Starting Now

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On January 27, 2019, we followed Jesus back into Jerusalem and considered a confrontation with the religious leaders of the day.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:27 – 12:12, and we listened to the “song of the vineyard” from Isaiah 5:1-7  

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

As we continue in our exploration of the Gospel of Mark, let me remind you of some things we’ve already seen.  You’ll recall that the first part of this narrative contains many scenes of Jesus as a healer, a wonder-worker, and a man who was out amongst the crowds.  That time in the Galilee, however, ended when Jesus entered into a time of intentional discipleship with those who were closest to him. Between now and Easter, we’ll be dealing with the third major section in the Gospel, his arrival in Jerusalem on the day we’ve come to call “Palm Sunday” and the events of Holy Week.

Last week we considered a story that might be the “frame” for this whole section – the cleansing of the Temple and the judgment on the fig tree that was a pointed lesson to his disciples on the nature of the religious leaders at that time.  Today we’ll look at the first of five specific confrontations that follow the day when Jesus ran the money-changers and profiteers out of the temple.

Allow me to begin by making a few observations about the text as we have heard it and then I’d like to invite you to think creatively about the parable.

The Chief Priests Ask Jesus by What Right Does He Act in This Way, James Tissot (c. 1891)

Jesus and his friends are coming into Jerusalem and the religious establishment asks him, essentially, “Hey, buddy, who do you think you are, anyway?”  I find that this conversation is in some ways a mirror image of the sacred and powerful time that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?  And who do you say that I am?”  Back in chapter 8, that gave those who were interested the opportunity to confess their faith and give voice to their doubt.  In today’s reading, however, it’s clear that a group of powerful people who felt threatened or irritated by Jesus were seeking to put him in a position of defending himself.

In reality, though, Jesus turns the tables on them by asking them to recall John the Baptist’s invitation to repentance and forgiveness.  Jesus isn’t playing a trick on them here by answering a question with a question: he’s making a serious statement about who he is and what he’s here to do.  He’s essentially saying to them, “Look: you’re not going to believe me whatever I say because you’ve already got your minds made up.”

One little twist that our narrator adds is that we are given all of this dialogue in the “historical present” tense – “They say to him… He says to them…” and so on.  What that means is that when Jesus looks at them and says, “Answer me!”, he is inviting readers of all times and places to do the same thing.  In chapter 8, he asked his first disciples, “Who do you think I am?”  Here in chapters 11 and 12 we have the obligation to reflect on that question in a personal way.

And then, even though he says in verse 33 that he’s not going to tell them under whose authority he’s acting, he goes ahead and tells a story that makes it pretty plain.

You may recall last week, when we talked about the fact that there are several places where the Old Testament speaks of Israel as though it were a fig tree.  This morning you’ve already heard of Isaiah’s referencing the people of God as a vineyard.  And before you get all worked up about mixed metaphors, let me remind you that if your grandmother called you a peach and your grandfather called you the apple of his eye, you would know in a second that they weren’t really talking about healthy snack foods – they were voicing their delight in you.

The “Song of the Vineyard” that begins Isaiah 5 describes God’s disappointment in the crop that has been produced.  It ends with a description of the harvest: the Lord had expected justice (mišpāṭ), but was dismayed to find bloodshed (miśpāḥ); he had hoped for righteousness (ṣĕdāqâ), but found only moaning (ṣĕʻāqâ).

From the Codex Aureus of Echternach, an 11th-century illuminated Gospel

In telling his learned audience a story about a vineyard, Jesus was sure that they would remember this sad song about God’s hopes for his people.  In this current version, however, there is a significant change: the owner of the vineyard is now holding those who had stewardship over the property to be responsible.  He’s not frustrated or angry at the vines themselves; he’s irate because those who he had trusted to tend and care for and nurture his property were not being faithful in their duty.

And so, as you’ve heard, he sends a series of messengers to set them straight, and they respond violently and ultimately kill the landowner’s son.

It’s easy to jump straight to what might be an obvious conclusion: that Jesus is the son who was killed, that John the Baptist and other prophets were the previous messengers who were treated spitefully, and judgment is coming to all who reject the Son.  And if you wanted to say that, I’d award you two points for paying attention and following along.

However, let’s say that you’d like to have ten points, not just the easy two. Let’s dig a little deeper into the story.

The tenants are really making a mess of things, and the owner continues to send them opportunities to make it right.  However, the tenants continue to escalate the situation until finally they kill the landowner’s son.

Think about that for a moment: in what scenario would it possibly make sense for them to murder the son?  The landowner is clearly hot under the collar, and he knows that they are there. How would killing the son going to be of any benefit to the tenants?

The only possible scenario in which that makes sense is if the tenants believe that the owner is so far away, so weak, powerless, or so disengaged that they can get whatever quick profit that they can from the land and then get out of town before the owner comes for them with guns blazing.

Do you see what I mean here? The only reasonable explanation for killing the son is that the tenants hope that by the time news of this crime reaches the rightful owner of the property and he comes to execute judgment, they’ll have taken anything that isn’t nailed down and be long gone.

“But Dave,” you say, still striving for your ten points. “This is not really a story about farmers.  It’s a story about God pronouncing judgment on the leadership of the house of Israel for failing to take care of God’s people.”

And I’d say, “That’s brilliant!  So in that reading, the leadership believes that the judgment day is so far off that they can go ahead and do what they want as long as they want to do it because God is not really going to act now anyway…  Ten points for CHUP!”

So where do we see that in our own world?  What is the relevance of these passages to our own lives?

Well, for starters, I’ll give you the two point answer again: just as Jesus provided the religious leaders the opportunity to confess their faith in him and acknowledge the power that is rightfully his, so too, we are each invited to place our trust in him and give thanks for the presence we have.

But let’s dig a little deeper.  Let me ask you to think about some scenarios in our world where people persist in a pattern of behavior because it seems as though any consequences of such action are either minimal or so far away we don’t have to care about them.

Let’s swing for the fences here – a big, hairy, audacious, ten-point problem… What about climate change and our stewardship of the environment?  Is that a spiritual issue?  Does the church, do people like you and me, have the responsibility to act because we are accountable to the creator?

And you say, “Oh, come on, Dave… that’s too big.  That’s too complicated. And besides, we’ll be dead long before –“

Yep. In other words – it is an issue, and we do have some culpability, but because it’s really big, really complicated, we don’t have time for something like that.  Therefore, it’s a pretty good bet that we’ll be so paralyzed by the enormity of the situation that we are more likely to leave a mess for our children or our grandchildren.

I’m 58 years old.  I have a granddaughter who is 1.  Lord willing, Violet will turn 58 in 2076.  What kind of world will she and her friends inherit from us?  If we continue to act the way we’ve always acted, then scientists tell us that heat waves that used to come every 20 years will be annual events in 2076.  Some models indicate that insects, which are vital for pollination and therefore for food production, could lose half their habitat by 2075.  The beach where my granddaughter went swimming this summer could be under six or ten feet of water in 58 years.

Do I have the right to continue to lay waste to this planet simply because I expect that I’ll die before it does? Or does the fact that God set us in a garden, said it was good, and left us in charge imply that I ought to do what I can to be a good steward of that trust so that those who come after me have the opportunity to garden in peace?

Or how about a little closer to home… are there places in your life where things are not great, but you don’t see any easy way out and figure that you’ll just do your best to ignore it until it goes away or all comes crashing down on you?

Maybe it’s a financial issue.  You had those student loans, and then the car payment… insurance is a mess… and now you just feel like it’s hopeless and so the best that you can do is hide out and numb yourself as you watch the numbers spin and spin and spin…

Or maybe it’s more of a personal issue.  There’s a relationship that isn’t the way that you wish that it was, but you’re thinking, “You know what? Forget them!  All the blood, sweat, and tears I poured out and this is what I get?  Never mind!”

Listen, in these cases it seems to me that the call of the Gospel is the same: believe that healing, that resurrection, that change is possible.  Believe in the interest and the presence of the Landowner.  Believe that the vineyard in which you’ve been planted is capable of growing fruit, and hold on to your call to be a steward of this earth, your finances, or that relationship.  Believe that your life, your presence has meaning and purpose.  Believe that God is close at hand – don’t give in to the temptation to believe that God is too far away, or unable to help.  Refuse to believe that anything is beyond God’s reach.

And then let me encourage you to not only believe, but to act like you believe.  Take a step indicating that you think  that even though the situation seems dire – it’s big, it’s huge –  it is not the only possible reality.

Can you commit to reducing your use of fossil fuels? Will you look for ways to use less plastic – actually, to use less everything?  Can you walk a little more, or encourage your neighbors in some of these processes?

When you get that paycheck, can you prioritize where it will go so that you can think of yourself as someone who is making progress toward financial health?

Maybe you need to pick up the phone or write a short note to one whom you’ve wronged, and seek to move past some obstacle that has seemed paralyzing to you in the past.

Look, I have a confession to make.  I am out of touch with popular culture.  I have never seen or listened to Hamilton.  I’m not necessarily proud of this, but up until last week, I thought Cardi B was a diet and workout plan.    Seriously.  But listen: my all-time favorite musical is a really cheesy story – Man of La Mancha. If you want, I’ll walk you through the entire plot and even sing you the best songs, but for now let me say that I love that story because Don Quixote de la Mancha is dismissed as a fool, or treated as though he were insane, because he continues to dream about and attempt to do that which everyone around him knows is impossible.

I know that the prevailing wisdom is to hear this parable as one of judgment – to read these verses and think, “Wow, God is really ticked at these people. He’s going to punish them – and he’s going to punish you, too, if you don’t straighten up and fly right.”  That’s the easiest way to interpret this parable.

But I think that there is something to be gained in remembering that Jesus did not come so that we would all straighten up and fly right.  In the parable, the owner keeps sending messengers and eventually his own child because he can see that the current tenants are bent on overriding and demolishing his intentions for that vineyard.  Jesus came so that we would know that God’s intentions are for fruitfulness and for love.  Let us rejoice in a God who sent prophets, who sent Jesus, who sent people to us, who sends us! A God who is love over and over and over again!  All this, not so that we would fear him, or so that we would hide ourselves or some aspect of our lives from the Lord, but so that we might do the opposite and open ourselves and our lives up to the love for which we were made.

This is grace, friends, and it is for you. Thanks be to God, Amen!

FIG-ure It Out

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On January 20, 2019, we considered one of the few stories that is present in each of the four canonical gospels: the cleansing of the temple (although Mark adds some detail that the others do not include).  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:12-25, and we made reference to Jeremiah 24:1-10.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

As we continue with our discussion of the Gospel of Mark, I’m sure you realize that this is not the only Gospel account of the life of Jesus.  “Of course,” you say.  “Matthew, Luke, and John are all Gospels.”  You may not be aware, however, that for several hundred years after Jesus’ death there were dozens of “gospels” written; some of these contained sayings attributed to Jesus, others had stories of Jesus as a child, and still others were filled with some then-popular teachings and simply ‘credited’ to Jesus of Nazareth. None of these gospels was recognized by the church then or now, and they have been pretty thoroughly discredited.

Children complaining about Jesus to the others in their community, from Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, a 14th-century gospel translation.

One of my favorites from this group, however, is a volume called “The Gospel of Thomas”.  It contains a number of far-fetched tales, among them an account of the time that the boy Jesus was angered by one of his playmates; Jesus cursed the boy and what do you know? The kid withered up and died.  Well, the community heard about it and was upset, and so they told Joseph that his kid had to stop killing people or the whole family would have to leave town.  According to the Gospel of Thomas, when young Jesus heard about that, he struck the entire community blind.  Then, Joseph is alleged to have taken the son of God by the ear and “wrung it ‘til it was sore” and made Jesus un-curse the village.

I think about those legends when I hear today’s Gospel account of the time that Jesus lost his temper with the fig tree. You hear this account of Jesus’s frustration and you want to say, “Really, Jesus?  You’ve just entered Jerusalem for the worst week of your life and you’re talking to fruit trees?”  And then you think, “Why in the world was this story included in the Gospel?  How did this make sense to the early church?”

I want you to think back to something I told you a few months ago.  Do you remember “the Markan sandwich?”  There are plenty of times when the author of the second Gospel starts a story, and then interrupts himself to tell a different tale, and then gets back to the first story.  I know, it’s as annoying as all get out when your mom does it, but the author of Mark uses it as a device to let one story offer commentary on another. Maybe you’ll recall that Mark starts to talk about a 12 year old girl who gets sick, and then he interrupts that by mentioning a woman who’s been sick for 12 years, and then he goes back to the little girl.  The stories connect, and in looking at both parts, we get more meaning than we could by considering them independently.

Today’s Gospel presents us with a classic Markan Sandwich.  One day, Jesus goes to check out a fig tree.  Since it’s not fig season, the disciples are not too surprised when there are no figs on it.  But Jesus apparently loses his mind and curses the tree.

They leave that curious incident and show up in the Temple, where Jesus really appears to let his emotions get the best of him and he flips tables and drives out business people, all the while preaching that God’s house was for prayer, not commerce.  Of course, nobody there likes it, but what can they do?  Jesus is at the height of his popularity.

The next morning, they pass by the fig tree, and it is withered away – from the roots up.

I’m here to tell you that the author of Mark intended us to see the episode of the fig tree as being connected to what happened in the temple.  Listen: there are plenty of places in the Jewish scriptures where the people of God are compared to a fig tree.  The passage from Jeremiah that Lydia shared with you is only one example.  In those verses, it’s unmistakable: Jeremiah is looking at a fig, but he’s thinking about the leadership of the people of God. The author of Mark counted on other people remembering that passage, and others like it, when he tells us about a controversy at the Temple on the same day that a fig tree was condemned.  When Jesus curses a fig tree for not having any fruit, and then wanders into the temple and discovers that the leadership has failed, the first readers of Mark would have made the connection.  And then when Jesus’ friends discover that the wretched tree has died from the roots up, they would understand this to be a commentary on the spiritual bankruptcy of the people who were called by God to be a light and to be a blessing for the world. Just as the roots of the tree had gone, so too had the roots of the nation’s spirit.

I hope you’ve heard this story of Jesus driving the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple, and we could talk about many different aspects of it.  However, since we are spending the year talking about the Gospel of Mark, I’d like to focus on one of the few places where Mark actually tells moreof a story than do the other Gospel writers.  Although this episode is shared in all four of the Gospels, Mark is the only one to include the phrase, “and he would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.”

It’s an odd little detail, really.  I mean, there was all kind of flagrant sin going on – consumerism in the house of the Lord! Extorting the poor to buy the sacrificial animals! Apparent collaboration with the occupying army for economic profit!  Why does Mark point out that Jesus also talked about people who were walking through the temple courts with stuff that they may have bought elsewhere?

Well, it has to do with the location of the temple in relation to the rest of the city. The temple was right up against the eastern wall of the city, and just past the temple to the east was the Mount of Olives and then the road to Jericho and Bethsaida.  In addition to the flagrant and calculated hucksterism that was going on inside the temple, there were people who were simply using that sacred ground as a shortcut.

Do you see? The ordained and called leadership had deliberately secularized the outer courts of the worship area by engaging in commerce to their own advantage there.  As a result of that, it wasn’t too long before the population of the city thought so little of the sanctity and beauty of the temple that it became the fastest way from point A to point B.  There was no reverence, there was no engagement – people were just passing through, making sure that their errands got run.

And Jesus put a stop to that.  “This is not a short cut!” he roared. And then, maybe weeping, he put his head down and said, “You can’t just show up here and not be affected by this place and these people and the truth that is here…”

Jesus Cleansing the Temple, illustration from a 17th-century Ethiopian manuscript.

Mark alone points out that Jesus was not only frustrated at the people who were actively undermining the sanctity of the holy, but he was also clearly frustrated by those who had become so accustomed to not finding anything praise-worthy at the Temple that they thought of it as just another footpath.  In this passage, Jesus seeks to re-orient their thinking and to prevent them from showing up on holy ground guided by “auto-pilot”; he reminds them of the potential for transformation that can come when we encounter the Holy One.

Jesus didn’t want anyone carrying stuff through the temple without stopping to remember why there wasa temple in the first place…

I’ve thought a lot about that this week, and I’ve thought about the times I’ve shown up at a worship service not really expecting much of anything to happen. I was there to be polite, or to be seen by someone else, or because I had made a deal that if I showed up for church, then I could go and do something that I really wanted to do.  In other words, there have been a lot of times that I think I’ve carried my things right through the temple, disregarding the opportunities for encounter with the Holy because my mind was elsewhere.  And I would suspect that I’m not the only person in this room who can say that.

How do we become a people who show up in worship on purpose, who arrive here so expectantly that we are able to “clear the decks” and set down the other baggage we’ve been carrying in order to embrace the truth and be wrapped in love?

Well, my first answer to that question may be a bit simplistic, but on the other hand, it’s one that everyone in this room has already done today: that is, simply show up.  In order to have access to any possible fruit that might come from worship, I’ve got to be here.  I’ve got to set aside time intentionally to be present with folks like you in a place like this.

In some ways, coming to worship is a bit like visiting Crafton Heights.  As I wander through the city and talk to other folks, almost everyone in other neighborhoods says something like this: “Wow, Crafton Heights… Yeah, I’ve heard of it.  I’ve never been there before, but it sounds familiar to me…”  And I always respond by saying, “Yes, if you want to come to Crafton Heights, you have to come here on purpose.  You’re probably not going to stumble into my neighborhood because you’re drawn by the fantastic museums here, or the fine theater, or the many retail outlets or exotic dining venues we have.  You’ve got to come to the Heights because you want to be in the Heights.”

It’s the same way when it comes to worship.  I’m not saying that it’s impossible to encounter the Holy in random places – far from it – but I am saying that the most likely way that you’re going to find time to be in the Presence is when you set aside time intentionally to be available for the gift and discipline of worship.

More than that, though – more than simply entering into the place of worship, I want to encourage you to enter into the practicesof worship.  When I put together the order for worship each week, I try my best to give you some really good things to say and to sing.  In fact, we call the contents of the order of worship the liturgy.  That word – liturgy – comes from two old Greek words, leitos, meaning “public”, and ergos, meaning “working”.  The liturgy is the work of the people.  It is not a performance, and it is not a contest.  The spoken and sung prayer give you a chance to speak and sing what is true!

Sometimes, though, we’re not all that great at it.  We forget where we are; we forget who we are; or we get self-conscious. And so we wind up being in a room where we mumble along during the responsive readings, or we sing amazing words of praise as though we’re waiting in line at the filling station:  “Praise God (yawn) from whom all (stretch) blessings flow (check phone)…”

Beloved, let me encourage you to try this.  I know, some of the songs I pick are ones that you wouldn’t.  Sorry for that.  But lend your voice, your heart, your spirit to the liturgy.  Don’t watch – or even worse, criticize – the work of the people, share in it!

And one more thing that you can do as you seek to become one who is equipped to bear the fruit that comes from true worship: listen for the places in the liturgy and the scripture that push back on you a little bit.  We’ve talked before about a phenomenon called “confirmation bias” – where we tune into a program or a website because we’re pretty sure that it’s going to tell us what we think we already know and allow us to hear what we want to hear.

Praise God, sometimes that happens here, and it’s good.  “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…” Ain’t it the truth?! Don’t I need to hear that?!

But what if I say, or the lyrics indicate, or the scriptures contain something that is challenging or irritating?  Do we allow God to confront us in some way that gets us thinking about something?  As you participate in the work of the people, listen for ways that God intrudes into your own life or heart or preconceived notions.

Seriously: when Jesus was talking, he got people so worked up that they wanted to kill him.  Are we such different people, are we so much better than they were, that when he speaks we nod approvingly and say, “Ah, yes.  Good point, Jesus.  That’s my Jesus.  You tell ‘em, Jesus…”?

Or can we come to worship and be challenged and poked and prodded (and maybe a little irritated) too?

Jesus closes this passage with a brief teaching on the power of prayer and practice. He links the idea of belief with that of behavior, reminding his followers that they can believe in the power of prayer, but as they pray for the miraculous, they are called to treat their sisters and brothers with kindness and grace.  He encourages them to dream big when it comes to prayer, and to know that the things that happen in worship and in prayer will have an effect.

And sometimes we hear that and we say, “Well, maybe for someone else.  But to be honest, I’m not sure what it does for me. I can’t remember the words to the bible verse I just read.  I’m not feeling anything overwhelming when we do the liturgy here.”

Maybe. But maybe we’re just not noticing. There was a fellow who stopped at the preacher’s home one Spring day and found his pastor out in the tool shed. He said, “Pastor, I’ll get to the point. I’m in church every week, and I listen to what you say, but I don’t remember any of it.  I hear those Bible verses, but they just fade away.  I think you need to hear it from me – I’m going to stop wasting my time and yours.”

Without really looking up, the preacher said, “Well, Ron, I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m not going to try to talk you out of it.  Instead, let me ask you to do one thing.”  She handed the man a couple of dusty, dirty old terra cotta planters that were filled with cracks.  “Look, here’s what I want you to do: tomorrow morning, go down to the creek behind your house and fill each of these with water.  Carry them up the path to your back porch and set them down.  I want you to do that every morning for two weeks. Don’t come to church if you don’t want to, but promise me you’ll do that.”

The man took the planters, and thought that his pastor was crazy, but he agreed to it.

Two weeks later the pastor showed up at the man’s home.  “I’m here for my planters, Ron,” she said.  “Let’s go around back and get them.”  And as they stood on the back porch looking at the path down to the river, the Pastor said, “I get it, Ron.  You think that all that time you spend in worship is wasted, because you can’t remember it.”

The man nodded.  The pastor went on.  “It seems like a waste of time, right?  I mean, if nothing changes, why bother?”  The man wasn’t sure where the preacher was going, but he nodded again.

The pastor picked up the pots and said, “Ron, I asked you to fill these things with water every day.  But will you look at this? They’re dry as a bone.  Did you do as I asked?”

Ron assured the pastor that he had, but that all the water had leaked out.  “What did you expect?  They’ve got cracks all over them.”

The pastor seized the moment… “So you’ve been getting water every day, but there’s no water here now. Has anything changed?”

Ron looked at the pots.  They were still cracked, but all the cobwebs and the mud had washed away by the daily rinsing.  He looked at the edges of the path, and he saw where the grass was greener because of the water that had leaked from the pots during his daily exercise.  And he knew.

And he was in worship the next Sunday, singing loudly and reading intently. Because he got it.  It matters.

Beloved, it may sometimes seem as though your reality has not changed, but I’m here to tell you that the disciplines and practices of faith are designed to promote change and grow fruit in lives like yours and mine.  May God bless us with the ability to hear, to believe, and to bear fruit because we are willing to encounter the Holy One. Thanks be to God!  Amen.

If We’d Have Been There…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On January 13, 2019, we re-entered this study after an Advent hiatus we talked about Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem following the completion of his ministry in the Galilee.  It was an interesting discipline to preach on this on a day that was NOT Palm Sunday.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:1-11.  We also heard from the Psalm for the Triumphal Entry: Psalm 118:19-29.

To hear the sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

I’d like to begin by inviting you to consider two phenomena that are both very real and very much a part of your experience, but also appear to be direct opposites.

Does the name Kitty Genovese mean anything to you?  I encountered her name in High School, when I had a teacher who brought up this case with astonishing frequency.  I’m not sure why… Kitty Genovese was a young woman living in New York who was horrifyingly murdered on March 13, 1964.  A newspaper report indicated that there were at least 38 witnesses – people who saw or heard something incredibly wrong, but who did nothing to stop the attack, which lasted more than thirty minutes.

When police questioned the man who was found guilty of this crime, they asked how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many people, and he responded by saying, “I knew they wouldn’t do anything.  People never do.”[1]

Psychologists call this pattern of behavior the “Bystander Effect” – nobody wants to get involved, nobody wants to stick their necks out for someone else, and everybody assumes that someone else will do something…

On the other hand, I imagine that you are also aware of a seemingly opposite phenomenon called “The Herd Effect”. Researchers into human behavior use this term to describe how often we find ourselves adopting certain behaviors as a result of an appeal to our emotions.  This has also been described as “Mob mentality” or “pack mentality”. In situations like this, people find themselves eagerly doing something that they might typically reject simply because other people are doing it or a charismatic leader has incited a crowd. If you’d like to see a demonstration of the Herd Effect, just turn on the NFL playoffs later this afternoon, and you’ll see large groups of overweight middle-aged men stripped to the waist, covered in body paint, and cheering on a football team in sub-freezing temperatures.  Now, you have to assume that these guys are not idiots – but here they are doing something today that they would dismiss out of hand tomorrow – because their emotions got the best of them as they prepared for the big game…

Today, we are resuming our exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  When we left off, Jesus had left his ministry in the Galilee behind and had made his way to the edge of Jerusalem.  Today, we see in the event that’s come to be known as “The Triumphal Entry” evidence of both the Bystander Effect and the Herd Mentality.

The Foal of Bethphage, James Tissot (c. 1891)

Early on in our reading, Jesus instructs his followers to go and retrieve and animal that he’ll need.  When they do so, they encounter a bit of questioning.  “Hey, why are you taking that?” “The Master needs it.” “Oh, OK.” You can just hear the wheels spinning in those ancient Palestinian minds… “All right, this is weird, but it’s not my circus and those are not my monkeys, so I’ll just stay out of it…” The people who watched the colt being led away didn’t say anything to anyone about what had happened – they just went about their business.

Palm Sunday, John August Swanson (1994)

On the other hand, as soon as Jesus shows up riding on this borrowed animal, people seem to lose their minds.  Whereas at our last meeting in Jericho, it was only Bartimaeus who was calling out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”, now it’s a large crowd of people going in front of and behind Jesus as they sing the words to Psalm 118.  There is no indication that these people actually know who he is, and Jesus himself doesn’t speak, according to Mark.  Yet the crowd enthusiastically uses terms that evoke images of the Messiah, the defeat of Rome, and the reign and rule of God.

And yet at the end of the day, what do we see?  Jesus retires to Bethany with his disciples.  Those who had demonstrated the Bystander Effect were presumably satisfied as the colt had been returned and there was no harm, no foul. Likewise, I’m sure that there were many homes filled with people who said something like, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming today.  That was sure different… What do you have planned for tomorrow…”  People removed themselves from the herd and regained a sense of their own distinct lives and preferences.  In fact, many of the voices that had cried out to Jesus as the Son of David on Sunday would be calling publicly for his execution on Friday – but that’s a different day, different mob…

And Jesus?  Well, Jesus begins this day in quiet discussion with his friends, and that is exactly how he ends it.

Back in November of 2017, we began this study of the Gospel of Mark by pointing out that this little booklet was written for a community of Christians who were in the midst of a difficult time. They were in distress, and they were at least witnesses to, if not victims of, injustice.  The group of people for whom Mark was written dwelt in a climate of fear, and lived with an awareness of the fact that outsiders were often distrusted and marginalized.

And it’s important for us as we study these passages that we note that Mark does not use the words “Triumphal Entry”, and he does not mention palms. Instead, we meet a crowd who is obsessed with making Jesus into a conquering King. This Jesus, however, rides not a war-horse, but a colt. The Greek word is not species-specific: it could refer to a young horse, a young donkey, and in fact once in the bible the word is used in reference to a juvenile ibex or deer (Proverbs 5:19). The point is that Jesus presents himself as weak and vulnerable; he comes in humility and is not threatening an uprising.  There are no pretensions here.

As I’ve indicated, Mark was written to help the first generation of Christians improve their understanding of what it meant to be followers of Jesus.  With that in mind, let’s look at what the twelve do in this passage.

First, they obey their friend and master.  When he tells them to go and get the animal, they do so.

Next, they give of themselves in simple and practical ways.  This is a colt – a foal – and it’s never been ridden.  There would not be a saddle or other riding equipment, and so the disciples take off their own cloaks and place them on the animal to help facilitate Jesus’ ride.

Then they stay with Jesus. They’re there during the parade and the shouting of the crowd, and they walk back with him into the night at Bethany.

I think it’s fair to say that those who followed Jesus on that day refused to be incapacitated by the Bystander Effect andthey did not allow themselves to be manipulated by the mentality of the herd.

One of the things that Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem teaches me this year is that an important part of being a disciple is knowing when to use your voice, and why.  In the context of following, serving, giving, and listening to Jesus, disciples have got to figure out when and why it’s time to say or do something.

There is in our day and culture an ongoing controversy as to how to secure our nation’s borders in such a way that allows for the safety of those who are already here and provides a means for those who are persecuted elsewhere to find shelter and hope.

Bystanders simply see what’s happening and change the channel, saying something like, “Well, I’m glad I’m not the President.  I hope this guy knows what he’s doing…” or maybe “I’ve got some ideas, but what difference can I make, anyway.  Forget about it…”

Similarly, there are herds of us who chant “Build the Wall!” or who stand across the street and yell “Bridges, not Walls!”  We do this until we get hoarse, or until our energy is gone, or something else distracts us and then we go home…

What is a disciple to do in times like these?

A Team from CHUP visiting the US/Mexican Border, escorted by a US Border Patrol Officer

We listen for the voice of Jesus.  We look for where God is on the move, and we try to get there, too.  In our case, this has been a ten year process.  In the last decade, more than 25 people from this congregation have visited the border between the USA and Mexico – many of us more than once.  During that time, our group has had the opportunity to ride along with Border Patrol agents and see the challenges that they face each day; we’ve taken several tours of the facility in McAllen where the President visited on Thursday, and we’ve seen children sitting in glass-walled rooms crying for their parents; we’ve met people who have had to flee their homes in other lands after suffering unspeakable violence; and we’ve entered a church and school complex that is now used as a refugee center that offers those who have been terrorized a hot shower, a warm bed, and a decent meal.

In the course of this decade and these many trips, we’ve encountered the complexity of the situation in a way that is different than that which we’ve seen on television.  And I’d be lying if I told you that the 25 or 30 of us who have made this trip had broad agreement as to which simple policies should be enacted in response to this crisis.  But you’d be wrong if you assumed that all we were doing on these trips was hanging drywall.

We make these journeys because we realize that we need to be shaped; we need to listen; we want to grow toward the truth, and we need to find our own voices.

Listen: next week, many of you will be given an extra day off from work or school. It’s a Federal Holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  When he was honored as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Rev. King said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy during this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”[2]

Listen: I know that I cannot speak for you, or for anyone else.  I am struggling to find my own voice and my own words as I look for places in the world around me where God is on the move.

My challenge for you this week is to find your own voice.  To listen to the news prayerfully.  To read your news feed with an eye on your Gospel, and to ask the Lord when and how it is appropriate for you to speak out against violence and the oppressor, or to stand with someone who has been victimized.  In what instance will you use your voice to contact your legislators or our policymakers?

Beloved of God, do not look away, thinking that it is someone else’s problem. And don’t get sucked into anybody’s mob. Listen for the Master, and be attentive to the things he does, the people at whom he looks, and the places to which he directs his energy.  And follow Him there.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]Takooshian, Harold, Ph.D., “Not Just a Bystander: The 1964 Kitty Genovese Tragedy: What Have We Learned?”Psychology Today, March 24, 2014.

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., January 27, 1965 Dinkler Plaza Hotel

Old Befana: An Epiphany Story for All Ages

On Epiphany (January 6, 2019) God’s people gathered for worship.  In these times of fear and distrust of the “other”, it seemed wise to me to share an old story from Italy.  When my own daughter was a child, I particularly enjoyed the legend of Befana as retold by Tomie dePaola in his wonderful book The Legend of Old Befana. I combined elements from his retelling with some other material from La Befana: An Italian Night After Christmas by Susan Frey-Blanchard.  After we shared the story, we had communion and then the children led us through an activity to do at home: the “chalking of the doors”.  You can read more about that practice as well as finding a liturgy for use at your own home in a post from 2015 by by clicking here.

You can listen to the story as told in worship by clicking on the media player below:

A long, long time ago there was a small village in the countryside. On the edge of that village was a tiny house that was remarkable for two reasons.  First, it was undoubtedly the cleanest house you’ve ever seen, and second, it smelled better than any home you’ve ever visited.

Inside the little home lived a very old woman whose name was Strega Befana. While other people were happy to go roaming through the village or even travel the world, La Befana was happiest inside the coziness of her little house.  She kept busy all winter long by sewing little toys to sell to families who had need for such, or by making herbal remedies and potions to sell to those who were not feeling well, or by baking some of the most amazing bread and cookies you’ve ever eaten.

She also kept busy – very, very busy, by making sure her home was clean. She swept the floors at least three times a day – morning, noon, and night.  If there was one thing that Strega Befana hated, it was a dirty home!

While she depended on other people to buy the things that she created, La Befana actually didn’t like people very well and never admitted them inside her house when she could avoid it.  She sold them their toys or their cookies or their ointments, and then she sent them away.  She led a clean, quiet, life, and didn’t want anyone messing with that!

One night, when she had finished sweeping the last stair and had pulled in the lantern and blown out the light, she was presented with a mystery.  Her home was not dark!  She checked the lantern and it was indeed out – but the light was pouring in through the window.  “Why was it so light?” she wondered.  She looked out the window and saw a star was shining brightly – it was the brightest star she had ever seen!  But she didn’t have time to think about what was happening, because she was startled by a knock on the door. “Visitors now?” she complained.  “Who is bothering old Befana so late?  If it wasn’t bad enough with the sky all lit up, now I have company!” No one had ever came so late before.

She peeked out her window to see who was there and saw an old man who was magnificently dressed.  He looked to be very learned, his face was quite tan, and although his clothes were brightly colored, they were covered with dust from the road.  His shoes were very muddy, and he looked worn out from his travel.

She opened the door, reluctantly, and he stepped inside – with his dirty shoes and muddy pants.  “Good evening!”, he said. “I’m sorry to be disturbing you at such a late hour, but I am lost.  I’m on a great mission – I’ve seen a sign that a child has been born – one who will lead us all in the years to come.  This child is divine!  He is full of joy, hope, and love.  I know that he is sent from God above.  I’ve brought gifts to this child, and I want to give him my heart, too.”

The old man saw the little toys and things on the shelves in La Befana’s home.  “Oh! You could come with us! These things that you sell would be fit for a king like this baby!”

Befana wasn’t too sure about that, and she didn’t like the fact that this man was dressed so funny, and that he was out there following the stars. And he was MUDDY.

“No, no, no,” she said.  “I don’t know anything about this child, and I can’t help, and I certainly don’t want to go out following a star or some such nonsense!”  She showed him the way to the door and reached for her broom to start cleaning up the mess.

No sooner had she started cleaning when there was another knock on the door.  She saw another man, also dressed quite finely. “What do you want?”, she yelled through the closed door.

He answered, “I need directions, my friend.  I am also looking for supplies for a journey.”

The second gentleman and his friends came inside.  Like the first, their boots were covered with grime and dirt. “My friend,” he said “We are seeking a child of light – one who will become a King! We go to bring gifts and offer him our hands. He will bring good news to the poor, and to change the world! Why don’t you join us as we travel to see him?”

Once more she assured them that she was not at all interested in something like that, and so she sold them what they needed and sent them out into the night.

She thought that they had all gone, but she looked out and there was still a young boy, holding a camel.  “Please, Befana!”, he said, “Come with us!  We will find the king, and he will be good news for all people!  He will love and help the poor.  There’s still time!  Join us!”  But Strega Befana just closed the door and collapsed into her chair.

She looked at her room – it had been soooooo clean! She set down her broom and decided that she’d take a quick nap before she cleaned it up again. As soon as she sat to rest, the oak door was pounded on one more time.  She didn’t even get up – she just yelled at the door: “Go away! I know nothing about this child that everyone is trying to find!  Please, leave at once!  I will not come, and I’m not interested in selling anything else!”

Whoever it was that had knocked went away slowly, and La Befana finally started to finish cleaning up her house.  She muttered and sighed as she swept.  “Coming to serve the poor…hmph!  Old Befana is poor.  Does this baby care for her?  I think not!”

But when she opened the door to sweep the dirt out she let out a small cry. There in the distance, something bright caught her eye.  It was a wondrous new star in the deep blue sky.  Something in her changed, and she realized that this was not an ordinary star, and it was not an ordinary day.

She thought back to those lost gentlemen, the king they were seeking, and the gifts that they’d brought. “That star – and those visitors – they were right!” she said to herself.  “Maybe it’s not too late for me to go.  I will find them.  I will go with them and present my gift to the child king.  But what could I take?”

She set down her broom and went to the kitchen.  All day long she baked.  When she was not baking, she was clearing all the little toys from her shelves, throwing everything into a large bag.

She put on a shawl, and she opened the door.  She grabbed her broom, thinking, “I imagine that when I find that baby his mother will not have had time to clean.  I can help her with the sweeping of her home…”

But as she stood at the door looking back into her home, La Befana noticed that there was a speck of dust in the corner of the room.  She thought, “Well, now, how would it be if I were to go on a trip and leave my own home a mess!”

And so La Befana put down her sack and started to sweep.  She got the speck of dust.  And then she swept the room, and the other room.  She swept the steps, and she even thought to sweep the walk outside.

Finally – hours later – she was ready to leave.  She glimpsed the star all right, and she walked toward it. She was in such a hurry that she began to run, and she ran as fast as she could… but it was a long way, and she was old, and she got tired.  She started to walk, and she thought, “This is no good.  I’ll never find this baby.  I don’t even know where he is.”

And, sure enough, when she looked at the sky again, she wasn’t sure which star was THE star.  She sat down and cried.  She got up again, and started to walk when she saw a home with an open window.  She looked inside, and there was a child asleep. “I wonder,” she said, “Could this be the one?  Is this the one who is born to be king? Maybe I better leave something just in case…? The further Old Befana walked, the more sleeping children she passed, and in every home she left a small gift and swept it a little cleaner with her broom, because she said, “After all, I’m not sure which of these was born to bring good news to the poor and to change the world.”

Well, La Befana never caught up with the wise men, and she never made it to Bethlehem, and she is still not sure which child they came to see.

So now, every year on the eve of the Feast of the Three Kings, the story is told of a sad old lady who flies around on her broom, bringing little treats to all children.  She’s happy that she can share what she’s been given, but she’s sad because she wasn’t able to welcome the visitors to her home, and she missed her chance to follow them and to greet the Christ child.  She’s decided that from now on, she’ll never miss the chance to show kindness to strangers, or to welcome visitors, and in so doing, to follow the star of Bethlehem.