The Rashomon Effect (and does it matter?)

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 Maundy Thursday (April 18, 2019), we looked at one of the few members of the community to be named in each of the four Gospels: Joseph of Arimathea.  Who was this man, what did he do, and why did it matter?  The Gospel text was Mark 15:42-47.  We also listened to selected verses from Hebrews 9

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

One of the best things that has happened to me in the past year or so is the “slow reading” of Mark’s Gospel that this sermon series has allowed. I find that especially true during this season, where we’ve had the privilege of notrushing through the last 100 verses of the story in just a sermon or two.

As I read and re-read the passage at hand this evening, I recalled a couple of films with which you may be familiar: Courage Under Firewith Denzel Washington and Vantage Pointwith Dennis Quaid and Forrest Whitaker. Each of these films employs a device called the Rashomon Effect – this is a way of storytelling wherein we see the same events through different lenses.  In Vantage Point, for instance, there is an attempted assassination of the President, but just when we think that we know everything, we see the same occurrence from a different, well, vantage point.  And each different perspective adds to our understanding of what really happened in the plot line.

Joseph of Arimathea stained glass window in The Church of St. John the Baptist, Glastonbury, England

In fact, there are some folk who would say that the presence of four Gospels is itself a demonstration of the Rashomon Effect, as each author is selective about what to include, and therefore what to exclude, in the narratives about Jesus.  One character that shows up in each of the four Gospels, however, is this man called Joseph from Arimathea.

As I read the text slowly this week, I began to jump to different conclusions as to who Joseph might have been, and why it’s important to remember his presence.  Although Matthew, Luke, John, and Mark all note that he was there – each of them only mentions him on the day of Jesus’ death, and he doesn’t show up anywhere else. Who was he, and what is his function in the story?

Each of the gospel writers implies that he was some sort of a disciple.  Yet he was not a public disciple in the way that Peter, James and John were.  He was a secret follower – he lived in fear of his relationship with Jesus making the rest of his life more difficult (or in fear of the rest of his life making life more difficult for the disciples).  Mark tells us that he was a prominent member of the council.  If you’ve been paying attention the past few weeks, you’ll recall that there were precious few people in that group who might have aligned themselves with the Lord.

Does the Gospel include this story because we are to believe that Joseph’s secret fascination with Jesus was an example of “too little, too late”? I can’t believe that Mark’s original readers would have been impressed with a man of power and privilege who sought to keep his affiliation with Jesus a secret.  These were people living in Rome who were experiencing persecution for having identified themselves as Christ-followers, and apparently Joseph of Arimathea was a leading member of the body who condemned Jesus to death. According to Mark himself, Joseph said nothing at Jesus’ trial (14:64 reads, “and they allcondemned him…”).  If that’s the case, then isn’t he worse than Peter, who simply denied knowing him?  Or maybe even worse than Judas, who simply told the authorities where Jesus might be found?

But there’s another way to look at this.  Joseph was, evidently, a wealthy man.  Maybe he was a member of the council who had a heart that matched his bank account. Sure, he had been a part of the body that ultimately executed Jesus, but he felt so badly about it that in order to assuage his guilt for his participation in this enterprise, he bankrolled the entire burial expense – thus ensuring that Jesus would not meet the fate of so many common criminals and have his body lay exposed to the elements. Joseph regretted his action with the Council, and as a way of making up for that, he sought to at least do right by Jesus after death.  Did Mark include him as a means of demonstrating that stewardship is important and it’s never too late to get on the right side of history?

Joseph of Arimathaea Seeks Pilate to Beg Permission to Remove the Body of Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

There are some who have argued that neither of these is the case, and in fact that Joseph is worthy of admiration because even after all of the original disciples run away, Joseph himself is the only person who actually actslike a disciple.  In chapter 6, Mark narrated the death of John the Baptist, and went out of his way to tell us that although John, too, was killed as an enemy of the state, John’sdisciples had the courage to go and get his body and give it a proper burial.  Maybe Joseph is included in this story to show Mark’s readers how a realdisciple acts.

In the past few chapters, Mark has shown us that the number of true friends that Jesus has appears to be in decline.  When he’s giving away lunch on the mountain top there are 5000+ willing followers; later at a Bible Study, only 72 show up.  There was a throng at Palm Sunday, but the number had dropped significantly by the time dinner on Thursday rolled around.  Later that same evening, they “all” fled, so that on Friday all we’ve got left is a group of women hanging around within earshot of the cross.  And yet Joseph emerges as the hero of this scene and actslike a true follower would act.

In fact, there are some critics of the New Testament who insist that Joseph is a little too perfectto be a real person.  The fact that he doesn’t show up in any other places of the Gospel, combined with the inability of any biblical scholar to point to a town called “Arimathea” on a map, added to the fact that the word “Arimathea” can be loosely translated as “ari” = “best” and “mathea” = “disciple-town” has led a few people to believe that Mark made up this character specifically to show his community what truedisciples do.

There’s one more angle, though: Frederick Buechner suggests that while Joseph of Arimathea might have been a nice and even generous man, his vision was limited and he is therefore remembered as the one person who apparently cared more for the dead Jesus than the living Christ.  Buechner writes, “It is important to give Joseph of his due for his mortuary solicitude, but at the same time it is hard not to see him as the first of many Christians who spend so much time stewing about the blood of the lamb that they lose sight of the fact that the lamb has long since gone on to greener pastures where he’s kicking up his heels in the sunshine and calling to others to come join the dance.”[1]

So there you have it.  What’s your take on this? Was Joseph of Arimathea a secret, and therefore a worthless follower of Jesus? One whose cowardice during Jesus’ trial could not be overcome by the donation of a prime cemetery plot after the inevitable outcome of that trial?  Or was he a wealthy benefactor who sought to cushion the blow to Jesus’ family and friends, and whose largesse was worthy of imitation in the centuries that followed?

Maybe you hold fast to the notion of Joseph as being bold, courageous, and a disciple’s disciple, doing that for Jesus which not a single other follower would do.  And, as I mentioned, it’s possible to maintain that he was an eminently sensible man who was just trying to put this whole affair to rest as quickly and as quietly as possible – as if he said, “Let’s just get this funeral over with so that life can get back to normal around here…”

St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and the Staff that Flowered, by the hand of a Monk of the Brotherhood of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

The Rashomon Effect suggests that there are multiple layers of interpretation of Joseph’s character, and each interpretation carries with it a moral lesson of something to embrace or to avoid. Perhaps you know that the Christian Tradition has fallen in love with the character of Joseph of Arimathea. Some have said that he was there to hold the chalice used at the Last Supper to catch some of the blood of the Christ, and thereby giving rise to the legend of the Holy Grail; some say that in AD 63 he went on a missionary trip to England and became known as Joseph of Glastonbury.  I think all that proves is that the church has always been in love with celebrities and rich, beautiful people.

And yet no matter where you think Joseph’s heart was, and what you think his motivation was, there is one incontrovertible fact in these few verses. More than anyone else, Joseph of Arimathea is the one responsible for ensuring that Jesus of Nazareth was provided with a death certificate.  Now Jesus’s family didn’t need one of those for the insurance company or the Social Security folks, but we have come to rely on Joseph’s assurance that Jesus was, in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “crucified, dead, and buried.”

It is noteworthy that a man described as a prominent member of the Sanhedrin took it upon himself to march into Pilate’s office and request that the Roman Military attest to Jesus’ death.  This is seemingly unimpeachable evidence: a member of the Jewish Council, the Roman Procurate, and an officer of the army of the occupation are all convinced that on this day we have come to call Good Friday, the life was drained from Jesus’ veins.

Cristo con José de Arimatea, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1525)

Jesus was dead.  He wasn’t pretending to be dead.  They weren’t afraid he was going to die.  It didn’t seem as if he might be dead.  He was dead.  Whether this was Joseph’s aim or not I cannot know; but these six verses in the Gospel of Mark are enough to convince me that whatever happened next was the thing that happened after the worst thing possible.

To put it another way: Joseph of Arimathea, and Pilate, and the Centurion all appeared to think that Mark 15 was the end of the story. The only two friends that Jesus had left, apparently, Mary and Mary, must’ve thought so too.  They came to make sure that things were done right.

The fact – not the appearance, but the factof Jesus’ death would appear to preclude anything of interest or hope in Mark 16.

And yet, beloved, there is a Mark 16.  That is a story for another day, and I hope you’ll be here to hear it.  For tonight, I just want to remind you of this, my friends: You have all stood at the grave.  You have all watched as the one you loved entered into that dark place.  You have each gone home and wondered, “Well, what in the heck am I supposed to do now?”  You have each come into a situation where you thought that all was lost.  Like Joseph, you have done what you thought might have been impossible and rolled that giant stone in place in an attempt to seal yourself off from the death that you thought might consume you.

Like Joseph, like you, and like me, Jesus was present at funerals. And yet he went, not as a mourner, but as the corpse. Make no mistake: Joseph, along with Mary and Mary, are here to point to the exact spot where Jesus’ corpse was laid.  The daylight flees, and the few friends that Jesus has left melt into the darkness, convinced that sin and death have won the day.

I have often been close to knowing how that feels, and I know that you have too.  In our zeal to get to all things Easter, let us not rush through this Good Friday and the day that follows it.  Let us hold on to the sure and certain knowledge that as Jesus was, so shall we be.  And let us remember that when we get to Sunday as well, for as he became, so shall we also become.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of hope and life.  Amen.

[1]Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 79-80.

Yishar

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 Palm/Passion Sunday (April 14, 2019), we imagined a friendship that might have shaped the world… We tried to see the crowds at the crucifixion, and we sought to consider what is the crux of the matter.  Our Gospel text was Mark 15:21-41, and we heard it after considering the words of Isaiah 53.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please visit the link below:

As I was preparing for this message I was struck by something that seemed surprising at this point in our study of Mark.  You’ll remember that we have observed that Mark is typically the “sparest” of the Gospels.  It’s the shortest, and it has the least of just about anything.  There is no infancy narrative; there are not many extended teaching passages; and as we’ll see in the week to come, his treatment of the resurrection is the most abbreviated of all the Gospels.  Mark is writing a short and to the point account of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Crucifixion, Luca Signorelli (c. 1505)

This is demonstrated in his treatment of the central event of his entire Gospel – the death of Jesus on the cross.  His account of it is given to us in three words in verse 24: “they crucified him” (in the Greek, that’s only two words).  It’s short and to the point.  Just the facts.

And yet that stark reality is contrasted with the amount of detail that Mark lavishes on the scene surrounding this central event.  In particular, I noted the naming of characters – something that Mark was not always eager to do.  In these twenty verses, we hear the names of Simon, Alexander, Rufus, Elijah, Mary, Mary, James, Joseph, and Salome.  We are further directed to consider a host of un-named participants: two bandits, countless passers-by, chief priests, scribes, many other women,and a centurion.  I think that is Mark’s way of indicating that this event, and the Gospel, are to be known and interpreted in community where people’s names are known.  In my attempt to do that, I’m imagining a scene in Rome close to 2000 years ago.  There are forty or fifty individuals crowded into a catacomb under the city, listening to an aged black man tell a story.  Listen with me:

Early Christians Worship in the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus (19th c. woodcut)

Sisters and brothers, I am amazed at this unlikely community that the Master has formed here in Rome.  I know that you see each other all the time, but I am here to remind you that it is unusual to come across a gathering that includes Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female – people from every walk of life are represented in this small circle.  I am grateful for the ways that you have welcomed and loved my sons Alexander and Rufus in this place, and I am delighted even to see my second-born’s namesake, my old friend Rufus here – once a Centurion of Rome, now a man of leisure…

I do not know how you came to know the Master, but for me, it began in the context of community.  I wasn’t looking for a savior; I wasn’t looking for a new religion; in fact, all I was looking for was the shortest route to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Growing up in Cyrene – I believe that some of you may know this area as Libya – in Northern Africa, coming to Jerusalem was a dream.  I mean, we had a community of Jews in Cyrene, but all we talked about was one day making it to the City of God – all of the boys and men dreamed of being able to be in Jerusalem for the feast – and in that particular year, I had made it!

Pilgrimage to the Second Jerusalem Temple, Alex Levin (used by permission http://www.artlevin.com).

I was rushing through the outskirts of town trying to find the Temple.  I was eager to worship YHWH in a new way, where I could see and smell the sacrifice and stand shoulder to shoulder with my brothers in the faith.  I’d planned this trip for years.  The last thing I wanted was a distraction.

I saw a crowd – it looked like a parade of some sort.  The previous evening I’d stayed in Jericho, just outside of Jerusalem, and all the talk at the guest-house was of the events of the previous week when a teacher from Galilee rode into the city on a donkey, being proclaimed as Messiah.  I had heard of others who claimed to be the ones to throw off Rome, or to bring liberation, and I wasn’t interested in politics like that.  I hadn’t come to take part in a protest – I just wanted to see the splendor of the Temple.  I wanted to see the place where YHWH dwelled.

But then, as I looked for an appropriate direction to go, it seemed as though all of a sudden the crowd was upon me.  In a second, I sensed that somehow, all eyes were directed toward me – and I didn’t know why that was.  I looked, and there was a giant of a man – a Roman Centurion – in fact, that man right over there – Rufus – and he was pointing directly at me, yelling words in a language I did not understand.

I tried to take it all in, and as I looked around wildly I saw what I knew to be the heart of the procession: there were three prisoners, each struggling under the weight of a cross.  And even though I didn’t speak his language, I knew what that Roman Officer was saying.

We had, from time to time, crucifixions in Cyrene.  And I knew that it was not uncommon for the Romans to make the condemned man carry his own cross beam.  After all, why would a soldier get his hands dirty and his back sore merely to execute a common criminal?  That was what was happening here.

And while two of the convicts were making their way all right, the third man was clearly not able to continue.  He appeared to have been beaten savagely, and I was surprised he was able to even walk, let alone carry the timber that must have weighed a hundred pounds.

I felt sorry for the man; it was indeed a pathetic situation. But I grew up in Cyrene.  I had seen plenty of pathos before.  I didn’t want to get involved.  And yet, in all of my years, I have not figured out how to say “no” to an armed Centurion backed by his entire cohort.  And so I put aside my plans, girded my robe, and picked up the cross beam.

I was ashamed to be connected with that enterprise.  At first, I was embarrassed – what if people thought that I was a criminal?  In fact, I tried to get it over with quickly.  I walked as fast as I could – outpacing the condemned man.  The Centurion cracked a whip and told me to slow my pace and walk with the convicts. Then I was angry and frustrated, as I saw my chance for worship in the Temple – and for sharing in the sacrifice – slipping away.

And then we got to a place that is called Golgotha.  Some soldiers came and took the wood from me. After taunting me for a bit, these men pushed me aside and gave me to understand that I was now free to go – that my work was done.

For the first time, I turned and I looked right at the prisoner whose cross I’d carried.  I was unsettled to find that he was looking right at me.  And then, I could tell that he was trying to speak.  He licked his parched lips and he croaked out a single word. He said, “Yishar.”  I had never heard that word before, but I later learned that it is the Aramaic word that Galileans use to say “thank you.”

“Yishar.”  That is the only word that the Master ever spoke directly to me, and yet it has come to mean more to me than all the other words of his that I have come to know.

Well, my friends, I became a man transfixed.  I could not leave that hillside.  I was there to witness it all – the jeering of the crowd, the taunting of the bandits beside him…  And yet the thing that I found most appalling – and surprising, since I had in fact come to see those men – was the way that the holy men I had come to see and worship with in the Temple were so eager to leave the beauty of the Temple and the splendor of YHWH behind in order to come and heap scorn and derision on this man as he was dying in a dump. I didn’t understand how it was that they who already had so much power and prestige – they had clearly already “won”, from what I could tell – and yet they could not say enough vile things about this poor man.

Now remember this, my friends: I had never met this man whom I’ve come to consider to be my Master; and I didn’t know any of those priests and scribes from the Temple, and yet even a man as simple as I was wise enough to know that the God whom I’d traveled to worship would not take delight in the suffering or death of anyone.

Remember, I had come to Jerusalem encounter the Divine Presence. To stand on the Promised Land. And most importantly, to pray. And on that Friday so many years ago, I only heard two prayers.  And neither of them was in the Temple that had been the object of my journey.

The first prayer I heard came from the lips of the Man himself. It was a guttural cry of lament, loss, and brokenness.  He managed to cry out the first verse of the 22ndPsalm, and that led me to consider the rest of that song – the ways that God’s people experience such pain and alienation.

The second prayer that I heard that day was uttered by our friend Rufus, the Centurion.  When it was all done, I heard him whisper, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”  Rufus told me later that he didn’t think he was praying, and that it was in fact the first prayer of his entire life.

And yet it was a prayer.  And we are here this morning because brother Rufus was right.  The man who was killed that day, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God.  It occurred to me that perhaps I had, in fact, been witness to a sacrifice after all.

And it would be a good story, my friends, if I were to stand here and tell you that Rufus and I went out that evening for some wine, and that we spent the next few days in the company of the friends of Jesus as we learned and prayed together.

But that didn’t happen.  I was a poor foreigner from Africa.  He was a Roman soldier with work to do in a place that didn’t like or respect Rome.  So I faded into the twilight at the end of the day.  I made it to the Temple after all, and was witness to the disturbance that was caused when the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in a manner that no man could have done…  And even when I was there, peering in on the altar itself – I was aware that the holiest thing I would ever see was the death of this Son of God.

I remained in Jerusalem.  I had only planned to stay for a couple of weeks, but I got sick and by the time I recovered it was time for the Feast of Pentecost, and I decided to celebrate that feast with the people in Jerusalem.  On the day of the feast I was making my way down the street when I heard a voice calling, crisp and clear, in my own language.  I turned, and I recognized the speaker to be one of the followers of the Galilean who had been killed.  That man seemed to be as surprised to be speaking in my language as I was to hear it!  And yet on that day I was able to hear, for the first time, the significance of the life that this man had lived – and I heard the news of his resurrection as well.

Later that day, as I listened to Peter preaching about the new life that Jesus offered, I turned and saw a shock of red hair and recognized Rufus as the Centurion who had been present at Golgotha.

It was thenthat Rufus and I did become friends.  Together, we went with the followers of Jesus back to their lodging and shared in a meal.  We became more than friends – we are brothers.  In fact, my second-born son bears his name.

And yet – and yet, I realize that the story of how God worked to bring the lives of a simple laborer from Cyrene and a Roman Centurion together in this place – well, that’s a story for another day.

Today, we are gathered to remember what is crucial.  We are here to consider the cruxof the matter, as our friends might say in Latin.  We have heard from the book written by our brother Mark in Greek kai staurousin auton.  In the language of Rome: et crucifigentes eum. And they crucified him.

That’s all our brother Mark tells us.

And yet it is the crucial thing.  It is the crux of our faith.

I cannot say that I am glad that it he was crucified.  I would have preferred it to be me, in fact.  I surely deserved it more than he. No, I am not happy that it happened, and yet I must say that I am glad to have been there. Sharing in his death has made the opportunity of speaking of his life and resurrection even more meaningful to me.

Sisters and brothers, you know that the world has much evil and many problems.  The fact that we are forced to worship here, in the catacombs, hiding among the dead while we proclaim life and light to all – that is one of the ways that you know that the world is a broken place.  And yet, let us leave those great problems of the world aside for now.  Let us meditate on those three words: they crucified him. And let us claim how that event has led us to experiences of new life, of improbable community, and of an understanding of the willingness of God – the one who I thought was hidden behind a curtain in the temple – let us hold fast to our appreciation for the fact that thatGod has demonstrated a willingness – no, an eagerness – to enter into the dark, hidden, painful and yes, even deadly places of our own lives.

Let us celebrate this Lord’s day the fact that the God of whom I had learned as a boy growing up in Cyrene is the One who was revealed in the person of Jesus to the Centurion; the One whom we had thought to dwell in a room in Jerusalem has risen to fill the world.  Let us embrace as the crux of the matter the truth that because he has known death, we can know life.  And as we think on all of those things then let us, beloved, find it in us to whisper back to him that which he said to me: yishar. Yishar.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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)

Which One Are You?

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 Third Sunday of Lent (March 24, 2019), we found ourselves waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane with the disciples while Jesus was praying.  What were we waiting for? That depends on how you choose to interpret the verbs here.  Our Gospel text was Mark 14:27-52.

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

I would imagine that everyone in this room has enjoyed looking through old photos with a loved one and one of you is looking with incredulity at the older (and in my case, often grainy) images and saying, “Wow, this is really cool. Which one are you?”  Sometimes, we want to know what our parents or our friends looked like before we knew them.  Sometimes we want to learn more about that loved one – we are saying something like, “Tell me about this, Grampy: how did you fit into what was happening here?”

I find myself asking that same question – of myself – as I read through this chapter.  There are so many people who are mentioned here – Jesus, of course, and Peter, James, John, Judas – not to mention a host of un-named servants and friends and the crowd. Where do I fit in?  Which one am I?  Which one are you?

Well, it depends, I think, on what we think is happening here.  For most of my life, my interpretation of this passage has been based on the translation of Jesus’ prophecy that you heard earlier in verse 27.  The New International Version reports that Jesus declared “You will all fall away…”  A few verses later, Peter replies, “Even if all fall away, I will not…” The New Revised Standard Version words it slightly differently, but with the same effect: Jesus indicates, “You will all become deserters…” and Peter contests by saying, “Even though all become deserters, I will not…”  These translations – justifiable, I think – suggest that the people who have known Jesus the best are about to have the crap scared out of them and run away because they are so frightened.

And, to be honest, if that is the reading – if that is what is happening in this picture, then the disciples are once more the clueless dolts that we have imagined them to be through the years.  Jesus of Nazareth has a great plan, and it will require great bravery, but they can neither understand the plan nor muster the courage and so they fall short.  They run away leaving him to his own devices in his hour of need.

In this reading, Peter in particular is bold in his assertion of loyalty and strength, but terribly weak in practice.  He, along with James and John, is essentially helpless.  They are weak and flawed, especially compared to their friend Jesus, who suffers through what we have come to call “the agony in Gethsemane” all alone.

Judas is singled out as one who is actively and intentionally “falling away” or “deserting”.  So far as we can tell, Judas is the only disciple who is notsleeping, and he is actively undermining Jesus’ plan.

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (self-portrait), Paul Gauguin, 1889.

Have you heard this story before?  Is this how you have read it, too?  Brave Jesus, needing his friends now more than ever, but one of them is an active traitor and the others are shameless cowards in his hour of need. If that’s the case, you are surely not alone.  That is a time-honored way of hearing this story.

But there’s a different reading.  Jesus uses – and then Peter echoes – a very interesting word.  The Greek word that Jesus uses to describe the behavior of his friends is skandalizo.  In that language, a skandalon is a stick that is baited and then put into a trap.  When a careless or unwary animal stumbles upon this treat, the stick moves, the trap springs shut, and the victim is caught.

Jesus uses this word himself in that very difficult teaching back in Mark 9, when he says, “whoever puts a stumbling block (skandalion) in front of one of these little ones… And then again three times later in the same chapter: If your hand (or foot, or eye) offends you (skandalizi), then get rid of it…”

Because of the use of the word skandalonin this passage, and its meaning in those other instances, some translators give a different picture for the prediction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  For instance, the King James Version renders this conversation this way: “And Jesus saith unto them, ‘All ye shall be offended because of me this night…’, but Peter said unto him, ‘Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.’”  The Contemporary English Version reads, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All of you will reject me…’, and Peter spoke up, ‘Even if all the others reject you, I never will!’”

And Eugene Peterson renders it thusly in The Message: “Jesus told them, ‘You’re all going to feel that your world is falling apart and that it’s my fault…’Peter blurted out, “Even if everyone else is ashamed of you when things fall to pieces, I won’t be.”

Now stay with me here, because this is crucial.  If Jesus is predicting that his followers will all lose heart and flee because they are cowards, then our traditional understanding is correct.  But what if he is saying, “Look, you may think that you know me, but you don’t really ‘get’ who I am or what I’m doing yet.  And because you don’t fully understand me, or the Kingdom I’ve proclaimed, then what is going to happen will scandalize you – you will think that I’m wrong.”

If that’s what Jesus is saying in Mark 14, then the behavior of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane is consistent – but in a way that could be perceived as being almost admirable.

Listen: Jesus goes off to pray and becomes, in reality, a sitting duck.  The disciples whom he invites to accompany him choose to catch up on their sleep because they are going to need it.  Someone has got to be ready to defend Jesus, and he has shown no inclination to defend himself.  Praying is all well and good, but if we’re going to be able to help him when the dookey hits the fan, we’re going to need our rest.  There will be important work to be done.  I think that this interpretation might be strengthened by the fact that Jesus recognizes that his friends are falling into old habits, and therefore calls his beloved comrade “Simon” – his old name, rather than “Peter”.

In this understanding of what is happening, then, even Judas gets a little more noble.  In bringing the powers of the Empire and Religion into a direct confrontation with Jesus, perhaps Judas is in his own mind merely calling Jesus’ bluff and telling him it’s time to fish or cut bait.  He’s effectively saying, “Look, you’ve told us that you are the Messiah – we believe that you are the one to deliver Israel. Now’s your chance, Jesus.  Act like a Messiah.  Stand up to Rome and to Religion – or we will all die trying.”

The Kiss of Judas, Giotto (1304-1306)

When Judas gets there, Jesus’ followers begin to act like, well, followers. They defend him.  Someone draws a sword.  Blood flows – the blood of those who have come to arrest Jesus.  And yet as his followers rush to his defense, Jesus forbids it.  Although Matthew and Luke are more explicit in their depiction of this part of the scene, a faithful reading of Mark indicates that Jesus is the one who stops the violence in the Garden.  His followers wantto defend him, they wanthim to stand up for himself, and they wantto stand up for him – and he prevents them from doing so.

Thenthey run away.  If Jesus is going to be saved, then it’s going to be up to people like Peter, James, and John, because (as the disciples must see it) Jesus himself is naïve and clueless.  Although his followers love Jesus, they must think that as noble as he is, simply does not understand how Empires work.

Jesus said that his followers would be scandalized by his behavior.  If we accept the translation of that word as put forward by Peterson and some of his colleagues, then this reading is all about a group of disciples who think that they know better than their master what could and should happen.  In this reading, if Jesus thinks that giving up to Pilate and Herod without a fight is a good idea, then Jesus is sadly mistaken and he’s going to need our help, according to the disciples, to get out of this jam.

So, back to my original question: which one are you?

I guess it depends on which reading, which translation of skandalizo, you prefer.

Today I’m asking myself – and therefore, you as well – are you one who has been scandalized and offended by the Lord?  You can say it, you know.  I think that he’s given us permission here.  Are you someone who has looked Jesus in the eye and said, “Well, that’s an interesting theory, Jesus, but I’m not sure that you really understand how the world works.  Listen, Lord: let me give you a little advice.  Here’s how I think we want to play this thing out…”

Are you someone who has a better plan than Jesus?

What does this passage have to teach me about trusting in God and having faith? What do I need to learn, this Lent, about seeking to listen to and live into this narration about life in the Kingdom of God? What might have happened differently if the disciples had stayed awake and prayed with Jesus?  We will never know.  All we can be sure of is that they came to understand themselves as those who had, in fact, been scandalized by the behavior of their Lord, and it was only in hindsight that they came to see their own behavior and theology as flawed.

So there is a curious little footnote to this story.  Mark ends his account of the struggle in the Garden with an odd description of a nameless kid who is almost caught in the round up but winds up escaping into the night whilst becoming known as the first “streaker” in the Gospels – a scared young man running naked as fast as he can into the darkness.

What is thatabout?  Why does Mark – the author of the shortest Gospel – the “just the facts, Ma’am” kind of writer – why does he go out of his way to tell us this story, when none of the other Gospels thought to include it?

The only reasonable explanation that I can see is that this frightened teen is actually Mark himself.  These two brief verses are Mark’s way of saying, “Yeah, I was there too.”

It makes sense. In Acts 12, we read that one of the central locations in Jerusalem for the early Christian movement was in the home of a woman named Mary, who was the mother of a son called John Mark.  It’s entirely possible that this home was the site of the Last Supper on that Maundy Thursday evening.  And if the Supper took place in his own home, it’s easy to imagine this kid hanging around the edges, listening to the men talking and planning and then following them out into the darkness.  When everything goes down, he is overcome with fear and flees into the darkness and back to the safety of his own home.

Friends, I want you to remember what we said about Mark’s Gospel way back in 2017.  The second Gospel was written, we said, to encourage the young church in Rome.  That community was being persecuted and victimized and attacked, and they wanted to know where was Jesus in the midst of all this.  Mark’s account, written to these people, is that Jesus can be trusted. That Jesus promises to be present in the midst of all the pain, all the injustice, all the persecution.  The second Gospel was written to help a specific community see that the Kingdom is real and powerful and worthwhile.

And in this little footnote, Mark, the teller of the story, is able to say, “Listen, friends: I’ve been there.  You need to know that I didn’t always ‘get’ him either.  I’ve been scandalized.  I’ve been offended.  I’ve been afraid and I’ve been ashamed.  But I’m telling you that Jesus is the real deal.  You can trust him.  As you live and move and seek to get through the days and nights in Nero’s Rome, don’t give up.  Never forget that the ways of the Empire are notthe ways of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. Remember that the values of the Messiah are not always celebrated by the Emperor.

I would suggest that the author of the second Gospel uses this story, in part, to help his first hearers – and us – to focus on the admonition that Jesus offered his friends in verse 38: “Keep awake, and pray…”  Those are two of the most important aspects of being a disciple, I think. The commands in the Garden are virtually identical to the summation that Jesus gave in Mark 13 – the longest teaching passage in this Gospel: “What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake”.

This, beloved, is the task and the purpose of Lent.  To set aside some extra time, to seek to apply some special discipline, to put ourselves in a place where we are able and willing to do just that – to watch and to pray.  To look for and point out signs of the Kingdom that is present among us even now. To hold onto the promise when it seems as though that Kingdom is incredibly far-off. The first 13 chapters of Mark give us a vision, a foretaste, a hope for the Kingdom.  Mark uses them to help us be attentive to a Messiah who cares about injustice, and who offers us viable strategies to come together and live into that kind of community.

And this passage is given to help us remember that nobody – even first disciples and Gospel writers – gets it right all the time.  We are called to live as a community of grace, humility, forgiveness, hope, and sacrifice.  Those are not values that always sell well in the Empire – but they are the ones that will shape us into the likeness of the Christ, whose name we bear.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

What Keeps Us The Way We Are

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 Second Sunday of Lent (March 17, 2019), we had the opportunity to consider the “signature rites” of the Presbyterian Church.  Mark’s account of the Last Supper, as found in Mark 14:12-26, was our Gospel reading.  As it happened, we also celebrated the baptism of a beautiful young boy named Jonah.  We considered the importance of these practices in forming us as a community of faith.

To hear (most of) this sermon as preached in worship please visit the media player below:

 

When I preached this sermon in worship, I opened with an illustration from my college days that I thought would provide an opening to the scripture for the people in the room. I thought twice about using it, because I wasn’t sure that it had “aged” well, or that it would be as helpful as I wanted it to be.  I should have thought three times.  I used it, and I wish that I hadn’t.  If you were present for worship, and found that illustration to be troubling or unwise, please know that we agree on that.  I regret using it, and will not compound the error by publishing it here. What follows is an abbreviated version of the sermon, which I think is better than the original. 

I wonder: are there things that we do that help keep us the way that we are?  Of course.

Every Christmas Eve, the community is invited to my home to share in a big pot of oyster stew.  Can I tell you something? My wife doesn’t like oysters.  Not even a little.  But for nearly four decades, she has helped me to prepare this meal because, well, it’s what Carvers do.  My parents did it before me, and it reminds me – especially on Christmas – that the most important presents cannot be wrapped and hidden under a tree.

Similarly, Dan and Trish Barry gather their family up at their cabin the night before the opening day of trout season.  If you asked them what they were doing, they might tell you that they’re catching fish, but if you hear them talk about it long enough, you know that the trout are a small part of what is actually happening. It’s a lot more about family, and stories, and spending time unplugged.

Many of you could point to various practices that your family employs to shape and inform who you are.  You do something because you want to remember where you came from, and you want to share that with people who haven’t been in the room as long as you have.

The Last Supper, Sieger Köder (German, d. 2015). I love how in this portrayal the view is from the perspective of Jesus.

For Christians, the sacraments of baptism and communion fill this function.  These rituals and habits are at the core of what it means to us to live in and practice our faith together.  Today, as we have the portion of Mark’s Gospel that relates the establishment of the Lord’s Supper and then move into sharing the sacrament of baptism with little Jonah and his family, it seems to make sense to reflect on these practices.

And, since Mark has been the focus of our study for more than a year, we’ll look particularly at some of the emphases that he places on the Lord’s Supper.

First, I should say that there is some controversy as to on which particular day all of this happened.  Mark, Matthew, and Luke all tell us that Jesus ate the Passover meal with his followers, and then was killed the next day.  John, on the other hand, says that he ate a meal the day before the Passover with his disciples and was killed himself on Passover. There are some fine, but important, points to be made as we consider whether Jesus was giving his disciples this meal as a means to transform the Passover or whether he himself became the new Passover lamb.  And as rich as that discussion might be, we’re not going to have it today.  We’ll simply affirm that the Gospels are unanimous in their assertion that Jesus died during the holiest time of the year, a time that was informed by the memory and celebration of the liberation of God’s people. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and all of the disciples would have said that Jesus took a long-standing practice – the Passover meal – and he infused it with new meaning and purpose at the hour of his death.

In leaving this meal for his community, Jesus left clues that the new community would not be identical to the old.  For instance, in verse 13 of today’s reading, the disciples are told that they should look for a man carrying a jar of water.  To us, that sounds like pretty standard old-timey Bible stuff.  But to those men, the idea of finding a man doing woman’s work like that must have stuck out.  I’m suggesting that it’s intentional – a way of indicating that life in the Kingdom invites us to different understandings of people and their gifts and their roles. The Kingdom calls us to consider new patterns of relationships.

Another emphasis of Mark is conspicuous by its absence. From what you remember of the Last Supper, what did Jesus say to his disciples after he passed the bread and the cup?  “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Do you remember that?  You do?

That’s funny, because the Gospel of Mark doesn’t remember that. There is no command from Jesus to continue this meal.  Of course, we can say with some certainty that it is implied – Jesus shares the Passover with his disciples; he assumes that as faithful Jews of course they will re-engage with this meal.  But he re-defines the basis of it.  “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  And then look at what he says: “I will not drink it again until the kingdom comes in all its fulness.”  In other words, Jesus assumes that his disciples will remember him.  He’s given them language for that.  Here, he is telling them that he will remember them! It’s not a command – it’s a promise! You are remembered!

And so, every now and then, the body of Christ – the church – trots out the bread and the cup and we give thanks for this promise.  We have communion.

The Last Supper, from Jesus MAFA: Art in the African Christian Tradition

And yet here is a supreme irony: that while for two millennia the followers of Jesus have claimed that these practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are given by the Lord in order to bring about the fullness and unity of the church… we find ourselves arguing about these two things more than just about anything else!  Think about it: in spite of the fact that the word “communion” is literally built around the word “union”, there are few places in our theology that are as fractured as this!

When you go home, google your favorite denomination and the words “full communion”.  You’ll discover that Presbyterians like me claim to be in “full communion” with some of the Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, the Moravians (look it up) and the Reformed Church in America.  The Lutherans, however, have six partners.  The Roman Catholic church, on the other hand, is in full communion with five traditions, all of which have the word “Catholic” in their names.  I suspect that there is nobody in this room who hasn’t been in a church service of one sort or another where communion was being served and been told, “Well, actually, while this is for the whole people of God… you can’t have any…”

This is the meal by which we remember the great truth that Jesus taught us – that all of us are welcome, that each of us has a place – and we interrupt Jesus and say, “Yeah, sure, Lord, we get that… but not HIM, right? I mean, people like HER aren’t supposed to be here, are they?

Here’s another ‘Dave story’: in 1989 I was a Presbyterian Student at a Baptist and Episcopalian seminary who had been hired by the Reformed Church in America to do youth work.  One of my main responsibilities was overseeing a week long experience for young people from all over the country who converged on Rochester NY for a week of service, study, and growth.  One evening, this Presbyterian seminarian took a group of Reformed kids to worship in the local Roman Catholic church.  When it came time for the Eucharist, Father Jim asked me to come up and help distribute the elements.  He invited everyone in the room to share in the sacrament.  It was a true feast of unity.

Afterwards, I found one of the students weeping.  I asked her why, and she said, “Dave, this is the first time in my entire life that I have felt the presence of the Lord in the sacrament.”  And, being a knucklehead, I said, “Great!  That’s fantastic! I’m happy for you!  Why are you crying?”  She continued, “Because in my congregation, the only people who can take communion are the ones who have met with the elders.  And the only time that any of us can take communion anywhere else is when we have permission ahead of time from the elders.  Don’t you get it, Dave?  This is the best moment of my Christian life, and when I get home, I’ll have to tell my dad, the pastor, about it, and the elders will probably discipline me for breaking the rules.”  And then she wasn’t the only one weeping.

The communion that we shared that evening was not “legal” by anyone’s standards.  The Presbyterians would have had a fit if they caught me, a seminarian, up front handing out bread.  The Catholics were totally bent out of shape that the Priest had invited Protestants to share in the Eucharist.  And every Reformed kid there was flouting the rules of their own churches.  Officially speaking, none of those churches would call what we did “communion.”  In practice, however, lives were changed.

That leads me to one more observation about the Lord’s Supper as Mark describes it.  Who was in the room?

Well, we can’t be sure of everyone who was there, but we know for a fact that the twelve were there.  The twelve. All of the disciples.  In fact, Mark goes out of his way to mention that Jesus not only invited Judas to the meal, but shared the meal with him.  It’s clear from the text that Jesus knows who Judas is, what Judas had already done, and Judas is planning… and yet there he is, sharing in this meal with Jesus.

Think about that for a moment.

For two thousand years, Christians have found deep meaning and great inspiration in the memory of this first celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Every Christian tradition remembers that Jesus washed Judas’ feet, and served him the meal.  The events of this chapter are sacred to the memory of every Christian tradition.

But when we get around to sharing this supper with each other, how quick are we to say, “What? You? Here? Not so fast, Bub.  Just step right back there and cool your jets.  We’re not so sure we can let you in.”

And somewhere, someone is saying, “Seriously?  Judas – Judas Iscariot, the person who is guilty of doing the worst thing in the history of things – thatJudas can come, but not me?”

Is that the message that we want to send to the world?

O, beloved church!  On this Lenten Sunday – this Lord’s Day on which we celebrate baptism as a symbol of forgiveness and restoration, and on which we remember the Lord’s Supper as a meal of welcome and inclusivity, let us remember that we have been brought together notby how holy we are, or how correct our theology is, or how blameless our practices have been… Let us affirm and hold fast to the fact that we are broken, lost, flawed people – that we are great sinners in need of a great salvation and lo and behold, we have seen that offered to us – to all of us – in Jesus of Nazareth.

Oh, saints of God in Jesus Christ: on this day – another day following another instance where a man yelling slogans about the supremacy of one race and ideology burst into a worship space seeking to destroy those whom he had determined to be less than worthy, less than deserving, less than human – let us gather around the table and the font in humility, not arrogance, recognizing that the Kingdom of God proclaimed in Mark is not one that is always recognized by or embraced by the world, yet vital to who we are as a church and the Body of Christ.  May we be known, dear ones, not for whom we keep away, nor for that which we hate, but rather as those who are willing to share the welcome and grace that we ourselves have received in unending supply.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Love Poured 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 the First Sunday of Lent (March 10, 2019), we heard a scripture containing a story that appears in one way or another in all four Gospels: the anointing of Jesus by a woman at Bethany.  Mark’s version can be found here: Mark 14:1-11.  In addition, we considered the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm.  

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please visit

Do you remember Mad Libs?  The “World’s Greatest Word Game” was invented in 1953 by Leonard Stern and Roger Price. In Mad Libs, one player has a short story with several key words missing. That player asks the other to fill in the missing words, and generally, if there are enough pre-teens involved, it’s a lot of fun.  Let’s try it. [the answers below are those given in worship on 03/10/19)

One day, the    Smith  (last name of someone in the room) family went to church.  They got there at  night   (time of day).  When they saw that    Ethan    and     Aviva   (people in the room) were there too, they said,   YEEET!  (exclamation!).  Pastor Dave preached a sermon that was   1 minute (length of time) long, and it was really  cheerful (adjective).  The music, however, was      red   (adjective).  After church, everyone went to the back of the room where they served      cheese  (noun) and flowers_ (noun) to everyone.

The joy of Mad Libs, of course, is that they are always different.  You can’t come up with the same story more than once, because the people in the room are different.  The outline of the story may stay the same, but each time, the details shift.

I am thinking about Mad Libs today because we have arrived at a portion of Mark’s gospel wherein Mark tells a story about the life of Jesus – and it’s a story that is told, in one way or another, not only by Mark, but by Matthew, Luke, and John. And each of the Gospels uses this incident for slightly different purposes…and in doing so, each author filters the information slightly.

The basic story is this: One day, Jesus went to dinner at the home of ________ (name a friend of Jesus).  This person was a ________ (noun).   While he was there, ________ (person in the room) poured oil on his _______ (body part). _________ (person or people in the room) were irritated by that, saying that it was a waste of money.  Jesus defended the person.  And the writer of the gospel used that incident in Jesus’ life to say _____________ (name a theological point).

I’m not saying that the gospels contradict each other – only that they provide us with different information.  So let’s look at the story in Mark.  Where was the dinner? At Simon’s home.  What do we know about Simon? He was a leper – an outcast.  Who poured oil on Jesus?  An unnamed woman. Where did she pour it? On his head.  Who was irritated? Some people.  What’s the point? She is preparing me for my death. There’s more to it than that, but take a look and see how the other writers treat the same story:

Do you see what I mean? Nobody is saying that Simon couldn’t be both a Pharisee and a Leper; and of course is “some” were irritated, that could mean the disciples, the Pharisees, or Judas, or everyone – there’s nothing contradictory here…it’s just an opportunity for us to hear the different emphases of the gospel writers.

And, since we’re focusing on Mark, let’s take a look at how Mark uses this incident to challenge us.

First, let me point out that this is another example of a “Markan sandwich”.  What I mean is that this is a place where Mark seems to take one idea and interrupt it with something else before finishing the story.  In the meantime, he uses the “filling” to comment on the “bread” and vice versa.

Our reading for today starts off with a story about the people who are Jesus’ enemies.  They want to kill him – but they are afraid, and so they decide that they’re going to have to wait until after the Passover is finished, after the pilgrims leave town, and after all of the reporters from the out of town newspapers have gone back home. His enemies appear, at least for now, powerless.

Then there’s the “filling” of the sandwich – the story of the woman who anoints Jesus – who treats him as anything but an enemy. More about that in a moment.

The “sandwich” ends with the account of Judas, who ought to have been a friend to Jesus, choosing to act with the enemies.  In fact, Judas provides the enemies with such promising intelligence that they revise their plan to wait and decide that they can kill Jesus sooner, rather than later.  So you see the sandwich?  A story about a person who loves and honors Jesus surrounded by stories about people who act with malice towards Jesus.  Whatever the woman does is amplified and intensified when it comes into contrast with the behavior of the religious leaders and Judas, doesn’t it?

So what does she do?  Well, she pours oil on his head.  And this isn’t olive oil, or Vaseline intensive care…this is pure nard – imported from India.  As Mark points out, it wasn’t cheap – three hundred denarii would have been an entire year’s salary for a laborer.

What’s the point of the oil?  You’ve already heard one echo from the Old Testament – David celebrates God’s faithfulness to him as King by saying that even when he is surrounded by enemies, the “oil of blessing” is poured on his head.  Other passages in the Old Testament describe pouring oil on the heads of those whom God had called to be priests as a way of pointing to a special role and special responsibility that belonged to those folks. The Song of Solomon has several passages wherein pouring oil on the head of another is linked to an intense love for that other.  Lastly, oil such as nard was used by those in grief to anoint the dead and prepare them for burial.

Mark uses this incident to point to the fact that a woman whose name and past didn’t matter came to Jesus in love and gave all she had to prepare him for the special role that he was assuming as he looked towards the cross. Jesus is the King in that he ushers in the kingdom of Heaven; he was the ultimate priest, or mediator, or go-between who came to bring God and humans together.  And he is loved.  And the way in which he would express his kingship, his priesthood, and his love was through his death.  Pouring a pound of nard on this man at this time is an exquisite statement of faith about who Jesus was.

And note, too, the way that she performed this act.  If it’s me, and I’ve got an incredibly valuable ointment to share with the Lord, then I take the container and I open it carefully and I veeerrrrrrry gingerly take out this liquid gold.  But what does she do?  She breaks the container – there is no way that she can save this oil, even if she wanted to – because the container won’t hold it any more.  Again, I think that Mark uses that little detail to prepare us for Jesus’ death – just as the woman’s treatment of the container shows us her total commitment to giving her best to Jesus, so Jesus’ bodily death shows us his total commitment to the reconciling work that God has given him to do. For this woman, and for Jesus, there is no going back, and there is no halfway.

When the people in the room challenge this woman and her priorities, Jesus responds simply by saying that from now on, whenever people hear the good news, they will hear about what this woman has done.  This story, he says, will be told in memory of her.  It is a memorial.

Let’s think about memorials for a moment.  If we were to drive four or five hours, we could get to the District of Columbia, where we would be able to see the Washington Monument.  You know it, right?  When this towering beautiful edifice was finished in 1884 it was the tallest building in the world.  And it was built to…to what? To honor George Washington.  It’s there so that we don’t forget that he lived, and what a huge presence he had.  It is, in some ways, a very backward-looking structure – like many monuments are.  They exist to remind us of something that happened, or of a life that was lived.

About 800 miles to the southwest of Washington DC sits the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened just last year. In this 6 acre site, visitors are given the opportunity to see exhibits recalling the worst aspects of our nation’s history of racial inequality.  More than that, though: the memorial thrusts guests into the terrorism that was bred in that climate of inequality and injustice.  The other name for this memorial is “the lynching museum”.

I would suggest that there is a difference between the Washington Monument and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  The first, as I’ve said, points us to a great man, the likes of which we may never see again.  The second, however, calls each of us to remember the lives of those who died because of the ways that our own laws were written and applied.  The first looks back at one man in admiration.  The second invites us to be inspired to the end that we might learn from the failures of the past and work together to build a more hopeful and just future.

When Jesus says that this act is a memorial to the woman, it has to be like the use of that term in the second instance. Mark doesn’t tell us her name.  We don’t know anything about her from Mark – because for Mark, the point is not that once upon a time this amazing woman did something really cool for Jesus.  The point is that every day, ordinary people like you and I have the opportunity to bring our best to the Lord and in pouring that best out before him, acknowledge that he is the king; that he is the way to life.

And maybe you say, “Yeah, sure, Pastor Dave, that sounds great…but the truth is that you and I both know that I don’t have much of a ‘best’ to offer.  Sure, the woman in the Gospel had a pound of nard.  I don’t.  Some people have great gifts of finances, or talent, or energy…but I’m not that person. I don’t have anything worth giving.”

Listen: Jesus didn’t say that everyone has to pour out a year’s salary in perfume.  Why did the woman offer up her nard?  Because that’s what she had.  That was her best.  You have a best.

I know that you don’t have the same energy as the person sitting next to you.  And you don’t have the same financial situation as the person sitting in front of you.  And you don’t have the same family life as the people across the room.  If we think of “best” and think only of quantity – we are in trouble.  Remember the widow from last week?  Her best was two cents.  But it was her best. I know, to me, it suffers in comparison to a year’s worth of salary.  But it made quite an impression on Jesus.

It is not a question of whether or not you have a best – it is a question of how you will choose to allocate the best energy, the best love, the best patience, the best financial choices, the best of your time…Sure, you don’t have as much time as you wish you did.  But you have time.  How will you use it?

And further, it’s not as if you can simply choose to not do anything with whatever you have that is “best”.  Because you will pour it out somewhere.  You may give the best years of your life to the garden, or to the food pantry, or to your children, or to the Steelers.  You may give the best of your income to the tax man, or to the Lord, or to the man who sold you your Maserati, or to the credit card company.

Jesus took his best and poured it out, and brought life eternal and God’s kingdom on earth.  The un-named woman took her best and poured it out and acknowledged Jesus as Lord and King and worthy of ultimate love.  When Jesus’ friend Judas took his love for Jesus and sold that love to the religious leaders, they gave him 30 pieces of silver.  Within a week, he had returned to those leaders and threw the money at their feet, saying he couldn’t live with it.  Then he killed himself, and the money was used to buy a cemetery. You see?  Everybody has a best, and everybody pours out their best.  The question is, what are you doing with your best? Are you pouring it out in love, in faith, in life, in the hopes that the world will change as a result of you giving what God has given you?  Or are you dropping the best that God has given you in places that will ultimately perish?

I started this sermon with a Mad Lib.  It seems to me that every day, you and I are given the chance to fill in a lot of the blanks.  Sure, some of the story is already written for us.  But there’s plenty of opportunity for you and me to choose the route that the story takes.  How will you write yours?  What will you do with the best that you have?

My hope is that you and I will choose to live as memorials that point others to the love and friendship that is found in Jesus Christ – that the choices we make with the resources we have will be full of life and wisdom and faith and hope.  In the name of the one who was, and who is, and who is to come, Amen.

You Call This GOOD News?

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. Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019), brought us to reflect on the scripture that contains the longest teaching passage (and Jesus’ ‘farewell address’ to his followers) in that Gospel: Mark 13.  This was a timely reminder of our own mortality and the hope that we can share.

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

Titus Destroying Jerusalem, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1846

Some of you will remember my friend Ann, who lived to be nearly 101.  In the last few years of her life, this was her favorite text.  Every time we were together, she asked me to read the Gospel account of the day that Jesus left the temple and started to talk about the things that were going to happen before “the end of the world”.  And here’s the interesting thing: as I read it, she literally winced. This passage scared her to death. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What do we do with this chapter?  One writer has said that Mark 13 is “a happy hunting ground for persons fascinated by the end of the world” that “figures prominently in books by doomsayers and in sermons by evangelists more interested in the next world than in this one. On the other hand, this chapter is largely ignored by pragmatists, activists, believers in progress, and all who dismiss preoccupation with the end of the world as a juvenile state of human development or an aberration of unbalanced minds.”[1]  Um, yeah. Tell us how you really feel, professor…

How do you hear Mark 13?  Does God’s word come to us through these verses?

Let’s take a look at some clues within the text itself.  Some of you are old enough to remember that when we started this sermon series on the Gospel of Mark, I said that one of the key features of this work was the fact there aren’t many long teaching passages here – it’s mostly what Jesus did. Well, chapter 13 contains the longest speech in the Gospel. And so Mark, writing to believers in Rome in the middle of the first century, decided that, of all the teachings Jesus gave – more than his community needed to hear the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the Good Samaritan – they needed to hear thisteaching.  Hmmmm. We ought to pay attention.

Flevit Super Illam, Enrique Simonet, 1892

As the longest speech in the Gospel, it’s also Jesus’ “farewell” address to his followers in Mark.  Who is there on the hillside to hear it? Peter, Andrew, James, and John. According to Mark 1, who were Jesus’ first followers? Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  The four who have followed him, however imperfectly these last three years, are getting their final instructions.

In the Gospel of John, the “farewell speech” from Jesus is the wonderful encouragement, in chapters 13 – 17, to love one another.  In Matthew and Luke, there is the command to go and minister in Jesus’ name and in particular to include the Gentile community in baptism, teaching, and service. What’s the point of Mark 13?

Wars, and famines, and quakes…oh my!  Persecution, and idolatry, and suffering…oh my!  Those scenarios are all included, but they are not the prime object of Jesus’ concern in Mark 13.  In reality, most of Mark’s original readers were familiar with events like this. Remember, one of the reasons that Mark wrote the gospel was because the followers of Jesus in first century Rome were experiencing persecution and betrayal and suffering and death.  They had lived through the great famine during the reign of Claudius (also mentioned in Acts 11).  In 60 AD the Roman colony of Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake. In 70 AD the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the town. In 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city of Pompeii.

Wars, earthquakes, and persecution are not Jesus’ focus in Mark 13. They are the backdrop for what Jesus is saying.  I’d like to suggest that the main emphasis in Mark 13 is not the sound and light show that may or may not be going on at any given moment, but rather the promise that all of these things in history have an end.  That history itself has a direction.  The good news of the Gospel, here in Mark 13, is that at some point, Jesus the Christ will return to earth, and the Kingdom of God – the very topic of the Gospel of Mark – will be experienced in all its fulness.

And if that’s true – if Jesus is right about the fact that he is coming back – then it is in everyone’s best interest to be attentive.  It’s a small wonder, then, that throughout this chapter, Jesus warns his friends to be alert.  Various Bibles translate these imperatives differently, but at least eight times in the chapter we are warned to “take heed” or “beware” or “watch” or “stay awake”.

Can you see?  Could it be that this chapter is Mark’s bit of good news to a community that has struggled to keep the faith in the midst of persecution.  Almost everyone that Mark knows has experienced Jesus only as one who is absent – someone who was here, but who has now ascended – who has left the physical earth.  What is crystal clear about this passage is the notion that this Jesus – from whom we are currently separated – is going to return, and at that time, we will be fully present to him and to each other.

Some of us, it seems, will be here on earth, alive and well, when Jesus returns.  Many of us, of course, will have died.  No matter – in life and in death, we are his, and we will be with him.

It’s not too hard to get into a rip-roaring discussion on “the end of the world”.  Just throw out a few comments about wars and earthquakes and fireballs and before too long you can have people engaged and agitated. We talk about it as if it might or might not happen.

The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, c. 1536

Listen, beloved, the reality is this: the world will end, and it will end, all probability, sooner for me than it will for most of you in this room. But whether Jesus returns in bodily form during my lifetime or not, I can say with absolute certainty that I am dying, and that dying will be, for me, the end of this world. In that sense, every day is Ash Wednesday.

And my sense is that whereas I can usually scare up a pretty good conversation about the destruction of the cosmos and the signs and portents that Jesus seems to indicate here, it’s hard to have a serious conversation about our own deaths – even though, as I have said, it’s one thing of which we can be absolutely certain.

How are you preparing for your demise?  Does it scare you?  Jesus, anticipating his own death and talking to the disciples about what his followers might expect, stresses the fact that there is more to our lives and our deaths than we can see.  He surely doesn’t minimize the fact that the path can be difficult – but he does emphasize the truth that there is more to our endings than meets the eye.

Many of you will recognize the name of Lewis Carroll as the author of such wonderful children’s books as Alice in Wonderland.   Maybe you will know that Carroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, and that he trained for the ministry and served as a deacon in the church for his entire life.  If you are familiar with Alice in Wonderland, you may know that it contains a wonderful statement of faith in which we are invited to consider our ability to live freely knowing that our deaths are only a part of the story.  Listen for the words of “The Lobster Quadrille” – and I will tell you that a “quadrille” is a formal dance wherein 8 people interact – much like square dancing.

The Lobster Quadrille, Charles Folkard, 1921

“Will you walk a little faster?”

Said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us,

Treading on my tail.”

See how eagerly the lobsters

And the turtles all advance!

They are waiting on the shingle –

Will you come and join the dance?

So, will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

“You can really have no notion

How delightful it will be

When they take us up and throw us,

With the lobsters, out to sea!”

But the snail replied, “Too far, too far!”

And gave a look askance –

Said he thanked the whiting kindly,

But he would not join the dance.

So, would not, could not, would not,

Could not, would not join the dance.

Would not, could not, would not,

Could not, could not join the dance.

“What matters it how far we go?”

His scaly friend replied,

“There is another shore, you know,

Upon the other side.

The further off from England

The nearer is to France –

Then turn not pale, beloved snail,

But come and join the dance.

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, will you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?[2]

The Good News of the Gospel is well-presented by Carroll – that there are two shores – one that we can see, and one that we know only through faith.  And the more we insist on staying close and connected to the one, the less we’ll be able to participate in the reality of the other.  We can face our own deaths without fear, knowing that the dance continues with structure, meaning, and purpose.

This doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and say that this life, and our impending deaths, don’t matter.  Far from it.  Jesus is clear in his farewell discourse that those of us who follow him are called to run the race as far as we are able, and to keep the course as best we can.  We are called to keep doing what he has left for us to do as well as we can for as long as we have.

Beloved, we don’t know – Jesus said that he didn’t know – when our experience of this life will end. We can have faith in the one who went for us as the ultimate sacrifice for sin and who has gone ahead of us and who has promised to return for us.  With the first-century Romans who heard Mark’s gospel and were sustained by it…with the monks in the middle ages who were convinced that civilization was collapsing all around them…with slaves who were carried to the Americas 400 years ago this year, and who were forced to live in inhuman conditions…with believers in countries around the world that have lived under persecution of other religions or the state… with the church of every age and every time, we can live expectantly –as though life is a dance – because Jesus has proven himself trustworthy. We can live hopefully, and look for signs and evidences of resurrection and life in the world each day.  We can live as those who find consolation, because we know that the griefs we bear will not last forever.  And most importantly, we can continue to invest our lives in God’s purposes, because although we cannot control earthquakes or wars or famines or floods, we can control our resolve to be his people.

I know, you have had people look at you in church and say, “Stay awake!”  But this time, it’s not your mother who is telling you.  It’s not the preacher.  It’s Jesus. And I think he means it.  The end is near.  We’ll get through it.  But until we get there, let’s stay awake, and let’s stay together.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] LaMar Williamson, Interpretation Commentary on Mark (John Knox, 1983) pp. 235-236.

[2] Alice in Wonderland, chapter 11 <http://www.authorama.com/book/alice-in-wonderland.html&gt;