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Sermon: Advent, Part II

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 28, 2021, Advent 1C

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

Advent, Part II

Well, here we are again. At the inauguration of a new season of the church, even a new year in the life of the church, with the trappings of the season starting to sneak into our sanctuary, somehow we’re right back where we were two weeks ago; instead of looking backward to the birth of Jesus, as Advent is popularly portrayed, we are looking ahead, into the same apocalyptic discourse we covered then, albeit written by a different gospel writer. Advent does both, we are reminded, and as the scriptures of the season are typically arranged, it looks forward before it turns its gaze to the past. Part II comes before Part I, you might say. It’s a season Doctor Who would love.

Before we plunge into Luke’s version of Jesus’s apocalyptic discourse, it might help to step back into the prophetic literature – not for the apocalyptic predecessors of Jesus’s speech, but to a word of hope given in the midst of an apocalypse in progress. 

For one often called the “weeping prophet,” and one whose name was turned into a descriptive term for the kind of accusatory tirades against wrong that pepper his writing, Jeremiah turns out to have a way with words of hope as well. Chapters 30-33 of this prophetic volume have been known as the “Little Book of Comfort” since Martin Luther’s time, for good reason; amidst the storm of prophetic outrage and the devastation of prophetic warnings fulfilled (and then some), these three chapters speak of comfort, based on the needed reminder that even in the worst of situations the Lord is still acting. 

This particular passage gets its place in Advent mostly because of its promise of “a righteous Branch to spring up for David” who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” It’s not hard to leap to a conclusion (from a much later perspective) that this must somehow be a reference to Jesus, born of the house and lineage of David as the gospels tell us. There are two problems with this; one, it’s misguided to assume that this is the statement Jeremiah means to make, and two, it distracts us from the meat of this passage, the part that actually makes demands upon us.

It is today far too easy to dismiss the word “righteousness” in modern thought. We are frankly more likely to hear the word in combination with the prefix “self-” as a criticism than to hear it on its own. Pastor and biblical commentator Deborah A. Block reminds us that this is a key concept of the coming of Christ as portrayed in Advent: 

…”righteousness” is one of the first words of the language of Advent. In Matthew’s gospel, “righteousness” is Jesus’s first word, spoken to John the Baptist: “Let it be so now … in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). Righteousness is not an attitude or an absolute standard. It refers to conduct in accord with God’s purposes. It is doing the good thing and the God thing: right doing as opposed to wrongdoing, and doing as opposed to being. Self-righteousness is the inflated ego of self-approval; righteousness is the humble ethic of living toward others in just and loving relationships.[1]

Here is the challenge for us in Advent, particularly on this first Sunday when apocalyptic stuff gets thrown at us again. 

The language of this reading from Luke is the kind of stuff that has been lifted by writers and others over the decades to make a quick buck off a best-selling book (or in recent years movies as well). The images are fearful enough; the suggestion of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” is ominous and foreboding; the suggestion of natural disaster run rampant resonates too easily in our own time. After the images of fear and destruction comes the line, found in very nearly these words in Mark’s “little apocalypse” from two weeks ago, that should be the impetus for our reassurance: “Then they shall see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” 

What follows is the part that all those Left Behind books and movies don’t include: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The illustration of the fig tree that follows is one we can grasp well enough if we substitute a tree more familiar in these parts; when it sprouts leaves and turns green, you know what season is coming. Likewise, when we see these signs that have been laid out in this chapter, we know that “the kingdom of God is near.” 

To borrow a line from Mark 13, all those signs are only “the beginning of the birth pangs.” And Luke, like Mark, makes sure to remind us that everybody on the earth will see it come – no getting lifted away to miss the bad stuff. And yet the directions are the same: be on guard, keep watch, be awake. Pray for strength to endure it all and to be ready to “stand before the Son of Man.” After all, the very word “apocalypse” that we have so associated with destruction and chaos is in fact derived from a Greek word that means “unveiling,” “revealing,” or “revelation.” That’s how that last book of the New Testament got its name. And this reminds us that for all the fearful imagery in these apocalyptic readings, the point of it all is revealing – revealing the Son of Man, revealing the kingdom of God coming near. Revelation, not destruction.

Here’s where Jeremiah’s words connect. To live in the righteousness of God – not that nasty self-righteousness we rightly condemn, but the real thing – is going to be the thing that keeps us ready and mindful and watchful and aware as the signs of the approaching kingdom of God keep piling up. And we need to be reminded of this now, right at the beginning of Advent, lest we mistakenly start to think that the coming birth of the Messiah is the end of the story.

What we commemorate in Advent, the birth for which we prepare and celebrate, is a beginning, not an end. And for that matter, the events of Holy Week that come along in a few months, even including the Resurrection we celebrate on Easter Sunday, are not an end either. Seeing the working of God in the world will require great endurance on our part, doing justice and righteousness and being on guard and keeping watch while the signs of the times keep unfolding. 

Another biblical commentator, Michal Beth Dinkler of Yale University, summarizes our task as the season of Advent leads us towards the Christmas event:

As we move into the Christmas season, let us not get so myopic in single-mindedly over-preparing for Christmas that we forget God’s vision for the world — a vision that is God’s to control, a vision that is far broader and more expansive than either/or thinking can allow. What is at stake is not just another annual celebration or making Christmas memories with friends and family. What is at stake is the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which, Jesus reminds us, is both already and not yet here.[2]

Even that birth we will celebrate ere long points to this coming and here and now and not-yet kingdom of God. For all our sentimentality over the event, it is the challenge that follows that we need to take from and live into during this and every Advent season. Living in God’s justice and righteousness; that’s how we remain on guard and keep watch for the coming of the Son of Man, in power and great glory.

For even the challenging and difficult words of scripture that are, after all, words of hope, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #129, Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming; #357, The Days are Surely Coming; #348, Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.


[1] Deborah A. Block, “Pastoral Perspective” commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 6. 

[2] Michal Beth Dinkler, Commentary on Luke 21:25-36, Working Preacherhttps://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-4 (accessed November 23, 2021).


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Sermon: Signs of the Times

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 14, 2021, Pentecost 25B

Mark 13:1-8

Signs of the Times

Every lectionary cycle ends basically the same way. The final Sunday of any lectionary cycle is celebrated as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. What happens the Sunday before that, however, can be a bit wild. 

Year A, on the gospel of Matthew, culminates with the barrage of parables Jesus lets loose in Matthew 25, just before all Hell breaks loose, in about as literal a sense as that phrase can be used, in chapter 26. Mark and Luke, on the other hand, choose to put forth a bit of apocalyptic teaching from Jesus. (Matthew also includes such an apocalyptic discourse from Jesus, but the lectionary framers chose not to include it; apparently two years out of three is enough.) Curiously, the next lectionary cycle will also touch on an apocalyptic theme; we will be on to the gospel of Luke at that point, but the text will address Christ’s return, “‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” Don’t worry, after this you won’t have to hear about apocalypse for the rest of the lectionary year. 

But here, following directly after the account of the poor widow and her all-she’s-got offering comes this seemingly out-of-nowhere discourse from Jesus on What to Expect When the End Is Coming. As unfamiliar and different as it may seem, though, it is prompted by something very familiar in Mark’s gospel; a disciple vocally and obviously Not Getting It.

Hot on the heels of Jesus’s denunciation of the power structure of the Temple and its exploitation of those who partake in its worship, one of the disciples (mercifully unnamed) goes off in a tizzy over the Temple building itself: “what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus ends all discussion with the blunt assessment “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Only when the group has reached the Mount of Olives do Peter, James, John, and Andrew (something of an executive committee of the disciples) dare to ask Jesus for an explanation.

There is a bit of history, though, that can keep us on track here and keep us from going off on apocalyptic tangents too soon. While you can get a good argument among biblical scholars on the exact date, those scholars agree that Mark’s gospel was written some uncertain time around the year 70 – maybe a little before, maybe a little after. That date is very significant, as it was the year that, after extended conflict between Judean rebels and the imperial Roman occupiers of Judea, the Romans destroyed the Temple and much of Jerusalem. Jesus’s words here as recorded by Mark are describing an event that either is imminent or has just happened. There’s no forth-telling here; Mark’s readers will know exactly what this is about.

The aforementioned four disciples seek an explanation from Jesus on the Mount of Olives, but instead Jesus presses on with more detail and warning. Emilie Townes, biblical scholar and dean of Vanderbilt University’s theology school, summarizes the horrors described like so: 

The ebb and flow of creation as we know it, the relationships we have established, the cultural markers that help define us – these and more are now obliterated. This is total destruction at its sharpest. It is unrelenting and unforgiving, and no one – not even the faithful – can escape its devastating blows as the old age is swept away for the new one.

And that’s just these first eight verses, which Jesus describes as just “the beginning of the birth pangs.” The rest of Mark 13 gets even worse, at least until that appearance of the Son of Man with great power and glory (v. 26). That’s the thing about these apocalypses in the gospels; they end with the very thing we’re looking forward to, right? We long for Jesus to be present among us again, right? 

In the meantime, though, things aren’t easy. And here’s the kicker; no one gets off scott-free, not even the faithful. No one gets raptured away to be “kept safe” in the dark and dangerous times. And yet notice also that there is no “call to arms” here, no summons to battle. There’s nothing here about fighting to save … well, anything. 

What are we called to do, then? Keep watch. Beware. Keep bearing witness to the gospel. Endure to the end. Don’t be led astray by false witnesses or would-be messiahs. Pay attention to the signs of the times. Don’t be stupid enough to think you know when this is all going to happen. And one more time, in verse 37, “Keep awake.

There are two things about this passage we’d do well to remember, lest we get too distressed or hopeless over it all. One: this is not new talk. Frankly, what Jesus is saying here is, more or less, boilerplate apocalyptic with a deep long history in Jewish tradition. And at least in these first eight verses, the events described are, well, not all that uncommon. Would-be messiahs? Check. Wars and rumors of wars? Check. Nations rising against nations, kingdoms against kingdoms? Earthquakes? Famines? Check, check, check. We can certainly claim these things, but so can frankly almost any age.

Point two to remember is found in verse 8: all of this that Jesus describes is but “the beginnings of the birth pangs.” As one who has never experienced nor will experience that particular sensation, I would not dare to comment upon it. However, we have to note that the birth pangs are not the end-all and be-all of pregnancy; birth pangs give way to birth, new life, new love.

So it is with these times. The birth pangs of conflict and trouble give way to the new birth of life in the unending presence of Jesus, the Son of Man coming with great power and glory.

The times of trouble can be stressful indeed. Even the poet William Butler Yeats was struck by the sense of turmoil and discord and the loss of innocence that comes with these, in his poem “The Second Coming”; 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. 

If that doesn’t sound familiar just from a glance at daily headlines, I don’t know what to tell you. And yet…and yet…and yet, here we are promised that for all the birth pangs, for all the trials and conflict and violence, our end is promised in the returning of our Lord among us. 

In the meantime, we endure. We keep listening to the Spirit, we keep studying what we have been given in scripture – not hunting and cherry-picking for stuff that gives us an excuse to do what we want, but taking what Jesus says and learning how to live it, taking what the early church experienced and learned and figuring out what that teaches us, paying attention to those signs of the times without obsessing on them or using them as an excuse to launch a holy war. We endure, we wait, we keep awake, we keep faithful. And we await, even await with joy, what comes after the “birth pangs.”

 Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #352, My Lord! What a Morning; #361, O Christ, the Great Foundation; #629, Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee


Sermon: What Does a Saint Look Like?

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 7, 2021, All Saints’

Revelation 21:1-6a; Mark 12:38-44

What Does a Saint Look Like?

This past Monday, November 1, was All Saints’ Day on the liturgical calendar most typically followed by churches in the western tradition that bother with liturgy and holy days and stuff. In Catholic and to some degree Anglican or Episcopal traditions, the day is given to the remembrance of the saints of the church, in those cases referring to a fairly specific list. Technically the next day, All Souls’ Day, is given to remembering the “saints of the church” who have passed away and are no longer among us, whose absence we mark keenly. Churches outside those traditions (like, um, us) have a tendency to conflate those two traditions into a single event, and to mark it on whatever Sunday nearby happens to be appropriate.

Presbyterians don’t engage in the bestowing of sainthood, although unofficially you could probably persuade a lot of Presbyterians to offer up children’s television host and ordained Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers (you remember, the one with the Neighborhood) for such an honor. All Saints’ Day very much gets conflated with All Souls’ Day. 

Again (not unlike last week), a lectionary reading not assigned specifically to the occasion might have a lot to tell us about the occasion and what we should learn from it. In this case, how Jesus teaches his disciples in today’s reading is fundamentally important for us in a time when it is fearfully difficult to see the “saints” among us.

We are prone to use the word “saint” in one of two ways. One way might be evoked in the reading a few moments ago from Revelation, in which “a new heaven and a new earth,” “the holy city, the new Jerusalem” are seen coming down from the heavens (this is how you know you’re near the end of the book). The description emphasizes the dwelling of God among the people of God in this “holy city,” and the, well, general blissfulness that this involves. Were we to keep reading in that chapter we would come to the physical description of that holy city, a description overwhelmed by words like “glory” and “radiance” with all kinds of jewels mentioned as part of the city’s great walls, with gates made of pearl and a street of “pure gold, transparent as glass.”

I think we tend to have one concept of “saint” being a human personification of such a holy city, one who is impossibly holy and pure and unremittingly good and all that. Such a conception is, frankly, intimidating and not at all viewed as even a little bit achievable.

Our other definition, to put it bluntly, is a little less lofty. Frankly, anyone who manages to get to a certain age and outlive most of their generation, to be the senior member of their community, ends up being regarded as a “saint” in this sense. This tends to apply no matter how cranky or difficult such a “saint” can be at times.

In short, we don’t really know what to do with the word. Back in Mark, Jesus might have some help for us here, but that help might be more about what we are looking for in a “saint,” and how we define what a “saint” is, than in any kind of formal or liturgical definition.

Jesus and the disciples are still at the temple. Despite the positive experience with the scribe we saw in last week’s reading, Jesus has some things to say about other scribes who are definitely, in his view, far, far away from the kingdom of God. These scribes, who were not merely religious figures but also civic and public officials, were all too keen to gather all the perks of their position and use them for their own benefit and glory. That line about devouring widows’ houses and saying long prayers for appearance’s sake unavoidably puts me in mind of certain senators I could name. 

There’s a tendency to assume that what happens next is its own separate story, completely detached from this brief discourse. Our lectionary compliers don’t think so, fortunately, because if anything, Jesus is still teaching in what comes next. He and the disciples move to a different part of the temple complex, where monetary gifts are collected. To be blunt, some of these contributions are, at minimum, performative; the point is as much to make sure others see the gifts being made as to make the gift itself. Quite likely the great sums being brought in by these rich people are the equivalent of loose change we might dig out from between our sofas for some of us – a small portion of our resources that won’t be missed, much the same way the sums of money Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos spent to rocket into the upper reaches of our atmosphere didn’t make any serious dent in their financial holdings. 

The contrast between such displays and the meager gift of the poor widow couldn’t be clearer, but Jesus has something to say about it. Calling the disciples over (who knows where they’d wandered off to), he resumes teaching them. Notice that something we tend to assume about this passage isn’t really there:

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of here poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

You have to suspect this is one of the widows whose houses were devoured as in the first half of today’s reading. Whether by legal manipulation in their civic/political role, or by spiritual manipulation in their temple role (or some of both), such scribes were able to gobble up the possessions of such powerless individuals ostensibly for the benefit of the temple, or much likely for their own enrichment. One is unavoidably reminded of the Jimmy Swaggarts and Jim Bakkers of the world of televangelism, notorious for (among other things) manipulating viewers into making gifts they couldn’t afford to make. Maybe we even had family members so manipulated and duped. 

This takes us back to Jesus’s words, and what he does and doesn’t say. Jesus does not actually praise the widow for her gift. He points out the contrast between her entire everything and the pocket change of the rich, but he doesn’t specifically say she’s good for doing so. The contrast is even more crushing when one realizes that under the Torah, such an individual should have been regarded as being under no obligation to contribute at all. Some official should have been there to tell her to keep it – she needed it more than the temple did.

Jesus’s point here is not to elevate the widow, whose gift probably went unnoticed by everyone else in the temple, as particularly “saintly,” but to expose just how corrupt and un-saintly those big spenders – the ones getting the “ooh”s and “aaah”s as they dropped in their gifts – were in their meager giving. They gave out of their leftovers. That’s not what a saint does. 

And yet even today we get fooled by this. We get dazzled by those who flash the big bills and belittle those with seemingly nothing to offer. Whether we use the word “saint” or not, we are too easily duped into glorifying those who give from their leftovers and belittling those who give all. 

Having invoked Fred Rogers earlier, it seems appropriate to give him a word at the climax. This is the quote you can find on one of the bookmarks, a few of which are still found in the racks in your pews here and there: 

A high school student wrote to ask, ‘What was the greatest event in American history?’ I can’t say. However, I suspect that like so many ‘great’ events, it was something very simple and quiet with little or no fanfare… . The really important ‘great’ things are never center stage of life’s dramas; they’re always ‘in the wings.’ That’s why it’s so essential for us to be mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and the superficial.

What applies to events, applies to people. We get seduced by the flashy and the superficial and miss the humble and deep on a regular basis. The greatest saints likely go almost completely unnoticed, except perhaps by those who are touched directly by their sainthood – and maybe not even by them. We tend to look for saints in all the wrong places, and inevitably end up disappointed in those we so anoint. 

There are saints among us, but they’re not walking around with halos over their heads and glowing garments. They’re not walking around in thousand-dollar suits or designer gowns and expensive hairstyles, or even trendy jeans and slick hipster hairstyles. They’re extremely unlikely to be going about getting much attention at all. 

Look for the saints in the margins, where need is greatest, and attention is least. Look for the saints off to the side, giving everything they’ve got while the performative givers are glomming up all the adulation. Look for the saints in the rough places, far from any gates of pearl or streets of gold. 

Look for those marginal, unnoticed saints. That’s what Jesus does.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #326, For All the Saints; #708, We Give Thee but Thine Own; #828, More Love to Thee, O Christ


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Sermon: Always in Need of Being Reformed

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 31, 2021, Reformation

Mark 12:28-34

Always in Need of Being Reformed

October 31, 1517 is commonly reckoned as the day on which a young monk named Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the cathedral in Wittemburg, now part of Germany. The document outlined ninety-five “theses” or arguments against what he saw as corruptions in the established church of his time. Even amongst the many other documents or broadsides likely nailed to that cathedral door, this one did get attention, and the established church did exactly what you’d expect; set out to discredit and then disfellowship Martin Luther. Nonetheless his arguments caught on with many, some from genuine theological or ethical concern, others from political expedience. Eventually most of Germany and other northern reaches of Europe took on Lutheranism as their establishment church. In later years differing reformation movements broke out in France and Switzerland and later in England; the former of those is the tradition from which our own Presbyterian denomination was born.

Some observers have suggested that this is something the church goes through every five hundred years or so. About five hundred years before the Reformation (and these numbers are extremely approximate) was the Great Schism, when the eastern and western branches of the church separated, resulting in the traditions we know now as Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. Five hundred years before that, give or take, came the fall of the Roman Empire with which the church had become closely intertwined, ultimately progression over many decades to the great reform of the church initiated by Pope Gregory. (You might say things moved more slowly then.)

Even rudimentary ability at math will tell you we’re right in that 500-year window following the Protestant Reformations. With all this in mind you’ll not be surprised to hear that more than a few observers of the church are suggesting that it is due for reformation, if not right smack in the middle of one already. To be fair, it’s hard to blame folks for that suggestion, as the state of the larger church these days is frankly low-hanging fruit for its critics:

  • A large segment of the church has disintegrated into little more than an appendage of a political party. 
  • A large segment of the church more closely resembles a media/entertainment empire than an agent of mission or worship.
  • A large segment of the church, in the face of evident decline in membership and finances, has taken up the mantra of “survival at all costs,” again without regard for mission or worship.
  • A segment of the church (perhaps not so large) resorts to social outlets and “gatherings” without much commitment or challenge.
  • And a segment of the church has basically given up, resigned to playing out the string the same way they always have.
  • To be sure, these characteristics overlap and intermingle across all reaches of the church.

And that’s just the church in the United States. We’re not even getting into what challenges the global church.

What has any of this, you might ask, to do with today’s reading from the gospel of Mark? Perhaps everything, if we pay attention to what question is asked, and how it is answered.

Since last we left Jesus at the end of Mark 10, a lot has happened. Jesus and his newly-enhanced crowd of followers have entered Jerusalem (that thing we celebrate on Palm Sunday), and Jesus has disrupted the commerce surrounding the Temple. A fig tree got cursed. Jesus has since been under siege from one group or other of the religious elite of Jerusalem, putting up with “gotcha” questions and attempted rhetorical trappings. Jesus fended them off with some straightforward traditional answers right out of the Torah, some debunkings of the questions themselves, a parable about wicked tenants overthrowing their landlord that was clearly directed at those religious authorities, and probably a few facepalms – you know, that gesture that happens when it’s all you can do not to exclaim how ridiculous or just plain stupid someone else is being. 

One of the scribes has been observing the humiliation of his fellow scholars and perhaps wondering if he truly wants to be affiliated with them right now. He cuts in with the most basic question possible: “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus’s answer, far from being radical, is about as Torah as you could get, directly citing what we have in our Bibles as Deuteronomy 6:4-5. There are two interesting additions here: Jesus adds the phrase “with all your mind” into the mix, which likely pleased a scholar of the law, and added a second commandment from Leviticus 19:18; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe agrees, sounding out his agreement even that loving neighbor as self “is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus’s semi-cryptic answer, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” ends not only that conversation but the whole trap-question campaign – “no one dared to ask him any question.” 

As cryptic as Jesus’s last comment might have seemed in that instant, it’s not so hard to figure out in context. Think back to chapter 10 and the rich man who went away sorrowing when Jesus told him to sell all his stuff, give the proceeds away to the poor, and follow Jesus. Think also of Bartimaeus, from last week’s reading, who “immediately followed him on the way” after his sight was restored (and was presumably among the crowd that had accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem). The difference, you’ll remember, was in the doing. We get no indication at all of how this scribe responds; Mark’s account moves on quickly to more teaching, and we never hear of the scribe again – after all, we are just three days before Jesus’s crucifixion. 

The implied challenge before the scribe is, I submit, where a modern impulse towards reformation might be centered. How much of what the church does and says and clings to in today’s world and across this country can’t be reconciled with those two greatest commandments? How much of the behavior of the church across this country looks at all like loving God with all one’s heart and soul and mind and strength, and loving neighbor as self? 

You know what? I’m going to give our denomination credit. The PC(USA) is trying. It might not always be clear or effective, and you can be sure not everybody is on board, but with such efforts as the Matthew 25 initiative, of which our presbytery is a part, there is at least the attempt to act upon that commandment about loving neighbor as self. It is, at the least, not going away sorrowing over the call to give up our possessions.

Two caveats need to be applied here. Other commandments don’t go away. Jesus doesn’t dispose of the law with this statement, even if he does assign a hierarchy to it. Loving God and neighbor comes first. Any one thing, anything at all that puts us in a position in conflict with loving God and neighbor needs to give way, no matter how righteous it might seem or might have been intended to be. 

The second caveat applies to the whole idea of reformation itself. One of the earliest quotables from the Reformed tradition – the branch we come from, that is – is the catchy Latin phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. It commonly gets mistranslated as “the church reformed, always reforming.” That’s a problem, because reformanda doesn’t really translate as “reforming,” but as “being reformed.” Grammar fans understand the difference, hopefully. Is the church acting, or is the church first being acted upon? From whence comes the initiative for being reformed, as opposed to merely reforming? 

Whether or not the church is truly entering a season of reformation depends tremendously upon this understanding. Given some of the behaviors and characteristics noted earlier, it’s not unfair to wonder whether much of the church has at all, at any even remotely recent point in its history, engaged in the simple yet profoundly challenging exercise of waiting upon the Lord. How often does the church or its leaders simply read scripture, instead of hunting and cherry-picking passages to prop itself up or denigrate its chosen enemies? How often does much of the church or its leadership, instead of praying for a lot of smiting of those chosen enemies or for the appointment of judges who will do what they want, simply pray “your will be done”? How often does the church love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength? How often does the church love its neighbor as it loves itself?

Any 500-year upheaval, any new reformation in the church will almost inevitably have to be preceded by a season of listening. Listening to God. Listening to those neighbors. Listening to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. Listening to those who aren’t white, or male, or straight. Listening to those who know what it means to be under somebody’s heel, and who have too often seen the church propping up that somebody instead of lifting up the oppressed. 

And all of this goes not just for the larger church, but for the individual church too. Without such a season of listening, of being in scripture and in prayer, and of making ready for and seeking the prompting of the Spirit, no church is going to come out on the other side of this pandemic time or this post-uprising time with much of a future, or even much of a reason to go on. There’s a challenge for everybody and every church, from the smallest family church to the largest megachurch. 

Let us pray, let us listen, and let us await being reformed.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #624, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; #—, O Love Your God; #275, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God


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

Stuff

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: http://hymnsbycharlesfreeman.blogspot.com/2021/09/when-christs-own-body-comes-to-table.html


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