Who Stands Alone?

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 the Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 31, 2019), we were served another “Markan Sandwich”: this one having to do with the trials of Peter (in the courtyard) and Jesus (before the high priest).  Our Gospel text was Mark 14:53-72

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

The teacher was furious.  He had found a note in the hallway, and on it was scrawled, “I hate this school so much.  It’s filled with idiots!”  They had been talking about self-esteem and pride, and the teacher didn’t know what to do. He held the note above his head and said, “Is that what you think?  That this building is filled with idiots?  I would like to ask everyone who thinks that they’re an idiot to please stand up right now!”

There was a tense silence, and finally little Davie stood. “Really?  Davie?  You think you’re an idiot?”  The student replied, “Well, actually, no sir, I don’t.  I just hated to see you standing there all alone, sir.”

As we continue in our study of Mark, we see here in chapter 14 a study of two men who are, fundamentally, alone.  I’d like to invite you to consider what it means to be alone, and who is alone in this passage, and why.

Let me encourage you to think of this passage as another “Markan sandwich”.  You’ll recall that the author of the second Gospel often begins a story, then interrupts it with another, and finally concludes the first.  Most often, this is done because the two events will offer commentary on each other.

In the passage you’ve heard today, we see two very different men who are undergoing two very different types of trial.  Peter is out in the crowds, seeking to navigate the court of public opinion, while Jesus is the subject of a formal, albeit illegal or irregular, arraignment.  How do we hear God’s word of hope in these stories?  What do they say to their original hearers, and to us?

Persecution of the First Christians, by Giuseppe Mancinelli (1813-1875)

Let’s remember when this Gospel was written – probably about thirty years or so after the incidents it describes.  The first audience for this little pamphlet was a young Christian community in Rome, one that had in all likelihood been taught and nurtured by the Apostle Peter himself.  This group of believers was facing a significant threat – they were being persecuted, arrested, imprisoned, and even killed by the Empire.

Often when we hear of civil or religious authorities bursting into a room and bringing panic, fear, and even death, we think of someplace far away or long ago.  Not so the earliest readers of Mark’s Gospel – for them, this could have been the part of the story that seemed the most accessible.  This passage could have literally been snatched from the headlines because it was so close to their own experience.

So what is happening in this text?

Well, Jesus has been dragged from that little debacle in the Garden of Gethsemane into a full-blown arraignment before the leading council of the Jewish people, called the Sanhedrin.  If you’d like to check this out, you’ll discover many articles that describe the numerous ways that this trial was, itself, illegal. Jewish law forbad legal proceedings at night; there were many false witnesses; and Jesus was being coerced into testifying against himself.

Again, Mark’s first audience would know all about these instances wherein the “justice system” was used as an instrument of oppression and control, rather than a tool for liberation and vindication.  Clearly, Mark intends to present Jesus as a positive role model for his friends and community who are facing such injustice, and that is amplified when Jesus finally does speak.  When he is asked “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?”, he offers two little words in Greek: “Ego eimi”.  Translated, of course, that means, “I am.”  To most Westerners in the 21stcentury, “I am” is an innocent statement. “Who’s going to the Penguins game today? Who’s ready for ice cream?” “I am!”

Yet when you say “I am” in Hebrew, you say, “Yahweh”.  That changes things significantly.  And even though Jesus was speaking in Greek or Aramaic, the undertones were clear: here was Jesus, confirming to the Sanhedrin what he had forbidden the disciples to speak about earlier: he is the Messiah.  In fact, he doubles down on that by not only saying “I am” but by following that up with a “Son of Man” statement – again, a strong pronouncement in the ears of his Jewish audience.

Jesus, when pressed, speaks nothing but the truth, and he suffers for it. He is condemned by unjust people after an unfair sham of a trial and then treated shamefully.  He is cursed by others and led him away to a beating he did not deserve.

Peter’s Denial, by Rembrandt (1660)

Peter, on the other hand, is not compelled to be present by anything other than his own conscience.  He had tried to defend Jesus in the Garden, but after dropping his sword and leaving his friends, he skulked along in the shadows behind the procession to the high priest.

His trial comes, not at the hand of any official representative of either the Temple nor from the Imperial government, but from the folks who surround him in the palace courtyard.

And whereas Jesus refused to speak, Peter can’t shut up. And note the progression of his denials: First, he feigns ignorance: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Then, he denies any connection with the community in which he and Jesus were intimately involved: “I’m not one of them!”. And finally, he disavows any personal relationship with Jesus: “I don’t know him!”  And rather than being found guilty by some outside party, as was Jesus, Peter brings down curses on himself.  The last glimpse we will have in the Gospel of Mark of this beloved disciple is of him weeping at the gate, stumbling into the darkness, regretting his own failures as a disciple and friend.  Now, having said that, I should also point out that it’s reasonable to expect that the first readers of Mark, the Christians in the city of Rome, would already be familiar with some other Peter stories; they would, in all probability, recognize that their own community had been shaped by his leadership.  Most of them would know about his imprisonment and perhaps even his death at the hands of the Roman Empire – so even though this is the last we read about Peter in Mark, the original audience would know that it’s not the end of his story.

So that’s a little bit about how the first readers of the Gospel might have heard this story in their context.  Jesus as one who is unjustly arrested, unjustly imprisoned, unjustly beaten, but who tells the truth and walks through it; Peter as one who fails miserably, who denies who he is and what he has been, yet as they know, who comes around and lives into his best self because of his community. What about us? What are the implications for this passage in our own day? What can we learn from this, and what can we do with it?

There are a lot of directions that we could go, and many possibilities for interpretation here.  This morning, though, I’d like to leave most of those ideas behind and focus on the question I asked at the beginning of the message: who is standing alone, and why?

Peter’s Denial, by Michael O’Brien (contemporary; used by permission; see more like this at http://studiobrien.com)

In this text, both Jesus and Peter are fundamentally alone at a crucial moment in their lives.  Peter is seeking anonymity as he hides in plain sight by the fire. Can you picture him drawing his cloak up over his head, hiding his face?  As he is recognized by others in the crowd in spite of his attempts to conceal his identity, he retreats into further isolation by removing himself from the fire circle and heading into the entryway or outer court.  Peter is clearly feeling unsafe and exposed in this environment.

In the same way, Jesus is surrounded by other people but more alone, perhaps, than he has been in his earthly lifetime.  As he is dragged into the trial, people come one after another and seek to “other” him.  He is diminished and assaulted verbally, physically, mentally, and spiritually by self-important people in the room who are doing everything they can to remind him that he is not like them and he is not welcome and not worthy; that he doesn’t belong and doesn’t know who he is.

I would like to suggest that both Peter and Jesus are in situations that are clearly removed from the Divine intent.  The conditions in which they find themselves are filled with evidence of fallenness, brokenness, and the far-off-ness of the Kingdom of God which they both proclaimed not all that long ago.

For some reason, as I read and re-read this scripture throughout the week, I was reminded of a brief passage from Genesis 2.  For the entire duration of the amazing creation poems that comprise most of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, we are only told of that which has been pronounced “good”.  Earth and sky, sun and moon, water and dry land – it’s all “good”.  But there near the end of the second chapter, we find that there is a “not good” that is introduced:  “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human is alone.  I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.’” (Genesis 2:18)  If you were to scan the various translations of that verse, you’ll see that some versions indicate that God makes a ‘helper’ for the first human, while others call that second human a ‘helpmeet’, a ‘partner’, or a ‘companion’.  No matter how the word is translated, the implication is clear: according to the norms set forth at Creation, isolation, loneliness, or being “othered” is not good; this kind of alone-ness is not reflective of God’s best for God’s children.

So here is a word for this day, beloved:  If the character in the story that most grabbed you was Peter – if you know how it feels to want to make yourself smaller, to hide, to cringe in the shadows or walk toward the edges of your community in fear… if you understand how it is to cower in shame, or pain, or isolation… then let me please beg you to take a step out of those shadows and let some part of yourself, your story, and your pain be known.

If you have been hiding, then let me ask you to come out a little bit. There is no need to create a full-scale PR campaign, to rush the microphone during “Joys and Concerns”, or to open up your own website – but if you have felt that kind of loneliness and isolation, then let me encourage you to take a step toward another person.  Maybe it’s me; maybe it’s the person sitting next to you or the one watching your children now – but let me ask you to find someone with whom you can be true.  Share a part of your story with someone else, and together with that person, walk toward community and look for some sort of healing, hope, and restoration together.  It is not good for you to be alone, or isolated. Allow your community to help make things better.

And some of you looked at Jesus in his time of trial and abuse and you cringed on his behalf.  Why was he so alone in this his hour of need?  Did you want to scream to his friends, his brothers, his beloved followers, “Where are you now?”

If you noticed the look of isolation and maybe even abandonment in the eyes of your Lord this morning, if you were appalled at the ways in which Jesus was “othered”, then let me implore you to search for that in the faces that surround you this and every day.  Someone near you is feeling abandoned or vulnerable or exposed.  Someone close to you is hiding in fear, and cringing.

Perhaps a call from the Gospel for us today is to move to stand a little closer to that person.  I’m not suggesting that you do this in order to rescue, or fix, or change, or heal anything about that person’s life – because it may be that the reason they’re alone is because something else in our world is so broken that they have become “othered”.  Let me encourage you to become a companion, or what I might call a “non-anxious presence” in the room.

One word that has been used with some frequency in discussions like this is “ally”, and I use it guardedly today because I understand that it carries with it some baggage and connotations that may be less than helpful. That said, however, one of the best things about an ally is that neither party in such relationship is called to submit to or even become like the other.  When Germany was bombing the daylights out of Britain during World War II, for instance, the US did not, as an ally, scold the British for being British. We didn’t walk into London and teach them a better way to be English, or insist that they call lorries “trucks” or chips “French fries.”  We didn’t try to make them become like us – we went and we stood with them and helped them maintain their sense of self and sovereignty at a time when they were feeling very much at risk of being abandoned or even obliterated.

One writer at the University of Kansas has this to say about being an ally:

Sometimes, it’s just reaching out and caring; sometimes it means taking a stand against ethnic, sexist, or other oppressive jokes; sometimes it is thinking about a person and encouraging them to keep trying; it can mean… speaking out publicly against injustice; sometimes it means backing a person’s leadership; sometimes it entails organizing a demonstration against discrimination.

Whatever the circumstances, as community members, we probably have a greater capacity to be effective allies to each other than we realize. We have the ability to think about each other, empower each other, and act on each other’s behalf in our day-to-day lives or in emergency situations.

And like almost anything else, being an ally is a skill. Although being an ally often comes quite naturally, you can learn how to be an ally; and the more you do it the better you get at it.[1]

So here is the call of the Gospel today, beloved: If you feel isolated, or exposed, or insignificant because of who you are, or who you have been told that you are, then let me encourage you to seek an ally here – to reach out for one who can help you feel less vulnerable.  And if you know that someone else is in a space that might be unsafe for them because of their race, their religion, their sexuality, or any other part of their lives, then you can let that person know that they are not alone.

Our world and our culture tend to be divisive; we are increasingly polarized, fractured, and divided.  Jesus and Peter are great examples this morning of those who were driven, for whatever reason, to a place where they were scapegoated,  isolated, or abandoned.   I suspect that a significant reason for the writing of this passage in the Gospel of Mark is that Peter had said on more than one occasion, “I wish I’d have been able to do more; I wish I’d have spoken up for him more, or better.  I wish I could have been there for him.”  Similarly, Peter’s very presence in Rome was proof positive that somehow in the days following the darkest hour of his life, someone he loved and trusted moved closer to him and whispered, “It will get better, my friend. Hold on.  I am here.  We will get through this.”

That is the Good News of the Gospel, my friends.  That you can get through this.  And someone here can be with you while you do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development (https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/culture/cultural-competence/be-an-ally/main)

Eating the Poor

he 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 March 3, 2019, we considered the scripture that terrifies me as few others do: Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders and worship practices of his day.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:35-44.  The Old Testament reading was another frightening passage – God’s judgment on the religious leaders as found in Ezekiel 34:1-10.

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

I suspect that I am not the only person in the room who is guilty of having watched a television program called “Mystery Science Theater 3000”.  This show ran on Comedy Central from 1988-1999 and was revived on Netflix last year. What you need to know about that program this morning is that it featured a human and several robotic companions watching B-grade movies in an empty theater; the movie would be shown in its entirety and the characters, visible in silhouette on the bottom of the screen, would provide humorous or sarcastic commentary while the film played. Some days, it was pretty funny.

I think about Mystery Science Theater 3000 as I read today’s gospel.  Jesus and his friends have gone to the Temple to offer worship to the Lord.  Like everyone else there, they’ve participated in the prayers, sung along, and made some sort of an offering.

And then something happens – there’s a slight shift.  In my mind, it’s like we are watching a drama unfold over Jesus’ shoulder.  We are hearing his commentary on the story of worship that day – the religious figures who are leading worship as well as the poor people who take part in other ways. And just as the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 hoped, this program of Jesus’ commentary on worship was a smash hit.  We read in verse 37 that “the large crowd listened to him with delight.”  Everybody was having a good time.

Can I tell you something? Jesus’ teaching here in Mark 12 is the absolute scariest passage of the entire Bible to me.  And when I read the text from Ezekiel?  I get a pit in my stomach.  In fact, sometimes I think that I’m asking the Lay Readers to share the scripture because I want them to have a meaningful part in the morning worship.  Today, it’s because I’d rather have Rayna and Jon reading that than me.  I mean, did you hear what was going on there?

Here’s Jesus, delighting the crowd with his observations about pompous, self-righteous religious authorities who walk around in long robes (…maybe like this alb I’ve got on this morning?).  The Greek word that is used there is stola– as in “stole” (…maybe like this stole I’m wearing now?).  And these people of whom Jesus is so critical demand respect.  Maybe you know that most of the time when I introduce myself, I’m “Dave”, or maybe “Pastor Dave”.  But on days when I’m cranky, or when I want the people at the hospital or the prison to take me seriously, I introduce myself as “The ReverendDavid B. Carver…”  Jesus talks about those pretentious leaders as people who long to have the best seats in the front of the worship space (…maybe you’ve noticed that there are only 3 upholstered arm chairs in the room, and you-know-who is seated in one of them every week…).  Incidentally, you might not know that Rayna’s dad is the craftsman who upholstered these chairs a few years ago…

But do you see why this passage frightens me?  Jesus is talking about people like me!  What if he’s even talking about me?!?  To the cheers of the crowd he is taking these self-righteous, arrogant, religious hypocrites down a peg or two.

What makes me any different?

I’ve seen it – far too often.  I’m sure you have too.  One of the scenes that sticks in my mind happened some years ago in a place far away. I was a guest in the home of a pastor, and the pastor’s wife warned me about another pastor in the area.  “Stay away from that one,” she warned.  “He eats the money that people bring to the Lord.”

Her husband attempted to quiet her, but she waved her hand and continued. “Listen, a long time ago in another place that man was the treasurer for his Presbytery.  Somehow, he stole a receipt book then, and he carries it with him now.  When elders from the churches bring in their offerings, he writes them receipts from his own book, rather than the official book, and he takes the money from the poor home and he eats it.  It is a terrible thing for a person to call himself a ‘man of God’ and then do something like that.”

You’ve seen it, and I hope you’ve been troubled by it – those who would hold themselves up as authorities or somehow important or especially blessed by God who wind up deceiving themselves or their audience.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it?  We as humans find it so easy to get puffed up, we find ourselves so desperate to impress either ourselves or each other that we become blind to the purpose, glory, and hope of the Kingdom that is proclaimed throughout Mark’s Gospel.

The Good News of the Gospel, my friends, is that we are not presented with a problem and then left hanging.  Just after Jesus states the lamentable nature of the human condition to preen and strut and fill ourselves with pride, he offers a set of practices that will help us to deal with that problem.

While some of these very important and impressive men are parading up to the front of the temple and putting on a show as they drop in the money for a new roof on the temple, or maybe a scholarship in grandpa’s name or a sizable donation to the organ fund, Jesus isn’t even looking. After all, whatever they give is inconsequential – it’s their extra money, and they know where to get more if they need it.

Instead of focusing on the doctors of the Law and their flowing robes, Jesus invites us to notice a small, impoverished woman making her way up the side aisle.  She’s coming while all the attention is on the goings-on in another part of the building, and she’s putting some coins in the offering plate.

When she thinks that no one is looking, she drops everything she has into the basket.  Her offering consists of two coins that are called leptons– which means literally “a thin one”.  It was the smallest coin known to that culture, and it would buy about one slice of bread.[1]  Clearly, Jesus is not impressed with the size of her gift – but he makes special note of the substance and the manner of that gift.  He says that “she put in everything that she had”.  Jesus points out that this woman is modeling a set of behaviors that are demonstrably different from those that he’s critiqued in the previous verses.  Rather than trusting in herself, her own giftedness, her own respectability, she is trusting God with her very self as she gives all that she is to God.

So why does Mark write this down?  More than that, why does Mark choose to use this as the last of the public teachings of Jesus?  Let’s remember that the original audience for Mark was a small community of Christians in Rome who lived under constant threat of persecution from both the civil and religious authorities.  People were literally dying because they professed to be followers of Jesus; the self-important leaders in flowing robes and fancy stoles and rich togas were enjoying the good life, and those people who carried the name of Jesus were being put to death.  And Mark, writing to encourage this community, keeps this important teaching here because he wants to remind people that it’s better to be nameless, poor, vulnerable and trusting in Godthan it is to be renowned, revered, and favored in the world’s eyes.

Mark’s first audience needed to hear this because each of them wasthe widow; they werethe ones who were reduced to nothing but poverty, trust, and hope.  They needed to hear the blessing of the Christ.

But why has it survived?  Why read this today, on Preschool Sunday of all days?

Because I am not the only one who longs for respect and affirmation.  I may be the only person wearing a white dress and a stole this morning, but each and every one of us in the room this morning knows something about how it feels to simply lovewalking around claiming that there is something external that defines us, that makes us important, that gives us status or prestige or respectability.

Maybe it’s our nationality. “Hey,” we say.  “I’m from _______.  That makes me special.”  Or we point to our race, or we crow about how we pay taxes and those other losers do not; maybe we’re proud to be homeowners and not renters, or we’ve impressed ourselves that our sexuality is somehow more pure than those other people.  I remember this feeling of superiority very vividly as a teenager.  A number of the people with whom I was connected had gotten themselves arrested for one thing or another, and one of the mothers looked at me and said, “Well, David – why are you looking so smug?  Do you think you are better than these boys that you’re sitting with?” And – I said it.  I’m not proud of it, but I shot back, right before she slapped me, “Well, actually, if we’re looking at things from a purely legal standpoint…”

If you’re going to be honest with yourself and with me, you’ve got to know how that feels – to look at someone else and say, “Look, I know that I may not be perfect, but I’m surely better than that slob over there…”

The Widow’s Offering, Jesus MAFA Project

Mark’s first audience and the people gathered today are called to the same practices – to engage in disciplines that will lead us to lives that are characterized by humility, generosity, faith, and gratitude.

What do thoselives look like?  In her stunning volume entitled, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott tells the story of Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of a group called Homeboy Industries, a ministry that helps former gang members re-enter society.  He reminds us that

…gratitude is not about waving your arms in praise on Christian TV shows. That’s what we think God would want because we would love to have a few hundred people applauding us, waving their arms like palm fronds. Instead, God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter. God must love to see us serving food at the soup kitchen at [a local] Church, or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in because no one else in the family speaks to him. He can be long-winded and a handful, but we used to put each other’s peas in the glasses of root beer at holiday dinners, so we have history together. With two other cousins, we took naps together in one big bed, so we pick up the two-hundred-pound phone and dial his number, and say, ‘How are you?’

I really believe God’s idea of a good time is also to see us sharing what we have worked so hard to have, or to see us [chatting up] the old guy in line at the health food store, telling him our grandfather had a hat just like his, even though it is a lie.

When you have been able to cry out “Thank You” upon finding your lost child at the mall or getting off booze it can naturally make you willing to want to take time with the homeless…[2]

Closer to home, you can see this in lots of places here in Crafton Heights.  Did you see someone bringing a child to worship or after school?  How about the person who called the church to make sure that we knew about her sick neighbor? You can walk into a room and hear people with quiet voices who speak last.  You know someone who has spent time sitting with an old, sick man who doesn’t speak our language, and the two of them were laughing at jokes that only one of them could fully understand. There are those in our midst who have dedicated themselves to making room in this congregation and their lives for those who feel excluded or unsafe everywhere else in their world…

We are here and in all of those places, dear friends, not because the seats are all comfortable and the hymns are our favorites and the babies are all cute – we are here and in each of these places because this is where God is, and this is the world to which Christ is sending us.  These are the places where we learn humility, generosity, faith, and gratitude.  Is it hard? Sometimes.  But it’s good.

Samuel Shoemaker was a religious leader in a difficult place in New York City. He was asked why he continued to pour his love out on those who were past the edges of society, even when it was taking a toll on his own health and well-being.  He replied, “I would love to run away from it all, but a strange man on the cross won’t let me.”[3]

Beloved, I started this message inviting you to recall a television program wherein we are sitting in the back of an auditorium, belittling a story that plays out on the screen.  In our world, however, we are like the poor widow who lives for an audience of One. We seek to be humble, generous, faithful, and thankful because that is who God has made us to be.  We are called to live and share and model this behavior in front of God and therefore, with and for each other.  Thanks be to God for the ability to share in this life together. Amen.

[1] http://disc.yourwebapps.com/discussion.cgi?disc=148202;article=233607;title=OCRT%20Forum

[2]Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott. (Riverhead, New York, 2012) pp 58-59.

[3]Interpretation Bible Commentary on Hebrews,Thomas G. Long

And the Survey Says…

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 February 24, 2019, we encountered something we have not seen before and will not see again in the Gospel of Mark: a “teacher of the Law” who is commended by Jesus.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:28-34.  The first reading (for both us and Jesus’ hearers) was a passage known very well to those who participated in and overheard the discussion between Jesus and the man: Deuteronomy 6:1-9 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the browser below…

Like many of you, my computer knows that I can be a little slow.  My trusty laptop is willing to help speed things along for me. As I was preparing for this message, I typed into my search bar, “what is the most important rule in” and before I could say “my faith” or “Christianity” or even “religion”, I was offered a whole host of suggestions…

It’s not really fair for you to answerafter you’ve already heard the Gospel, but if someone would have asked you an hour ago, “what is the heart of the message of scripture?  What is the Bible about?”, how might you have answered?

I thought recently about a neighbor that Sharon and I had when we lived on South Graham Street many years ago.  There was an elderly woman who lived nearby who had become, for some reason, quite embittered with the world. She knew that I was some sort of a professional Christian, however, and so one day as I washed my car she accosted me.  “Listen,” she said, “I see you spending all your time over there at the church, and I wonder if you really know what’s going on.  Tell me this, young man: what is the core message of the New Testament? What is it that we ought to take away from that document?”

I was a little taken aback by her frankness, and I felt put on the spot.  I hemmed and hawed a little bit about loving each other and loving God, and she interrupted me by saying, “No, no, no… Here’s the message of the New Testament: if you spend your whole life loving other people, if you forgive people when they hurt you and trust people with what’s important to you, and if you try to help other people with no expectation of what you might get in return, then don’t be surprised when they crucify you.”

I think she is wrong, but the older I get, the more I can understand her.  What is the core of the Gospel, do you think?

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Jesus has been spending all day dealing with one religious expert after another.  If you’ve been here this month, you know what I mean: we’ve had scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and more, all having come to Jesus to test him in one way or another.  And, as you may recall, he replied to each challenge with distinction and wisdom.

He did so well, in fact, that near the end of this conversation, an apparently un-aligned teacher of the Law approached him, not with malicious intent, but with respect and curiosity.  He noticed that Jesus had answered well, and so he came to Jesus with a question that was not uncommon at the time.  When he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”, he was echoing a conversation attributed to the legendary Rabbi Hillel a generation earlier. A man asked the Rabbi, “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”  The old man replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  All else is commentary.  Go and learn.”

So this man is an earnest inquirer, and he asks Jesus a genuine question. Jesus does not exactly push the bounds of accepted teaching when he starts by quoting Deuteronomy.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is one…”  Any Jew would have recognized this immediately – it was the call to worship at the temple every morning and every evening.  If there was one verse that had been etched into the consciousness of the children of God, this was it…

“What is the most important commandment?” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…”  You can almost feel the tension in the crowd melt away. His followers and friends might have thought he was going to say something unusual (he had a real knack for that); his critics and opponents might have hoped for a hint of impropriety, but there was nothing… It was the “safe” answer.  I mean, who’s going to argue with that one, right? There are affirmative nods all around, and then Jesus draws another breath and says, “And the second is this…”

“Wait, what? Come on, Jesus, there is no ‘second’.  There is only the Shema, there is only the Oneness of God.”

And in that moment, there was probably a little panic in the eyes of his closest friends.  You know that feeling of apprehension – when someone opens their mouth and you’re not at all sure what’s coming next… Maybe you’re the parent of a toddler who has declared, “Do you want to know what else mommy said?” Maybe you’ve run into someone you don’t know very well, or you haven’t seen in a while, and that person says, “Well, I just had surgery, and I was really surprised by how long the scar was… do you want to take a look at this—” and you scream “Noooooooo!”

“The second is like it…”

What is Jesus going to say?  I mean, there is only one…  Come on Jesus, don’t mess with us here…

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Seriously, Jesus? That’swhat you’re going to go with? A passage from Leviticus 19?

Look, if you’re at my house, and you say, “Dave, I need the best rolling pin you’ve got”, I’m gonna reach into the drawer and give you a great one.  No problem.  Because I have one really good rolling pin.  But if you say “I’d like a second…”, well, we’re gonna have some issues. Because there isn’t a second one.  I mean, I’ll root around in the drawer, and I might bring something out, but it would probably surprise you…

Look, the “greatest commandment” we all know.  Hear it all the time.  Sing it, in fact.  But when Jesus starts rooting through the scripture bin looking for the second one, it’s a little surprising.  He grabs hold of Leviticus 19:18 and holds it up: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Listen, folks, that’s a fine scripture, but it’s not exactly a pronounced emphasis in Leviticus.  I mean, the very next verse says, “Do not plant your fields with two kinds of seed, and do not wear clothing woven from two kinds of material.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  How different, how much less complicated would the world be today if Jesus had only said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength; and, oh, yes, don’t wear that cotton/polyester blend.  That has gotto go…  Seriously.”

That’s it? Love God? Wear wool?  All right! We can do that!

But he said it.  He chose, of all the things he could have chosen, to hold up Leviticus 19:18.  Why would he do that?

Because he could see that the religious leaders of his own day assumed that it was possible, acceptable, and maybe even desirable, to love God withoutloving one’s neighbor. As if we could divorce the two of those things somehow!

One of the great tragedies of religion is that professed followers of Jesus have not realized that these two commandments are inseparable.  We cannot say that we love God, and then love only the people who believe the same things as we do.  We cannot say that we love God, and then love only the people who have the same skin tone, or language, or orientation, or income level as we do.

Our primary response to the creation of the world and our place in it is to love God with everything that we have and are.  One of the ways that we demonstrate the sincerity of our love for God is by our willingness to show our neighbor the same respect and tenderness that we show ourselves.

In commenting on this passage, Dr. Ernest Thompson writes,

“Love to God finds its only adequate fulfillment in love to one’s neighbor.  Nonetheless this is the second command and not the first. Love to one’s neighbor must be rooted in love of God, if it is to be wise (not mere sentimentality), if it is to endure (even when we meet persistent unfriendliness, or sheer unloveliness), and if it is to be universal (excluding no race, no class, and no individual.”[1]

Golden Rule (detail), Norman Rockwell (1961).

It seems to me that there might be no challenge more difficult for the church of Jesus Christ in the United States of America in 2019 than to love everyone without exception. Not “agree” with your neighbor.  Not “tolerate” or “put up with” your neighbor.  Love them.  Love each of them. You, the brown-skinned person wearing a hoodie.  You, the old white guy in a MAGA hat. Her, the lady smoking with her kids at the bus stop. Him, the grumpy police officer, and her the screeching seven year old.  Those two over there, who you’re not even sure what to call because they don’t like any of the pronouns currently used by the English language. The fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Jew… The one who denies his creator, and the one who praises God every day. The veteran who is wearing her uniform proudly, and the one next to her who kneels during the anthem.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  When Matthew is telling this story in his Gospel, he notes that Jesus concludes by adding, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.”

Listen, this scripture was chosen for this day a long time before I knew we’d be baptizing little Arya Jane this morning.  But isn’t this the goal? To raise a generation who live this way?  That’s what it says in Deuteronomy, right?  Tell this to your children.  Remind them.  Do something to remember it!  When Jesus and his friends were little boys they were given little boxes to put on their foreheads and wrists.  When Joe was younger he received a confirmation class cross.  Our lives are filled with symbols of that which we love and which we want to be.

May we be love.  May we desire to be love.

At the end of their conversation, Jesus commends the scribe.  Mark notes that “Jesus saw that the scribe had answered wisely…”  Do you know that this man is the only teacher of the law in the Gospel of Mark to be recognized and commended publicly in this fashion?  I think that matters…

And then, Jesus concludes the interaction by saying, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus didn’t say, “Welcome home, friend.”  He didn’t say, “Now go away, son, you bother me.”  He didn’t even say, “Follow me.”

We are left wondering: what happened to this guy?  I’ll tell you this – this isn’t the first cliffhanger in the Gospel of Mark, and it’s not the last, and it’s certainly not the biggest.

But this man had a choice: would he walk in the way of love, welcome, service, and humility?  Or would he stay where he was?  He clearly had to decide.

And so do we.  Thanks be to God, we can decide today.  Let us follow in the way of the Christ and in the way of the Kingdom.  One of the most influential Christian minds in the last century was a writer named G. K. Chesterton.  He once said, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  May be engage our faith, those around us, and indeed ourselves not only with a doctrine that is respectable, but with the holy, burning love of Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] The Gospel According to Mark and Its Meaning for Today(John Knox Press, 1968), p. 198-199.

Weaponizing the Gospel

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 February 10, 2019, we met yet another new group of men who had banded together in an attempt to entrap Jesus – the Sadducees.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:17-29.  Our epistle reading was, much to the discomfort of the adolescent boys in attendance, Romans 2:17-29 (the text of which mentions the word “circumcision” at least half a dozen times!). 

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

 

I don’t know if anyone else remembers this or not, but about five years ago CNN and other news outlets covered the story of a bus driver in Dayton, OH, who was shot twice in the chest at close range. As it happened, Rickey Waggoner survived because he was carrying a Bible in his breast pocket, and the Bible absorbed the bullets.

That reminds me of the gentleman who was strolling down a Manhattan street and noticed a bullet laying on the ground.  He picked it up, put it in his pocket, and continued on his way.  A block or two later, he passed by a home that seemed to be the scene of a horrific argument – there was yelling and screaming and as he stopped to take it in, he felt a burning sensation in his chest and lost consciousness.  A few moments later he awoke, and realized that he was essentially unharmed.  He pieced together what had happened: in the midst of the fracas inside, someone had thrown a Bible with such force that it shattered the living room window and came right for him.  His body suffered the full impact.  Fingering his chest, he found the bullet he’d picked up earlier and discovered that it was now grossly misshapen.  “Wow,” he said to himself.  “If it hadn’t have been for this bullet, the Word of God might have entered my heart…”

I’d like to invite you to think for a few moments this morning on the Bible, the Word of God, the Good Book… what it’s for, and how we use it and are shaped by it.  We’ll be guided by our old friend, Mark, as well as Paul’s words to his friends in Rome.

The Pharisees and Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894).

For several weeks we’ve been looking at some of the incidents that took place in the last week of Jesus’ life.  On the day we call Palm Sunday, he rode into town and was greeted by the crowds.  On Monday, there was a confrontation with the chief priests and the scribes as he cleansed the Temple, and on Tuesday we’ve overheard those same folks challenge Jesus on the nature of his authority.  Last week we considered the conflict he had, also on Tuesday, with the Pharisees and Herodians as to the payment of the poll tax.  Today we learn of yet another group who sent someone forward to challenge Jesus: the Sadducees.

Well, who are these people?  The author of Mark tells us that they are a group who does not believe in the resurrection. And you might think that’s the source of their name: they have no hope for eternal life, and that is why they are so sad, you see…  While that may be true, we also know that this was a group of very conservative men within the Jewish culture.  In fact, unlike the Pharisees and the Essenes, the Sadducees did not accept the writings of the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, or literature like the Psalms or Proverbs, to be the word of God.  As far as the Sadducees were concerned, the only Bible was the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

And even though they didn’t get along with either the Pharisees, the Herodians, or the Essenes, the Sadducees were similarly committed to stopping Jesus. So when the other groups fail in their attempts to silence the new teacher, these men give it a try.  They, too, come in an attempt to discredit Jesus, and they attack him using theology and Biblical interpretation as a cover.

Jesus calls them on it even faster than he challenged the other parties. Twice in the span of four short verses, he says, “You are wrong.”  In fact, he concludes by saying, “you are badly mistaken.”  The reason that they are wrong, according to the Savior, is that they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.

The accusation that they didn’t know scripture must have stuck in their craw a little bit.  Like Jesus, the Sadducees were critical of the Pharisees and their willingness to contort Scripture.

The Pharisees had gotten to the point where they had taken the Bible and boiled it down to a rule book.  Then they looked at those rules and added layers of meaning and interpretation so as to make sure that they could be the ones to announce exactly who was pleasing to God and who wasn’t.

If you’re a football fan, you know that the NFL has done this in some very frustrating ways.  When I grew up, if you threw me a pass, I either caught it or I didn’t.  Now, according to NFL rule 8, section 1, article 3,

“A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) in the field of play, at the sideline, or in the end zone if a player, who is inbounds:

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.”
    BUT

“If a player, who satisfied (a) and (b), but has not satisfied (c), contacts the ground and loses control of the ball, it is an incomplete pass if the ball hits the ground before he regains control, or if he regains control out of bounds”

And that’s why the games are four hours long…

The Pharisees did the same thing to the Scripture. Do you remember the fourth commandment? “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy…”  Well, the Pharisees added 39 laws to the fourth commandment so as to ensure that one could, in fact, keep the Sabbath perfectly and, just as important, know who was NOT keeping Sabbath.

Now, while the Sadducees and Jesus both rejected this kind of scriptural tomfoolery by the Pharisees, they did so for different reasons.

The Sadducees said, “God has given us a word, and that word is in the Law of Moses. As long as we know that, keep that, and use only the specific written and sometimes even archaic language of those five books, we are in good shape.  We can master that word and know exactly what to do in any situation.”

Jesus said, “Listen, you cannot divorce the word of God from the power and movement of God.  Scripture is a living, breathing attempt to convey the meaning that is at the heart of God, and is never to be used as a personal proof text to build up what you like and tear down what annoys you.  What was intended to be a vehicle to give humans a glimpse into the beauty of the Divine intent ought never to be used as an implement of death or disfigurement.

The recent film Boy Erased tells the story of a young man who is sent to Conversion Therapy after having been outed as gay to his fundamentalist parents.  There is one particularly horrific scene where one young man is surrounded by his peers who are then instructed to literally beat the sin out of him with their bibles.

The Apostle Paul, writing to his friends in Rome, said that those who claim to be somehow better than others because of some external attribute, or practice, or custom, and hide behind scripture while doing it are in fact guiltier than those that they attack.

In some ways, both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were guilty of what might be called “bibliolatry” – taking the words in the Bible more seriously than we take the One who gave us the Bible in the first place.  Bibliolatry is what happens when we worry more about making sure that the person sitting across the table from me has the exact same understanding of the Bible as I do than about whether I am living into the heart and meaning of the One to whom the Bible points.

You’ve seen this.  In our own day, how common is it to approach a dilemma, a question, or an issue and then think, “Hmmm… what do I think about this thing?” and then go to the Bible for statements that appear to back up whatever I want to be true?

In discussions on issues ranging from human sexuality to child rearing to immigration to the environment, we find it easy to pick and choose the verses that remind us about how right we are.

And when we do this, we fall into the trap of separating the Word of God from the Power or Presence of God.  When we weaponize the Gospel – when we take words, phrases, chapters, and verses and throw them at each other, hit our neighbors over the head, or wave them at other in a menacing fashion, then we repeat the errors of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

And you say, “But Dave, we read the Bible all the time.  We acknowledge the scriptures.  In fact, in order to be elected as an officer around here we have to say that we ‘accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word’ to us. Just how are we supposed to read the Bible, to rely on the Bible, to use the Bible, but not to be guilty of weaponizing it or of worshiping it?”

A number of us spent some time recently immersed in a book entitled A New Kind Of Christianity,[1]in which author Brian McLaren makes a compelling case that we might rightly view the writings of the Bible as a God-given community library.  Instead of presenting a single narrative or undisputed set of facts, his readers are encouraged to view the sacred texts as a record of actions, conversations, and interpretations that are vital, informative, authoritative, and yet not divorced from our own experience.

This idea is pursued further in Rob Bell’s What is the Bible?[2], wherein he encourages readers of scripture notto ask “Why did God say such and such?” Instead, Bell argues, some of the prime questions we bring to the scriptures ought to be, “Why did people write this down?  Why did they tell it to their children?”  To that I would add my own interpretation, which is namely, “How is it that God has allowed this story to be preserved for us in this way?  What is there to be gained from reading it in our own day?”

Mark told his first readers, and they recorded it for us, that Jesus said “God is the God of the living.”  If that is the case then it is incumbent on us, the living, to engage with the scripture as we have received it.  We must seek to uncover, recover, or discover the Divine intent to the end that every part of our lives and every aspect of our behavior puts us closer to the place where we can honor God.  We do not read it in order to satisfy some sort of self-approving checklist; and we dare not read it in order to cast judgment on our neighbor, or with the intention of bringing shame on another.

I think that what is happening in this story is that Jesus is inviting the Sadducees, his disciples, and us to the difficult task of attending to each other and participating in the life of the world around us that recognizes our rightful places as those who have been created in the image of God.  We are called to live in such a way as to point to a reality beyond where we are now: a reality in which love, life, grace, hope, and indeed resurrection are normative.

I know, I know – it’s tempting to take it easy and fall back on the bumper stickers, the memes, the ball caps, and the slogans… but the reality is that none of those things are sufficient as we seek to identify as Christians who have been given an appreciation for the living, powerful Word of God.

May God protect us from using the Bible to harm others, or to devalue ourselves, or to diminish life.  May God instead grant us courage of conviction, freedom of trust, and a willingness to engage each other, the Scripture, and our neighbor in a quest to live authentically under the reign and rule of the living God.  Amen.

[1]A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith(HarperOne, 2010).

[2]What is the Bible? (HarperOne, 2017)

What Were You Made For?

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 February 3, 2019, we saw an unlikely group of “allies” come together in an attempt to entrap Jesus.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:13-17.  Our Old Testament reading was a vivid reminder from Genesis 1:26-28

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

As I begin this morning, I feel my affinity for the Professional Organization of English Majors compels me to acknowledge that the title of this message, and therefore the signboard outside of this church, consists of a phrase which includes a dangling preposition.

Most normal people will readily understand questions like “Where are you at?” or “What are you talking about?”.  Sticklers for some of the archaic “rules” in English, however, will cringe when they hear such construction, and even more annoyingly, will smugly correct you.

When faced with an editor who attempted to rebuke him for such a “crime”, Winston Churchill (who knew a thing or two about the English language) is alleged to have scrawled in the margin this note: “This is the type of tedious nonsense up with which I shall not put!”

As any speaker of any language knows, sometimes the most effective communication goes against the strictest rules of the grammarian.  In order to have clear and concise meaning, we sometimes have to be direct, even if it might make a 9thgrade English teacher (or Sharon Carver) cringe.

Today’s Gospel reading contains a number of very interesting points all of which center around the appropriate interpretation or application of a rule and the impact of that on one’s view of life and culture and faith.

As we mentioned last week, we are in the midst of reading through Mark’s account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  We have already seen several conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders, who are clearly looking for a way to eliminate him as a threat to themselves. Mark informs us that on this day, a group of Pharisees and Herodians came to catch Jesus in his own words – they were trying to set a trap for him.

Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

A word about these men: we’ve seen the Pharisees many times in the Gospel; they were one of the three main sects of Judaism at the time.  Their name literally means “separated ones”.  They emerged as a distinct group about a hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and at first, they were men of the highest religious and moral character – by some accounts the best people in the nation. Yet as time went by, more and more people simply “inherited” membership in this group and the caliber of its witness suffered.  In Jesus day, the Pharisees talked a good game about separating oneself for God’s purposes, but did not always live that out.

The Herodians, on the other hand, are mentioned very infrequently in Scripture. As their name contains that of the civil ruler, it is assumed that this was a group of men who were far more secular in their approach to life.  Any power they had derived from the government established by Rome, and as such they were very vested in maintaining or even strengthening the status quo.  Whereas the Pharisees bristled at the claims of Herod and the rule of Rome, the Herodians sought to please their patrons by any means necessary.

And I hope it goes without saying that a quick examination of our (or any nation’s) history would indicate that these are not merely historical oddities.  We see time and time again in our own story the ways that people are willing to use faith to either prop up or bring down a rival political party.  We don’t call them Herodians anymore, but a glance at our headlines for the past generation reveals any number of religious leaders who are willing to contort the teachings of Christ so as to prop up the political empire that in return empowers or enriches them.

We can see, therefore, how much Jesus threatened both the religious and the political status quo when he manages to unite the Pharisees and the Herodians in a common task: that of eliminating him.  In our own day, it would be like walking into a Starbucks and seeing Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Kamala Harris sipping lattes.  I mean, it’s possible – but it would be very surprising.

They come together and they ask Jesus a question about the rules: is it lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to the Romans?  Should we do this?

In that day, there were three main taxes levied by the Romans.  The “ground tax” was paid by landowners, and it imposed a levy of 10% of the grain and 20% of the wine and fruit that the land produced. Obviously, this tax only applied to those who were wealthy enough to own property.

There was an income tax that applied to all wage-earners, and it was approximately 1% of a person’s income.

And finally, there was the “poll tax”.  Every male between the ages of 14 and 65, and every female between the ages of 12 and 65 was required to offer Caesar a single denarius every year simply for the privilege of existing.  A denarius was the daily wage for an agricultural worker in Jesus’ day.

It seems as though this last tax is the issue to which Jesus responds, because he asks them to show him a denarius coin.

But look at how Jesus engages these men: he calls “shenanigans” on them right away in several different ways.  Before we consider Jesus’ conversation, though, let’s think about why in the world he would ask for a coin.

Tell me – what do you know about a quarter?  Please describe the 25 cent coin that is in your pockets or on your nightstands today.  Whose likeness does it contain? What does it say? What are the symbols?

Similarly, think about the pennies that are cluttering up the top of your dresser.  Whose image is on the penny? What are the words or symbols contained on it?

The reason I ask those questions is to demonstrate that I don’t need to hold up a coin and walk you through an examination of that piece of metal in order to talk about it.  We all know what a quarter is, and what it says, and what it’s used for.

The “Tribute Penny” bearing the image of Emperor Tiberius

And yet Jesus had the Pharisees and the Herodians fetch a coin for him.  Why?  I would suggest at least two reasons. First, I think that his questions were intentional.  “Whose image is on this coin?”  He wanted them to see the image, and to read the inscription.  The coin had the likeness of Caesar, and on the “heads” side, contained the phrase, “Caesar Tiberius, son of the august god”. The “tails” side read “Pontif Maxim”, or “the greatest high priest”.

I want you to imagine how compromised and embarrassed these lofty leaders of Judaism – especially the Pharisees – must have, or should have, felt when they were sitting in the Temple reading aloud about Tiberius’ claims to divinity.

Moreover, Jesus asked them “whose image” is on the coin.  Do you remember the 10 commandments? Number 2? “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…”

And do you remember a few weeks ago when we talked about Jesus clearing all the moneychangers out of the temple?  The moneychangers were there because the religious leaders like the Pharisees thought that it was sacrilegious to use coins containing the image of one who claimed to be divine in the worship of God.  Having a coin with the picture of Caesar on it was, in their ruling, a violation of the second commandment.  So they made their own temple coins that were to be used instead of the ones containing the Emperor’s image.  Yet here, when they are trying to eliminate Jesus, none of them seem to have a problem with pulling the offensive bit of metal out of whatever passed for pockets in their ancient robes.  Do you see? In asking them to produce a coin and describe it, Jesus unmasks their hypocrisy and exposes their shallowness.

Then he answers them. He says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.  The Greek word he uses is actually apodidomi, and it means, literally, “return”.  The old versions translate it as “render” – and it is usually used to convey the idea that one is to give up, give back, return, or restore.

Looking at the coin, he seems to say, “Well, that apparently has Caesar’s image on it.  So it belongs to Caesar.  You ought to give it back to him.  And anything with God’s image, well, give that back to God.”

On the surface, it’s a non-answer, but if you dig a little deeper, he is actually acknowledging that a civil government – even an unjust one – receives some sort of support from the population.  Taxes must be paid but, more importantly, God must be honored. Jesus’ answer here and the way that it was subsequently interpreted may have something to do with the fact that the crowd that had cheered him as a deliverer from Rome on Sunday would be crying for his death on Thursday and Friday.

I’d like to look for a moment at the unspoken question that Jesus’ answer implies. “Return to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s” begs the question: how much of what you have, who you are, belongs to the government or the culture?  And how much of that belongs to God?

And how you consider those questions might drive you back to the questions that the Herodians and the Pharisees asked Jesus.  When they came to him, they said, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” and then followed that immediately with “Should we?”

This is a tacit confession of something that you already know: there is sometimes a deep and profound difference between that which is “legal” and that which is “right”.  I would suggest that in his answer to the leaders who were trying to trap him, Jesus is calling his followers to always take the high road and seek to honor God by doing what is right.

Think for a moment about these things: slavery, compulsory education, child labor, a forty-hour work week, the Holocaust, the right for women or people of color to vote, the incarceration of sexual minorities, and the use of chemical and nuclear weapons.  Each of those things has at one point been legal or illegal.  Obviously, declaring something to be “legal” does not make it “right” or “good”.

For instance, in the USA in 2019 it is perfectly legal for a payday loan company to charge an annual percentage rate of up to 800%  – the average is 400% – interest to a poor family looking to bridge a week or two between paychecks.

It is also currently a federal crime to leave food or water in the desert in order to assist those who need it. This week four women were convicted of doing this in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.  Sharon and I have driven through there, and I want to tell you that you would not want to be there an hour without water.  And yet four women from a humanitarian aid group now face up to six months in Federal Prison for leaving jugs of water in places where migrants might find them.[1]

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we have many issues in our society, including usury and border protection.  But needing to borrow money to pay your bills is not a license to extort, and no one in the United States of America, no matter how they arrived here, should die of thirst because our government mandates it.

The coin in the Gospel reading is not the only image-bearer up for discussion this morning. I tried to tell at least some of you on the day you were born, and I seek to remind each of you every day that you are created in the Divine image.  God made you, and you carry God’s image.

Are you stewarding that image well?  Are you caring for it, and living into it?

I hope that I can say that I agree with Jesus when I say that our government and our culture has a claim on us.  We need to recognize and honor that in many ways.  And yet we must also acknowledge that both the nation and the self belong to God.

Great thinkers and believers throughout history have suggested that Christianity should make you a better citizen.  I mean this with my whole heart, and I gladly affirm the fact that we ought to be training our children to live in a world characterized by “liberty and justice for all.”

That has a cost, dear friends.  Some of you are old enough to know who Ruby Bridges is.  When she was six years old, a Federal Judge said that “liberty and justice for all” meant that this African – American child was entitled to be educated at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.  She would be the first, and the only, person of color in attendance there.  Before her first day at that school ended, every single white parent had collected their children, and all but one of the teachers walked out.  She remained the only student in the class, taught by the only teacher who remained. Every day, she was escorted through crowds of angry protesters calling her every name in the book and even shoving in front of her an open casket with a black baby doll inside.

Psychologist Robert Coles was studying children and desegregation in the American South, and he took a personal interest in Ruby.  He noticed that as she was walking through the crowds, her lips were moving.

Coles asked her, “Who were you talking to, Ruby?” “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street,” she said.

“Why were you doing that, Ruby?”

“Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”

Coles responded affirmatively but pushed further. “Where did you learn that?”

“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning [when I come to school] and every afternoon when I go home.”

Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.”

“No,” she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them. . . . I always pray the same thing. ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’”[2]

This six-year old daughter of impoverished parents who could neither read nor write absorbed enough of the truth of scripture that she was able to see the Divine image not only in herself, but in her tormentors.  And she changed the world.

Or maybe you saw the recent film Hacksaw Ridge.  It tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a Christian pacifist who refused to carry a weapon or take the life of another, and yet received the US Medal of Honor for carrying 50 – 100 wounded soldiers to safety in the horrible battle of Okinawa during World War II.

The religious leaders asked the Lord two questions: Is it legal? And is it right?

When faced with that bit of trickery, Jesus provided a hugely complicated answer that is open ended and very difficult to live into.  He knew, and they knew, that that denarius was made specifically so that a subjugated people could offer – legally – a confession of faith and economic tribute to the occupying forces.  That’s what it was made for.

What about you?  What were you made for? Whose image do you bear?  How much does that mean to you?

You bear the image of the One who formed you.  You were made to show the heart of God to the world around you – to mirror the hope and justice and love of God every day. Thanks be to God for the people of God who are willing to do this.  Amen.

[1]Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

[2] A Child Leads”, in The Christian Century March 29, 2017.

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.