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

Sounds of Home – Time

Tuesdays at 2pm
Welcome to the March 31st edition of Sounds of Home!

O God, Our Help in Ages Past

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

A thousand ages in your sight are like an evening gone,
short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.

Time like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the op’ning day.

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
still be our guard while troubles last and our eternal home.


ELW #632 verses 1,4,5,6

Text: Isaac Waats

Music: William Croft


Like to lend your voice to this program?

Our upcoming theme is “rummage”

If you have a response to this theme – whether a few thoughts, an original writing, poem, radio play, memory or story, played piece of music, a one-liner – sky’s the limit! – between 5 seconds and 5 minutes in length – we’d love to hear from you.

We’re also seeking guest hosts! And folks to lead a song to sing!

Need help recording? Have questions? No problem!

Contact Molly at tulkmo01@luther.edu for information and submissions.

Deadline for submissions is Sunday night (April 5th)

Sounds of Home – Spring

Welcome to the first installment of Sounds of Home

Get ready to sing!

Song of Home

Sing a song by the fire, chant it sweet and low;
Sing of love, hope, desire, as the embers glow.
Harmony rich and warm, cadence loud and strong,
Melody full of charm, beautiful our song;
Sing of work, sing of friends, sing of those who roam;
But before singing ends, sing a song of home.

Sing a song with the earth, sing with meadows gay,
With the fields sing with mirth, merry roundelay.
Sing with hills in the sun, forests cool and dim,
When the long day is done, join the evening hymn;
Sing above ocean’s roar, with the spraying foam;
But before songs are o’er, sing a song of home.

Text: Ellen J. Lorenz

Music: Largo from New World Symphony by Antonín Dvořák


Like to lend your voice to this program?

Our upcoming theme is “time”

If you have a response to this theme – whether a few thoughts, an original writing, poem, radio play, memory or story, played piece of music, a one-liner – sky’s the limit! – between 5 seconds and 5 minutes in length – we’d love to hear from you.

Need help recording? Have questions? No problem!

Contact Molly at tulkmo01@luther.edu for information and submissions.

Deadline for submissions is Sunday night (March 29)

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


Ash Wednesday

[Jesus and the disciples] went on and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”  Mark 9:30-37


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. It might be interesting to pause here, and ask what that means to you or how we should best respond to the season. What shouldone do about Lent? Presumably there is more to it than making time in our Wednesdays to gather for soup and sandwiches and a quick service.  

Lent used to be a time when the faithful were urged to fast and pray through the 40 days, or at least renounce personal sin in the form of breaking a bad habit or engaging in a spiritual discipline as an intentional means of drawing our minds to God through the yearning or sense of loss that is suddenly created. Perhaps we think about Jesus’ urging, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But what does that mean?

Renouncing coffee sounds drastic – yet that is the kind of response that is traditionally considered worthy of a lenten discipline. Denying ourselves brussel sprouts for six weeks would probably not produce the same kind of longing or sense of martyrdom. No matter how much I like them, six weeks without sprouts would likely not turn my attention to God.  

Fortunately, I don’t believe denying ourselves food is being on the right track. 

In the Gospel reading today, the disciples have not considered self denial, but rather are all about self promotion. Jesus’ response to them helps focus on the themes and disciplines that are more substantial in the season of Lent.  

This reading was the second time that Jesus attempts to teach the disciples about his approaching death. He makes clear that following him along the way, this pattern of discipleship they have committed themselves to, means service to others. It’ not about greatness, or leading the pack, or surpassing others in law-abiding, personal piety, and devotion to God. That defines the Pharisees – they’ve got public practice covered, and still they are found lacking. 

Another point the disciples – and we – need a bit of schooling on is that following Jesus isn’t a private endeavor. Faith is always personal, but not intended to be private. As hard as it is for nordic Lutherans to hear, discipleship isn’t to be kept quietly between me and God – nor is it for one’s own benefit. That goes against much that modern American Christianity stands for. We like private and idiosyncratic. We would much rather attend to ourselves and to our own salvation than attend to the world. But it is for the sake of others that the patriarchs, the prophets, Jesus, the disciples, and we have been called. Following in the way of Jesus requires community, because that is where true life takes place, and that is where God is truly present – where two or three are gathered. Discipleship requires belonging, because Christ’s way is lived out in service, in daily life, as members  – with one another – of one body.

The disciples have argued about who is the greatest, each one contending for top dog, and in response, Jesus places a little child among them.

We know very well that things have changed in 2000 years, but it’s still hard to hear the gospel outside of our own cultural framework, and so the humiliation of this seemingly simple, natural act of Jesus taking a child in his arms has been lost.

We might picture one of those Sunday school posters of Jesus in a white robe with a cute little blond haired toddler smiling up at him. But in the world of Mark’s gospel, Jesus plucked up one of the least likely to be noticed, least likely to be brought forward, least likely to have attention or honor given to them. A good and valued slave was much more important within the household economy than was a child. Children learned early not to distract from the flow of family and communal life, not to get in the way. Although they were loved and cared for, the community’s attention was focused elsewhere. 

So this is a teachable moment for the disciples. Notice is brought to the one person in the room to who was not in any way expecting it. That becomes the breathtaking challenge of discipleship. This child is lifted up, this small, scrubby bit of insignificance doing her menial chore on the sidelines is noticed and honored in the kingdom of God. This one who is truly the least, the last, the invisible server, is the one lifted up as greatest in the economy of heaven, wrapped in the arms of God. 

That image, coming on the heals of the Super Bowl game with it’s pretend heroes and halftime hoopla and 6 million dollar a minute ads – and coming in the midst of this presidential campaign circus as candidates vie for the popularity and greatness and mouth-time, provides the perfect backdrop for us to see the contrast that Jesus exposed.

As an indicator of how radical the message was back in the day, the very next passage sees the disciples scolding people for bringing their children to Jesus. They were indignant that the teacher should be bothered in this way. Surely he has more important people to bless. But Jesus says, “No. You weren’t paying attention. Not only are they welcome to come to me, but they are the model. They are the ones who show how the kingdom of God is received. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

When I hear that one must be like a child to enter God’s kingdom, my mind goes back to my kids as sweet toddlers and preschool-aged children. Even when they were willful and naughty, there was an innocence to it. They had an unsullied sense of wonder, and the anticipation of learning something new every day. Being childlike.     

But that’s not what Jesus seems to be saying. Rather, he’s indicating that it is the kid mucking out the stable, picking through the trash of the wealthy, gathering kindling for the cook fire, carding wool, sweeping the dirt floor – a child who comes without status or power,  who serves the family in those small, necessary tasks that no one wants to do so they get passed along to the end of the line.  It’s that child who expects no special treatment, looks for nothing but daily bread whom Jesus says belongs to, and is first in, the kingdom of heaven. 

The disciplines of Lent are for serving the community, not for self piety or salvation. If denying yourself some thing causes you to offer something to God by way of your neighbor or in some manner that eases the suffering of others, then it has a good purpose. But denying yourself a pleasure or necessity – and we’re back to coffee in both categories –  simply for the sake of personal suffering merely adds to the suffering of the world. It does nothing to appease it.

The ashes smudged on our foreheads tonight form the sign of the cross, reminding us that we are not great, but that we are part of that great communion of welcome and belonging. As we enter the weeks of Lent, we may consider doing more than renouncing a pleasure or habit for 6 weeks.

Our theme for the Wednesday evening services will center around living with intention and vulnerability. Without realizing this, Molly reflected on that last Sunday as a perfect segue. Maybe, hopefully, we will be led and inspired during these weeks into a long-term, gradual reshaping of our lives and priorities and expectations toward the command to love ourselves and our neighbor in a mutually beneficial ratio. Jesus called us to pay attention to others (not only ourselves) – to serve, to be as a small child in the household of God, taking up the task – however menial or marvelous – that you have within you to offer. 

In the next 5 weeks, we will hear from some yet to be determined number of you about your experiences, attempts, methods of being intentional – in faith practices, in daily choices, in relationships within the communion of saints and with God – and what sacrifices or benefits are inherent to the practice.  As always, we will learn from, and be inspired by, one another.

I welcome you to Lent.

Pastor Linda

Mark 7

The last time we saw the disciples, Jesus had sent them out two by two and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Now back with Jesus, they report all that they had done and taught, and he said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” So many were coming and going, they had no leisure even to eat. So, they got in a boat and headed for a deserted place, but it was quicker on foot, and the crowd beat them to this once deserted spot. As Jesus went ashore, he saw the great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. And it grew late.

Jesus must have been in the flow and lost track of time, because his disciples came announcing the obvious, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late. Send the people away so that they can go into the villages and buy something to eat.” 

But Jesus – whose ways are not our ways nor thoughts our thoughts – said, “No, you give them something to eat.” 

I think the disciples must have made a lot of sideways glances in their career, checking to see if any of them had a glint of understanding. Mike Miles offers a disciples’ kind of quote from Ken Keesy: “Since we don’t know where we’re going, we have to stick together in case someone gets there.”

However, lacking this glint of insight, the fellas ask if they should make a run to the IGA and buy two hundred denarii worth of pita. Jesus said, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” They came back saying, “Five, and two fish,” no doubt thinking this would put an end to the matter.

But it didn’t, and we know the rest of the story: Jesus blessed and broke the loaves, gave them to the disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And when everyone had eaten their fill, there were twelve baskets of leftovers – both bread and fish – and those who had eaten numbered five thousand men. Lukes adds, “not counting women and children”, but we won’t quibble about women not counting (this time). We get the point. It was a sign and a wonder, followed immediately by another one. After getting their fill of Wonder Bread, Jesus sent the people away and sent the disciples back over the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida in Gentile territory. But Jesus misses the boat praying, a storm comes up, and everyone is afraid for their lives until Jesus catches up to them, walking over the water. They are perhaps more terrified at this, “utterly astounded”, we are told, “for they did not understand about the loaves, because their hearts were hardened.” They finally came ashore at Genessaret, which means they were blown from the northeast shore of Lake Galilee back across the sea to land 3 miles south of where they started out. All in all, a trying day.

When they finally disembarked, people “at once recognized Jesus, and chased about that whole region bringing their sick to wherever they heard he was teaching. Wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,” (that is an 85 mile journey to the north, by the way – I don’t really picture scribes and Pharisees going that far), but anyway, apparently they did, and “they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;  and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’  He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;  in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”  You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ 

Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!  For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.”  But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban.”‘ (that is a practice of willing assets to the Temple making them unavailable to be used for elderly parents’ care, but rather encourages circumventing the moral and legal imperative to honor mother and father)  “‘thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’ 

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’  

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable.  He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'”

Our reading ends here, except that the next bit is important, and we’ll miss it if I don’t add it now.

From there they set out and went to the northern Gentile region of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. That’s a 40 mile hike through rough terrain, climbing and dropping 4000 feet in elevation a number of times on their way to the coast.  In Tyre, Jesus was spotted by a Syrophoenician woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit. This is a great story but I’m not going to tell now because I’m focusing on the travelogue. From Tyre, Jesus and his merry men went another 20 miles north to Sidon, and then in an eastern arch back towards the Sea of Galilee, ending on the southeast side of the lake in the region of the Decapolis – all in Gentile territory. 

Of course, Jesus heals along the way, he feeds 4000, then turns around again and goes back 50 miles north to Caesarea Philippi. There is no explanation for all of this hiking activity away from Galilee. Perhaps it’s to shake off the crowds. Perhaps Jesus wanted to see a bit of the world away from home, to see how the other side lived. Perhaps it was to stay out of reach of his opponents in Jerusalem while he teaches the disciples all that they need to know. (That teaching maybe took more time than he had scheduled?)  And, this is a three year story told without any time markers, so, perhaps it took over a long time, slowly walking, lots of visiting along the way.

We can’t know any of that, of course. What we do know is that Mark’s travelogue is unique among the gospels and shows us that Jesus was not limiting God’s activity to the chosen people. In fact, he was always expanding the territory, widening the reach. Not only to the unclean, ignorant, and disgraceful among his own people, but to those ‘dogs’ – the derogatory name for Samaritans and Phoenicians.

So we know there is wideness in God’s mercy, amazing grace, peace to soothe our bitter woes, love divine, all other love’s excelling. 

And we know that people in this gospel are real people – not stylized people like in the gospel of John – but true to the human condition. There are those who trust and those who doubt and those who oppose  – all of which is evidence of the condition of their hearts. And that is Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees and scribes. They have hardened their hearts because Jesus doesn’t meet their expectation and doesn’t fit within the framework of their tradition.

But, how are we supposed to tell the difference between religion and human tradition? I mean, we know that Fastelavns isn’t a means of salvation, but it is, in its own way, a means of grace. Intergenerational, playful, open to anyone who finds their way in on a cold dark night in February. The Lutheran Church is full of traditions – what to say in performing a baptism, what baptism does, who is allowed communion, how Christ is present in the sacraments, the purpose of ordained leadership for the sake of right order, the shape of liturgy, being a creedal church – stating belief in the creeds as an orthodox standard of faith. There are more – hymns to sing on festival days, how acolytes are to approach the altar, when to switch from regular to decaffeinated coffee.

This particular congregation intentionally blurs the lines of many official traditions if they seem to limit access to, or estrange people from, a relationship with God. Traditions are human precepts, humanly devised standards that do keep a certain order, allow a certain standardization of what one can expect to take place or be spoken and performed here. But are any of them standing in the way of, or in the place of Jesus?

Are our personal, social heritage and traditions – like quietude, passivity, Danish tribalism preventing God’s word to open fully in your heart or the heart of others? Does my progressive, often imaginative interpretation of scripture characterize God in ways that invite or limit faith to grow?

These are among the things Jesus was talking about, they just didn’t make his list along with infidelity, greed, debauchery, corruption, hubris, materialism, irresponsibility and cuckoldry. I’m a word nerd – I looked up synonyms for his list.

Jesus’ list is itself a word nerd expansion of the 10 commandments – you shall not kill, steal, lie, covet, slander – these are bad because they are hard on your neighbor and do not demonstrate the love of God.

I occasionally go to continuing ed. or synod sponsored events. Every registration form these days lists about 8 dietary categories to choose from – vegan, vegetarian; gluten, soy, dairy free; allergy to nuts or shellfish; Keto; omnivore. We are very particular about what we put into our bodies. A modern, individualistic form of the purity code. Jesus says God is fine with all of it because it will all end in the sewer.

Are we as particular with what we put into our minds? Video games, books, music, movies, 24 hr news – do these things feed you, nourish a sense of well being or wonder, fill you with a peaceful kindliness toward others? Do they expand your horizons of tolerance and justice and courage? Are they worthy of your mind? In biblical terms, they don’t end in the sewer, but in your heart and in your behavior and in your soul.

It can seem as though we live in a heartless society. Cruelty makes the news daily, courage only occasionally. Perhaps we seem heartless in order to protect our hearts, to keep them from bleeding out at all the grief and horror we witness. Maybe it feels safest to keep your heart closed, if not hardened – but that leads to hardened arteries with plaques of anger, fear, prejudice that can let go at any time and block your heart altogether, or damage the functioning of your whole body in one stroke.

Maybe on those long walks in rough terrain, Jesus was teaching his disciples there is no reason to be afraid of the unholiness of others, of unsavory or dangerous elements of creation, of places, people and situations that may appear godforsaken.

The world Jesus invites us to see has no quarantines, no refugee camps, no decontamination chambers, no border walls. So he eats with tax collectors and sinners, he touches lepers and bleeders, he handles the bodies of dead and diseased, he preaches to pig farmers, Gentiles and heathens. In the story of the Syrophoenician mother, Jesus is surprised by her insightful conversation. If Jesus continued to learn from ‘others’, then so may we. The world is wide when we consider everyone worthwhile. And so our sentence to repeat 5 times a day this week is this:

Open heart, open mind – let the good and God enter the world through me.