it altogether.
5 You encompass me, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
7 Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where could I flee from your presence?   
8 If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
17 How deep to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

Scripture and sermon

Tension has been building week after week (in our readings) as Jesus gets closer to Jerusalem. There have been disputes and debates between Jesus and the ‘scribes, elders, and Pharisees’ ever since the beginning, but the arguments are heating up. There’s more at stake. As Passover approaches, the scribes and Pharisee’s urgency to silence Jesus and diminish his influence is palpable. He is a threat – not only to their self-interest as he usurps their authority, but now to the nation. Their public attempts  -and failure- to expose him, to trap him in his own words, and the way Jesus can twist or evade their questions while staying true to scripture, is infuriating to them, and has becomes a spectator sport for everyone else. The adoring crowd only makes it worse.

Now in Jerusalem, Jesus teaches in the temple courtyards every day. The attendant crowd milling around is attracting more attention, swelling their numbers. Passover is coming and with it the usual extra ‘security’ afforded to them compliments of the Roman army. Religious leaders fear Jesus, fear his ability to excite the crowd’s imagination. What if they start a riot? What if they call for Jesus, not Herod, to be their king? This rebel Jesus could bring the whole thing down on their heads. He has to be stopped; now, before passover, before the frenzy gets any worse.

“As they came out of the temple, one of Jesus’ disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Then Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

Later, sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,  “Tell us,  when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to occur?” Jesus said to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”        Mark 13:1-8

Mark is writing about 40 years after the events that he is narrating. He is writing during or shortly after the disastrous fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple resulting from Jewish insurrection: a rebellion against Roman rule that failed catastrophically. This bleak and forlorn time echoes throughout Mark’s gospel. For him, the time seems ripe for Jesus’ return, for the apocalypse. The end of this violent and wicked age must surely be close at hand. Looking back at the Jesus events in Jerusalem 40 year earlier, and experiencing the fall of the temple in his time, Mark sees a convergence – he believes he is witnessing the beginning of the end.            

He goes on, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“But I tell you, about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, therefore and keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

You might be familiar with this reading because of our culture’s fascination with the cataclysmic Last Days, with the battle between the forces of Good and Evil. Video games, book series, scores of movies, and the Jehovah witnesses who come to my door, point to these events as the last and deterministic drama of human life on earth. 

Apocalypse. It is quite a reading for this week in our world. The Narrative lectionary cycles through the four gospels every four years. So this wasn’t my choice, nor was it intended to fall into the midst of a coronavirus outbreak. Still, it feels like it fits really well into our lives this year. Maybe too well. A world-wide pandemic gaining ground in nation after nation, state after state, county by county, seems… well, is, apocalyptic. But maybe not what you’re thinking.

Apocalypse come from a Greek word that found itself caught up in the tribulation of the final book of the New Testament, and is mostly held captive there – implying a disastrous cataclysmic end. But as a word, it means to take away the cover, to peal back, to reveal what is hidden beyond sight.

And, that is what Jesus did. He apo-calypsed the shallowness of religious practice among the Pharisees, scribes, and elders. Their main orientation was to the Law. To maintain the law was to control the people. This, of course was in their personal best interests. It supported their elevated social standing, gave them the best seats at banquets, afforded them the flattery and fear, bows and nods of honor as they walked among the people. But none of that was the ‘purpose’ of religion. Nor was it true to their own scripture’s witness of God’s will and way. It is the human way, often. 

Control is possible through force, shaming, punishment. 

Leadership through practicing justice, lovingkindness and walking humbly with God wouldn’t have had the desired effect for the scribes and Pharisses. (But it is the purpose of religion)

Loving God above all things… wow, all things? Loving your neighbor as yourself – even if that neighbor turns out to be leprous or a tax collector or a Samaritan? These ways of God do not bring public honor or social acclaim. More likely one would be avoided in the street, would loose face, not advance in community.

Servant leadership was just not appealing to the Pharisees and scribes.  That is what Jesus revealed about them. They knew scripture, but didn’t behave scripturally. When you peeled back their words, and their ritualized belief, not much was found of love and mercy, empathy, humility. Not much of the way of God was revealed underneath the cover of respectability.

We are witnessing a similar dynamic, an apocalypsing of our health care system, for one. It didn’t take long for the rug to be pulled back in this public health crisis. We’re seeing the results when the cover of competent national leadership and the storyline of abundance is lifted. There are weak spots and large holes in a system that was supposed to support a nation. True, no one expected this, or anticipated the web of devastation a virus could create, but why does health care readiness fall so far behind military readiness? (for example)  We would never leave our service personnel scrambling for protective gear, scrounging for essential equipment. The lack of centralized accountability, supply, and foresight is startling. 

We will discover in the weeks and months ahead what the apocalypse of the financial realm will reveal about the values of our leaders. Current spiraling financial insecurity reveals interconnections within big and small markets, big and small businesses evident now. There is an equalization of sorts in the midst of crisis, all are brought low. But who will benefit in the recovery, who will be lifted up? Who will be shown grace? Will all be raised in equality? Chances are the least will not be considered first, nor the big guys pushed back to wait their turn.

Chances are God’s upside down economics of lifting a child in Jesus’ arms and showing this insignificant little scrub to be the entry point to the realm of God’s will and ways, will not be replicated in our political will and way.

But, all is not lost. There is at least one more apocalypse du jour. An interpersonal one. 

The COVID virus shows no favoritism. It does not prejudice our social hierarchies of color, wealth, extroversion, neighborhood, age, race. We are all susceptible. We are all vulnerable. And in that is the cause of our fear – and the revelation of our blessing. We each hear the whisper, “That could be me. What about my loved ones?” 

While crisis may reveal the selfishness, greed, and self-serving impulse of our corporate intelligence, crisis often pulls back the blinders of individuals, so that we’re more likely to notice those around us – or their absence – and inquire about them, help them if we’re able. We’re more likely, in crisis, to recognize our shared fears and needs, our essential interdependence, and work side by side – all for one, one for all.    Yes, it seems the first impulse is to procure as much of the perceived ‘goods of necessity’ as you can carry, but we are also witnessing remarkable courage, integrity, generosity, willingness to serve against one’s self-interest. The strong are helping the weak. Creativity is exploding to find another way, to bridge a new gap, fill a new need. People unused to being home are discovering new ways to live, new ways to use their industrious natures and their gifts. People unused to sheltering at home are reaching out to strengthen community in the vacuum created overnight.

If we remember the beatitudes of Jesus, we’ll remember that they expose unexpected places of blessing – it’s not just the joyful, but also those who mourn, not only the wealthy but also those who are poor, not only the satisfied, but also those who are hungry and thirsty and lonely and scared. They, too, receive God’s blessing – equally – that is, in full measure of God’s love. It is our misunderstanding of the nature of being blessed – and our misunderstanding of God – that makes the beatitudes seem not quite right, or upside-down somehow. The beatitudes reveal the equality of God’s economy where all are loved as one.  

Our ability to find goodness even in these deeply anxious times, to find commonalities where we never noticed them before, to stay home and shelter even when we don’t have known active COVID cases in our county – but to do it out of concern for the health of our neighbor, or the stranger in the store, or those who must work instead of staying ‘safe’… these things are blessings being born out of our shared humanity and suffering, our share of God’s love.

Jesus warned his disciples not to live into, or focus on, a future they cannot see, but to pay attention to the now of their lives, to the here of their faith. “For you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…” 

But we do know that God is with us in all the watches of the night. God’s presence can be found in all the hours of our sleepless fear, in the long night of sickness, in those who watch for the dawn, those confined with a love one who is ill, those who serve in essential ways and are overburdened and weary. God is present now in the hours of each of our lives. Psalm 139 asserts that we were written into the book of life ‘before our bodies yet had form’. Certainly, God is present with you now. Be alert! to the many faces of Christ. And since you are sheltering at home, look in the mirror.

God be with you.

Prayers of the people

  • God of love, thank you for the examples of kindness we have known in our lives, for those who demonstrate your love to those around them, and by doing so inspire others to live a life of kindness and love. We ask that we would remember the eyes and ears all around us, especially the little ones who follow the examples of our actions, whether kind or unkind. And, by your grace, let us be kind. Lord, in your mercy… 
  • God of grace, thank you for this church community, for every person who makes up this fellowship of faith. Help us as a community to see how we may be a voice of love now. We bring before you our magnificent world, full of sorrow and sickness again this week, and courage and compassion. We trust that you are present especially with families broken apart by the virus pandemic, by tragedy, poverty, circumstance, or violence; with spirits torn by addiction, loneliness, domestic violence, abuse or worry. You’ve promised that you are present with the least among us, but we ask in addition that you would grant them some tangible proof  of your presence through the intentions of others. Lord, in your mercy… 
  • Dear God, in our own community, we shelter those who are hurting, who rely on your grace:
    Darrel and Milda, Cordelia and Nikki, Ken and Mark, Tom and Joyce, Lois, Bob, Karma, Vivian, Doris, Donna, John and Karen, Ava, Sarah.    We add to these all those named silently or aloud in this silence……Lord, in your mercy… 
  • God of justice, the governments and corporations ruling our world don’t seem very good at justice or peace or compassion or raising the most vulnerable. We add our voices to a chorus of your people, asking for peace in our world, for justice for the oppressed, for policies that protect all the habitats of your earth. We pray for those who serve in policing, military and governance: especially Monte, Luke, Matt, Phillip and Alec.  Lord, in your mercy…
  • God of grace, we pray for lives and livelihoods turned so suddenly upsidedown. Grant us patience, perseverance, and imaginations to see what good there is even in times of stress and heightened anxiety. Bless those who are struggling to stay at home, and those struggling to provide care. Bless us all as we enter this week. Help us remember that we do not enter it alone – As you have promised to all who have come before and all will follow, let us trust you at your word.  We ask these things in a sure and certain hope, and through the name of Jesus. Amen. 

Lord’s Prayer 

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen

Benediction

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord look upon you with favor and grant you peace.  Amen

Blessing 

Be well,  loving God,  keeping your distance,  praying intentionally for those with great need.    Amen

Built on a Rock

 Built on a Rock, the church shall stand even when steeples are falling; Crumbled have spires in every land, bells still are chiming and calling, calling the young and old to rest, calling the souls of those distressed, longing for life everlasting.

 Surely, in temples made with hands God the Most High is not dwelling – high in the heav’ns his temple stands, all earthly temples excelling. Yet God who dwells in heaven above chooses to live with us in love, making our body His temple.

 We are God’s house of living stones, built for his own habitation; He fills our hearts, his humble thrones, granting us life and salvation. Where two or three will seek his face, he in their midst will show his grace, Blessing upon us bestowing.

 Thro’ all the passing years, O Lord, grant that, when church bells are ringing, many may come to hear yuor Word, where he this promise is bringing: “I know my own, my own know me, you, not the world, my face shall see; My peace I leave with you. Amen.”

  • p45 “God is in us” from Crossings – Meditations for Worship, by Susan Palo Cherwien.  2003 Morningstar Music Publishers

March 22 – still home

Dear West Denmarkians,
As you know, no one is going anywhere!  Yet, the body of Christ that is the church does not require a building. The council and I are busily finding new ways to “come together” and stay in contact, if not in touch. For now, I will continue to direct you here to the website for Sunday prayers, the sermon and hymns (you supply the tune!)


Next week we will have either an audio or video of the sermon posted here.  Chris Tou is working with me to upgrade westdenmark.org to make it more lively.

 
We are adding participation options like a place for your written response, or a conversation board of some kind, and Molly is creating a podcast to replicate the weekly lenten reflections. We have combined several menu tabs to decrease clutter while saving content, as a way of highlighting the responsive, participatory aspects.


These are creative ways of opening ourselves to the wide world. 
BUT, the internet does not reach everyone, and nothing replaces a human voice telling you that you are being thought of, and missed, and prayed for. Please reach out to those who ‘share your pew’. And maybe the one ahead of you, too. Give them a call, send a card. (May I suggest it)… cross the isle! 
Thank you for being the faith you believe.


In this and every circumstance, know that you are loved.
Pastor Linda

March 22 : Fourth Week of Lent

Prayer of the Day

    Lord God of all, Why did you tell me to love my neighbor as I love myself? I have tried, but I come back to you frightened… Lord I was so content, so comfortably settled. I was alone, at peace, sheltered from wind, rain, and mud. But you, O Lord, have discovered a breech in my defenses. You have forced me to open my door. Your love for the world has drawn me. I cannot now close the door. Lead me into this grace. Amen. 

Since chapter 8, Jesus has led his disciples south from Caesarea Philippi, around the Sea of Galilee, through villages on both sides of the Jordan – Gentile and Jewish – teaching as they went. We don’t know how long this took. Perhaps years. Mark presents it with a sense of urgency, as though Jesus is pressed for time, trying to reorient fishermen to the kingdom of heaven. They’ve witnessed signs and wonders – healings of all sorts, boat-swamping waves stilled at his word, massive crowds fed from meager provisions. They’ve heard the kingdom of God is like a mystifying array of images and stories that twist away from their expected ends. They’ve listened in on disputes between Jesus and scribes and Pharisees, and seen the religious leaders get caught in their own words. Jesus has warned them three times of his impending death in Jerusalem, and still they walk on, inexorably toward the city.

In Mark’s gospel account, Jesus comes to Jerusalem just once. They have arrived. 

“Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ 

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”  Mark 11: 15-18

Tensions are rising as Jesus continues to teach the disciples and debate the scribes in and around the temple.

Three cameras are set in place. Jesus enters followed by his disciples.  They sit to watch the activity. A group of scribes notices Jesus. A crowd mills around, gradually coming closer to hear.

Camera One: The scribes, believing they have home court advantage, come scurrying over to trap Jesus. “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus replied, “Answer one question of mine first, then I’ll answer yours. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Unable to answer this without angering the crowds, the trap snapped on them, and Jesus followed up with the parable of the vineyard. (see last week’s sermon)

The scribes and elders retreat; walking away murmuring, embarrassed and angry. 

Pharisees, scribes, chief priests, elders – in Mark, these ‘characters’ represent the epitome of what is wrong with the Temple. The power structure, hierarchy, and traditions they promote reinforce their social status while oppressing the poor and limiting people’s access to worship of God. They were to be servants and interpreters, vintners in the cultivation of fine grapes in the parable. Instead, they puff themselves up with fine robes and places honor, violating the basic principles of justice and loving kindness for which the laws were given. 

This hubbub attracted the attention of another scribe, though, who came to listen – and who now steps forward to inquire: 

“So, what is the greatest law? If we are being criticized for our management of the vineyard, to which commandment do we owe primary allegiance?” Jesus responds, “The law of love. “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.’  And the second follows: it is a shared love, equal regard – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  12:28-32

The scribe agrees, approving of Jesus’ answer as wise and faithful to their mutual Jewish tradition. He calls Jesus ‘Teacher’, and adds the judgment of the prophets: “This (love) is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 12:33

Jesus commends the scribe for his clear vision and wisdom, saying he is not far from the realm of God, and, not knowing what else to say, the scribe and crowds disperse.

Jesus watches them go and warns his disciples, “Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. They look and sound impressive, but they huff and puff and devour widow’s houses. They exploit the very people the law bids them protect, and for the sake of appearance, say long prayers.” 12:38-40

Camera 2 picks up Jesus and company as they move to the treasury where he watches the comings and goings.  Silver coins ring as they are dropped into the temple coffers. Some worshipers deposit the required offering and hurry to prayer. Some approach with a great flourish and let their coins sound out with that self-satisfaction of privileged humility.   

The disciples are people-watching, letting their attention float from form to form, not really seeing what they see until Jesus draws their attention to this One. Almost unnoticeable, camouflaged in drab gray against the stone floor and marble walls, she is one you could easily pass over. Her poverty and anonymity render her invisible. Plick, plick.  The sound of two small copper coins can barely be heard.

Now,  ignore every stewardship sermon you’ve ever heard that lifts this poor widow as an example of humble generosity, or the power of magic pennies, or trust in God’s amazing provision. Disentangle her from all of that, because it’s not here. Don’t let yourself hear Jesus’ tone in soft warm words of admiration. He’s pissed.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  12:43

Jesus never actually praises her. He simply points out that, proportionally, the widow’s donation is greater than all rest. It is in fact all she has left. These others contribute discretionary income to maintain the structure, the stone, the system, the vineyard. But “the system” requires a temple offering in order to worship. To meet the requirements of the law, this impoverished widow puts it all into the temple treasury. All that she has, so that she can go into the women’s court to pray in the only place their religion sanctioned prayer and worship – one last prayer before she dies.

She is a case in point, the embodiment of the system that needed to fall.

Void of income, widows must eventually sell their houses in order to buy food. Scribes would buy these houses, increasing their social power even as they violated God’s command to honor father and mother, and to protect widows, sojourners and orphans.

If this widow is an object lesson convicting the scribes, she is also a character prefiguring Christ who gives all he has, all that he is, to a system, a people, no less corrupt. Maybe this is why the temple curtain tears from top to bottom as Jesus dies on the cross. Discrepancy between love and justice ripped it apart. 

Camera three: Jesus pushes through the crowd, needing to get out of the temple that suddenly sickens him. Some one of his clueless disciples says admiringly, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”   “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus said. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down!” 13:1-2

“The temple is corrupt, the vineyard a sham, the system that supports those walls and buildings is held up by hollow rituals and laws for the sake of maintaining the law, but that miss the greatest law completely – to love: to love God in word and deed, to love the orphans and sojourners and poor and powerless and drab little impoverished widows who you can’t see unless you really try to. 

“No, my beloved disciple, these are not great buildings and great walls, they are nothing, your devotion and offerings and prayers mean nothing, your religion amounts to nothing, if you don’t act out of basic human compassion for others, if you don’t begin to see those ‘others’ your eyes would rather skip over, unless you love the unloved and unloveable as much as you love yourself..… …..as much as God loves you.”

Well, there’s a word! (embellished at bit) How can we manage it? 

We are scribes, knowingly or not. There’s no way to untangle us from our complicity in the ‘system’. How can we continue in behaviors and choices that support systems we know to be bad, harmful, wrong for the earth and for life? But we do.  

How can we love like God loves us? 

For starters, of course we can’t! But we can love larger than ourselves. Biblical love is not emotional love. It is not something that happens to us without our control or will, the way “falling in love” seems to happen inexplicably. It’s not something that causes you to feel warm and woozy. 

Biblical love is ’45-years-of-marriage’ love.  When you’ve fought and compromised and made-up and stomped out and giggled and watched sunsets and argued about the bills and raised kids and eaten 40,000 meals together. It’s something we do, something we choose, something we more or less will ourselves to do every day, loving the other one who can so annoy… and so wound… and so complete us.  Showing mercy, acting on behalf of the poor, deciding to be reconciled is willful action, and generous, and costly. To love the neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as you would have them act toward you. All the ‘others’, not just your favorites.

And so Jesus’ response to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Apparently, the kingdom of God appears as we begin to understand that loving our neighbor, loving the other, is how we love God. We can’t ignore or oppress our neighbor and love God. We can’t selfishly consume or exploit the earth’s resources and love God. We can’t turn our backs on immigrants or sojourners or refugees and love God. The integrity of love is not in our feeling, but in our action, growing organically out of the love we have received. The kingdom of God isn’t someday, far away, beyond the clouds. Jesus keeps telling us that. The incarnate kingdom of God is here in the spaces between us (even as we social distance), and as we move into those spaces of division, we enter into the realm of love, the realm of God.

And that’s as far as this sermon is going to go – except, of course to ask questions.

Where are examples of the widow’s mite in your world?  Do you see her as a generous giver? A victim of the system?  A model of discipleship? 

How can we participate in positive change in the ‘systems’ that limit and oppress? 

In what ways is The Virus helping us see the change we need?

Sure, we could all be better at loving, bigger in justice, more intentional and reflective in our behavior, but you are kind and generous people.  And, mostly, I want to encourage your work in the vineyard, and thank you for what you do, and for who you are ‘out and about’ in the world. (even though you can’t actually leave your shelter at the present time)

God will work out the details of salvation and eternity.   I’ll take the kingdom of God as it shows up here, with you in the love you show, in the ways you try, and in the welcome you extend.

May God give us vision and bless our loving endeavors. 

Pastor Linda


March 15 : Third Week of Lent

Prayer of the Day

God of compassion, you forgive us in the of darkest places – places we hardly dare admit to you that we go (but we do from time to time.) You know us well – what we are capable of and complicit in – and still, through it all, your mercy embraces us.  We pray that our lives may be worthy of bearing a little gospel into the world.  We pray for growth and grace in us and for us, and through us for our neighbors, that what is broken may be healed by love.  Amen

           

The gospel of Mark, from the 12th chapter:

Jesus and the disciples came to Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple, the high priest and legal experts and elders came to him and began to ask by what authority he did the things he did.

Jesus did not answer directly but… “he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, set a hedge around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to vineyard keepers and went to another country.  When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenant farmers to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed.  And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted.  Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.  He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.”  But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.”  So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.  Have you not read this scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;  this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” 

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away. And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to catch him in his words.”

A man planted a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He leased it to vineyard keepers and went to another country.

This is a difficult parable. Difficult as in hard to find something positive to say about it, and difficult (at least for me) to see the connection of the cornerstone to the parable. I would be standing among the onlookers with a dumbfounded look. So I’m going to ignore that part. 

Difficulty #1: Unsettling questions arise about the landowner, whom we take to be God. Where is the lovingkindness we look for and rely upon? Distant and Destroyer are not among the beautiful names of God.* Unlike many parables, this one does not lure us into identifying with a character group, but we stand beside the narrator, looking on in horror at the tenants’ violence and the seemingly compulsive behavior of the absent vineyard owner. Distressed to watch his callous disregard for servant life – and remembering it is our calling to be such servants – we back away. “No! Stop! Don’t you see? Don’t send another one. For heaven’s sake, not your son!! It’s absurd to assume they’ll treat him differently!” And I, at least, get that pit-of-my-stomach ache and fear. The same one as when Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem every Lent. I know the ending. I can’t pretend it might be different this year. And the love deeper than God’s love for Jesus hurts.  We see can through this allegory. We know the love is for us.

The problem, of course, is that we’re quite sure we’re not worthy of it.  * actually it is one of the 99 beautiful names of God in the Koran. And perhaps this is why.

In reality, the Pharisees, high priest, legal experts and elders were not categorically bad people. They had faults, of course. They also had noble intentions and a public role. They got caught in the crossed purposes of leadership and faithfulness. They followed their ‘tradition’ evolving toward power and security – a hierarchical social ordering that favored themselves – instead of following God’s preferential treatment of the poor, sojourner, and vulnerable. They were very concerned about maintaining the status quo within their community (and under Rome’s watchful eye). For the safety of their people. For their own sense of righteousness. But self-interest compromised their obligations and integrity as religious interpreters of God’s will and way.  They failed to see that the nugget of the law was always, only love. Love for God and love for others.

Jesus told this parable against them. They are the tenant farmers, and it is their failure to respond faithfully that provokes Jesus’ anger and judgement. They ritualized religion, espoused values they did not live, upheld the letter while opposing the spirit of God’s word.  It makes us squirm a bit, true?

Difficulty #2: There is no denying that the parable’s tenant vintners were greedy, violent, ungrateful for their livelihood and vocations, willing to kill to get what they felt entitled to. While we may not resemble the parable characters, there’s no point in denying that we bear a certain likeness to Jesus’ opponents. (Satisfied with ‘going to church’ as the practice of our faith, espousing values we do not intend to live, or pay for, or change our way of living to accomplish.) Jesus’ life and death, and two thousand some years of genetic mutations haven’t made significant improvements in human nature. We still live somewhere between the valley of the shadow of death and mountaintop transcendence. 

We know, especially well at the moment, the nature of greed and ‘me first’ accumulation of hoarded basic necessities. We know, especially well at the moment, the egoic nature of political leadership. Keeping the needs and aspirations of the ‘least of these’ at the forefront of policy and budgetary decisions seems antithetical both to current leadership and candidates’ concerns over ‘electability.’ It takes a pandemic to get concrete and specific in how our government, by and for the people, will actually help the people. It is a pandemic that finally reveals the tragic shortcomings of our nation’s health care system. Raising the vulnerable and suffering is our vocational calling as Christians (and human beings), not a ploy to win votes or a ‘hoax’.

So, is this parable just driving home the guilt and shame of our sorry lot, bringing us to our knees under the burden of remorse? Maybe. 

It’s Lent, after all. And March. A cold, snowy, drizzly Monday in the midst of The Virus as I finish my Sunday sermon. Mea culpa.

However, in God’s topsy-turvy love, the bad news is what bears the good. 

The Chinese word for crisis is formed from two characters – meaning “dangerous” or “precarious”, and meaning “a point where things happen or change”. That is the best description of Jesus’ interjection into history that I’ve heard. It was precarious for the Jewish leadership, the nation, for Jesus, for his dazed disciples, and for God. The crisis of incarnation was the epicenter of change, of happening.   

Difficulty #3: We find ourselves at a precarious point this Lent. Change is happening – daily. Our lives-as-usual are put on indefinite hold. We hear that it is a crisis, and, indeed, life has a more precarious feel than it normally does. This heightened awareness of illness, mortality, medical shortfalls, empty shelves, isolation is perhaps the good news we need. Not that anyone would wish for it, or that its tragic consequences are anything but tragic. But we desperately need the “point where things happen:change”. “Normal” finds us focused on our own goals, our own means, our own particular self. We want our own way. What is good for others, needed by the less powerful or less favored takes left-over status. The Virus is bringing home our lenten theme. We are suddenly forced to be intentional, reflective, mindful of our activities, relationships, travel, germy hands, and other’s coughs. With less to do, we might wonder more about the state of our neighbor. It is raising difficult questions, uncomfortable awareness of the ethics of use of resources. The Virus is doing what climate change science has not yet been able to do: force us to stop in our tracks. And think: Is this trip, this want, this habit worth the potential risk? Do I have the right to keep going the way I usually do as long as I feel fine?

Pandemic crisis may be what finally makes us better neighbors, better practiced at self-examination, more observant of how it’s going for the young family, or widow, or minimum wage couple, or small business owner. This precarious point of happening may be the thing that shifts the balance of your life toward love of God and love of neighbor.

The good news of this parable is that God’s purposes find a way. A new way, where the usual way is blocked.

If we recognize the inflicted suffering and injustice and selfishness of the tenant farmers as bearing some degree of truth in the real world, some mirroring of human history and current life, then it should also be true that the vineyard and its grapes have produced a harvest and God’s mission is to share it, to make wine that gladdens the human heart, that brings all into communion with God.

Possibility: If the parable of the vineyard impels us see the unbecoming side of our nature, it might help that we know there’s an alternate ending. God’s activity, God’s persistence, the unrelenting nature of God in love reaches out, and reaches out, and reaches out again, in spite of our unbecoming nature. Throughout scripture, God looks for a way beyond our “No way”. God’s intention is to heal, to redeem things that are broken, to increase our joy – not our guilt, so that we may live in communion with all people, with all creatures, not in strife against them. 

If we are looking for the truth or meaning in the allegory of this parable, it is to remember that God loves people because it is in God’s nature to love. However, God elects a people for the sake of God’s mission. God has established the vineyard so that justice, righteousness, and compassion might flourish. This parable does not raise the question of eternal salvation, but rather of our fitness to participate in the work and glory of God now, here, always. 

Salvation doesn’t depend of it, but your life might – for your life will certainly be changed. It’s a question. And, as always, a question to which we have actual freedom of response. 

Are you able, … are you willing, …. are you ready?


March 8 : Second Week of Lent

32 [The disciples and groupies] 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.” 

35 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.” 

46 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

You might be familiar with a dapper little Belgian detective who says things that baffle Chief Inspector Japp, and leave poor, perplexed Captain Hastings gasping, “Good Lord!” and going off in completely the wrong direction. This sounds like a familiar story line, does it not?         A biblical storyline?

I’m referring, of course, to Agatha Christie’s, Hercule Poirot – and although we might roll our eyes at Hastings’ ineptitude, we can hardly blame him when Poirot says things like, “It’s not who he is, mon ami, but who he is that matters!”

That is exactly the case today. It’s not who he is, but who he is, that matters. And it all began back in chapter 8 with the blind man in Bathsaida whom Jesus tried to heal. After Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes, he could see, but said that people looked like trees, walking. Jesus tried again and the blind mans’s sight was perfect.

That healing and the one today in Jericho are bookends for what happens in between.

Chapters 8, 9 and 10 form the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching. Mark sets them off with these two similar, but not identical stories of blindness. Poirot would much prefer that they be identical. 

What happens in these three chapters? Mark has written a most excellent murder mystery. This is the clue gathering section.

Jesus takes the disciples on a quest out of Jerusalem, from one side of the Jordan to the other – from Jewish to Gentile territory. They meet outsiders who receive him with joy, insiders who are threatened and so respond with threats, he is followed by crowds of people who are curious, who themselves provide clues to the mystery as he heals them of many ills. 

The disciples are slow learners. We, however, are insiders to the narration, and we’re catching on, working out clues, gradually coming to understand the nature of this Son of Man. Jesus is coming into focus.      For the disciples, it is a painful process.

Three times in the space of these three chapters, Jesus tries to teach them who he is, what kind of Lord he is, what kind of Messiah they follow. 

The first teaching moment occurs after the healing of the blind man in Bathsaida in chapter 8.

Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answer, ‘John the Baptist; Elijah; one of the prophets.’   He asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’      Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah!’  (Or perhaps, ‘You are the Messiah??’).   Mysteriously, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone, and then begins teaching that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Captain Hastings (Peter) takes him aside, and says, ‘Good Lord, this can’t happen, this would be a terrible thing.’   But Jesus rebukes him for not seeing that being the Messiah, and suffering for others, are one and the same thing.

Jesus calls the crowds to his disciples, and says, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will gain it.”

Honestly, I don’t think that shed much light on matters. 

The second time Jesus tries to teach them who he is, is after the mountaintop transfiguration experience where Peter, James and John see Jesus dazzling white and standing in glory. Again, they are ordered not to tell anyone about this vision, but it isn’t long before the disciples are arguing among themselves which of them is the greatest.  To which Jesus responds by saying “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and he plops that small child in the middle of the group to make his point. ‘This is what the kingdom of God looks like – from this child’s perspective, not from the viewpoint of that mountaintop.’

And now we have the third attempt.  Jesus tells them he will be rejected and put to death; and here come James and John. “Teacher, we want you to do something for us.” Jesus says, “What is it you want me to do for you?” “Well, we want to sit on your right and left hand in glory, drink from your banquet cup.”  I like the image of Jesus stopping by the walls of Jericho to bang his head a few times. And then stopping to heal Bartimaeus, asking him the same question, “What is it you want me to do for you?”

 The blind-men-who-gain-sight bracket the central chapters of the Gospel in contrast with the disciples who are only slowly gaining theirs.

Mark paints a picture of the disciples seeing through a glass darkly, as Paul wrote. They see who it is they are following, but not yet who he is.  Peter managed to put a name on it — Jesus is the Messiah of God. But Peter didn’t know what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.  The crowds see him as a teacher, healer, and miracle worker, but they can’t see past the mystery, the wonder of it all.   James and John get that Jesus is the real deal.  But don’t understand the nature of the deal.  Having just been told by Jesus that he is to suffer, die, and be raised, they shoot past the suffering straight to glory.

Like the first blind man, they can’t see it clearly.  Not fully.  And because of that, they don’t know what it means to follow Jesus. They can’t count the cost of discipleship. 

This section of the gospel closes with Bartimeaus. Who he is doesn’t matter. What is important or interesting about him is who he is – one who is healed without a touch, who isn’t led by the hand to Jesus as the other man was, but one who leaps up and throws off his beggar’s cloak while still blind. Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Rabouni,” my teacher “let me see again.”

That would have been an infinitely more satisfying response from James and John. 

Jesus said to him, “Go: your faith has made you well,” and immediately the man’s sight is restored and he follows Jesus on the way.  Who he is is a disciple, a follower who now sees clearly who Jesus is. 

Mark seems to be wondering if we have eyes for this… if we have gained sight for what it means to be a follower of the Christ.

It’s a question we struggle with, I would say. Christians have had status for a long time. We have mistaken Empire with Christendom and made them the same thing. But Jesus’ words say something very different than that. 

“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; 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 as a ransom for many.” 

What would happen if this was the mission statement prospective church members had to sign onto – like a liability waiver not to hold the church responsible for the suffering and toll that following Jesus will take on your life?    I wonder how evangelism campaigns would fare?     

Our selling points of fellowship, good worship, and perhaps spiritual growth might be a bit disingenuous if we really had this vision for the life of following God in the way of Christ.    There is fellowship, companionship in the body of Christ, certainly, but it is to be a servant body.   There is spiritual growth and personal development – but Jesus sets improvement on a downward slope – we are to get better at giving ourselves away for the needs of the world. 

As the church hierarchy worries about the decline of mainline churches, this is rarely – well, never – mentioned at our theological conferences as a method of attracting aspiring disciples of Jesus.  Praise bands and pastors who provide inspirational TED talks seem to be the magnet.   We don’t yet have the vision of a servant life as you live out your Christian vocation….

So, my usual ending: the questions.

Is suffering a necessary part of discipleship? I have an idea about this, but I want to hear what you think. 

How do you see servanthood discipleship playing out in your life? What are the things you struggle with in that image? 

Who are the servants that you see or know of – who is it that takes up their place at the bottom, un-acclaimed, to serve and aid and heal and restore?   

Where is your niche in addressing, ameliorating, the suffering we can too readily see around us, too easily ignore?

How would you answer Jesus: “What do you want me to do for you?”

Pastor Linda

March 1 : First Week of Lent

 

17 As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ”  He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  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.”  They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 

28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,  who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Mark 10:17-31

A man runs up and kneels before Jesus, and asks him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I don’t think I’ve paid attention to that question before.  I usually wonder about Jesus’ enigmatic response that he shouldn’t be called Good, because God alone is good – or I might wonder about eternal life and when that came to be a thing in scriptural theology. I like to get to the camel conundrum. It’s fun to imagine the options. And I wish Jesus would have asked the riddle: “What does a rich man lack, that a poor man has in abundance?” The answer: “Nothing.”  Ha!

But this time the man’s question itself caught my eye.  He doesn’t wonder what he must do to deserve eternal life…. and he seems to know that even with all his possessions he can’t buy it. He doesn’t ask about being granted eternity, or grandfathered in, or what the right prayers might be. He wants to inherit it. Inheritance isn’t something you can do much about. It seems like he’s the one asking a riddle. Inheritance is passed along: it is bestowed, bequeathed, entrusted.      The doing doesn’t belong to the receiver. 

And that’s what Jesus tells him. Well, sort of, but backwards.

Jesus quotes from the 10 commandments – reciting the ones about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, and then: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and come follow me.” The man turns away in grief – the only person in the gospel not to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow. Jesus watches him go, loving him, and repeats his favorite riddle: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

On Wednesday, we heard that in another context. The topic was the value of a small child placed in the center of the disciples’ attention. A child whose value is minimal – just the menial work she can do at the periphery of the household economy. This service from the bottom up, however, becomes the entry point to the kingdom of God. Service to others, expecting nothing in return, equalizing wealth and status, jubilee reversals. God’s economics are not sound market principles. Giving all you have and all that you are for the sake of others (who may or may not deserve it) – is a disturbing, difficult word. 

  No wonder we would prefer to talk about camels.

But a few observations: This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus makes this demand about possessions. Although he calls everyone to radical change and softening, melting transformation, the specifics vary from story to story across the gospel. If we remember the parable of the seed and sower, wealth chokes out the word of God. But hard packed and shallow soil don’t fare any better. Wealth is not the unforgivable sin. Jesus’ call is to a life of discipleship, not to a life of poverty. His invitation to come and follow are spoken in love for our young friend who needed to un-encumber himself of too many goods and their distractions. Like Martha, he was hindered by his many tasks and trinkets.

I bet many of us can identify with that. I have too much stuff. I am concerned about our finances and ability to afford a retirement. I am motivated to maintain the lifestyle to which I am accustomed. And still I struggle with the disparity of wealth and my part in it. There are those who do live in Jesus’ model of radical faith that a community can support and sustain one another. But that, too, is a luxury afforded by societal structures. There are obligations and responsibilities of wealth that are part of helping our neighbor thrive in providing jobs, homes, hospitals, education, producing and transporting food. So it’s not wealth itself that is the problem, but its place in our lives.

The economy of heaven is not capitalism with its acquisitions and mergers, supply and demand. It is something much more disturbing. It is the call of our whole self, relinquishing our power for the sake of the weak, our wealth for the hungry and naked, our security for refugees and immigrants, our hearts and minds and souls for God’s own purpose.

In the end, this passage is about what kind of community Jesus is forging, the way of being  not doing that we are to be following, belonging to, in this age, in this life. Here is where we take up our cross, where we surrender our domination, where we exercise our unique abilities in service to others. The purpose is not to inherit eternal life, it’s not something to accomplish so that we will be saved, but we follow Jesus’ way because we have already been saved through God’s love. A great letting go is required, a transformation, a jolting reorientation, a certain grief and a certain joy co-mingling, flowing down as possessions and purpose are shifted into proper perspective.

And our rich man? I like to think he was a slow adapter like I am, that he needed time to think and grieve and consider and pray. He was not able to extract emotion from information in the moment, but needed time to ponder these things in his heart. I like to think he gradually came to discipleship and lived into the kingdom one item, one recipient at a time as he divested himself of his many possessions. If he missed the boat, maybe he found a path along the shore.

If the first will be last, and the last first, maybe the order doesn’t matter. All things are possible for God.

Peace to you,

Pastor Linda