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Sermon: Finally, Someone Gets It!

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 24, 2021, Pentecost 22B

Mark 10:46-52

Finally, Someone Gets It!

What is the thing that most convinces you, in the course of your getting through the day, that people just don’t get it? 

I’m not talking about anything particularly lofty or deep. I’m not talking about the muck and grime of political discourse. I’m talking about the average, the mundane, the kind of thing that happens in the midst of the basic and unremarkable that leaves you scratching your head and wondering why people just don’t get it?

For me, I think it’s traffic. Take one morning this week, as I’m making my way to the office. The speed limit on this particular stretch of road is 45 mph. This road is a divided four-lane street, which (you would think) improves traffic flow and allows for those moving at that speed limit not to be obscured by slower traffic. You would think this, and yet somehow there are enough slow-moving vehicles (semis, large loaded cargo trucks, trailers, the works) scattered across both of the westbound lanes of traffic (almost as if deliberately placed for maximum obstructiveness) that you are lucky if you can get anywhere near 35 mph. Your dream of getting into the office a little early goes up in vehicular exhaust fumes, and your brain ends up scrambled and disjointed as you try to get to work. Perhaps most of all, you are left to wonder why it is that so many people, when it comes to traffic and the basics of getting around in a safe yet efficient manner, just don’t get it.

The gospel of Mark gives us a lot of examples of Jesus’s disciples demonstrating that they just don’t get it. Chapters 8-10 in particular bring this point about the disciples home with extra force, as they falter again and again in the face of Jesus’s repeated insistence on his coming suffering and death. Even the rare occasion of one of them seeming to “get it,” Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah back in chapter 8, is immediately followed by Peter’s demonstration that he really doesn’t get it. As we noted in last week’s reading, Jesus isn’t going to give up on them, since at that point he is literally in the process of giving his whole life, his very being, his soul for them. Still, you have to figure that it got frustrating.

We (along with Jesus) finally get a break from this relentless downer streak in today’s reading, when at long last we encounter a person who, in ways that are rare in this gospel, gets it. And it’s a person you might least expect to do so, to boot.

This passage begins curiously, with the terse statement that “they came to Jericho” followed immediately by the declaration that “as he (Jesus) and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho…”. What happened in Jericho? Is this like that popular line that got its start in TV commercials, the one about how “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”? What happened in Jericho that suddenly there is this large crowd traveling along with Jesus and the disciples? What do they think is going to happen, so that they choose to drop whatever they’re doing and follow Jesus? What do they want from Jesus? Do they get it any better than the disciples do?

Whatever the case may be, this newly enhanced crowd is making its way out of Jericho and comes within the range of a common fixture, one we ourselves can see often enough: a beggar on the side of the road. Mark gives us his name, Bartimaeus, and also helpfully translates the Aramaic name to tell us that he is “son of Timaeus.” We also learn that Bartimaeus is blind. 

Somehow, in the hubbub of the crowd, Bartimaeus picks out the fact that this person passing by is the one called “Jesus of Nazareth.” At this he springs into action. Notice that in his calling out, he doesn’t cry out to “Jesus of Nazareth,” but to “Jesus, Son of David.” Now that sounds like a common enough reference to us Christians two thousand years later, but this is the first time that term is used in the whole gospel of Mark. The second time it comes up is in the next verse. The only other time it appears is a couple of chapters from now, when Jesus is in dispute with some of the religious scribes and authorities. And as far as Mark is concerned, that’s it. It’s not a typical name, and that tells us right away something about Bartimaeus. 

In a way that almost nobody in this gospel has shown so far, Bartimaeus gets it

To call Jesus “Son of David” is to tap into some of the deepest, longest-held prophetic teaching of Judaism at this time. It reaches back, obviously, to one of the most revered figures in Hebrew scripture. It ties Jesus not only into a royal line, but also into one of the most treasured promises of that scripture, the promise of a deliverer, a redeemer, who would come to save his people Israel. A Messiah, in other words. 

We can’t claim that Bartimaeus gets everything, but he gets that much, and determines to call out to this Son of David. Getting shushed and shamed by the crowd only jacks up his determination that much more. He calls out “Son of David, have mercy on me!” even more loudly. 

And Jesus stops. 

The crowd, quite likely, grows quiet at this unexpected stop.

Jesus says, “Call him here.”

The crowd, up to now the ones shushing and shaming Bartimaeus, now calls him forward, and Bartimaeus does not hesitate. He throws off his cloak – quite likely his only earthly possession – and springs up from his blind-beggar position and makes his way to Jesus. 

Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?”

We’ve heard this before, just a few verses earlier in this chapter, when James and John come to him with their request for seats of honor in glory, a request born of their spiritual blindness. That’s what Jesus asks them, and Jesus asks that question again here, to a man pleading from his position of physical blindness. 

Bartimaeus keeps it simple. “My teacher, let me see again.” Notice: my teacher. Not the generic “Teacher” more commonly heard throughout this gospel, even from Jesus’s disicples. Myteacher. Again, to a degree not seen so far in this gospel, Bartimaeus gets it. We still don’t fully understand just how much he gets it, not quite yet, but somehow, more than what we’ve seen so far, Bartimaeus gets it.

And Jesus seems to realize this. The last time he restored a blind man’s sight, back in chapter 8, the process was rather involved: spitting in the dirt to make some mud (sounds like an awful lot of spitting), applying that mud to the blind man’s eyes, then repeating the touch when the man reported seeing people looking like trees walking around. Not this time. The striking reply comes: “Go; your faith has made you well.” Then, Bartimaeus could see – no rinse-and-repeat necessary. One moment he couldn’t see, the next he could. 

Still, though, that wasn’t the final evidence that this once-blind man understood. That comes in the final phrase; once Bartimaeus had regained his sight, he “followed him on the way.” So far as we are told he didn’t even pick up his cloak. Leaving behind what, again, was probably all he owned, he followed Jesus. If this sounds like an echo of the story of the rich man from earlier in this chapter, the one who left sorrowing at the thought of selling off all he owned, you’re right. Unlike that rich man (so far as we know), Bartimaeus gets it, and not only does he get it, he acts upon that understanding. 

For a moment let us step back, outside of this core narrative arc of chapters 8-10 of this gospel, and see where we are in the larger narrative. Were we to keep reading, we would suddenly find ourselves on Palm Sunday; chapter 11 begins with the account of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. That of course kicks off the final sequence of Jesus’s earthly ministry, the week in Jerusalem coming into increasing first-hand conflict with the religious authorities and culminating in his arrest, mock-trial, and execution. All of that seeming ending is then undone on the third day.

In Mark’s gospel, that account is strikingly brief, you may remember. The women who go to the tomb are surprised by the young man in white, telling them that Jesus has been raised, and has gone ahead to Galilee; their job is to go tell his disciples – “and Peter,” he makes sure to add – to follow him there.

You could almost think that this encounter with Bartimaeus foreshadows that final anti-climactic moment of this gospel. Jesus’s followers, so spiritually sightless and clouded of vision for so long, are suddenly confronted with this new sight. Will they follow? Will they, at last, see? Will they finally get it?

And yes, this is a challenge the church, and we who call ourselves followers of Jesus, face even now. Will we see? Will we see just what Jesus calls us to be and to do? Will we not only see, but follow? Will we put ourselves at risk that way? Will we get it?

There is so much at stake here. The larger Christian church has spent much of the last century discrediting itself in pursuit of power (political or economic), or growth, or influence, or all of the above and more. Not surprisingly, public trust of the church is shriveling. Public signs of religious faith – something as basic as church attendance, for example – have shrunk from mid-century peaks, leaving behind pews that had gotten empty before the pandemic. Will we get it? And will we follow? 

For, finally, the one who got it, and what he teaches us, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah; #793, O Christ, the Healer; #450, Be Thou My Vision

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Sermon: Still Don’t Get It

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 17, 2021, Pentecost 21B

Mark 10:35-45

Still Don’t Get It

I am old enough to remember The Andy Griffith Show, not in first-run but in the daily-rerun pattern of syndication. When you see a show that often, you learn certain patterns of the show. One of the more obvious patterns was that Barney Fife, the seemingly hapless deputy, would inevitably bungle something and Sheriff Andy would pick up after him. Another was that Barney would get far too agitated and want to do something rash or extreme, and Andy would have to reign him in. These two patterns, often in combination, constituted one of the show’s regular tropes.

I’m guessing that I’m not the first to wonder if Jesus’s disciples, at least as portrayed throughout the gospel of Mark, have a bit of Barney Fife in them. And yes, that would put Jesus in the role of Sheriff Andy, having to clean up after them (as in chapter 9, when the disciples can’t manage a healing without Jesus around) or rebuke them for their rashness (as in earlier in chapter 10, when the disciples were turning away those who were bringing children to Jesus). Perhaps the most prominent examples of this dynamic in Mark’s gospel are Jesus’s three proclamations of his coming suffering and death, and the inept response of the disciples in each case – such as Peter’s rebuke that in turn got him rebuked with “Get behind me, Satan!in chapter 8, and then the chapter 9 argument among the disciples over which of them was greatest. Today’s reading seems to offer an echo of that second incident. 

The verses immediately preceding today’s reading make up the third of those disturbing proclamations by Jesus. John, who got all hot and bothered about a man casting out demons in Jesus’s name after the previous event, drags his brother James into the mess this time. They come to Jesus with the schoolyard-taunt request to be appointed to sit at Jesus’s right and left “in your glory.” You can imagine that if Jesus had acceded to their request, they would have immediately gotten into a fight over which one got to sit on the right or the left. When this tiff comes to the attention of the rest of the disciples, more dissention breaks out. Deputy Fife has messed up again, and Sheriff Andy has to clean up after him. 

In short, the disciples still don’t get it.

One of the other features of that Barney/Andy pattern on the show was that no matter how badly Barney messed up, Andy never did give up on him. Andy never fired Barney (at least not for good) or ran him off in some way. Andy kept him on, kept putting him back to work. 

So it is, as we see, with Jesus and these dunderheaded disciples. No matter how badly they messed up or got crosswise with what he was teaching them, Jesus never did cut them loose. He continued to teach them, continued to lead them, and continued to love them. 

To understand the final portion of this reading is to understand – or perhaps to begin to understand – why that is. It is a deeply important statement from Jesus about his very reason for existing, his very purpose on this earth. And as with many such statements, we often interpret it poorly.

Jesus begins by drawing a contrast between the community of Jesus’s followers and the world around them, or what such a contrast should look like. Out there in the world the powerful lord it over the powerless, but that’s not how it works here. You want to be the greatest? Be the servant of all. You want to be first? Be the least of all. That’s why I’m here. 

Verse 45 then supplies the critical understanding, in two parts. It’s not that hard to grasp “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” We’ve seen Jesus use that term for himself in Mark’s gospel, and the reversal of “not to be served but to serve” is clear enough, if rather unsettling to we who have lived in the world of social-climbing and career ladders all our lives. 

It’s the concluding phrase where we tend to get off track, and our misunderstanding tends to hinge on two words that jump out particularly strongly in this phrase. I know I’m not supposed to get heavily into the business of translating Greek in these sermons, but we need to get the words right here. In the spirit of Jesus’s argument here, we’ll take the last word first.

The Greek word λυτρον (Lutron) is translated here as “ransom,” and that would be a typical translation in most contexts. However, our modern concept of that word is narrower than the Greek meaning. Our minds most quickly associate “ransom” with a kidnapping or hostage-taking situation, in which some amount of money is demanded for the release of those held captive. This causes many to interpret this phrase “gave his life a ransom for many” as some kind of transactional ransoming; the forces of evil get to kill Jesus so we can go free. 

That’s not how the Greek usage of “ransom” works, though. That Greek word λυτρον doesn’t involve a transaction; there’s no payee. Instead, the “ransom” involved here (going back to the Greek verb λυω ‘luo,’ the root word from which λυτρον comes) carries the image of removing a hindrance or obstacle, or perhaps of loosening bonds or releasing one held captive. It’s not about our modern image of paying ransom; a closer modern metaphor might be one in which Jesus breaks us out of prison. Being ransomed is being set free. Being ransomed is being delivered from that which oppresses or destroys us. It’s not a prisoner exchange; it’s a total jailbreak.

The other word that often messes us up, tied into the whole modernized “ransom” idea, is ψύχην (psuxen), here translated as “life.” In this context Christian thinkers have long tended to use the rather shallow definition of ψυχην as basically what makes us not dead, whatever biophysical condition would tell a doctor that we are in fact living. Therefore, in this way of thinking, to say that Jesus “gave his life” has to be about the part where Jesus died, the part Jesus has been foretelling to his disciples three times now.

But that’s not all there is to ψυχην. It also carries the meaning of “life” as “that which is integral to being a person beyond mere physical function.” We might think of this as our inner self, or even what we call our soul. It’s the difference between “being alive” and living, one might say. 

And understanding this as what Jesus gave hopefully opens our eyes to what is really going on in this passage, and why Jesus keeps cutting the disciples so much slack. 

Jesus gave his life. Jesus gave his whole inner being, his very soul, everything that he said and did and felt and thought and lived for the ransom – the setting free, the breaking out, the releasing – of many, of us, of all of us here. We are cut loose from the chains that bind us by everything Jesus said and did. 

And when Jesus is giving his life, his whole life, his whole being for our redeeming and liberation, Jesus is going to hang in there with those dunderheaded disciples in ways far beyond anything Sheriff Andy had to do for Deputy Fife. 

Yes, the suffering and death are part of that whole life. If anything, Jesus’s suffering and death were the inevitable result of a life so completely devoted and committed to our redemption and liberation. You can’t go upsetting the tyrannical order of things, “the way the world works,” without coming to the kind of end that Jesus did. And Jesus faced it head-on, embraced it even, as part of coming to serve and giving his whole being to liberate us all. Then of course there’s that resurrection part as well. But if you’re looking for scripture to justify some doctrine of substitutionary atonement, this isn’t it. Not at all.

A Jesus who gave everything that he was for our redeeming is not going to give up on us because we bungle it once or twice or a few times or several dozen times. A Jesus who came to serve with his whole life, every minute of his very being, and to teach us so to serve, isn’t going to bail out on us no matter how backward we get it. We aren’t abandoned, we aren’t given up on, no matter how much we still don’t get it. And that, friends, is our hope. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #299, Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim; #—, O Christ, What Can It Mean for Us; #203, Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love

Sermon: Stuff

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 10, 2021, Pentecost 20B

Mark 10:17-31


In 2005 a new musical, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,  premiered on Broadway, another in a then-novel trend of musicals based on movies instead of the other way ‘round. The movie in question had starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin as competing con men; the musical debuted with John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz in those roles. As the novice grifter introduced to Lithgow’s high-class world, Butz gets the big song; when Lithgow, having grown tired of this penny-ante grifter, exasperatedly asks “what do you want!!??” Butz responds by gesticulating around wildly and shouting “I want this!!”, and then breaking into his big number that sums up everything he has seen and now wants for himself. It is simply titled “Great Big Stuff.”

It’s not the worst summary of one of the seemingly chronic conditions of our world; humans see, and then humans want. For example, it’s a driving premise behind an awful lot of the entertainment that passes by on our various screens, going back at least as far as reality-show predecessors like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or opulent prime-time dramas such as Dallas or Dynasty. (Yes, I’m dating myself, but I know many of you know what I’m talking about.) Sure, the dysfunction of the characters of those shows counts for a lot of the alleged entertainment value, but so does the “great big stuff” those characters possess. We see, and then we want. That’s been a defining characteristic of humanity in general for a very long time.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the church has not been free of that inclination, in any age of its history. Just to throw out one example (perhaps given more recency by the release of the movie The Eyes of Tammy Faye), you might remember the televangelist Jim Bakker (the one with two “k”s in his name) being at least as interested in accumulating wealth as in preaching. He is, however, hardly the only example of such divided loyalty, and emphatically not the last.

Of course today’s gospel reading isn’t very hard to tie into this human predisposition. The man comes to Jesus and asks the question that sets off this encounter: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That phrasing is interesting in itself; to speak of “inheriting” eternal life might offer some suggestion of how the man has gained the “many possessions” we learn of a few verses later. Jesus’s answer is also curious. After the seemingly odd digression over being called “good,” he lists a few of the commandments and law. While many seem to get agitated about the man’s response that he “has kept all these since my youth” as sounding arrogant or prideful, given the examples Jesus gives it’s not that shocking an answer. Personally, I’ve never committed murder myself, and a lot of people can say the same, just to take one of those.

The story gets a little more interesting after that answer. It’s a bit of a jolt to read that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…”. That’s not a typical response in these encounters. At the minimum it seems that Jesus is taking this man at his word, and that this man is not one of those who will appear in coming chapters of this gospel who are trying to trick or trap Jesus with their questions. Jesus seems to believe this man is sincere in his searching, and one might also guess that Jesus knows what’s going to happen when he gives his final answer.

Let’s make sure we take in that whole answer: “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Notice that the mandate here isn’t just about selling off those possessions, but also using the funds gained specifically to help those in need, and then turning to follow Jesus.

We know of course what happens next. The man goes away grieving, “for he had many possessions.” What we don’t know is what happens after that. When the man goes away we don’t follow him; we are given Jesus’s words to his disciples about what had just happened. But we don’t know what actually happened to the man himself. 

In fact there’s a lot we don’t know about this man. Mark doesn’t even give the extra details that Matthew and Luke add, whereby we often call this person “the rich young ruler”; in Mark all he is is a man who “had many possessions,” regardless of age or social stature. We don’t know the nature of his possessions or his “stuff.” It’s entirely possible, given the Roman Empire setting in which this takes place, that among the man’s ownings are slaves tasked with overseeing his many possessions. We don’t know if there is family involved. We don’t know how far this man has come to see Jesus. 

But even more, we don’t know what the man does after he walks away grieving. For all we know, the man does exactly what Jesus tells him to do, sorrowing all the while. Maybe he’s one of those in the crowds that have accumulated around Jesus by the time he gets to Jerusalem. We tend to assume not, but we don’t know. What we do know is that he had a lot of stuff, and the very idea of giving it up was shocking and grief-inducing to him.

The “shock” part shouldn’t surprise us. We are hardly the first age to assume that great wealth somehow means that God has particularly favored a person. The “prosperity gospel” might not have been invented yet, but those living under Roman rule were certainly led to believe that accumulated wealth and power and status were marks of divine favor from some deity or another. The idea of having to give up those seeming markers of divine favor likely made no sense in the eyes of this man or of anyone else listening to his exchange with Jesus. The attachment to his “stuff” was so strong, and so presumed to be good, that Jesus’s words provoked a deep emotional reaction. 

After the man walks away, we get the rather famous line about it being easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. It’s one of the more quoted and quotable lines from Mark’s gospel, but also one that is easily misinterpreted. Is it merely the fact of being rich that makes it so hard? Or is it something about the condition of having many possessions that is the problem?

In a technical sense it wouldn’t necessarily have been hard for the man to sell all his stuff, give it away to the poor, and then come follow Jesus. It might have been an involved process to be sure, but you have to guess that if the stuff was good stuff, there would be people happy to buy it. Giving it away to the poor, again, would not be hard; in Roman society there were going to be plenty of poor people around. The hardest part might be tracking down Jesus to follow him once all those financial transactions were completed.

No, it’s not necessarily a hard task to accomplished. Involved, maybe complicated, to be sure, but not hard. What’s hard, of course, is the very idea of giving up the stuff. We get attached to it. It has sentimental value, sometimes. It gets connected to some special event or memory in our lives or family. It feels like giving up the stuff is giving up the memory.

Hopefully this reminds us of the part of this passage that is trickiest for the non-rich among us: you don’t have to have many possessions to be owned, so to speak, by those possessions. 

Our stuff becomes our security, our comfort, maybe even our identity in some cases. Maybe it seems harmless to us. We can certainly point to others who have more stuff and fancier stuff and more extravagant stuff than we do, and perhaps hide ourselves from our own attachments by doing so. But do we still run the risk of being so attached to our stuff, so owned by our possessions, that we miss the kingdom of God?

There is that last paragraph of story, where Peter (rightly, in this case) points out that these disciples really did leave behind all their stuff to follow Jesus. Peter, James, and John didn’t even wait around to sell their fishing boats to jump on board with Jesus. And Jesus does in turn tell the disciples that their forsaking has not gone unnoticed; their sacrifices won’t be forgotten in this age or in the age to come. But even then there has to be a precautionary note added, that even in that remembering and rewarding, there will be upsetting of the order of things – “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” If you’re doing all of this sacrificing and selling and giving things away in expectation of being big number one in the end, you’re still getting it wrong. The reward is following Jesus. The reward is entering the kingdom of God. Period. Full stop. End of discussion. Ladder-climbing and gain-seeking and currying favor to gain more importance? None of this is part of the scheme in that kingdom, in this age or the age to come.

We are left with, in the end, a fairly simple question in the wake of this gospel story, one that is nonetheless dreadfully difficult and challenging to answer: what do we “own” that, in fact, owns us? And how do we give it away and follow Jesus?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #35, Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty; #—, What Must I Do to Gain Life Eternal?; #687, Our God, Our Help in Ages Past

Image from “Great Big Stuff” from the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Sermon: One Table

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 3, 2021, World Communion Sunday

Ephesians 2:13-22

One Table

When Christ’s own body comes to table,

When all God’s children gather there,

The grace of sacramental living

Is given freely, everywhere.

You might have noticed that the white vestments came out for this morning, though they have not always appeared for Sundays on which the Lord’s Supper has been practiced. That’s because if the white vestments came out every time the sacrament should be observed in worship, we would never get to use any other vestments. There is no qualified religious authority or text that gives a good credible argument for why the sacrament should not be observed every time a congregation comes together for worship, even including such occasions as weddings and Services of Witness to the Resurrection. The first reactions against weekly communion came as anti-Catholic backlash in some Reformed areas during the Reformation, and over time that backlash morphed into the perceived “impracticality” of weekly observance, and sometimes into a desire to  keep the Lord’s Supper “special,” which is to say, I guess, that nothing else about worship is “special.” 

The occasion of World Communion Sunday, marked today in many Protestant traditions, provides an occasion to critique those reluctances among many other things. It might be worth remembering that there is nothing else we do in worship that has quite the direct mandate as this sacrament, given most immediately by Jesus on the night before his death. The church at large was quick to make it the central feature of their gatherings, even in the teaching/preaching parts of their worship took up much more time. They sometimes got it wrong, as we see from Paul’s reprimand to the Corinthians in chapter 11 of his first letter to them, but they did it. It is, in short, a direct ministering of grace to his disciples, and to us who follow over the many centuries as part of the body of Christ.

Now bread we break and wine we offer,

Though not our own, but Christ’s we give.

In nations found the whole world over 

God’s people take this feast and live.

I wonder sometimes if there’s something else at work in some churches’ reluctance to observe the sacrament more regularly. It’s a lot of work, especially when pandemic conditions have not forced these little two-sided containers of “bread” and “wine” upon us, to get together that much bread and (in most Protestant churches) grape juice for particularly larger congregation, to be sure. It’s also true that it takes time. There’s also the matter of the awkwardness of much theology about the table; is Christ really present in the bread and cup, or spiritually present (this would be the position of most churches in the Reformed tradition, like us Presbyterians), or is it all just symbolic? And there’s also the challenge of acknowledging Christ as the one who serves us all, when any idiot can look and see that I am not Christ, and nor is any other minister presiding at table this morning anywhere in the world.

But I wonder if the biggest obstacle for some churches is that this sacrament is something we share – not just among ourselves in one sanctuary, wherever we may be, but with all the church in all the world. 

I’m not sure everybody likes that. Particularly in this country, it’s kind of a thing for churches – especially those on the presumed cutting edge of contemporary worship – to pride themselves on creating a distinct “culture,” of worship and pretty much everything else. You won’t find this experience anywhere else is the implied promise. That attitude, honestly, can turn up in a church whether it plays the hottest new songs on the CCLI worship music charts or fills the air with the sounds of Bach and Mozart. 

The Lord’s Supper, though, is not unique, and is almost designed to thwart uniqueness. You break bread and pass it around, and you pour out the wine or juice and share it too. The bread may be different in different places, as this table suggests in a small way, but it’s hard to be terribly different about the observance of this sacrament. We kinda have to share it, and not just with that church a few blocks away we don’t like. We share it with a worldful of churches in places we don’t like full of people we don’t like, against whom we’d much rather discriminate.

In every place, at every table,

Our Lord presides at every feast.

No gates, no walls are there to hinder

All those who seek, from great to least.

Among many other things this sacrament, and this particular occasion of observing it, do to us is this compelling to see ourselves not as some kind of “special” or “unique” outfit but elementally as part of Christ’s body, the church.

We don’t necessarily like that. I know there are probably some churches in this town where I’d be horrified to sit through a worship service, and my own past experiences make it hard to conceive of participating in much of anything with some churches. But that’s not up to me, and those churches are part of the body of Christ too. So to with churches in Haiti or Afghanistan (to the degree that any churches are allowed to exist there anymore) or any number of places in the world that too many of our leaders and people demonize at every opportunity. 

And yet here this particular table stands, one of many around the world where bread and cup will be ministered on this day, with absolutely no checkpoints or gates or gatekeepers, open to anybody to whom the Lord calls. It stands as an open rebuke to the likes of the “church growth movement,” a seemingly innocuous thing in recent decades that promoted the use of things like “market segmentation” to encourage churches to seek out their members in moderately affluent, middle- to upper-class, and almost exclusively white neighborhoods – “people like us” as many churches would put it.

There are Christians at tables around the world on this day who are, to say the least, not like us. The reading from Ephesians reminds us, though, that even we ourselves were “not like us” before the working of Christ’s mercy and redemption opened the good news up beyond the Jewish origins of its earliest followers. We “Gentiles” – i.e. anyone non-Jewish – were the outsiders. You might even borrow a Jimmy Buffett song line and say that we were the people our parents warned us about. Indeed those in churches these days who want to keep folks “out” are only “in” by the grace of God, and don’t like that reminder.

If they don’t like that, they really won’t like eternity. The feast we keep today is, again among many other things, a foreshadowing of the great feast to come:

As now we gather, we look forward

To days to come, when we shall see

Our Christ alone at one great table

To serve God’s children, loved and free.

Until that day in glory, we keep the feast here in this one small corner of the body of Christ, one part of a world of Christ’s followers, seeking to be faithful and to bear witness. 

For the whole church in the whole world, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #637, O Sing to the Lord; #340, This Is My Song; #103, Come Now, O Prince of Peace.

Hymn embedded in sermon:

Sermon: Cut It Off!

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 26, 2021, Pentecost 18B

Mark 9:38-50

Cut It Off!

One of the more frustrating things about watching television is inconsistency in the characters who populate a given show. The same thing is true, I suppose, for movies of a serial-type nature. You know what I mean: something happens in one episode, a thing that gives every appearance of being significant or life-changing for one of the characters or perhaps all of them, and yet in the next episode they’re carrying on or going about their business as if the thing never happened. 

I think sometimes we Christians, especially us preacher types or commentators upon scripture, are guilty of something similar. We are given a passage to observe or preach or analyze, but manage to forget or overlook that the passage in question is actually a continuation of the action from a previous passage, and fail to account for that connection in expounding upon the passage in question.

In order to avoid that mistake, therefore, let me first make this observation: I should have hung a “TO BE CONTINUED” sign on the end of last week’s sermon. Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark really does continue exactly where last week’s reading left off. We should assume, as Mark has set up his narrative, that Jesus and the disciples are in the same place they were at the end of last week’s reading. We should not forget that in that passage, Jesus had taken a small child into his arms as he instructed the disciples about welcoming those of no status (like that child), and we should probably assume the child is still present at least as this reading opens. (Children being children, the child might have run off at some point during the reading, particularly when Jesus lights into his disciples around verse 42.)

And perhaps most especially, we should remember that John’s words recorded in verse 38 follow directly after those words Jesus spoke about welcome in verses 35-37. This might help us understand how Jesus responds to John’s words starting in verse 42, a response that would, in modern terms, best be labeled as a ‘rant.’

While Peter is the disciple with the most dunderheaded reputation, John gives him a run for his money here. Jesus has barely gotten the words out of his mouth about welcome, and John starts bragging about shutting down a man who was casting out demons – doing good things for people – in the name of Jesus, shutting him down because – note these words – “he was not following us.” Don’t let that pronoun slip by. Not that he was not following Jesus: “he was not following us.” Sure sounds like John is still on that power trip the disciples were arguing about on the road, the argument that Jesus called out in verse 33. 

Jesus in turn shuts John down for that, and makes the seemingly obvious point that anyone who is performing deeds of good and of power in Jesus’s name isn’t particularly likely to turn on Jesus in the next breath. Verse 40 is interesting, in that Mark’s presentation of this phrase is the reverse of a similar phrase that appears in Matthew (12:30) and Luke (11:23): “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Remembering our context from last week and comparing it to the context of those verses will help us understand the difference. In both Matthew and Luke, the phrase is uttered in the context of harassment by the religious authorities; in both Matthew and Luke Jesus is accused of being literally in league with the devil. On the other hand, in Mark the “enemy” John is calling out is just some anonymous guy helping people in Jesus’s name – maybe not even all that different from the child and all that child represents in Jesus’s teaching, those of no status or importance in the world’s eyes. 

It is from here that Jesus launches into his rant, one of the more virulent passages spoken by Jesus in scripture and one that is frequently misinterpreted as to its application. Again, the context we’re carrying forward matters, and matters a lot. 

Remember who the “little ones” of verse 42 are: not only the literal child Jesus was putting before them, but all of those of that same status in Roman society – that is, no status at all. To put a “stumbling block” or any kind of obstacle before any of those “little ones who believe in me” is, to Jesus, about as reprehensible as a person can be. The image presented here is shocking, to be sure: a millstone – a great, heavy stone, probably as big as a man and used for grinding grain – being tied around one’s neck and that one being tossed into the sea. It puts the “cement shoes” image of many Mafia movies to shame.

If we’re going to be horrified by that image, than we’d better understand how reprehensible it is to put an obstacle before those seeking to follow after Jesus. You’d be better off with the cement shoes.

The next part, a parallel sequence, is perhaps even more shocking and is the part regularly misinterpreted. Again, context matters. The hand or foot or eye causing us to stumble needs to be viewed in the context of John’s boast about shutting down that man casting out demons. While it’s hard to imagine our hands, feet, or eyes somehow provoking us to put obstacles before others seeking to follow Jesus, it’s not at all hard to imagine our pride or ego or ambition causing us to do so. And as Jesus says here, we would do well to “cut it off” rather than to hold on to that which provokes us to harm others. 

We tend to read this stretch as pertaining to one’s own personal sins, and sins of a sexual nature are often presumed to be the object of this part of the rant. The point here is not to say that such sins are excluded. It’s impossible to look at the number of sexual abuse and cover-up cases that are attached to churches in recent years, ranging from the Roman Catholic church to the Southern Baptist Convention and numerous others, and not conclude that the abuses of priests and pastors and other leaders have placed horrifying “stumbling blocks” in the lives of those victims of abuse, most of whom were likely trying to figure out how to follow Jesus or “be a good Christian.” 

No, the point here is not to dismiss those sins, but also not to limit our understanding of this passage to such sins. Anything that places an obstacle before one of God’s children is subject to this rebuke. Anything we do, no matter how we might justify it in our own eyes, that places a stumbling block before those who Jesus calls “the least of these” in Matthew 25 is subject to this rebuke. Take your pick of which is more horrifying, the millstone-around-the-neck image or the suggestion of cutting off body parts; but understand from these images how reprehensible it is to harm the “little ones” seeking to follow after Jesus, the “least of these” we are called to serve instead of judge, God’s children, all of them.

There is also the suggestion that this rebuke might be invoked corporately; to the body of Christ as a whole and not just to individuals. There may be things about the church as it exists in today’s world that are more hindrance than help to the world and might themselves need to be “cut off.” That probably needs to be a sermon of its own at some point.

The final verses seem a bit out of place here, but perhaps they do connect after all. The image of being “salted with fire,” as best as I can find, seems to refer to the sacrificial practice of the Temple; as the sacrifice was offered, it was salted, as a sign of its goodness, so that the sacrifice offered was the best it could be. So we, as we offer our lives before God in whatever way God calls us, are “salted.” 

We are given the “seasoning” needed to make us fit vehicles for the working of the Holy Spirit in the world, to make us true followers of Jesus on earth. When we lose that “saltiness,” we become (in the context of this reading) those who hinder and harm and place stumbling blocks before others who seek to follow Jesus or to answer God’s call or simply to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, when we have that saltiness in us, we are at peace with one another, and ready to be welcoming to the “little ones” that the world deems unimportant or useless, the ones Jesus welcomes and charges us to welcome. 

Last week’s reading showed us how Jesus instructed his disciples in the welcoming of those society calls the least important. This week’s reading, continuing the story, emphasizes how wrong it is, even how reprehensible it is, not to do so. Given the examples Jesus uses here, one might even say it’s a fate worse than death. Given the degree to which large swaths of today’s church seem to crave the opposite for themselves, currying favor with the powerful and lofty of status, it may well be that the biggest need in the larger church today, that most vitally necessary for the church to be the body of Christ we’re called to be, is to figure out what it is that makes us to hungry to do the opposite of what Jesus calls us to do, and cut it off.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #395, Blessed Jesus, at Your Word; #425, Son of God, Whose Heart is Peace; #432, How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord

Sermon: Like a Child to Jesus

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 19, 2021, Pentecost 17B

Mark 9:30-37

Like a Child to Jesus

As we return to the gospel of Mark for the time being, we come back into its offerings as found in the Revised Common Lectionary in a moment at which we are forced, among other things, to confront something rather basic about Jesus’s disciples that is rather unavoidable: they don’t seem to be very smart. To borrow some vernacular expressions on the subject, they’re dumb as rocks, or dumber than a sack of hammers, or as dumb as dirt. They show, throughout the gospel but especially in this central section, as they are following Jesus to his ultimate fate in Jerusalem, that they just don’t get it, and they keep showing that they just don’t get it over and over again. 

We might ought to consider a slightly different possibility about the disciples, though. Maybe it isn’t that they don’t get it; maybe it’s that they don’t want to get it.

You know the type. We live in a society where such refusal to comprehend basic facts is now not only obnoxious, it’s deadly. These days it’s hard not to wonder how long it will be before folks start deciding that, say, the law of gravity is a hoax, and start taking it upon themselves to defy gravity. You get the idea. If they don’t like a fact, they deny it, no matter how the consequences. 

And to be fair to the disciples, the particular fact that they are struggling with is a deeply troubling and painful one. Jesus has now said it twice, as recorded by Mark, and there’s one more statement coming in the next chapter. Mark 8:31 records Jesus’s first proclamation of his inevitable rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection. This is the occasion on which Peter, in one of his rare “get it right” moments, has just proclaimed to Jesus that “you are the Messiah”, only to turn around and rebuke Jesus for this seemingly contradictory proclamation – and get rebuked himself with “Get behind me, Satan!” for his trouble. 

Now here, at the beginning of today’s reading, Jesus is at it again. The “Son of Man” will be betrayed into human hands and killed and will rise again three days later. Do the disciples not get it, or do they not want to get it?

It’s worth remembering what has happened in the interim. Chapter 9 begins with the transfiguration of Jesus, as witnessed by Peter, James, and John (though not the rest of the disciples). Upon coming down the mountain, they encounter a father pleading for healing for his son, which the disciples so far have failed to accomplish. They then head toward Capernaum, and it is on this journey that Jesus returns to this unpleasant theme. The disciples, perhaps remembering the rebuke Peter got last time, don’t answer. Did they not understand, or did they not want to understand?

When they arrive at Capernaum, Jesus asks a seemingly out-of-the-blue question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Their non-answer is telling, and you might guess that Jesus knew exactly what they had been arguing about. 

Let’s be clear: that such an argument might come up at this point isn’t that shocking if you remember the context we just noted. Remember, Jesus singled out Peter, James, and John to go up the mountain with him when he was transfigured. Meanwhile, the rest of the disciples were left to contend with this child they could not heal. If you ask me, that’s a situation rife for some posturing about importance and greatness, even among “good church folk”; Jesus’s “favorites” lording it over the ne’er-do-wells who couldn’t get that healing right. And besides, it’s a good way to avoid thinking about that disturbing thing Jesus keeps saying. 

Jesus is ready to quash this kind of thinking straight away. The statement is direct and unequivocable: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The statement is shocking enough, in the context of the Roman Empire in which Jesus and his disciples lived. A society in which status and honor were of paramount importance would have no room for talk like this. A good Roman citizen would have greeted this statement from Jesus with more disdain than the old baseball manager Leo Durocher seemed to show for “nice guys” in that quip that keeps him remembered, the one about those “nice guys” finished last. Last was last. Last was nothing. Last had no honor or status or importance or worth at all. 

Perhaps still sensing that the disciples didn’t really get it, Jesus resorted to a demonstration. He singled out a small child and called the child over to him, took the child in his arms (maybe even picked up the child), and said the really shocking part: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Now here’s where we have to stop and adjust our readers.

The moment a child is invoked in scripture, our tendency is to get all mushy and sentimental. To hear this scripture as it was meant to be heard by Mark’s readers and hearers, we have to fight off that tendency vigorously. We can’t let ourselves slip into saying “awwww…” at the sight of Jesus taking the child in his arms. That’s not going to allow us to hear what Jesus is saying.

In Roman society, a child’s importance depended upon the child’s age. If the child was old enough to work around the house or in the fields or in the family’s business, the child was useful. Until that age, the child was essentially dead weight, a mouth that had to be fed and cared for by its family, and of fully no status whatsoever outside its own family. Jesus calling and taking the child in his arms – a child of no relation to him – was roughly equivalent to Jesus singling out and embracing the lowest and most menial of slaves, people of no status in Roman society. And it was this – the complete lack of societal status or honor or importance – that was being singled out here, not the cuteness or preciousness that we tend to ladle onto our perception of children. 

To a group of disciples who had been caught arguing about who was the biggest deal or the most important or the greatest, Jesus offers this challenge. The one who would be greatest among you must be willing to welcome one like this – of no honor or status or importance whatsoever – as if you were welcoming me. And when you do that, you are not just welcoming me, but the One who sent me as well. 

It’s not just a Roman thing to be obsessed with status or rank or with associating ourselves with “important” people. Any society you can think of has had its own obsession with that rank or status-seeking. It’s still not good.

It is in exactly that kind of world that this message comes crashing, throttling our pride at just how important we the church are in the world and how much power we hold in the greater society. Let’s be clear that Jesus is wildly unimpressed with how many politicians jump at our bidding or how many athletes stick John 3:16 references on their equipment. Are we welcoming the child? The homeless person? The unwed mother? The migrant farmworker? The ones with no status, no importance, no significance at all in the larger world we the church are so busy trying to impress?

If we aren’t welcoming them, can we truly say we are welcoming Jesus?

Only when the church – the whole church – can look upon the ones of no importance to society and see them as Jesus saw that child, and the whole church can welcome them the way Jesus welcomed that child; only then can we claim to be following in the way Jesus taught. At the last, we’re only getting this business of following Christ right when the world looks to us like that child looked to Jesus. 

For learning to welcome the ones who don’t matter, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #401, Here in This Place (Gather Us In); #822, When We Are Living; #738, O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee

Sermon: The Just Reward of Labor

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 5, 2021, Pentecost 15B

Ecclesiastes 3:9-15; James 5:1-6

The Just Reward of Labor

Over the course of the pandemic and shutdown time we were introduced to a new phrase: “essential worker.” The term caught up everything from health-care workers to teachers to supermarket employees to delivery personnel of all kinds, persons who were performing services deemed essential during the period when going out for basic things was no longer a given. People made signs and banners to celebrate “essential workers”; official proclamations were made; all manner of public acknowledgment was given. Oddly, though, some things didn’t change; working conditions, salaries, or basically anything that made the doing of those jobs easier and less horrifying to do. Aside from the brief public outcry, nothing about working at those jobs improved.

Labor Day doesn’t necessarily get a lot of attention from many churches these days, in the way that other non-religious holidays like Independence Day or Mother’s Day do. If anything, it might mark the time of the year for certain church programs that may have gone dormant over the summer months to get fired back up again. 

That hasn’t always been the case in this country. There was a time when “Labor Sunday” was a thing in certain, mostly mainline US churches. Especially in parts of the 1910s and 1920s the day before Labor Day was marked with messages on the subject of scripture and labor in the US, seeking to bring understanding and reconciliation at a time of strife between workers and those who held power over them. [Nota bene: for further background on the relationship of church and labor in those years and before, I recommend Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York: Oxford, 2015).]

The emphasis hasn’t maintained a presence in church life, for the most part. For the most part I’m actually OK with that, since typically I’m not big on giving over the hour of worship to secular pursuits. Every now and then, though, it’s a good idea to make an exception. The holiday itself may not be a religious occasion, but that doesn’t mean that scripture and the church have nothing to say on the subject of labor, work, and the relationship between labor and power. Far from it.

I could have, perhaps most easily, chosen Jesus’s words of instruction to his disciples as he was about to send them out on their first independent “mission trips.” Jesus is particular that they “pack light” for their travels, and instructs them not to move about from house to house as they are in a particular location, but to remain with one host and eat and drink whatever that host provides. Luke 10:7 sums up that instruction with the note that “the laborer deserves to be paid”; Matthew 10:10 gets even more to the point with the summation “laborers deserve their food.” This same idea gets cited in 1 Timothy 5:18 as well, credited as scripture. Note that Jesus is, at the same time, designating the disciples as “laborers” – not elevating them to some lofty status or handing out titles like “evangelist” – and also insisting that they as laborers deserve to be paid – or at minimum fed. The work should be rewarded. One might also cite the interesting parable in Matthew 20 about the landlord who hired laborers to work his land for the day, who chose to be rather generous with some of them.

I could also have gone back to the legal codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which the Hebrew people are instructed several times over about how to treat those laborers in their employ. Apparently it had to be repeated that one was not to withhold the wages of those who work for you, particularly the poor and needy – both Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14 have to give that instruction, with the latter also noting that it did not matter whether those laborers were local or “aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” Hmm, that sounds relevant to today all of a sudden. 

The idea of one’s labor being a source of pleasure rather than drudgery is one that comes up in Ecclesiastes, rather uniquely in scripture. The reading we heard earlier is relatively typical of what that book has to say on the subject; namely, that there is truly nothing better in life than to take pleasure in one’s work and to enjoy the fruits of one’s toil. It’s not clear that  Qoheleth, the author of the volume, ever had the experience of wages being withheld by a crooked overseer, though. 

We could also remember that curious passage from a few weeks ago in Ephesians 4, in which we are told that thieves must give up stealing, but work honestly so that they might have “something to share with the needy.” Our work is not just for ourselves, but for those who have need. 

Perhaps the most shocking passage on the subject of labor and work is today’s reading from the epistle of James. One doesn’t expect to be reading an epistle and suddenly feel like you’re been catapulted into one of the saltier Hebrew prophets like Amos. Those first three verses are fierce in their denunciation, promising great torment and miseries to these rich people being addressed here. For James’s audience, which probably did not actually contain many rich people at all, the denunciation might have come across as a kind of reassurance; the ones who have exploited and oppressed me aren’t going to get away with it in the end

It is in verse 4, though, that the provocation for this denunciation is revealed, and again, we are taken back to Jesus’s statement about how the worker should get paid. Those rich employers have been withholding their workers’ wages again – and this time the word “fraud” is invoked. The Lord hears those cries, as James puts it, and will not deal kindly with those who engage in such fraud.

One passage that some folks like to pounce upon comes from 2 Thessalonians 3, in which the author rather famously asserts that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” That line crosses over into politics a lot, I’ve noticed. Interestingly that seems to have been addressed to a subset among the Thessalonians who had stopped all work and basically all interaction and were waiting for an imminent return of Christ. And even in the face of this remembering to interrogate scripture with scripture, we have already been reminded that the one who works had better be able to eat. Scripture has this nasty habit of being on the side of the oppressed, over and over again.

We live in a world where that basic fact is too often not true; too many who work can’t eat. I’ve never been involved in serving meals at a homeless shelter or any other such setting, whether in Lawrence or Richmond or here in Gainesville, where the group serving has not been asked to set aside one or more plates for guests of the shelter who were still at work. The disconnect between work and wages hasn’t necessarily gotten better since those “Labor Sundays” of the 1910s and 1920s, or if it ever did get better, it has gotten worse again. 

One challenge for us to keep in mind is that the labor that goes into so much of what we enjoy – as the fruits of our own labor, you might even say – has often been removed far, far from our sight. We are, compared to previous generations, far less aware as a whole of where our food comes from, for example. Did you have a cup of coffee this morning? Do you know where it was came from? How about who picked those beans from which the coffee came? Did they make enough to live on? In many parts of the coffee-growing world, probably not. You might remember that sermon from about a month ago, in which we learned that according to a report from Heifer International, the beans grown to make an average grande latte, selling for about $3.65, might earn the workers who actually grew the coffee beans themselves $.02 or $.03, less than the cost of the paper sleeve that comes on the cup. That habit of ours is tied to an awful lot of injustice in the world. (I’m primarily a tea drinker, and that habit doesn’t do any better by those who do the work to make it happen.)

Or are you a fan of tomatoes, for example? We’ve gotten accustomed to being able to have them any time of year, but they don’t really grow well in most of the US during the wintertime. One of the few places they can grow in winter is in south Florida, particularly in the area around Immokalee. For years workers in the fields around Immokalee worked under some of the most grinding conditions out there with less-than-starvation wages as their “reward.” In a rare example of workers taking action to improve their own lot, the Immokalee workers launched a public campaign to provoke fast-food chains – some of the biggest consumers of those winter tomatoes – to pay one penny per pound more for tomatoes purchased from Immokalee growers. Over time, most such chains have gone along with that increase, which has made already a striking difference in conditions for Immokalee workers. Other businesses, though, have been less cooperative; supermarket chains, including those just down the street from here in either direction, choose instead to get winter tomatoes from Mexico, where workers live and work in conditions little different from slave labor. Or we could get into accounts about working conditions in meat-processing facilities right here in the United States – you don’t have to go far to find horror stories.

We mostly don’t know such things. There are horror stories to be told about worker conditions and wages in the garment industry, for example, or numerous other industries. And not all of those horror stories take place overseas, either. We tend to be blissfully unaware, and in the end that doesn’t put us on the good side of scripture, at least where labor is addressed in it.

The last hymn we’ll sing this morning contains a striking line in its second stanza: “In the just reward of labor, God’s will be done.” Another hymn, by John L. Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community, opens with a starker statement of the injustice that oppresses far too many of those who labor:

Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,

Informed of God’s own bias, we ponder once again: 

How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind? 

How long dare vain self-interest turn prayer and pity blind?

The laborer deserves to be paid,” said Jesus. And yet, “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” What will it take for us not to be the reason for those cries? We may have a lot to learn.

For the just reward of labor, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #26, Earth and All Stars!; #515, I Come With Joy; #36, For the Fruit of All Creation

Sermon: The Part We Skipped

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 29, 2021, Pentecost 14B

2 Samuel 11:14-25; Ephesians 5:21-33

The Part We Skipped

We are told in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” I’m pretty sure that was another one of those passages I had to memorize back when I was doing “Bible drill” in my youth.

Note that while scripture is good for teaching, reproof, correction, and righteousness training, nowhere is it said that all scripture is good for emulation. We don’t want to take every part of scripture as a model for how to live. I would hope, for example, that we can agree that this horrifying portion Russ just read from 2 Samuel, in which David conspires to get Uriah the Hittite killed in battle so his taking of Uriah’s wife Bathsheba won’t get called out, is not something we are called to emulate. Hopefully we can agree that no part of that story at all is one we are called to emulate. The only part of that whole sordid story that might be worthy of emulation is that of the prophet Nathan, who under God’s guidance calls David out to his face for his crimes. David may be a hero in other parts of Hebrew Scripture, but he’s not at all worthy of imitation here. 

I submit to you that the same thing can be said of today’s reading from Ephesians. It is not that all of what is said in this passage, and the following material in Ephesians 6 that together comprise what is known as a “household code,” is wrong or bad instruction – some of it is quite good and worth keeping. Rather, what fails here is the very existence of this passage.

This passage comprises one of three identified “household codes” found in the epistles; the others are in Colossians 3:12-4:6 and 1 Peter 2:11-3:2. Household codes like these were not Christian ideas or inventions at all; these codes found in the scriptures here are clearly modeled after such tables of hierarchy commonly found in Greco-Roman culture. No less a figure than Aristotle had put forth one such code that was widely adopted and regarded in his time. One might think of these codes as an expression of “family values,” Roman-Empire style.

Roman society in particular, the setting in which the Ephesians letter was written, had as one of its utmost concerns the preservation of power by those who already had it, and the suppression of those “underneath” who might pose any threat at all to that power. The household codes represented the extension of that power structure down into the family unit, which was in Roman society highly exalted and esteemed as a basic unit of Roman society and culture. In those Roman codes the power of the paterfamilias was ultimate and unlimited, and all manner of means to preserve that power and authority (including violence against wife, children, or slaves) were approved in such household codes. Unless the wife was of extremely important family, there was nothing the husband couldn’t do to preserve his authority and power over her. And since most Roman marriages could be summarized by the old Tina Turner song “What’s love got to do with it?”, the husband frankly owed the wife nothing at all. 

When seen against the starkness of the Greco-Roman codes, the one found here in Ephesians may seem altogether milder, and indeed some have viewed the code found here as an attempt to subvert or undermine those codes. It does indeed place strong emphasis on the husband loving his wife (again, not typical of arranged Roman marriages, which were as much business transactions as anything). Still, after the spectacular opening verse of this code, the unbalanced and unequal binds placed on husband and wife stick out in glaring fashion.

Indeed, if the author had stuck with 5:21, perhaps as a concluding thought to the instruction covered in 5:15-20, so much would be better. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” is nothing less than an amazing summary of how Christians should live with and among one another. That it is followed by instruction that does notfollow up consistently – submission is mandated for the wife, but never for the husband – undermines the effectiveness of verse 21. The husband has an “out” as a result, and all manner of abusiveness and mistreatment can be passed off as “tough love” (and you know it happens). 

The first nine verses of chapter six continue the household code, first addressing the relation of children to parents in a fairly benign fashion. A familiar quote from the Ten Commandments is followed by a mild rebuke to parents to “not provoke your children to anger,” a phrase which could also be translated as “not exasperate your children.” Everyone who has ever been a child of a parent could relate to that one, I suspect. 

The last four verses of the household code are the reason this passage was extremely popular in, shall we say, some pulpits in the nineteenth-century United States. Indeed the code addressing slaves and masters offers very little recourse to the slave, and was preached in countless pulpits to justify the continuation of chattel slavery in the US and, after secession, its establishment as a principal feature of the Confederacy. While one might think that this portion of the code can be safely dismissed as irrelevant, but maybe not. A man of Sierra Leone ancestry reported in an interview that the president of a seminary operated by a Minneapolis megachurch stated that it would not be sinful for that pastor to own him, as long as he (the pastor) behaved according to the instruction in this code. This man’s statement was not included in the article for which the interview was consulted, itself a disappointing result.

Much of my foundation for approaching this subject was laid in a book by one of my seminary professors, Frances Taylor Gench of Union Presbyterian Seminary. Her book Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts includes today’s passage among a number of readings that have a history of being used for oppressive purposes. Dr. Gench describes her own struggles coming to terms with such passages and formulates some basic guidelines for approaching them. The first of those guidelines was this: remember that “the difficult text is worthy of charity,” of generosity, from its interpreters.”[1]

In case Dr. Gench somehow sees this service or reads the text of the sermon, I want to make this clear: I tried. I really tried. Perhaps I am too limited a pastor, but I am really struggling to be charitable or generous with this passage, mostly because of the 1900 or so years of history that has followed in its wake. 

We’re talking about a passage here that has been the primary instrument of suppressing women called by God to proclaim the gospel. In every age this suppression takes a different form: the demeaning of women as “inferior” characteristic of the Middle Ages, the strictures of enforced gender roles popularized during the Reformation; the writing-out of women in biblical translations such as the King James Bible, even going so far (for example) as to change the name “Junia” to “Junias” in Romans 16 because obviously a woman couldn’t be an apostle. This is a small sampling of how those who like having power have used the household code of Ephesians as justification to hold on to that power. 

Perhaps most exasperating is how the household code of chapters 5-6 in Ephesians is in stark contradiction to, frankly, most of the New Testament up to this point. Paul’s unflinching statement in Galatians 3:28 – “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – simply can’t be reconciled in what is written into this code without humiliating oneself. Romans 16 includes not just the apostle Junia, but also the deacon Phoebe, another victim of old translation shenanigans; the word translated as “deacon” back in Acts is suddenly translated “servant” here. And to be frank, there’s not really much way to square the confining gender roles of this code with much of anything Jesus ever said or did in any of the gospels. It doesn’t even read well with the rest of Ephesians, where Christ is the only one to whom any human should be subject. (To explore this more I recommend another book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Baylor University professor Dr. Beth Allison Barr.[2]

Apparently it still needs to be said. Wheh abused wives still get told by pastors, by seminary presidents, by religious authority figures of any kind to stay with abusive husbands, to avoid calling the police when beaten, to seek help only from the church (the same church to which the husband belongs, most likely), and too many women end up dead as a result; when the sexual abuse of multiple priests and pastors in differing traditions gets covered up unless a skillful outside reporter happens to uncover the story; in which such pastors caught in abuse can simply lay low for a while and pop up again in another pulpit accumulating more power and authority, all shielded by exactly this reading…my apologies again, Dr. Gench, if you ever see or read this; my capacity for charity or generosity for this passage is just not there.

That said, there is still “teaching, reproof, correction, and righteousness training” that can be done even from this reading. We can learn from 5:21 indeed to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, a teaching which has a lot of application in our current situation in the world in which some folks (including a whole lot of self-proclaimed “Christians”) are quite willing to abuse and sicken and harm others in the name of “freedom.” We can use this passage for reproof and correction when we are tempted to let the standards of the society around us lead us away from submission to Christ as our one and only model and guide. We can learn that compromise with the culture around us has consequences that are long-term and damaging, even deadly. We can learn that accommodating the sins of the world around us damages our own witness in ways that can take centuries to repair. 

We can learn from this passage. We can use it for instruction or correction or for a lot of things. What we cannot do, except maybe for that part about parents not exasperating their children, is to try to make it our rule for living – at least not if we’re truly going to take the rest of the New Testament, especially the life of Jesus, seriously. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #324, For All the Faithful Women; #317, In Christ There Is No East or West; #451, Open My Eyes, That I May See.

[1] Frances Taylor Gench, Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Reflections on Paul, Women, and the Authority of Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 19.

[2] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood; How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.

Sermon: Defensive Measures

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 22, 2021, Pentecost 13B

Ephesians 6:10-20

Defensive Measures

On Wednesday, the 11th of August, a Santa Barbara, CA man was charged with “foreign murder of US nationals.” The man, upon admitting to the murders, claimed to have been “enlightened by the extremist group QAnon and the Illuminati.” According to the man, he had received “visions and signs” telling him that his wife “possessed serpent DNA,” and that the same DNA had been passed to their children. He had therefore taken the two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 10-month-old daughter, driven them across the border into Mexico, and shot them in the chest with a spearfishing gun. In doing so, he claimed, he was “saving the world from monsters.”

In a time like this, when such a story with such seemingly fantastical and unbelievable details ends up in the very mainstream Washington Post[i], perhaps we enlightened modern intellectual types should be, perhaps, a little less dismissive when a scripture like today’s reading from Ephesians speaks of standing against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” I have no interest in speaking pro or con on the literal existence of devils, demons, or any other such thing. This scripture’s primary interest is not in reveling or indulging in thoughts about such rulers or cosmic powers or spiritual forces of evil; this scripture’s primary interest is in what follows – being prepared in mind and soul and spirit to withstand the attacks and lies and fears that seek to engage us in deeds of evil, however one defines their sources, and to stand fast in Christ. Thus, we are called to take up “the whole armor of God.”

In and of itself the passage is one of those that really ought to be basic to our understanding of the Christian life. Take another look at the attributes that are celebrated here: truth, righteousness, proclaiming the gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God. How are these bad things? How are these anything but essentials of the Christian life? 

In this combination as presented here, these become a kind of discipline or rubric for life. Being grounded in the truth God gives, we live with righteousness among one another, proclaim the good news as God gives opportunity, live in faith and trust in our salvation, all supported and rooted in the word of God. That’s one way to put it; you might express it differently, but the key is to grasp that these are not individual achievements to be checked off some list of virtues; these are woven together as like a fabric, or to use this author’s metaphor, assembled as armor, for our defense in a world that is not welcoming to the gospel.

That last statement, about a world not welcoming the gospel, shouldn’t shock us by now. This is something Jesus told his disciples, more than once. In Matthew 10, Jesus probably shocks those followers with his statement “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” As Jesus explains, those who live into Jesus’s call and become his followers will be estranged from even one’s own family – “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” as Matthew 10:36 puts it. The world will not be sweetness and light for those who truly follow Jesus. Jesus said it himself, and the author of Ephesians knows it, and would encourage the readers of this letter to be prepared for the hostility they would face or maybe were already facing – perhaps knowing that the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” sometimes got help from our friends and family. 

With this in mind, our author exhorts his hearers to take up truth, righteousness, proclaiming the gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God as defenses against that in the world which would oppose our discipleship. It’s a list that should be right up there with the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians, or the “think on these things” attributes listed in Philippians. Instead, this has become one of the more abused passages in all the New Testament. 

One part of this abuse of scripture hinges around that early language about the “wiles of the devil” and rulers and authorities and cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. Some corners of the church have a bad habit of obsessing over those things. Whether it is in drawing out elaborate cosmologies of darkness or concocting fear fiction such as the Left Behind books – or for that matter the series that was initiated by a novel with the title “This Present Darkness” in a clear nod to this scripture reading – such self-claimed Christians engage little at all in proclaiming good news; rather they become peddlers of fear. And fear is the very stuff of those rulers and authorities and cosmic powers, however you define them. Fear is the opposite of gospel. Fear is the stuff that drives a man to kill his children because some conspiracy theorist has convinced him they’re going to destroy the world. 

The other common abuse of this passage is to get obsessed with the armor imagery and forget those attributes to which the armor metaphor points. Such readers get led into reading such a passage as a call to holy war. 

It is one of the more curse-worthy tendencies of the church across its history to look for excuses to go on the attack. How many crusades marred the Middle Ages? How much violence marked the Reformation era? And lest we forget, this year practically began with an attack on the US Capitol building populated by way too many self-proclaimed Christians bearing Bibles and crosses and Christian flags; more holy warriors looking for enemies to attack in the name of God.

Indeed, this “warrior mentality” and the invention of a “warrior Christ” to justify it is far more pervasive in many corners of the modern church than it’s comfortable to admit. You can scan years’ worth of Christian book bestseller lists and see books designed to foster exactly this kind of mindset among readers, and some of those authors might turn out to be on your bookshelves. Lest this message get derailed by listing all of those titles, I’ll simply refer you to a different book, by historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University, that lays out in stark detail how the church in this country got ito its current fractious position. While figures such as Oliver North and William Wallace (the figure played by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart) are often promoted as ideals of the “Christian warrior,” Du Mez’s main title gives you a pretty good idea of the “role model” cultivated by the promoters of this “warrior mentality”: the title is Jesus and John Wayne.[ii]

Friends, this armor talk in Ephesians is not about forming “warriors for Christ.” It has one point, spelled out in verse 13: “…so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” When “the sword” comes as Jesus describes back in Matthew 10, our job is … to stand. There’s no plan of attack, no glorious charge, no smiting our foes, none of that. We stand together, in truth and righteousness and gospel and faith and salvation and the word of God; we withstand all the evil that the world (and sometimes our fellow “Christians”) throw at us; and in the end, we stand firm. Conflict will come, indeed, if we’re truly following Jesus and truly proclaiming the gospel as Jesus did. We don’t need to go looking for it.

The final verses of this reading perhaps make the point above more wrenchingly than any amount of exposition can hope. The author, again most likely a follower or assistant of Paul’s seeking to preserve and transmit his mentor’s teaching, appears to have emulated his mentor in at least one way: being imprisoned. That reference has come up a few times in this letter, and here it appears clearly again near the letter’s close as the writer describes himself as “an ambassador in chains.” The indirect call to prayer found in last week’s reading becomes direct here, as the writer urges his readers to pray “at all times” for the Spirit, and “for all the saints,” and especially for himself so that when he speaks, he may be given a message to speak boldly and declare “the mystery of the gospel.” (Yes, I’m presuming the author of this letter is a male. Next week’s message will explain why.) Our author is called to speak, to proclaim. That’s all the “offensive action” that is invoked here. 

We’re not here to go to war. We are here to proclaim, and not incidentally to live out what we proclaim. We are given this “whole armor of God” for our defense as we proclaim. We bear this armor to withstand and to stand. In a world of conflict that will inevitably oppose what devoted Christ-followers are bound to say and to do, we are given defensive measures to preserve us so that we may speak boldly, so that we may withstand, and so that, having done all these things, we may stand.

For defensive measures, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #838, Standing on the Promises; #275, A Mighty Fortress is Our God; #307, God of Grace and God of Glory

[i] Jonathan Edwards, “A QAnon-obsessed father thought his kids would destroy the world, so he killed them with a spear gun, FBI says.” Washington Post, 12 August 2021, 19 August 2021).

[ii]Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. New York: Liveright, 2020.

Sermon: Making the Most of the Time

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 15, 2021, Pentecost 12B

Ephesians 5:15-20

Making the Most of the Time

I believe it is time for a deep, dark confession.

I have been drunk in my lifetime. Twice.

I did the deed on two consecutive Friday nights almost thirty-eight years ago, during my first semester away from home, at the noted hotbed of decadence known as Wake Forest University, where I spent my first year and a half of college. A girl I had gotten really interested in chose the rich sophomore from an important family over the poor freshman nobody from way out of state, and I was upset. Being “set free” from my teetotaler Southern Baptist upbringing (and not having fully realized just how much I had been damaged by my own father’s alcoholism), I reacted the way I figured I was supposed to do. Even in this, I was still a bit cautious: I chose two Fridays when any potential hangover wouldn’t affect any marching band responsibilities the next day. I found the parties where I could do it, and I did it.

I hated it. Hated every second of it.

I hated the beer itself. I hated the noise. I hated the dim lights at the party. I especially hated, after the second time, waking up in a place I didn’t recognize.

But most of all, I hated the dissipation, the dysfunction.

I hated my body not doing what I was trying to do. I hated my brain not working right. I despised it all, and so I never did it again. These days I’m on enough medications that don’t work well with alcohol that I can’t drink, period, but even before that it was something that really didn’t appeal to me, ever since that night, and I’ve never done anything that put me at all within range of being drunk.

You can guess which part of the scripture for today brought on this memory.

Rather like last week’s seemingly out-of-nowhere injunction against stealing, here our author drops in a seeming non sequitir about drunkenness in the midst of the lesson. In this case, the “don’t do this” part of the exhortation is followed by the “do this” answer “but be filled with the Spirit.” 

This isn’t the first time Ephesians has touched on the imagery of “being filled.” Way back in 1:23 is the indirect suggestion of being filled with Christ; 3:19 speaks of being filled “with all the fullness of God”; and 4:10 returns to Christ, the one who ascended and descended “so that he might fill all things.” With today’s passage we have completed the Trinity of being filled. 

This is what is to be preferred to being drunk on wine, which the author calls “debauchery” as the NRSV translates it. Greek words, like our own English words, are sometimes capable of a range of meanings, and the word so translated here is one of those. I am struck by one of those alternate translations here, namely the word “dissipation.” There’s a different force to this word, one that goes beyond the mere moral corruption of “debauchery” to suggest the dysfunction and lack of control and even erosion of self that tends to accompany drunkenness (the part I so hated thirty-eight years ago). 

And this leads us to why this seeming diversion actually fits extremely well into this short bit of exhortation. We began this passage with the encouragement to “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.” Again, shades of meaning matter here; the point isn’t to encourage fear and trembling, but to encourage us to live deliberately, precisely, to be diligent about how we live, to pay close and careful attention to our lives and what we do with them. We live with care and precision. We are attentive to how we proceed in life in all ways. 

This is a matter not merely of our own personal life, but that life as it is lived among others, perhaps especially among the church. To borrow a phrase from Richard Carlson of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, PA, “wise living is personal but never private.” It is precisely not for the sake of our own private privilege that we are precise or deliberate or careful about our lives; it is the opposite. Carlson continues: 

“Living wisely, especially as it entails discerning the will of Christ, means active engagement and involvement in all of life’s circumstances so that the reality of our new self is continually manifested in and through the light of our new conduct “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).”[1]

That last phrase jumps ahead to the end of this passage, but I want to jump back to one vitally important phrase back in v. 16. The whole business about living carefully or diligently or precisely, as wise and not unwise, points to the phrase “making the most of the time.” Now that sounds like something we modern types can relate to, right? Living in a world that’s all about being “efficient” with our time? Or that encouragement to “work smarter, not harder”? We who live in the age of “efficiency experts” are certainly all about being able to respond to this exhortation, right?

Martin Luther once offered this observation on how busy he was: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” The importance or urgency of the tasks before Luther did not deter him from spending the most necessary time of all, time in prayer. One can also remember Jesus’s own proclivity to disappear into the hills to pray, even when the crowds following him were at their most urgent and demanding. 

Making the most of the time” doesn’t happen without a part, and not a small part, of that time devoted to prayer. How else are we to live “not as unwise people but as wise”? How else can we possibly “understand what the will of the Lord is”? How else can we possibly hope to be “filled with the Spirit”?

Going on, what are we doing when we “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” among ourselves, “singing and making melody to the Lord” in our hearts? What are we speaking to one another in those psalms and hymns and spiritual songs if it is not some kind of prayer itself, or at least rooted in or formed by or inspired by prayer?

The last stanza seems to make it all explicit as it speaks of “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” While it makes a good stirring finish to the last really encouraging portion of this letter, it also offers another instruction that can leave us shaking our heads and saying “wait, what?” Giving thanks for everything? Reading a book like this in the broader context of scripture remains a necessary and important discipline.

So as this close of the practical moral instruction section of this letter, we are left with the call to seek God’s wisdom, make the most of the time we are given, and to do so in prayer and song, as much as possible. We’ve learned over the past year that there are times not to sing to each other. Still, the instruction and prayer holds and matters. And we don’t do it to help us to make the most of the time; it is in doing so that we are making the most of the time. And that’s how the Spirit is then able to lead us. That’s how we are able at all to be filled with the Spirit, with the fullness of Christ, with the fullness of God. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #689, When the Morning Stars Together; #361, O Christ, the Great Foundation; #719, Come, Labor On

[1] Richard Carlson, Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20, Working Preacher (accessed 12 August 2021)