Is He Talking to ME?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 18, we heard one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings: his call to the wealthy man to Go, Sell, Give, Come, and Follow.  What does that mean to us? Our gospel reading was  Mark 10:17-31.

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

Ah, Jesus.  I love Jesus. And I listen when he talks.  Don’t you?  Doesn’t everybody?

Have you noticed how easy it is to take some of Jesus’ words literally and truly?  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  You bet Lord. I’m working on that.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent!” and “Let the little children come to me.”  Oh, yeah, we love those sayings of Jesus.  We hear them, and we try to do them.  They make sense.  “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Yep!  You say it, Lord, I’m working on it.

“Go, sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”

Wha??? Um, Jesus, what are you talking about?  Are you talking to me?

Let me tell you something, friends.  I’ve been in a lot of places around the world – places in Africa, or South America, or the Middle East – where people have sat in rooms like this one and read these words of Jesus, and they have said, “Amen.  Wow, that’s great stuff!  Good news!”

But so often, when I hear this read in the United States, which is, by the way, the richest place in the history of places, the comment I most frequently hear is, “Hmmm.  Well, obviously, Jesus did not intend to be taken literally here.  What do you think he could possibly have meant?”

Today, we’re going to continue in the Gospel of Mark, and we’re going to look at another of the hard teachings of Jesus.

The Rich Man Approaches Jesus (European, 16th c., artist unknown)

As Mark tells the story, it appears as though the man is an earnest seeker. Some of the other folks who ask Jesus questions appear to be doing so just to trip him up, or to get him in trouble.  But this man begins the conversation after having participated in the very undignified practice of running up to Jesus and stopping him.  Then, he gets on his knees and speaks in the most respectful of tones. He seeks to honor Jesus in a way that seems legitimate, and Jesus responds to his initial query by listing the second tablet of the ten commandments:  “You know what to do,” Jesus says.  “Everybody knows.”

Again, the man appears to be sincere in his conversation with Jesus about his neighbors and his treatment of those around him.

Once more, Jesus appears to be impressed with the man, and Jesus then does two things.

First, he “looks” at the man.  In some of your bibles, it might say he “beholds” him. The word that is used there is a word that is apparently special to Mark, and it is used intentionally.  In fact, he uses it in verses 21, 23, and 27. Each time, it is meant to convey the fact that Jesus was completely attentive to the one in front of him.  His eyes reflect his full engagement; he is wrapping the person with the entirety of his presence.  I hope you know how it feels to be looked at this way: intimately, with focus, kindness, warmth, and affection.

We know that this is what Jesus meant to convey with that look because the next phrase in the Bible tells us that Jesus “loved” the man. And when you read that, you might say, “Well whoop-dee-do!  Jesus loved him. Isn’t that what Jesus does?” And you’d be correct, of course; Jesus does love. However, the Gospels only speak directly of Jesus loving a very few people: Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha; the apostle John, and the twelve disciples as a group.  This man is the only person outside of Jesus’ inner circle who is specifically named as one whom Jesus loved.

So, friends, whatever Jesus is going to say, we ought to be aware of the fact that he is saying it while being fully attentive to the one in front of him and in a spirit of deep love for that one.

Jesus then utters the five imperatives you’ve already heard this morning: Go, and Sell, and Give, and Come, and Follow.  You may be interested in knowing that this is the only time that Jesus looked someone in the eyes and said, “Follow me”, and the other person said, “um, nope.”  This is the only “call” story that ends in a refusal.

Jesus saw something in this man’s relationship to and fascination with his material wealth that was troubling, and he called the man on it.  And then, he turned to the disciples, and looking at them(note the same piercing, loving gaze), he turns it into a teaching moment.  Some scholars have pointed out that when Jesus has an interaction like this with a specific person, and then Mark tells us that he pulled the twelve in closer around him, that this is Mark’s way of helping the early church be attentive to a specific command from Jesus.

If that’s the case, well, it was surely effective in this instance. The earliest Christians believed strongly that Jesus intended to be taken literally here.  All of them thought that he would return to earth imminently, and so it was a common practice among the first Christians to do exactly this – to sell all their possessions and support those who were suffering.  The more that these believers realized that Jesus might take some time before his return, the easier they found it to do other things with their money – build churches, save for the future, buy a second horse… whatever.

Do you remember last week when Jesus was so angry because his followers were hindering the children from coming close to him?  I think that in this instance, Jesus recognized that the man’s money was a hindrance – that his wealth stood between him and Jesus in a way that made an eternal difference.   And just as Jesus forbade the disciples from getting in the way of him and his love for the children, here he laments the fact that this man’s money stands between him and God’s best for him.

As I look around the room this morning, I see that there are a lot of people here who have travelled with me to places where life and culture is, well, different than that to which we’re accustomed.  Some of these places are remote and difficult to reach, like Malawi or South Sudan.  Others are closer, but are definitely different: think of our visits to the Native American reservations.  Maybe we’ve traveled to one of the hollers in the Great Smokey Mountains or some other part of Appalachia together; heck, some of you have even been to Ohio with me. You know, someplace where things are just done differently.

So let’s pretend now that we’re going to a place we’ve never been before.  Let’s call that place Walla Walla Washington.  Now, as I say, I’ve never been to Walla Walla, so I’m just making this up.  This is an example.

So let’s say we get off the plane in Walla Walla, and we meet people who seem friendly enough.  We get to talking, and we happen to bring up that we are people of faith. We talk about what it means for us to follow Jesus, and to worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And let’s say that our hosts beam excitedly as we talk about our spiritual lives and they exclaim, “Hey, us too!  We’re religious!  We worship God, too!  But we don’t call him Jesus.  We know God as Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG.”

At this point, our faces look, well, like yours look now. “Whaaaaat?” we croak out.

The Walla Wallaites sense our confusion and they say, “Look, would you like to come to worship with us?  It will make things much easier to understand.”

So off we go – and we find ourselves entering a large room that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a laundromat.  As we arrive, there is a woman wearing a very crisply starched white dress standing in front of the room reading from the book of Isaiah the prophet: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out,says the Lord:though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be like snow;though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Then she steps aside and she puts what appears to be a load of laundry into a washing machine.  Everyone says “Amen” and begins to do what looks like prayer to the washing machine.

We are confused and baffled, until one of you says, “So, wait… are you saying that your god – Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG – that your god is a washing machine?”

And our hosts say, “Yes, Amen.  Blessed be the name!”

And then we say, “Well, wait – does everyone in Walla Walla believe this way?” And they laugh, and say, “Well, of course not everyone believes exactly the same.  There’s a group of Amish who pray to a slightly different God…;

and to be honest, we Presbyterians are the only ones who believe in pre-sorting, but, well, yeah.  Most of us believe essentially the same thing.”

And you want to yell and scream and shake someone and say, “Oh, come on, people! For the love of Pete! That’s a machine! You’re pouring your worship out on a TOOL, for crying out loud!”  But we are polite and respectful and, well, Western Pennsylvania Presbyterians, so we don’t say much.

Now let’s say that a few days after we get home, you see your dad putting a load of laundry in (because, well, it isMonday).  Do you fear for his soul?  Do you throw yourself in front of the washer and say, “Father, no! Stay away from this demon!”?

Well, probably not.  You lament the way that sometimes the world is a place where people find themselves bringing supreme honor and reverence to that which is undeserving of those things; you are saddened by the thought of people attributing Divine characteristics to a creature. But you don’t stop using a tool just because someone else is using it wrong.

Vintage Postcard, artist unknown

I hope you can see where I’m going with this, beloved.  What is your attitude toward money and possessions?  Are they an object of worship?  Is having the right amount of money in your wallet, the right car in your driveway, or the right clothes in your closet the thing that is going to save you, or make life all better for you?  Is that the thing that is going to bring you ultimate happiness? Is that what tells you who you are?

Because if you look to those things for your identity – if we see our money and possessions in this way, then they are indeed hindrances to our ability to follow Jesus. They are in our way no less than they were in the way of that man 2000 years ago.

But is it possible that you have some of these things: you have some money, you have some possessions, but they do not have you? Are you able to see the money that you have and the things that you own as tools that actually help you to follow Jesus, to be faithful, and to share love?

Ah, but HOW do we do that?  How do we ensure that while we may have money, money does not have us?

Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher and theologian who wrote about the relationship between humans and money in a book creatively entitled L’homme et L’argent(which, translated means, Man and Money).  In it, he describes the best and most appropriate way to protect our hearts and lives from the destructive power of money and possessions.

When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, its superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. Of course, even if this relieves our fears, we must always be vigilant and very attentive because the power is never totally eliminated. There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.[1]

In the 36 years of our marriage, Sharon and I have sought to limit the ability that money and possessions have to rule over us by seeking to set aside a percentage of our income and dedicate that to the Lord’s work. When we got married we were able to give 10% away, and by God’s grace that number is higher now.

In a few moments my friend Ron will stand up here and talk with you about your ability to join Sharon and me in the joys of supporting this congregation financially.  I think that my job today is, well, to be like Jesus.  To look at you, to love you, and to tell you the truth.  And Mya already did that, when she read from Proverbs: “Sometimes you can become rich by being generous or poor by being greedy.”

This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Money and Power, Jacques Ellul (Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2009), p. 110.

What Makes You Angry?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 11, we began our time in the Word by hearing a brief word of God’s care for the weak and the marginalized in our midst as we overheard a snippet of the conversation between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33:12-14. Our gospel reading was Mark 10:13-16.

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

Today we have another example of why things become complicated when you have to announce the sermon title before you’ve done your research for the message itself. One of the translations of today’s Gospel portion talks about Jesus becoming “angry” at the disciples.

When I saw the version that you’ve just heard, though, I noticed that the word “indignant” was used. That got me wondering, and so I did a little digging.  The word that Mark uses when he is trying to describe how Jesus is feeling is aganakteo.  The best Greek dictionaries tell us that can be translated as “to have great indignation”, “to be greatly displeased”, “to be pained”, or “to be vexed.”  I’ve come to believe that the best equivalent in modern English for the ancient Greek aganakteo is a word that, according to 73% of the respondents to a poll at daycare.com, polite people should not say in church.  So, in the interest of not having my mother roll over in her grave or my wife be disappointed in me, I won’t tell you that the best translation for aganakteo is a word that rhymes with “missed” or “kissed” and means, well, really, really displeased and angry.

That word is used seven times in the New Testament, all in the Gospels.  In every other instance, you get a sense of the meaning:

  • Ten of the disciples overhear James and John talking privately with Jesus, evidently looking to score some nice box seats in the heavenly kingdom. They are really…indignant… and they pull the brothers aside and say, “Dudes, what the heck?”
  • Judas and other onlookers are present when a woman breaks open a vial of very costly perfume and smears it all over Jesus’ feet.They get…vexed…and say, “Oh, for crying out loud! What a waste! That money could have been better spent!”
  • Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, and the religious rule-keepers – men who thought that they were in control and were kind just to invite this young Rabbi in as a guest on their show – get really…irritated… and declare that Jesus has no right to heal people on the Sabbath
  • And when Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the crowds are going crazy, fervor is sweeping the city, and the religious leaders are totally… displeased… and say, “Teacher, make them shut up!”

Do you see? Each of the other uses of this word in our Bibles refers to a situation wherein someone sees another person receiving special treatment or getting something that they themselves wanted, and that makes them really aganakteo­-d off.

Except here. What is it that ticks Jesus off so badly?

Let The Little Children Come To Me, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1538)

Well, it’s someone messing with the Children’s Sermon. There are parents who have brought their children to see Jesus (and I think that it’s safe to say that probably means that these are women who long to have their children see the Master). The disciples, though, stand in the way. Jesus gets irritated with his followers and says, “Let those kids in. Do not hinder them.”

For a long time, I played racquetball with Adam and Tim once a week over at Carnegie Mellon. There’s a very interesting rule in racquetball called the “hinder”.  If you’ve never played that sport, it involves standing inside a box with another player (or 3 other players); everyone is swinging clubs around while chasing  a little ball that is flying all over the place.  From time to time, you just can’t help but be in someone else’s way.  If you and I are playing, and where I’m standing prevents you from doing what you can and should do, it’s called a “hinder”, and we start over.

Jesus is ticked off because his followers are intentionally engaging in behavior that prevents children from receiving what is rightfully theirs and becoming who they were meant to become.  If you’ve been here in recent weeks, this will not be surprising to you – a few weeks ago we heard that the only time Jesus talks about the idea of Hell in the Gospel of Mark was when those around him – those who claimed to know him best – were callous to the cries of the weak and vulnerable.  It is therefore less than shocking to see that Jesus is indignant when his followers would limit the ability of children to draw near to him.

I wonder…are there any ways in which the children who ought to be drawn safely and closely to Jesus are being hindered by those in positions of power and authority now?

I know. That seems like an impossibly easy question.  The news has been full in recent years of instances wherein people who have had great positions of prestige and leadership within the church have used and abused children wantonly and shamelessly.  I hope that I don’t have to convince you that that kind of treachery and manipulation is certainly contrary to God’s intentions and most assuredly…um… vexes Jesus.

But we can’t stop there, dear friends.  Are there other ways in which children are being hindered – kept from the blessings that are rightfully theirs?

Do the decisions that we and our leaders make about educational policy have anything to do with hindering at least some of the children?

In many parts of the world, including right here in the USA, our children are being raised in a climate of fear and distrust.  Bullying is the norm in far too many places, “active shooter drills” are required in schools and day cares, and racial tension seems to be on the rise… while far too many of us throw up our hands and say, “Hey, that’s the world we live in.  What are you gonna do?”  I am sad to say that I believe that in these instances, too many of us are not “vexed” enough to be motivated to change things.

Similarly, we hinder children’s ability to participate in the blessings of Jesus if we raise them to believe that they are better than other people – if we do anything to communicate to the children with whom we are entrusted that their family’s wealth, or ethnicity, or geography makes them more special to Jesus or superior to other children around the world, we limit the ways that they can hear the full call of Jesus in this world.

There are other examples, perhaps ones that you’d find more applicable, but my point is this: that when the disciples hindered those kids on the Palestinian hillside 2000 years ago, it wasn’t the last time that followers of Jesus stood between him and children he loves.  Not by a long shot.

So what is his teaching on this?  What does he say?  He encourages his followers to themselves become like the children who occasioned this conversation.  “Anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it…”

Ok, great. So what does that mean?  In what respects are we to imitate children in seeking to participate in the Kingdom? I suspect that we know enough about children to understand that he was not saying that we should model their humility. Seriously – have you seen how amazingly (and undeservedly) self-confident children are? He cannot have been lifting up the childish trait of almost zero self-awareness.  Children are, by and large, the center of their own universes. Nor was Jesus imploring us to seek to somehow develop the emotional maturity of your average eight year old. While all of us have known or seen religious, cultural, and political leaders who seem to flourish in their own bubble of self-aggrandizement and self-validation, seemingly immune to the cries of those around them, this was not the kind of behavior that Jesus was inviting his followers to emulate.

When Jesus invites us to become as little children, I think that he is encouraging us to trust in the presence and purposes of the Lord.  In spite of the way that we hinder them, many children are shining examples of what it means to trust that the grown-ups around them are able and willing to care for them in any and every circumstance.

This was brought home to me very personally recently when my daughter relayed a conversation she had had with our five year-old granddaughter.  Lucia had announced that she intended to take part in a certain activity, and Ariel reminded her that it was on a day when Sharon and I had planned to be in Ohio. Lucia said quickly, “I know that. And I’m telling you that Grampy will be delighted to take me swimming.” That little girl is so convinced of the love and care that Sharon and I have for her that she plans on that love being present in her life every day.

Can I take a page from Lucia’s book?  Am I so convinced of God’s willingness to care for me and of God’s ability to do the same that I plan my days as if God’s provision were true?  Am I teachable?  Am I willing to realize that my own knowledge and experience and understanding is limited, but I have access to the One who is the source of all knowledge and understanding?  And moreover, that that One has a care for and an interest in me?  Can I trust in One like that?  And if I do – does it re-shape my relationship with you and those around me?

That’s what Jesus says.  And lastly, look at what Jesus does. “He took the children in his arms, put his hands on them, and blessed them.”  Friends, this is not an account of a formal benediction.  The language is rich and full here.  Jesus embraces the children.  He holds them.  He blesses them – with depth and feeling and intent.  Jesus spoke about the importance of being like children – but here he indicates that he not only values the qualities of childlikeness, but that he actually loves children.

What is the call to the church in this passage?  It seems clear to me that a key aspect of our self-understanding as the body of Christ is that we exist in part in order to love and serve children. Unlike so many of his contemporaries in the ancient world, Jesus did not see children as ‘adults in waiting’. Jesus did not see children as those who would become something important some day; Jesus saw children as people– as those made in the image of God who deserved respect, care, and encouragement.

During the recent visit from our African partners, my brother Davies Lanjesi said to me, “Pastor, I have heard people all over the world talk about children. They say that the children are the future of the church, and they talk about how to prepare the children to build up the church once they are able.  But I have seen that is not how you do things in Crafton Heights.  At Crafton Heights, the children are not the future of the church. The children are the church right now.”

I hope that my brother is correct.  I hope that every time a child walks through these doors, there is a welcome and a joy. And I’m sorry for some of you, but if you and I are talking and someone three feet tall comes up and attempts to engage me in conversation, I’m going to ignore you – because I think that’s the ‘Jesus-y’ thing to do.  I hope and pray that every single time I touch one of you or one of your children, it is indeed a touch of blessing and an affirmation of God’s presence.  If I get that wrong, I need you to tell me.

When the early followers of Jesus started to form communities, they lived into this.  At a time when the surrounding cultures saw children as disposable and inconsequential, the early church made it their business to rescue those children who had been abandoned by their parents and to raise them in the community of faith.

That call is no less urgent today.  I know, I know – perhaps you’ve been listening to this message and saying, “See! That’s why we have the Crafton Heights Community Preschool.  That’s why we have the Open Door.” And I love these institutions.  But at the end of the day, they are institutions.  They are often fragile and sometimes clumsy programmatical efforts to embody this command of Jesus.  But Preschool and the Open Door are not enough.  May we, individually as well as corporately, commit ourselves to being those who are deserving of children’s trust.  May we do all we can – each of us – to nurture them in an environment that is free from abuse and from fear.  And may we pledge never to stand between the children and Jesus, and ever and always to firmly plant ourselves between those children whom God loves and anything that would hinder them. May we build ourselves there like a wall! Thanks be to God! Amen.

What’s The Big Deal About Hell?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the rest of the city of Pittsburgh in shock and grief following the brutal murders of 11 of our neighbors as they were gunned down at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.  As has been previously noted in this space, we are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On October 28, we wondered what the Hell was going on – literally. Our gospel reading was Mark 9:42-50.  On a personal note, it was also the 28th anniversary of my ordination as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ.  

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

I remember the question vividly – and terrifyingly.  I was about fourteen years old and attending a “Jesus People” music festival.  An older teen pulled me aside and after a little chat asked me, “But seriously, Dave – if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?”

I remember being scared to death.  First, I was afraid of dying. Then, I was afraid of going to sleep that night.  Mostly, I was afraid of Hell.  I mean, I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to have a coke, let alone be there forever.  So I asked my friend: “Um, how do I get around this ‘spending Hell in eternity’ thing?”

He told me about “the sinner’s prayer”, in which all I had to do was ask Jesus into my heart, accept his forgiveness, and then – BAM! I was in the club. No Hell for this guy! Say this.  Believe that.  Get saved.

I liked it, for a while.  It felt good to be living without fear of going to Hell. After all, I had my ticket punched.  Jesus and I were good.  I wasn’t particularly interested in Christian growth or discipleship, and I only stuck around the church because there was a cute girl there… But mostly, I was in it to get out of Hell.  Amen. Thank you Jesus.

And I was not alone.  For many people, that is the essence of the Christian walk.  In fact, that question is at the heart of “Evangelism Explosion”, a training program that has been called “the best known and most widely used evangelism training curriculum in church history.”  According to officials at Evangelism Explosion, more than 10.7 million people were “saved” through this strategy in 2016 alone.[1]

We are afraid of Hell, aren’t we?  And we are fascinated with it at the same time.  And once we’re “saved” from it, we really get worked up about it, and make it our business to decide who’s going there and who’s not.

My formative conscious experience with the Christian faith was rooted in a fear of eternal torment. How interesting to note, then, that Jesus has been walking around the Holy Land proclaiming the Kingdom of God for years before he gets around to addressing the topic of Hell.  In fact, the passage you’ve heard is the only time that Mark mentions Jesus ever referring to Hell.

There are a couple of things that are worth mentioning as we encounter the text this morning.  First, you may or may not have noticed as the scripture was read, but almost all of your Bibles omit verses 44 and 46 from the reading. Why? Because the oldest copies of the Book of Mark do not include those verses.  When the first copyists were sharing this gospel, they could not help themselves. They were so entranced by Jesus’ description of the place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” that they had to add that phrase twice more.  They, like many of us, found the idea of eternal torment – particularly eternal torment of other, less-correct, people – to be so fascinating that they had to keep talking about it.

So what does the Master actually say about Hell?

For starters, he doesn’t really use the word “Hell”.  In fact, the word isn’t in the Bible.  Ever. I know, you may think that your Bible says “hell”, and it sure sounded like Peter said “Hell” a moment ago, but that word isn’t in Jesus’ vocabulary.  There are four words that show up in various translations as “Hell”: Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna.  The first two might be more appropriately translated as “the grave”; Tartarus is used a single time and it refers to a Greek concept having to do with a place of darkness that is below the dead.

When Jesus speaks about a place of torment here (and elsewhere in the Gospels), he uses the word “Gehenna”.  Gehenna is a place – a valley near Jerusalem that was once the site of human sacrifice. Hundreds of years before Jesus, God’s people committed the abomination of offering their children to the fire god, Molech (II Chronicles 28:3).  In Jesus’ own day, the place had become the town dump, and it was full of smoldering refuse as any kind of filth – including human remains – was burned.  There was so much death and disease in this place that the worms would never run out of food; there was so much garbage being added day after day that the fires would not go out.

When Jesus used the word “Gehenna”, he surely intended to communicate the idea of a place that was evil, painful, and, well, one of sheer torment.

So what is it, Church, that provokes the Lord of Life, the One who was always so quick to talk about the proclamation of “the Kingdom”, to call to mind the most disgusting place in Jerusalem when talking to his followers?

Well, let’s remember where we’ve been.  Last week, Jesus set forward a practice of discipleship that is built around the concepts of welcome and embrace and tolerance – particularly welcome, embrace, and tolerance for those who are at the greatest risk of being marginalized or disempowered.  Do you remember? He called a child into their midst and talked about welcoming and assisting the weak, the vulnerable, the accused, the left out.

Now this is huge, Beloved, and I hope that you can hear it. Although the concept of eternal torment was big in my introduction to theology, Jesus himself doesn’t bring it up…until when?  Until he perceives amongst his followers a temptation to abuse the vulnerable, neglect the weak, or reject the stranger.

In fact, Jesus says, if you do something like abusing the vulnerable, neglecting the weak, or rejecting the stranger, it would be better for you to disappear forever than to face the consequences of that.

Listen to me: Jesus doesn’t promise Hell to people who don’t believe the right stuff about him!  He warns of Gehenna as the logical destination for those who would sacrifice children or ignore the suffering of the vulnerable.

And look at the scale that’s involved:  if you so much as cause someone to stumble; if you place a small stone in their path that might bring them to disorientation or distress, it would be better for you if a “millstone” was tied to your neck.

In Jesus’ day there were two kinds of grinding stones. The first, perhaps more common, was a hand-held stone that women would use to pulverize grain into flour.  The second was much larger and required the strength of an animal to turn on a spoke. Guess which word Jesus used?

In other words, if you cause even some small offense to one of these whom Jesus calls “these little ones” – if you were to place a stumbling block in their path – then it would be better for you to have a giant millstone tied around your neck as you are sent to swim with the fishes.

Then Jesus launches into one of the most gruesome and confusing teachings of all, wherein he talks about self-dismemberment as a strategy for discipleship.  There is a common thread in many of the Bible’s teachings that has come to be known as the “better than” proverb.  In fact, we sang one such proverb last week: “better is one day in your house than thousands elsewhere…”  Here, Jesus makes use of the familiar “better than” form but infuses it with a dose of hyperbole and exaggeration for emphasis.  It is better, he says, for one to have a millstone tied around the neck, or to cut off one’s own hand or foot, or to pluck out one’s own eye, than it is to possess an entire body but to be consigned to Gehenna, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

Does Jesus intend for people to take him literally here? Well, no.  And yes.

No, I do not think that Jesus is lifting up self-mutilation as a healthy spiritual practice.  As a child, I tried a variation of the literal interpretation of these verses. I’d smack my brother until he cried, and then he’d call on my grandmother or my mom, and I’d say, “No, of course, I didn’t hit Tommy.”  The adult would say, “Well, why is he crying? How did he get that bruise?”  And I would hold out my arm and say as innocently as I could, “I didn’t hit him.  My hand did.”

Here’s what I think that Jesus means when he gets into all that business about millstones and mutilation: I think he’s asking us if we are willing to consider the weak, the vulnerable, the “outsider” as being of greater importance that those other things that we hold dear.  Are you so attached to something that might be cause for distress for someone else that it will wind up leading you straight into Hell?

Jesus has preached about “the kingdom”.  Here, he talks about entering “life” twice and the “kingdom” once.  I take that to mean that he is focused on the Divine intention for our existence and our willingness to accept less than that intention because we are so in love with something that is other than God’s will.

How does this look in real life? Well, I spent last evening weeping in the rain with thousands of other people at the vigil in memory of those who were gunned down while they were at worship in Squirrel Hill. Let’s talk about that.

Can we see in this passage that refers at least obliquely to child sacrifice a call to at least engage in conversations that will lead us to talk about and search for ways to reduce the gun violence that leads to the deaths of far too many children of God every blessed year?

If Jesus were preaching today, might he say, “If your unwillingness to even talk about your interpretation of the Second Amendment causes you to stumble, then rip it up”? Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t go hunting or shoot skeet, but we have to find a way to figure out how to deal with this.  We have to be open to conversation, and I don’t think that giving more guns to more people is the way that Jesus would solve this problem.

And you might hate me for saying this, but I can’t help myself, sisters and brothers.  Jesus has just finished a teaching in which he lifts up a child and says the word “welcome” four times in a single sentence.  Then he talks about the fact that anyone who interferes with the progress of one of these “little ones” would be better off dead. How does that square with the ways that so many in our world today are demonizing refugees and immigrants or those of a different faith; people who are looking for ways to exclude foreigners or anyone who isn’t “just like us”?

Please hear me, Church: I am not arguing for or against any particular side of any issue. I am trying to point out the ways in which the call of the Gospel is a call to live for and toward the other; a call to accept responsibility for the welfare of another.

O. Henry was an American writer of short stories known for their surprise endings. He tells the story of a little girl being raised by her father after her mother died. Every day, dad would come home from work and put his feet up; every day his daughter would come in and ask her father to play with her, to read to her, or to spend some time together in any fashion.Every day, he would reply that he was too tired, too busy, too weary – he asked for “peace”, and he sent her outside to play in the streets of the city.  The more he did this, the more she became a creature of the streets: hardened, embittered, and tarnished.  She died. When she arrived at the gates of judgment, St. Peter said to Jesus, “Master, here is a woman who is no good.  I suppose she’s headed for Hell?”  Jesus looked at Peter and replied quickly, “No, of course not.  Let her in.” And then Jesus’ eyes grew fierce and he told St. Peter, “But now go and look for a man who refused to play with his little girl, and instead sent her to the streets.  Send that oneto Hell.”

I think that the storyteller is on to something here – that the walk of faith is not about avoiding Hell, but embracing life according to the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed.  What are we doing to create a world wherein “the little ones” are given the best opportunity to embrace the fullness of life as God intended it to be?

I think that’s what Jesus means by his closing comments about salt and fire. It’s a summary to the teaching that we have heard these past three weeks.  As one writer says, “disciples whose lives are not characterized by lowly service nor by openness to Christians who are different nor by care for those who are young in the faith nor by rigorous self-discipline are like flavorless salt. They have lost the sharpness which sets them apart from their environment and which constitutes their usefulness…Christians… are to be harder on themselves than on others”[2]– those whom they welcome and assist in the process of discovering life in the Kingdom.

I think this is a hard word for us to hear, my friends, because we have a lot of attitudes and privileges and ideas and, well,stuffthat we enjoy. May we not enjoy them so much that we risk losing everything. Thanks be to God who gives us the opportunity to walk alongside the master in paths of humility and openness. Amen.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelism_Explosion

[2]Lamar Williamson Jr., Interpretation Commentary on Mark(Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), p. 172

The Case of the Unauthorized Exorcist

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On October 21, we followed Jesus and his disciples into a small home in Capernaum where they learned an important lesson. Our gospel reading was Mark 9:33-41. We also heard from Numbers 11:26-30.

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

If you’ve ever done any work with children at all, the scene will be familiar to you. Everyone is in a certain place (say, Fellowship Hall), and then you need to group to move to the next place (say, the Sanctuary).  You stand by the door and say, “All right, let’s get ready to go.  Everyone who is in my group, line up over here.”  And where does every single child want to be? At the front of the line!  Everyone wants to be first, right?  And how do they solve this? Usually there is some shouting, some pushing, and some pouting.

Jesus and his followers have been spending some time in the far north of Israel, near the community of Caesarea Philippi.  Today, though, we read that they are on the move – headed south through the Galilee.  You know this: when Jesus and his followers went from one place to another, how did they move?  They sure didn’t Uber or take a bus!  They walked. And when they walked, it was impossible for them to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. The narrow paths and steep terrain wouldn’t permit it.  So what do they do? They line up, and they follow.

They finally get to the place where they’re staying for the night and Jesus asks a question.  Now, if that question sounded familiar to you, congratulations, because the same exact question came before us the last time we opened Mark’s Gospel.  For the second time in two days, Jesus looks at his followers and is forced to ask, “What were you arguing about?”

I wonder, Church, if we’ve given him any cause to ask us anything different in 2018?  I mean, he’s just given them some amazing (and difficult) teaching.  They could have been talking about what it meant when Jesus had spoken about the fact that the Son of Man was destined to be betrayed, to suffer, and to die.  But that’s not what they were talking about. They could have been reflecting on the teaching he’d given them when he healed the boy with the seizures, wherein Jesus had emphasized the importance of prayer and other spiritual practices.

But that’s not what they were arguing about, is it, Church?  And my first question for you all today is simply this: Has the quality of church arguments improved in the last 2000 years, or would we we just as likely to sit in embarrassed silence if he were to ask US what we’ve been spending so much time and energy on lately?

When no one can answer him, Mark tells us that Jesus sat down.  I will tell you that is not the sign of a weary man looking to take a load off his feet.  When an ancient Rabbi sat down in the presence of his disciples, it was a sign that he was ready to begin a formal teaching session. Jesus sat down in such a way as to communicate, “All right, boys, listen up.  This is going to be important.”

“Suffer the Children” (detail), Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

And it was.  He addresses the core of their behavior on the road, and he does so bluntly.  “Do you want to be first? Do you want to be great? Here’s the trick: become a servant. If you want to be first – get in the last place.”  And in order to emphasize his point, he calls a child into the circle, takes that child into his arms, and says, “the true mark of discipleship is how you treat someone like this – anonymous, weak, ‘inconsequential’ in the world’s eyes.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian man who, after experiencing some of the horrors of World War II, served with distinction in the Royal Navy.  He was unsettled, though, and left the military to pursue a career in academia.  He earned a PhD in Philosophy and wrote books on the importance of Aristotle and ethics. However, he became disenchanted with the life of a scholar and happened upon a community of severely disabled adults – and in this group he found his true vocation.  He formed an intentional community, called “L’Arche”, in France, where he dedicated his life to serving and learning from these who have been most marginalized. He writes,

[These men] do not have a consciousness of power. Because of this perhaps their capacity for love is more immediate, lively and developed than that of other men. They cannot be men of ambition and action in society and so develop a capacity for friendship rather than for efficiency. They are indeed weak and easily influenced, because they confidently give themselves to others; they are simple certainly, but often with a very attractive simplicity. Their first reaction is often one of welcome and not of rejection or criticism. Full of trust, they commit themselves deeply. Who amongst us has not been moved when met by the warm welcome of our boys and girls, by their smiles, their confidence and their outstretched arms. Free from the bonds of conventional society, and of ambition, they are free, not with the ambitious freedom of reason, but with an interior freedom, that of friendship. Who has not been struck by the rightness of their judgments upon the goodness or evil of men, by their profound intuition on certain human truths, by the truth and simplicity of their nature which seeks not so much to appear to be, as to be.[1]

I think that Vanier was paying attention to Jesus, even if the disciples were not.  Look in particular at verse 37: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” Do you see that? Four times in a single sentence wherein Jesus is seeking to communicate the essence of discipleship he uses the word “welcome”.  Do you think that he understood that to be an important hallmark of the community that would follow him?

How well did the disciples hear the voice of their master?  We don’t have to wait long to find out: as soon as Jesus finishes the sentence in which he uses the word “welcome” four straight times, John – who is often referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – the one who, if Jesus had a best friend, it was probably him – John can’t wait to say, “Oooh oooh oooh – hey Jesus, we saw a guy who was using your name but not doing everything the way we do, and so we made him stop!”

You just have to know that if Jesus ever did a face-palm, it was here.  “Seriously, John? All this conversation about welcoming and hospitality and humility, and the best thing that you can think to say at this very moment is this? Great googly-moogly.”

It’s telling to see what John said.  He had to shut the guy down, he said.  Why? “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”  Not, “he wasn’t following you, Jesus…” Nope.  Those guys who were arguing about who is going to be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are still worried about it now, even after Jesus told them of the call to welcome and receive.

This situation echoes the one to which we referred in our Old Testament reading: there, Moses had felt the burden of leadership, and the Lord had told him to gather some of the elders who would join in the ministry with him.  They were all to go to a certain spot and the Lord would pour out His spirit upon them. So far, so good.  But then, lo and behold, a couple of the fellows who were not there wound up getting touched by the Spirit as well!  Good news, right?  Not to young Joshua, Moses’ assistant.  Just as the disciples of Jesus tried to hush the man who wasn’t with the Lord, so Joshua attempted to prevent these men from exercising the gifts they’d received from God. In both cases, the response is the same: “Why in the world would you want to silence the Spirit of God just because it’s coming from a place that surprises you?”

Beloved, I think that there is a word from God for us here today.  The call to be a disciple is a call to share, to adapt, and to grow.

Let me tell you a part of my own story.  For a long time, I prided myself on a certain point of my theology. I knew what I believed and why I believed it. I could throw six or eight Bible passages at anyone who questioned me.  I was devout, I was orthodox, I was, well, right. I spoke out about my own beliefs, and I wrote about them.

There was another person who had a different take on this issue.  She sought to befriend me.  At first, I was wary.  Why would she want to talk? “Don’t waste your breath trying to win me over to your side,” I told her.  “I’m not interested in being converted.”  She told me that was the farthest thing from her mind – she told me that she wanted to know how my spirit was touched by this thing.  We met occasionally for coffee and conversation.

Not long after that, she was brought before a church court on charges relating to her position on this issue.  I was called to serve as a “judge” at the trial that followed.  Throughout the affair, she was never less than gracious or hospitable.  I thought she was wrong – but she was never smug or accusatory.

I saw her once in the airport.  When I greeted her, she mentioned that her husband was seriously ill.  I asked if I could pray for him, and if we could pray there in the airport.  At that moment, I realized that we were not merely two sides of an argument – we were two children of God seeking to make our way in a universe that is seemingly opposed to the intentions of God far too often.  She received my offer to pray as it was intended, and our friendship grew.

We still don’t agree on everything. But I know that because God limited my ability to see her only as “the other”, the mistaken, the wrong… I was able to grow and adapt in my own walk of faith. My ideas have changed.  I have grown – in my intellect, in my faith, in my spirit.

I believe that the call of Jesus, echoed by Moses, is to resist any pattern that would have the church define itself by the ideas we are against, the people we want to keep out, or the things that we hate.  Let us refuse the temptation – so common in America’s political and cultural climate in 2018 – to “other” someone else.  Whether we call it tribalism or white supremacy or Islamophobia or racism or ethnocentrism – any practice that perpetuates or even encourages us to draw stark lines between “us” and “them” can only lead to more entrenched marginalization and the fracturing of the human family.  Instead, let us, as followers of Jesus Christ, commit ourselves to welcoming and even embracing those for whom Christ has died.

Edwin Markham was an American poet who was active around the turn of the last century.  He captures the heart of this part of the gospel call in his whimsical little piece called “Outwitted”.

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in![2]

Beloved, let us never, ever, give into the temptation to add to those things that divide us.  Instead, let us seek to create and contribute to a culture of tolerance, embrace, and hospitality to the end that all people might be touched by the Spirit and love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[3]Jean Vanier, Eruption to Hope(1971)

[2]“Outwitted”, by Edwin Markham in The Shoes of Happiness And Other Poems (1913).

Glory!

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 30 we stepped away from the liturgical calendar and explored the wonder of the Transfiguration of Christ.  Our gospel reading was from Mark 9:2-13. 

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

Well, it’s official – this is “wedding season”.  Maybe you’ve gone to one or two already this fall.  If it seems like more and more people are getting married at this time of year, you’re right.  Nine of the top ten wedding dates in 2018 are in September or October (yesterday was #4, by the way).  If I was a part of your wedding, you’ll know that I have a standard fee for conducting the ceremony: I ask for a photo of the three of us for the “wall of fame” in my study.

Wedding pictures.  What a tradition.  You may have been in some, and I’m sure you’ve seen a bunch.  There are some pretty outlandish ones being taken these days…

As I contemplate the photos of so many of you that line my study, I ask myself, “Why do we take so many pictures at our weddings?”  Surely the reason can’t be simply to remember the fact that we got married.  There are a hundred reminders of that every day.  In addition, have you ever met someone who had forgotten that they got married?  I don’t think that’s the purpose.  There has to be more to it than simply remembering the event.  Why do we get ourselves all gussied up and stand in front of the cameras for a very long time on what are often incredibly hot days, smiling as if we are as cool as cucumbers who aren’t worried about whether the DJ will pronounce the names correctly or how we’re going to feed 239 of our best friends?

Here’s my theory: I think we stand up there and take the photos because we want to somehow “mark” the day. We want to remember that it is a special day.  But not just the day – we want to acknowledge our hopes and our dreams.  We want to remember, when the dishes are piling up in the sink and the kids are screaming and the power goes out and the snow needs to be shoveled and the dog messed the carpet (again!) that when we started this adventure, we had some incredibly high hopes and we were surrounded by some amazing people – friends and relatives who had gone to great expense and trouble just to be there with us and for us on this incredible day. I think we take photos at these formal times so that we can remember not only how we looked, but all that we have hoped and dreamed.

The Transfiguration of The Christ, Earl Mott (contemporary)

I think that’s why Peter tries to get the Lord to allow him to set up some tents on the mountain. You know, there are a lot of reasons to love Peter in the scripture, but today’s reading is one of my favorites.  Jesus has invited Peter, James, and John to come with him for an incredible experience, and Peter is overawed.  I love the fact that just after recording Peter’s request to set up a few tents, the author of Mark says, “He did not know what to say…” It’s a clear acknowledgement that sometimes, Peter just can’t help himself. He knows he’s out of his league, but he just can’t shut up.  I know how he feels…

He just wants it to last a little longer.  Clearly, neither Jesus, nor Moses, nor Elijah needs any kind of extra shelter…but Peter just wants to stay there.  “It’s so good – to be in the presence of the Lord, and to see these figures from the past, representing the Law and the Prophets – WOW!  Don’t let it end, Jesus!  I know that sooner or later you’re going to start talking about dying again, and we’re going to have to leave…but let’s not rush, huh?”

You can’t blame him.  Peter is awash in the light; basking in the heavenly voice, overwhelmed by the moment. After all, he and the other disciples have just witnessed a Christophany; that is, a physical manifestation or revelation of Jesus’ true nature. Only six days prior to this, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ.  Here, the Divine voice, along with the presence of Moses and Elijah, confirms what Peter has named.  He sees the light; he loves the light; and he wants to stay there.  You can’t blame him for that.

But unfortunately for Peter, the moment does not last, and the vision fades, and it’s just them and Jesus, coming down the mountain.  As they do so, Jesus tells them what he’s told just about everyone else in the past nine chapters of this Gospel: “Don’t say anything about this.” We’ve heard this talk of the “messianic secret” before, and it appears to be the Lord’s way of saying to Peter and to the rest of us – “Look, I know you are in love with the idea of me being the Messiah, but you don’t really get it yet.  And whatever you do, don’t try to tell this story until you know how it ends. When you really ‘get it’, you’ll be able to tell it well.  But for now, mum’s the word.”  What is interesting to me at this point is that this is the final time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus tells people to keep his identity a secret.  He is entering an increasingly public phase of his ministry and preparing for his death.  There are to be no more secrets in the days ahead.

Messiah’s Entry Into Jerusalem, Siegmund Forst (1965)

As they come down the mountain, the disciples raise questions about the role of Elijah.  Most of the rabbis at that time taught that when the Messiah finally came, he would be unmistakable in part because God would send Elijah to earth to announce the Messiah’s coming.  According to these teachers, one day Elijah would stand on the mountains of Israel, weeping at the desolation he saw.  Then in a voice that would be heard from one end of the earth to the other, he would cry out “Peace comes to the world!”  On the second day, he would cry out to all creation, “Good comes to the world!” And on the third day he would cry “Yshua (salvation) comes to the world!”  And then Elijah would come and make things right so that the Messiah would come into a kingdom that has been properly prepared.[1]

Now remember that the twelve had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, and now here they see Elijah – and so they ask Jesus, is it going to be like that?  And Jesus says, “No – not exactly.  Elijah has already come” – a reference to the role of John the Baptist in announcing the ministry and work of Jesus.  Jesus continues by saying, essentially, “You know, they didn’t get John’s ministry, they sure as shooting won’t understand me.” The world and the culture were limited in what they believed and could understand about God – and anyone who imposed those limits on John and on Jesus was unable to see God’s working in John’s and in Jesus’ lives.

Jesus, though, uses this event – we call it “the transfiguration” to teach his followers to remove that kind of limitation.  Peter, James, and John had literally “seen the light”.  They were different for having been in that place, even if they couldn’t fully realize it. Jesus allowed them to see him, and themselves, and each other in a different light – and they never, ever forgot it.

The Transfiguration, Sieger Köder

Have you “seen the light”?  What I mean is, have you ever been made acutely aware of who you are, where you are, and what that means?

Try this. Please, folks, don’t say anything out loud here.  But think with me…

Think of a time when you were made aware of your own sinfulness.  A time when you saw, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you were not who you wanted to be, or thought you were, or wanted someone else to believe that you were – a time when you were broken by this kind of awareness.

It may be been the day that you realized you were addicted.

Or the day that you took credit for work that was not yours, and were caught in it.

Perhaps it was when you were caught having an affair, or the shame you felt when you raised your hand to your child.  It may be, for someone in this room, an awareness of shame that has come upon you in light of the national conversation regarding the #metoo movement.

Look, I don’t know exactly when it was for most of you, but I’m betting that I don’t have to convince you that you’ve had days where you realized that you’ve blown it.  Do you remember that day?  That pain? That shame?

As odd as it may sound, that was the light of Christ shining in your life. It illuminated a part of your world that had been dark, revealing a truth that you’d been hiding from others and perhaps yourself for a long time.

Stay in that pain for a moment.

Now, I want you to remember a time when you experienced great grace.  A sense of your life being something that you did not deserve – a gift that came to you and you knew it was not the result of your own charm, wittiness, or rakish good looks.

Maybe it was the time he told you he loved you, or the birth of a child or grandchild.

It could be that time she stuck with you after you both knew you’d screwed up.

Maybe it was the day you heard about an amazing scholarship, or saw that relative who had written you off for dead, or somehow felt accepted in spite of your brokenness.

Can you remember a day like that?

That, too is light – coming from outside of you and revealing truth by illuminating the reality of your heart.  You have seen the light – no less than the apostles did on the mount of transfiguration.  I know you have.

This passage records the church’s commemoration of the time when Jesus’ face was set ablaze by the presence of the holy on top of the mountain. It reminds disciples – then and now – of how Moses’ face was radiant following his conversations with the Lord.

Our witnesses to this event did not produce that light.  They did not invent it or manufacture it or manipulate it. They simply stayed in it.  They allowed it to change them.  The light shone on them, and they stood in the light.

If I’m right about your best day and your worst day, you know something about standing in the light, too.  So let me ask you, what happens when you stand in the light? Can you be changed?

What I really want to know is this:  what if you were able to live in the deep awareness of the light of God penetrating your life – both your deepest sin and greatest brokenness andyour ultimate joy and amazement at the undeserved grace that God has put in your life?  What if you walked around every day convinced that you were terribly flawed, a great sinner in need of a great saving while at the same time you were absolutely sure that you were receiving some unmerited favor, some great gift that you did not deserve but clearly enjoy?

What if you had the self-awareness every day to say, and to believe, that “I am a great sinner whose life has been marked by grave misjudgments and boneheaded mistakes.  And I am also a child of God whose life is filled with blessing that does not originate in me, and whose sin and mistakes cannot define.”

If you or I had the presence of mind to live like that, well, we’d be living like the transfiguration wasn’t a one-and-done kind of deal.

Listen: if you are sure that you’ve been broken by sin, then how in the world will you judge your neighbor?  What makes you any better than that person you’re ready to throw under the bus?  We both know the answer to that question.

Again: if you are convinced that God’s grace has been brought into your life, and that you are aware of the power of God’s life, light, and peace – how will you hold that in, and think it only applies to you?

Oh, that the church might be full of those who are so grateful for what they’ve received that they are sold out for others!  That we might be so defined by gratitude and so overwhelmed by the grace that we’ve received that we have no option but to extend that graciousness, that hospitality, to others.

My prayer for this day is that God will reveal to each of us who we are, and where we are. That we will claim that identity and dwell in it.  And that the love of God might flow freely in and through us in ways that allow our neighbors to see the grace and forgiveness of Christ, whom we love and serve by loving and serving those amongst whom he has placed us. Thanks be to God for the light that has not stopped shining!  Amen.

[1] Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: Mark(Westminster, 1956), p. 218.

 

Count the Cost

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 16 we heard some of the first words that Jesus spoke to his disciples after accepting Peter’s acclamation of his messiah-ship.  If Jesus is the savior, then what is our response? Our gospel reading was from Mark 8:34-9:1.

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

What Do People Think About Me?, Vasely Polenov (c. 1900)

Last week we picked up in our exploration of Mark’s Gospel by noting that the middle of Chapter 8 is essentially the opening episode in “Season II” of the Jesus story.  We noted that Jesus has taken the group to the farthest reaches of Jewish territory, in the community of Caesarea Philippi along the Lebanese border.  In this remote location, Peter almost hits one out of the park when he acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then loses his footing when he denies Jesus the opportunity to define what “Messiah” and “Savior” mean.

In this way, Peter is actually echoing something that had happened in the last episode of “season I”.  You’ll remember that on their way to Caesarea Philippi the band stopped in a place called Bethsaida.  As they went through, Jesus encountered a blind man and we heard a remarkable story of a two-stage healing.  Jesus touched him, and he could see – but not perfectly.  He reported that human beings looked like trees to him.  It took another touch of the Savior’s hands to bring complete clarity to the man.

I’d like to suggest that last week’s reading in which Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then turns around and needs to be set straight almost right away is an echo of that healing.  Peter could see, but it was imperfect.  Like the sightless man in Bethsaida, he needed the “second touch”.

In our reading for today, Jesus continues to elaborate for Peter and the rest of the group what it will mean to live a life of faithful discipleship. As he first instructed Peter to “Get behind me!” in v. 33, he now uses the same exact word in telling those around him that discipleship is all about following. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  “Follow me” is the same word in Greek as “get behind me.” The life of discipleship is all about perspective – and the Lord is saying that if we define ourselves as his “followers” it can only make sense if we are willing to, well, followhim.

I’d like to suggest that Jesus chose this remote place in Northern Israel to bring forward what might be the hardest part of his teaching on discipleship. He’s starting, not with the crowds that might have adored him in his home town, nor with the masses who were happy to accept a free lunch, but with those hardy folk who had engaged in a long and circuitous route to this town somewhere past the middle of nowhere.

“If you want to get serious,” Jesus said, “You have to talk about discipleship.”  And, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,

The first Christ-suffering which everyone must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world.  It is the death of the old self which is the result of one’s encounter with Christ.  As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death… When Christ calls to us, he bids us come and die.  It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at Christ’s call.[1]

In the first teaching on discipleship after accepting the acclamation of Peter and designating himself “the Son of Man”, Jesus points out that discipleship by its very definition means giving up our ability or perceived need to set the direction, to be in charge, or to “call the shots”.  The beginning of a walk in faith, then, is to yield to God in all things.

We are called let go of our fear.  We are called to seek God’s best in the reality of each new day.  And we are called to a denial of self.

I want to point out here that when Jesus talks about denying oneself, he does not say “deny some things to yourself” (the English majors amongst us will realize that is making the self an indirect object).  If we were to read it that way, we might be tempted to think that there is some real chance that God might be impressed by my ability to “just say no” to sweet treats or fancy cars or front-row seats at the game.

No, he says, “deny yourself.”  The “self” is the direct object.  There are only two objects here – the self and the Christ.  In order to follow the one, I must deny, or leave, or turn away from the other.   Following Jesus means a willingness to relinquish life on my own terms and to stop pursuing my own ends.

I’d like to take advantage of this moment to point out that none of this ought to be a surprise to anyone who has sought to be a disciple of Jesus here in Crafton Heights.  On the day that you were born – some of you, anyway – I read from Psalm 139 and reminded you that you were not an accident of nature nor are you the result of some careful human design.  In that scripture we heard – again – that you were made.  You were made fearfully and wonderfully in the Divine image.  You were given an identity by your Creator.

A central task of the Christian life is discovering what it means to be faithful to God in the context of the image that has been given; I am called to discern, understand, and seek out what it means to be the me who is at this place and this time, and that can be hard work.  But I never, ever have to inventan identity.  I live a life of faith in which I seek to discover how to be the self that God made me to be.

And now, you might be thinking, “All right, Dave, this is interesting – or at least, it’s not deathly boring… But what does it look like in real life? Give us an example.”

I’m glad you asked!  Let me tell you a little bit about a hero named Epaphroditus.  Do you know that I have at least two books on my shelves which claim to be some version of Who’s Who in the Bible– and yet neither one of them mentions this young man who was commended by Paul in Philippians 2.  Listen:

But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me. (Philippians 2:25-30)

I wonder – is there anyone here who has heard of this man before?  I’m here to tell you he is an amazing example of the self-denying, Christ-serving disciple of which Jesus spoke in Mark 8.  Paul has been imprisoned for some time, and the church in Philippi has become concerned for his welfare.  It’s not practical or possible for the entire congregation to go and check on the old Apostle, so Epaphroditus volunteers to go.  He finds Paul in a tough spot, and immediately dives in to try to make life better for Paul.  He does, but in the process he loses his own health and in fact nearly dies.  Through prayer and the care of others, the young man’s health is restored and now Paul is sending him back to the church in Philippi, full of news and encouragement.  And please note that when Paul sends him back he does so with a lot of powerful words: Epaphroditus is an apostle, a fellow worker, a soldier for the Lord.  He proves this, says Paul, because he was willing to serve Jesus even at risk to himself. In fact, Paul chooses to use a word here that is used only this once in the entire Bible: he says that Epaphroditus “risked his life” or “exposed his life” for the sake of the gospel: the word is paraballo.  Can you see how in this little story from his own files, Paul gives us a great description of one who lived into the narrative of Mark 8? That Epaphroditus was more concerned about following Jesus in the service of others than he was about saving his own neck?

That might be interesting enough, but then in the fifth century we find a couple of very curious references to an order of disciples who were called the Parabolani. From what we can tell, this group began as a community of Christ-followers who saw their special mission as being to care for the sick – even at risk to themselves.  The Parabolaniwere so eager to reach out to those on the margins that they walked freely amongst those with deadly and communicative diseases offering the same hope and love and care as Epaphroditus gave to Paul.  Isn’t that awesome?

Yes.  Almost. But something happened.

The longer this small society pursued this mission, the more difficult it became. As they became more well-known, they were revered and honored.  They were admired.  Soon, someone would see one or two of them walking down the street wearing the little emblem of the Parabolaniand a crowd would gather.  “Hey, guys – seriously – thanks for all you do.  We don’t know what we’d do without you.  The world is better because you’re here…”

Along the way, in addition to being respected and admired, some fear crept in.  It may have been well-placed; I mean, if I think you’ve been out treating people with tuberculosis or hepatitis I am not sure that I want you making my tuna salad sandwich…  So eventually the bands of Parabolani created a bit of a stir wherever they showed up.

Maybe you can guess where this is leading.  It didn’t take all that much time for the group that had been established on the basis of selfless and anonymous service to those who were in horrible places to become transformed into a “goon squad” of enforcers sent out by the religious establishment.  The last mention of the Parabolani indicates that the local Bishop had them show up at a council meeting in order to ensure that everything went the way that the Bishop wanted…

Isn’t that the way of things?  We come to Christ, and we seek healing and life and we find hope and we are filled with joy that we didn’t think we could know.  We dive into the life of discipleship – sometimes by means of denying ourselves.  We yield privileges.  We give up what we want for the good of the group and the joy of our neighbor.

And sometimes, when we do this, people notice.  And they mention it.  And the first few times, I protest: “Ah, don’t mention it,” I say.  “It’s nothing.”

But inside, it feels pretty good to be noticed.  In fact, I like it.  I like it so much that I keep on doing those things that show me as kind and compassionate and caring… and I do them in places where you can see me, and where you can affirm me for it.  That kind of affirmation can be like a drug to me, and I crave it.  I start to abuse it.  And before you know it, I’ve left Christ behind me.

You’ve seen it.  The person who started an incredible charity for the homeless is revealed to be living in a mansion that costs millions of dollars.  The youth worker who started out wanting nothing more than to help kids discover the love of Jesus winds up “falling in love” with some fourteen year-old and using that child to fill some perceived need in his life… The so-called “suffering servant” at the church who doesn’t mind doing all of the lowly jobs as long as he gets noticed doing them, credited for taking care of them, and thanked for being so humble and selfless.

Does any of that sound familiar to you?  Because it seems to me like a lot of that is my story over and over again.  This is, for me, the hardest part of discipleship – wanting to want the right things for the right reasons.  Wanting to stay in line behind Jesus, rather than getting out where you can see how good, how noble, how “Christ-like” I am.  For crying out loud, Dave, let them see Jesus – not you!

The path of discipleship may begin with something specific.  Maybe you remember one day when you “asked Jesus to come into your heart”.  Maybe you woke up in a fog, not remembering where you’d been the night before, and you said, “That’s enough.  Starting now, things are going to be different.”

In that way, following Jesus is a lot like any other relationship: it began with a simple act, a specific conversation, a seemingly “chance” meeting. All of our relationships are like that – friendships and marriages and parenting – they all begin with something that is observable.  And yet each of them requires the daily, if not hourly, embrace of a set of behaviors and ideals and commitments.  The life of discipleship requires that we constantly and consistently turn our eyes to the man who went to the cross.

Sitting amidst the symbols of power and wealth in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus looks us in the eyes and says, plainly, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

That does not mean that we quietly walk towards oblivion because we are not important.  Rather, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “…the cross is a sign of what happens when one takes God’s account of reality more seriously than Caesar’s. The cross stands as God’s (and our) eternal no to the powers of death, as well as God’s eternal yes to humanity, God’s remarkable determination not to leave us to our own devices.”[2]

In my discipleship, I am invited and called to live for Jesus in hope and in victory every day, not because of how good, noble, or holy I am or think that I am; but because he knows me, he formed me, he shaped me, and he invited me to follow him into goodness, nobility, and holiness. As a disciple, I’ve just got to remember my place.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1]The Cost of Discipleship, MacMillan paperback 1963, p. 99 (edited for gender inclusivity).

[2]Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony(Abingdon, 1989), p. 47.

2018 Youth Mission #5

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective. This is the final update from this year’s trip.

For as long as I can remember, if someone asks me “What is the purpose of Youth Group?”, one of my top three answers has been “making memories”.  When I say that, I don’t mean to imply that spiritual growth is not essential or that passing on the faith is unimportant.  To the contrary, I am deeply convinced that the Christian Faith is, in the words of the late Dale Milligan, “better ‘caught’ than ‘taught’.”  We help form the spiritual lives of the children we love by enculturation – by helping them not only to know the story, but to see how they can fit into the story.  And so each mission trip provides us with an amazing chance to create both individual and shared memories of sacred space, time, and stories.

One of the ways that we did this on Friday was to spend a few hours in the morning tending to some last-minute details on our work site and then taking advantage of our proximity to Niagara Falls by visiting one of the great wonders of the world together.  We drove through the heart of Buffalo (remembering several mission trips to that fair city in previous years) and then sailed on the “Maid of the Mist”, hiked up the steps, pondered our own insignificance as well as the amazing power and majesty of God (no surprise that Marla opted to read Psalm 29 in our devotion), and laughed an awful lot.  In the process, I trust, we added to our storehouse of shared experiences and celebrated the connections that place us in each other’s memories.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not convinced that too many of the young people at whose sleeping forms I’m now staring while I pen these lines will process this in this way – but I am sure that they will at some point.

The reason I’m sure of that is because of what happened after we got back from the Falls.  We enjoyed some wonderful tacos, and then sat together for our final debriefing time.  It is a tradition for us to invite the seniors to address the group at the end of each mission trip.  There are often a lot of tears, and Friday night was no exception.  It was wonderful and humbling to hear Tommy, McKenna, and Lindsay  talk about the ways in which connection with this group has been formative and life-giving over the years.  Each of them chose to speak of Youth Group as a place of safety and joy in a world that is often thin in both of those places; each pointed to stories of previous trips or experiences as evidence of God’s willingness to meet them in this context.  I was filled with pride and joy as I watched them share with their younger sisters and brothers – and as the younger ones soaked in the affirmation, challenge, and gratitude that was shared.

Each morning I wake up at the old-man-ish hour of six and write this.  This year, since we’re all in one room for our sleeping, eating, and recreation, I am watching them sleep each day.  It’s not creepy.  I look at the young person who was paralyzed with fright earlier this week, but worked through it; at a girl who found the bravery and the courage to step outside her comfort zone in service or speaking; at someone who is here for the first time but has, I hope, developed some bonds that will last during a difficult future; at several young people who go to great lengths to be a part of the youth group experience each week; at the one who has been told every day that she/he is insignificant and doesn’t matter; at the one who is always measured by what she/he achieves or does, but finds in Youth Group a chance just to be and be loved anyway…  I am filled with gratitude for my brother Tim Salinetro, who has come on more trips like this with me than I can even count, and I marvel at the ways that he opens path of joy for young people… I celebrate the gifts of Marla Barrett, who thinks, “why wouldn’t I spend a week with these kids two months before I get married” and does so with great humor and deep passion… I’m glad for Josie Miller and her willingness to dive into this craziness as she offers herself with joy and encouragement each day.

I say, not as often as I should, that it’s a good life, and we ought to be grateful.  Today, I am deeply grateful, and also hopeful.  Thanks for your prayers and support on behalf of these young people!

Maddy and Lindsay taping the drywall while sharing a smile…

Marla sealing the joints

Evan helping to supervise the clean-up at the church

Our team on the finished wheelchair ramp

One view from “The Maid of the Mist”

… and another…

We were told that “niagara” is derived from a native word meaning “the water thunders”. I believe it!

This is an inadequate photo of a sacred circle – a place of trust, confidence, joy, hope, gratitude – and now, for some – memory.