Impossible but for God

Mark 10:17-31 america-wealth-distribution
Hebrews 4:12-16

Today’s reading is one of those readings pastors are often told to “manage.” Manage it – don’t tell your congregation to be aesthetics and own no possessions. Don’t tell people to live in communes and hold all things in equal possession. Don’t advocate communism, or socialism, or speak of the writings of Karl Marx. No word of the groundbreaking work of Max Weber in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

Manage it, and don’t let the genie out of the bottle!

A lot of pastors listen to the advice and try to manage the story.

Have you been told the story before that there was a gate in Jerusalem named “Eye of the Needle.” After dark, the big gates were closed and this little gate left open. The only way to get a camel through it was to unload the camel of all their baggage. Then the camel could get through on his knees. Therefore, Jesus must mean that the rich can get into heaven on their knees once they’ve gotten rid of their riches that are burdens.

It’s a great story.

It’s also utterly false. A monk made this up in the 9th century. No such gate existed.

And most rich I know don’t feel burdened by their wealth. Do you feel too wealthy?

Managing Jesus with the gate story – makes the rich hopeful, does nothing for the poor. That’s not the way of Christ.

I’ve heard this story managed by explaining the word translated as camel was actually supposed to be the Greek word for cable – like a ship cable or very thick rope. Sounds awful hard to get that through a needle… but you could get part of it through, or a little bit over time, or even could get a bigger needle. Big, big needles are used to sew ship masts.

We could manage the story this way and argue that the rich slip into heaven with difficulty, but heaven grows to accommodate them. Or the rich leave behind all their extras when they die and just the soul slips through. Just the center piece of rope.

More hope for the rich. Again – nothing for the poor. This is not the way of Christ. Christ came preaching good news for the poor.

In the history of the church, the church once became more powerful and rich and influential than kingdoms. As the wealth became accumulated, popes and bishops and archbishops and even local clergy lived in homes better off than their neighbors. Monasteries became little kingdoms unto themselves owning large tracks of land with serfs – almost slaves – renting the land from them to scratch out a living. The more power and wealth was concentrated into the church, the more corruption and sin snuck in. Eventually, all you needed was money to be made a clergy member. No skills at preaching, no calling from God, no commitment to living Christian needed. Just money.

How did they manage this passage? By not reading it. By controlling who could read the Bible. By reading the Bible only in languages the common people didn’t understand. The King James Version, understandable to the common person, drew on a manuscript that had the added words, “how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God”

Riches aren’t the problem. Trusting riches are. This is comfort for the rich… and again doesn’t help the poor. This is not the way of Christ. Christ decried the clergy who wore large tassels, spoke long prayers, and said ‘Thank God I’m not like that poor sinner over there!’

Modern pastors like to argue Jesus knew the particular weakness and sin of the rich man who came to him. So when Jesus tells him to give away his possessions to the poor, Jesus was hitting the man in his secret sin spot. This passage is managed by saying THAT RICH MAN, not me, has an issue with money. Jesus doesn’t ask me to share my wealth, but rather to give up whatever I treasure that separates me from following God. Maybe cursing. Maybe TV. Maybe road rage.

This is comfort for the rich, and doesn’t help the poor. Although it is good advice to get closer to God… Jesus doesn’t view God and you having an isolated, exclusive, relationship. God is found wherever two or three are gathered. God is in community. Giving up cursing is not good news to the poor, the captive, the slave.

Other modern pastors say the man was trying to EARN heaven, and Jesus shows how futile it is to earn heaven. No one could follow the commandments, or really give up all they own. Only the grace of God lets us in heaven. So why try to earn heaven? Just let go and let God.

But the belief in Judaism is that people really can follow the commandments. And Jesus looks at this man, and LOVES him. A rare use of love. Then Jesus invites this man to become a disciple – maybe one of the closest like Matthew or Mark or Peter. All the man needs to do is give all he owns to the poor, and follow Jesus. If this was just to show heaven cannot be EARNED, why does Jesus let the man go away grieving? Why not add, “You cannot earn heaven, but you can be given it?”

No. Jesus says: How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kindom of heaven.

The disciples are as upset as we are to hear this. Peter believes in the prosperity gospel. He believes that God favors those who help themselves – much as Benjamin Franklin would have us believe. Peter believes that God sends wealth to the righteous and moral and hardworking, and the lazy and sinful and immortal are poor. Peter points to this man who has followed ALL the commandments, and is clearly so blessed for this that he is quite wealthy, and Peter panics. If that holy of a man can’t get into heaven, how are we supposed to ever get into heaven? If the super rich priests in the temple can’t get into heaven – they who have nothing to do but pray and study God and don’t need to fish and hunt – if even they can’t get in… what about the rest of us?

We who curse? And sin? And forget to pray every day? We who don’t always have God’s blessing? Jesus – what about us? The poor?

The “first will be last, and the last will be first.”

The good news for the poor is that nothing is impossible for God. The very rich and the very poor, the very holy and the very sinful – God is able to bring anyone into heaven. Anyone into the reign of God.

For the wealthy, it is much harder than it is for the poor to live in this new reign. The wealthy have so much more to lose.

Homes.
Land.
Businesses.
Families.
Honorable names.
Comfortable lives.
Wealth.
Money.
Power.

The poor have much less to risk by following Jesus. The poor live into the realm of equality, of sharing equally, of treating all as equals much more easily than the rich who are usually born way, way more rich than others. Who are not used to viewing others as equals. Who would have to make drastic, drastic changes to live as equals with others. Changes that don’t feel fair.

Consider wealth in the USA. Wealth is calculated by your assets minus your debts. So let’s say you have a $250,000 house, but you owe $200,000 still to the bank. That means your wealth is actually only $50,000. Assets are things like your house, cars, bank accounts, retirement investments, and land. Debts are your student loans, credit cards, mortgages, and so forth.

Wealth distribution in the USA is easier with visuals. So let’s picture the USA as having only 100 people. And all their wealth together is 100 cherry pies. In an equal distribution, every person would have 1 pie. This is Jesus’ goal in the Bible. Everyone has enough. No one has too much. No one has too little.

But this world is not yet liberated from all sin.

In reality, twenty people take 90 pies for themselves in the USA, and leave 10 pies for 80 people. How do you think the 80 people will share their 10 pies?

The next 20 people take 8 of the 10 pies for themselves and pass on 2 pies. Just 2 pies for 60 people to share.

When we go back to thinking of these as dollars, when you reach the middle incomes of Americans to the bottom incomes, we are splitting 2% of the country’s wealth among us all.

60% of Americans – most of us – have only 2% of the country’s wealth.
1% of Americans own 40% of the country’s wealth all by themselves. That is a greater wealth inequality than the 1% wealthiest in France, or England, or Germany, equal with Russia and worse than Zambia! While 1 person in our story has 40 pies…

20 people have no pies at all. The 20 people in the middle income bracket take the 2 pies left from the rich and divide the slices among themselves. The next 20 people have nothing. No investments and saved money, but also no debt. It all balances out. They can’t stop working or retire or they’ll sink into the next category…

20 Americans in our story not only have no pie to eat, they owe a pie. They have more debt that income.

There is enough pie here for everyone. Even if someone took more than their share of one pie, someone else could give up a slice. But instead, 1 person sits on fourty whole pies and 40 people sit with nothing.

1 in 3 households in America are considered impoverished right now. They’re struggling to pay utilities, food, for a roof over their head.

Angry, yes? Why isn’t the pie shared so at least everyone has a bite to eat?

Why isn’t it? Not knowing? Not caring? Fear of scarcity?

What did you answer? Because the hard reality is that if you’re earning $32,000 annually… you, yourself are in the world’s 1% of richest people. Every 8 of us here together, make as much as 3.6 BILLION people.

Globally, people don’t just struggle to have food… they die from lack of food. Globally, there is still enough pie… but we’re the ones sitting on a massive store of it.

It feels very unfair that we are sending money to foreign countries, yes? Why do we owe them? No one in this room personally hurt them. And we work hard for our money!

Why do we owe them? We don’t.

Who has worked for the money? You have.

We have an ingrained morality that those who work the most should have the most wealth. You don’t eat if you don’t work. Work will set you free. We also have an ingrained idea that those who are affluent are more moral than those who are poor. The poor must be thieves, and vandals, and lazy. The rich must be honorable, and build up society, and productive.

Jesus’ time had the same ideas about wealth — and Jesus challenged them. Jesus actually spoke more about wealth than heaven or hell combined. Think about Jesus’ parable of the servants sent out to the vineyard at different times. It’s not fair those who worked an hour get a full day’s pay. Think about Jesus feeding the 5,000 — and feeding again and again. Everyone was given food and everyone invited. No work required. Jesus also spoke blessings on the poor and curses on the rich. The realm of God is found among the poor – and the rich find getting into heaven as hard as passing a camel through the eye of a needle. Utterly impossible.

We ARE the world’s rich. We ARE here, asking Jesus, what can we do to be in the realm of God? What can we do to live more fully in line with what God envisions for the world? We ARE the rich man speaking with Jesus.

And Jesus says – give all you own to the poor and follow me.

… My heart aches for this man who came to Jesus. I’m him. I’m going to walk away sad because I own a lot. I’d rather give some of my pie and not all of it away. I’d rather those richer than me give up their pie.

I look at Saint Francis with amazement. He had this much wealth. And he literally took it all off – before his family and village – and walked out of town completely naked. He left his name, his great riches, his home, his everything to follow God.

I look at the disciples with amazement. They gave up their businesses, and families. Left their homes and left their reputations. They gave up everything to follow Jesus.

I’ve never made a great sacrifice like that to follow Jesus.

Family have told me not to feel the guilt and weight of my wealth. “You’ve given your life to being a pastor!” I hear in their words, “Then who can be saved?!” much like the disciples panicked.

And the answer is still the same: For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible. And we who are first on this earth must accept that the reign of God is first among the world’s poor, belongs to the poor, and we are dependent on the poor to be taught how to live in harmony with each other, with the world, with God. How to live humbly.

In the letter to Hebrews, we’re told God knows all out thoughts and intentions. God knows when we try to be good. And knows when we do good deeds for wrong intentions. We “are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

What will we say when we’re caught holding 40 pies and billions of people starve?

What will we say when we’re standing before God and accounting the sins we committed, and the sins that over took us?

Or that we were born into?

Or inherited?

The author of Hebrews tells us to be honest with our accounting. Be honest with ourselves, and our God. This isn’t because God knows us inside and out, but because God KNOWS what it is like to be human.

God has come to us, and shared our common lot.

God, in Jesus, sympathizes, understands, our weaknesses.

“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Let us approach God, and confess we are sinners living in a sinful world – and find God’s grace – unmerited favor. Let us receive mercy – forgiveness for our intentional and unintentional sins. And let us be given the grace to help in time of need. Let us be given that Holy Spirit that say

Yeah. Things are awful. Unfair. Unjust.

Yeah. I’m just one person compared to all of this.

But you know what- I’m one person in Christ. And although this is too much for a mortal to fix, it isn’t for God.

With God, all things are possible.

We just need to dream bigger, work towards that dream of God, and live into God’s new realm now. We can do this by supporting efforts of wealth distribution: unions, farm co-ops, international and local charities, taxes on wealth and tax breaks on the poor – programs that are not fair… but that are just.

Go and be the church! Amen.
((https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/06/the-richest-1-percent-now-owns-more-of-the-countrys-wealth-than-at-any-time-in-the-past-50-years/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ee96add9264b))

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Rich & Poor

James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

— we all have assumptions

It happened to me: I went into the grocery store, got myself some alcohol, went to the checkout line… and they didn’t ask for my ID. I officially look old enough to drink. At least, when Selena is with me. Alone, I still get ID. Just by having a daughter, people automatically assume I’m old enough to drink. I’m in the same clothes, look the same, same hair style… and yet… just her… and they say “Surely she’s an adult.”

When has it happened to you: How many gray hairs did you have when people began to ask if you wanted to use your Buck ID card, or view the Senior Portions menu, or sign up for your Golden Arch?

Sometimes this is based on our clothing. I once did a lot of urban exploring of abandoned buildings and climbing through them to take photos. If learned that if I did this is ratty jeans and a tank top, I’d get picked up by the cops for trespassing. But if I did it with a bright orange vest and hard helmet, no one would bat an eye. Once an officer stopped me to ask me to help get rid of the young adults in the ratty clothes! Based on the way I looked, others assumed whether or not I belonged in the building.

Have you been judged on your clothes? If not, try shopping once in your Sunday clothes, and another day in your barn clothes. You’ll see a difference! Covered in dust with cow or sheep paddies on your boots, people give you a wide berth. In your Sunday clothes, people want to stop and chat. Now… try wearing your Sunday clothes into the barn… everyone is going to think you’re some city-slicker and know nothing.

The obvious assumptions on looks occurring in our country are race assumptions. A black boy lawn mowing is considered profiling houses to rob, while a white boy is simply working a summer job. A Hispanic woman clearly speaks no English and is here illegally, while a white woman clearly must speak English and is a citizen. But we do other assumptions based on looks: An elderly person is slow of mind and out of touch with the world. A young person has no concept of community and is out of touch with morality.

We all make assumptions every day. It’s really how the human mind works.

This is natural to humans. We’re designed to look for patterns. From the womb we are learning the patterns of language. When we’re born, we learn what facial patterns means ‘My Mom’s Face’ and what part means ‘My Dad’s Face.’ Insight, and intuition, is leaps in logic regarding patterns. We see lots of little things and quickly pick up on the pattern and jump to a conclusion.

For instance… if I come home and see the trash scattered about the kitchen, and the dog looking guilty… I recognize this pattern. I can assume the dog likely got into the trash.

The problem with any assumption is that we could be wrong. Maybe the dog looks guilty because he thinks I’m going to blame him for what the cat did! And the cat is the one who got into the trash.

So assumptions aren’t evil. They’re pretty human. Actually…

— Jesus had assumptions

Jesus assumed he was sent only to his fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. He also assumed the gifts and love of God are limited. The idea of a universal God, who loves everyone, is not a common idea in Jesus’ time. Every race had their own god. Every city has their own god. The gods fight each other, are envious and jealous, and definitely do not help those who don’t believe in them.

Jesus has left the Jewish area into the surrounding lands. He is in pagan, Gentile, non-Jewish land. He’s been rejected by his fellow Jews, even after he fed them miraculously. They cannot abide the scandalous things he is teaching. So out here, away from the synagogues, he seeks some alone time. But he couldn’t even escape notice in a foreign land.

Can you pick a worse person to approach Jesus the Rabbi? I don’t think so. We can assume since she is a woman, without a husband around, she is bad news for any Jewish man to speak with. We can assume since she is Syco-Phonecian she isn’t a follower of our God. She’s some heathen. And that heritage means we can assume she’s richer than Jesus, and part of the people who are oppressing Jesus’ people. She says she has an demon-possessed daughter. So we can assume she’s unclean from being around her daughter, too.

Then she touches Jesus’ feet.

Thereby, making him unclean.

If you had to pick THE most repulsive category of person to approach you, who would it be? What would they look like? What assumptions would you make? Would it be someone dressed in ISIS gear? Rainbow gear? A woman in a burka? Someone covered in swastika tattoos? A large young black man? Picture this person, picturing them approaching you when you want to be alone. Picture them TOUCHING you, and demanding of you, “Give me your money to heal my child!”

Our savior is God’s Divine Word made incarnate. Incarnate means in the flesh. Our savior is also human. Wholly divine, wholly human. And the human side of Jesus is repulsed, repelled, by this woman. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
He was sent only to Jews. There is not enough God to go around.

— sin is when these assumptions lead to assuming the worst of people, or God’s love of people

We’re so uncomfortable with Jesus’ response to this woman because we expect him to always be wholly divine and not human. But he is also wholly human. And, for a human, he gives a very, very restrained and mild answer to this woman compared to what most of us would do in his situation.
He doesn’t tell her no, never — he tells her no, not now.

But he calls her and her child dogs.

Jesus assumes Jews are the only Children of God.

And that God’s love is limited to only Jews.

That person we’re picturing in our heads who most repels us… how do we handle to hear them ask for help for their little child?

When someone calls something we said racist, or privileged, or ignorant… we usually take it very, very poorly.

— When we’re confronted with our assumptions, we usually get very defensive / angry

I think the church who read James’ letter got pretty defensive and angry when he called their favoritism out.

What was happening in James’ congregation happens now, today, all the time. We favor people who appear rich –whether or not they are– over those who appear poor –whether or not they are. Consider – I walk through the grocery store and see the cover of magazines featuring the rich, the well dressed, the beautiful. I don’t see regular people. I don’t see anyone with acne scars, wearing thrift-store clothes, or having to live by a tight budget.

When we brag about meeting someone, we brag about someone rich and famous… not about having met the guy who begs for coins at the intersection… or having visited our sibling in a nursing home.

When people visit our homes, our works, or our church… we make a quick judgment: what are their intentions? What kind of person are they? The suits and professionally dressed are welcomed. The tattoos and ratty clothes held in suspicion.

James tells us that this is evil. We have evil thoughts. We assume who people are based on their looks, and we use one anecdotal story to apply to all people who fit that look.

The person you pictured earlier as most repulsive… are you basing them on anecdotal, one-time occurrence and word of mouth stories? Have you actually known anyone like the person you were picturing?

I haven’t.

I have sinned and assumed the worst of others based on their age, or clothes, religion, or a single stance of theirs.

Consider the current rage over Nike’s endorsement deal with Colin Kaepernick. People are so angry! Some stories claim Kaepernick is insulting the national anthem and soldiers by kneeling during it before football games. But that is not the true anger. That is the assumed anger. People are assuming the anthem and soldiers are what Kaepernick is protesting.

He’s actually protesting that assumption blacks are dangerous that leads cops to shoot and kill blacks proportionally far more often than whites… because we live in a culture of fearing blacks. He’s protesting that a white man can lie to the FBI, embezzle and rob millions of dollars from American citizens, and get off with 14 days in jail… but a black woman on probation votes, not knowing she was on probation still, and she is serving life in prison because of that vote. He is protesting that the negative assumptions our culture has results in real favoritism that truly harms – and kills.

Are you uncomfortable?

Are you uncomfortable when you’re told your assumptions, your culture, is wrong?

Are you uncomfortable by scripture instructing us to love everyone, including the people who wish us harm and stand against what we stand for?

Most of us get defensive. Angry. We close our ears, shut our eyes, and slam shut our hearts.

— But Jesus takes the woman’s challenge with humbleness and is open to changing his mind

This woman who approaches Jesus is opposite of him on so many things… but she is a person. A caring person. She asks just for the crumbs, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Just the crumbs are enough, and that’s all she asks. Not for life eternal. Not for being forgiven by God. She’s not asking for resurrection. She’s asking for a crumb: healing for her daughter. She knows the stories of all the other miracles Jesus has done. She knows and believes the stories of him being the Jewish messiah, the Jewish chosen one of God. And she’s not asking to be included into God’s marvelous plan… just for crumbs. And not even for herself, but for her daughter.

This woman presses against Jesus’ assumption that he is for Jews alone, and that God loves Jews alone. This woman challenges Jesus’ assumption on what is permissible and not. She is humane, she is loving, and she has insight into the true nature of God. That true heart of God is one that knows no ethnic, racial, or even religious boundaries. That true heart of God loves all of creation.

I think of the human Jesus reflecting on her words with astonishment. After he had done the divine miracle of turning a few loaves into enough for everyone, he had ordered every crumb picked up. And there was enough crumbs for baskets and baskets to be filled. God’s generosity and love for humanity is so grand that even after fully filling those who are present around God… there is still more food and provision for those who are far away. I picture the human Jesus realizing he has been sent not just for the Jews, but for the whole world — those who are faithful to God and those who are not. Sent to those who are saints and followers of the Law, and sent to those who are still sinners, and rejecting God. The generosity and love God has for us is such that even the crumbs from the feast God sets and invites us to are enough to feed the world new life many times over.

I picture the human Jesus coming to understanding he didn’t even realize what mission the divine Jesus is accomplishing in the world.

Humbled, corrected, enlightened, Jesus replies, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

And then Jesus doesn’t return to Jewish lands. He continues through pagan, non-Abrahamic lands. And in this strange land he begins to invite all to the table of God — not with lectures, not with insisting on right doctrines, or right beliefs, not by making everyone prove their worth… No… he goes and shares to all regardless of who they are. He goes literally and figuratively opening ears and mouths until everyone was zealously proclaiming the good.

— We should be like Jesus and listen when our assumptions are challenged

God’s love is so generous was then, and now, incredibly radical and hard to wrap our human minds around.

James explains it in legal terms. We’re supposed to speak, and act, as those who are judged with the law of liberty. This law of liberty gives everyone a fair shake. It promotes mercy over judgment. It offers equality among us all. It says that the person who appears homeless is equal to the person who appears rich… and indeed, it just may be that the poor person is the kinder person because they’ve known greater hardship than the rich person, who is used to settling things with lawsuits and money than with mercy and humility.

We all make assumptions. We all make judgments. The Christian — the Christ-like way — to react is the way Jesus does. He learns from the encounter. He is open to learning from the stranger. He is open to learning more about God and the love of God whether that education comes from fellows of his faith, or not.

You’re making assumptions now, and people are making assumptions about you. That, in itself, is not a sin. The sin is when we begin to act on those assumptions and make distinctions among ourselves that are unfounded.

There are white-skinned illegal immigrants.
There are Spanish-speaking citizens.
A person that believes something called Conservative or Liberal does not have to be in all things Liberal or Conservative. We each have our own values and our own road that led us to believe in them.

The love of God is such that every person, every animals, everything here on earth and in the cosmos is loved abundantly.

The richness of God satiates all poverty we have of heart; and invites us to begin anew with one another again. May we hear that invitation and understand each other better.

May we, when we get furious over a challenge to our values, take a breath – step back – and examine how to learn the others’ perspective, and how to respond with the graceful love of God.

Amen.

Hardness of Heart

Genesis 2:18-24 'Things are going great with Mark although he can be a little possessive.'
Mark 10:2-16

Picture Jesus’ time: no female owns herself. She is the property of her father until he sells her into marriage. Then she is the property of her husband until he dies, and now she is the property of her son. If ever she has no man to claim her… she is free property. Anyone can take her. Make her a slave. Abuse her. Force themselves on her. Women weren’t their own people. Not fully human.

In the story of Naomi and Ruth, the women have lost all their men. Opah goes home- hoping her father or brother will take her in. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi as defenseless, unowned, widowed property. Ruth goes with Naomi to protect her. Boaz is a literal life-saver to the women because he orders the farm hands not to ‘bother’ Ruth as she picks up the dropped wheat to feed herself and her mother-in-law. Then he saves them again by marrying Ruth, and restoring Naomi and Ruth into a house where they always have protections.

Women were property. Like glorified prized cattle.

When King David sees Bathsheba, he wants her. So he arranges the death of her owner, her husband, so that he can take her as his own.

When King Herod sees his brother’s wife Herodias, he wants her. So he orders his brother to divorce Herodias — to throw his property to the curb — and then Herod takes her as his own property.

Moses told men they could throw out their women, divorce them, but if they did, they needed to give the women the protection of a piece of paper saying ‘I am divorced.’ so they could find a new man to take them in not as slaves, or as concubines, but as wives who are cared for and protected.

Nowhere but in Rome was there the tradition women could initiate divorce. Even then, the men retained the children and house in any divorce.

In ancient Israel however? Women weren’t allowed. They were property and did not own themselves or their bodies.

There were two major schools of thought regarding divorce at the time: the Hillel school who said you may divorce your wife for any reason at all – including things like she burns dinner or has gotten wrinkles. And the Shammai school who said you may only divorce your wife if she commits adultery. Both didn’t consider a wife able to divorce her husband. A husband could commit adultery and burn dinner and get wrinkles.

Keep all this context in mind when you hear Jesus speak against divorce. Also keep in mind that Jesus’ cousin, John, was murdered because he spoke against King Herod’s divorce.

This is why today’s reading is called a “test.” The Pharisees are not testing if Jesus knows scripture, but rather, testing to see if he would speak out about King Herod and get himself killed just like John the Baptists did. They are also testing to see if Jesus would support the Hillel or the Shammai school – and alienate one or the other set of scholars.

And Jesus replies to their test of ‘is divorce lawful?’ by saying: your hard hearts are why Moses said you can give a certificate to a woman and divorce her. Hard hearts separate us.

Jesus recalls Genesis, and that in the very beginning God created us to be in relationship. Remember that Adam was lonely. God offered Adam all kinds of animals, but Adam was still lonely. So God made Adam another human. This other human wasn’t called wife, or property – but someone God called an equal! “Helper” and “partner.” The two humans are happy as one another’s aid. Indeed, there was no concept of marriage for Adam and Eve because that’s a set of rituals and vows we made up. God sets us up to be in relationship – to be one another’s helpers and partners. Sometimes this looks like marriage, but sometimes it is friendships, and families, and communities, and sometimes it is two strangers.

Later, alone, Jesus is asked again about divorce. And this time, Jesus gives agency TO WOMEN – women, who have no status – and says it doesn’t matter if a man or a woman tosses out the other… the result is the same. Hurt. Broken community.

Jesus once again brings our attention to children. Consider children in divorces. At the time, children had no protections at all. If mom is out on the street without a male to protect her, give her food and shelter, how much worse is it going to be for the kids? If a dad has a hard heart, and tosses the mom out, how much evil has he done to the kin-dom of God? Jesus asks us to think about if our actions are promoting community.

In our community, our country, our faith, there is so much stigma against divorce. And it comes from these scripture passages we’ve read today. “They are no longer two, but one flesh!” “What God has joined together, let no one separate!”

And I agree with the passages, but not always as they are applied. I believe that yes – No King should force you to divorce your love, especially so that the king can then marry your love. No state should outlaw homosexual unions. Marriage in Jesus’ time and in our time is about a set of rights and privileges. Better tax rates. Who can visit whom in the hospital. Who is permitted to raise children and who isn’t. When people are in love, and God unites them as one – let no human separate them.

But the reverse is also true. No King should force you to marry someone. Oh we did arranged marriages a lot in the time of kings and queens! And no state should force you to marry the one who assaulted you, or is the parent of your child. Marriage never has the prerequisite of love and kindness. Historically, marriage is about money.

Sometimes, we join into a marriage with love and kindness, without a power focus, but it doesn’t stay that way. We are human. We are post Adam and Eve. The marriage can be a harm for the people in it and the community. Therefore, what humans have brought together – let God separate. Sometimes, divorce is the kindness thing that can happen to a couple.

And it will hurt. There’s never a good time for divorce. There will always be hurt, especially if there are children involved.

But only hardness of heart keeps a bad marriage from divorcing, and letting everyone nurse their wounds, seek healing, and begin life again. And only hardness of heart keeps good marriages from happening, and letting all celebrate the love God has given them.

Jesus’ time is not our time. But our issues are often the same. How do we navigate our human laws with divine will? How do we create a world where everyone is not alone, but in relationship with a helper — or two or three or a whole church-full of helpers? How do we lovingly care for those who are married, divorced, single, separated, partnered, widowed, with children or without children?

Who are our neighbors, and how to we serve one another as neighbors and invite one another into healthy, wholesome, helping relationships?

May we never let the hardness of our hearts get in the way of God’s will of love for all. Amen.

In the Name

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 salt
Mark 9:38-50

Every fall, I begin to get petitions from charities to donate money in the name of others for Christmas gifts, or to bring these charities to you all to take a church collection in the name of St. Michael’s. How does the UCC, or our church consistory, or I, ever pick which groups to speak about and which ones to ignore? Likely the same way you do: you look at the work they are doing. Well, most charities are doing good. So how to you further delve in? Maybe you look at how much of your donated money goes to the causes being served. Or maybe you look at all the stances of the organization and see if you agree with each one of them.

Whenever I do the last one, I begin to get upset. Some of the best international aid groups helping communities overseas also have stances against women being preachers. Or they believe in Bible to be literal in all things. Or they teach exclusion to divorcees, gays and lesbians, or another group they consider too sinful. Some only use the King James Version of the Bible and utterly ignore the scholarship of the Dead Sea Scrolls on our scripture. And some just flat out aren’t Christian. Can I support Muslim charity? A Buddhist charity? Where some of my funds help bring water to rural women, but some also provide non-Christian educational materials?

I see lots of cries to reject this or that charity from my fellow Christians. Don’t support the Salvation Army – they have a policy against gays. Don’t support the American Cancer Society because they provide funding to IVF (In-vitro-fertilization), abortion, and other fertility clinics. Don’t support the Humane Society of the United States because it doesn’t actually help humane societies, but is a lobbyist group formed to fight the Farm Bureau. I get overwhelmed. I just want someone doing good.

So I turn to churches. But this church over here with the great youth program teaches a theology that focuses on humanity as hopelessly fallen, filled with sin, and worms before God. And this church over there does wonderful work with elderly but believes baptism is only for believing adults and not infants. Here at Saint Michael’s, we donate to our association and its work, but not to the national church because some ten or fifteen years ago we disagreed with their national stance. What will we do when we no longer have associations but have all become one?

I know I can’t find a church that is working in the name of Christ in just the way I would work… anywhere.

What about Christians? Individuals? Can I find one person who is doing good in the name of Christ in just the perfect way? Who believes just as I do; who acts as I think a Christian ought; who has the time and energy and knowledge to do all the good they can, for all the right people, at all the ideal times?

Not even in the mirror can I find this Christian.

There is no charity, no church, no person I wholly agree with on all things – including myself.

How can we all be one when even a single person disagrees with themselves? How can we do any good in the world when every good is tainted with something we disagree with?

Jesus’ disciples want to know the same thing. Jesus is standing with them with a toddler in his arms and has been explaining that the toddler, out of all the disciples with their unique miraculous healing powers from Christ, is the most important.

The disciple John interrupts to tattle, “Jesus – someone is outside healing in your name. We tried to get him to shut up. He’s not one of us.”

The Greek pacing of Jesus’ tone is one of frustration and being interrupted. He explains to John, “Don’t stop him! For no one who does or receives good in my name is able to curse me. For whoever is not against us is with us. For whoever does good for my name – even if it is a cup of water – is rewarded.”

Jesus then slows his pace down and returns to his conversation regarding the toddler, but now adding in this non-disciple doing good. “Whomever puts a road block, a stumbling block, in the way of these little ones – these little children, these people new to the faith, these non-disciples who may yet become disciples – whoever harms their budding faith should be cut out of the Body of Christ.” I picture Jesus pointing to the disciples – these members of the body of Christ – and naming them. You are the foot of the Body of Christ. You are the eye. You are the ear. You are the hand. And as he goes down the line he tells each person, each body part, that you think you are essential. And yes, hands and eyes and feet and ears are essential… but none of you are the body. The body can survive without you. Oh but we want you! But the body is better off without you if you’re going around harming others in the name of the body.

If you’re going around in the name of Jesus preaching hate – you’re not needed. We’re better off without you.

If you’re going around excluding in the name of Jesus – it’s better if you were cut off.

If you’re going around harming, killing, in the name of Jesus – the body will survive by removing you.

But if you’re going around preaching love – the body welcomes you even if you’re not Christian.

If you’re going around including in the name of Jesus – we may not agree with your methods, or theology, or all your stances… but we include you.

If you go around healing, enlivening, bringing wholeness – doing something even as simple as giving a glass of water to someone – doing ANY kindness – then we’re of the same cloth. We’re of God’s Love. God’s body – because we are not against one another.

How can we all be one? Jesus says it’s by being united in love for God and one another. United. Not the same. Not all doing the same. Not all believing the same. Not all having the same theology, the same belief on stances, the same ideas on how to do good. Not all identical. But united in wanting and working for a more loving world for all.

While Jesus stands with his disciples and a toddler, Moses stands before God and with his elders. We hear how the Israelites hunger for meat. So Moses goes to God and says – God, these are the people you birthed and raised. Why are you not mothering them? I’m just one man! So God replies God will mother them and give the people more meat than they can ever eat, and will share the Holy Spirit upon the elders so that Moses has more leaders to help out with the large camp. We read how the Spirit comes upon the gathered elders in the center tent, and they gain powers of charisma and prophecy.

But two guys not in the center tent ALSO gain this. Like John, someone goes and tattles. Like John, Joshua tells Moses – stop them! They’re not with the in group! They’re not one of us! Moses, like Jesus, replies – let them be. Moses proclaims, “I wish that all God’s people were prophets – and that God would put the Holy Spirit upon them!” Moses dismisses the idea there is a competition among who is the best and proper follower of God and who isn’t. He dismisses the idea that God’s voice can only be found within established institutions, within churches. Moses says God will speak where God wills – and Moses wishes we all were given the Holy Spirit!

At Pentecost, we were! At our baptisms, we were! And God is limited by neither and will send God’s Holy Spirit to speak love to the world wherever people are receptive to receive it.

In these, our selves, our flawed selves, God speaks. In these, our institutions, our charities, our churches, God speaks. In our imperfect following of Jesus, in our imperfect ways of living together, in our imperfect good deeds – God speaks.

The name of God – the name of love – perseveres. And anyone speaking in love is an ally.

To your left is a body part of Jesus. And you are not that same body part. To your right is a body part of Jesus. And you’re not that same body part. That is good. We are different. But you’re both working for the same thing: working for love. Working in the name of Love. Working in the name of Jesus. We are not enemies. We are family. We are one body.

We are salt. Salt brings out the best in food. It makes sweets sweeter, savory dishes more savory, and even makes cold dishes colder.

We are salt. Salt heals. Salt water rinses help the body heal itself. Salt brings balance to the body’s ions and helps electricity flow from one member to another.

Salt is essential to life. Animals gather around salt licks and lick the salt off our sweat because salt is so essential to well living. It tastes amazing. Our bodies crave it.

When we stop being salt, what are we? I have a box of salt at home. It reads: Ingredients – Salt. That’s it. Nothing more. When I remove the ingredient salt – what is left in my box?

Nothing.

When we stop being the sprinkle of salt that brings out the best in others, and in the world around us, what are we?

Nothing.

When we stop being the radical lovers, the generous givers, the includers, the ones saying ‘more the merrier!’ and throwing open our doors to all people, all races, all genders, all sexes, all ages, all who want to live in the name of Love – who are we?

Maybe just a social group. Or a family reunion group. Without the love of God, love of our neighbor, love of ourselves, and love of all strangers – we cannot say we’re the body of Christ. We cannot say we’re salt that brings out the best, the flavor, of all.

You’ll never agree 100% with any human, including yourself. You’ll never agree 100% with any denomination, any church, any charity. But you never have to agree 100% to appreciate the good they do.

Go and be salt. Be the church. Be love.

Amen.

Why?

Children’s Chat: Super Why! jesus

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

As a child, I learned the secret answer in Sunday School… I bet you did, too. It goes like this:

“Who walked on water?”
JESUS!
“Who cured the blind?”
JESUS!
“Who loves us?”
JESUS!

The answer to everything was either Jesus, God, love, or Jesus’ love for God. You get the idea. Our faith is simple, and boils down to love. But there’s an issue with this Jesus answer for everything… Sometimes, Jesus doesn’t fit the question.

“Who broke the vase?”
JESUS!
“Who gave you detention?”
JESUS! No – it was God?

As we experience more of life, the questions get harder, and the answer “Jesus!” or God or love fits even less.

“Why do I have cancer?”
Jesus. … Or God…
“Why is there evil in the world?”
… Jesus. God… love?

Our lives get more complex as we experience more, and satisfying answers get more complex. The simple answers don’t just cut it in the face of years of depression, years of feeling isolated, years of chronic illness. “Because Jesus loves you” is a terrible answer to why children die of starvation. Because Jesus loves you, he sent a drunk driver to kill your family. Because God loves children, God sends shooters into schools to kill children and make new angels for heaven. Because of love, our Sunday School theology applied to experienced life does so much harm.

In the words of Dr. Linda Mercadante – bad theology kills.

Bad theology kills our faith. Once we get to the notion everything is caused by God, and everything happens because God or Jesus loves us, we may come to the conclusion God is pretty evil. Or we don’t want Jesus’ love if this love looks like starvation. If God’s love is torture, who needs God? If Jesus’ love is hate, who wants to be a Jesus follower? The simple theology of Jesus is the answer to everything works when life is simple. And it kills faith when life is complex.

Bad theology kills.

It kills faith, but it also kills people. If the reason everything happens is because of God’s love, then any bad fortune is because someone has lost God’s love.

A woman on welfare must be lazy, sexual promiscuous, a thief, and not a good Christian woman. She is poor because she isn’t living virtuously. Her sins are why she is poor.

A man addicted to narcotics must be weak willed, violent, a thief, and not a good Christian man. He is addicted because he isn’t living sinfree. If he just confessed, he’d be clean and back in God’s love.

This theology kills. It denies food and shelter, love and education. It makes a class system when the least are treated as second class citizens – as left-overs – or as unwanted ‘undesirables’ of society. It also directs our public policy and research.

((Many are ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous even through there is no evidence it actually helps people. Oh yes – people leave alcohol there. But just as many do not. The only successful intervention scientifically proven is medication to help rewire the mind after the alcohol has wired it for addiction. AA is a great support network… but it doesn’t touch the physical addiction side of alcoholism. But our bad theology says the flesh is nothing, and the spirit everything. It says just confessing the sin of alcoholism will put you right with God again, and then, you ought to have no more issues.

But that’s not how our bodies work.))

This is bad theology.

Simplistic, early-learning theology.

And bad theology kills.

Jesus’ disciples began with simplistic theology. He told them do not fear, just have faith. And they got this. And it works while their mission is simple. They are simply curing the sick, helping the poor, and speaking of God’s love for people. When life is simple we need simple theology.

But then the disciples get more complex experiences, and Jesus begins to tell them the Messiah will be denied by organized religion, and killed by the government, and be resurrected by God. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Because the answers are terrifying.

Based on simple theology applied to a complex question – ie, bad theology – the reason Jesus will be murdered terribly is because of God’s love. I bet you’ve heard this.

How different is this reasoning than “divinely ordained child abuse?”

How different is this than adults telling little children they are abused out of love?

These are terrifying answers. These are answers that kill my faith and kill people.

If you think these are going to be the answers to “Why did Jesus die?” why would you ever ask the question?

And if you did ask… who would you ask? And when? Where?

Once we know Jesus is the answer to everything, and God is love, then it’s like… we’re scared to be seen as foolish by questioning these simple answers. So we bottle up the questions instead of asking them. Bottle them up because we don’t want judged by our fellow family, friends, and congregation members…. Bottle them up because we don’t really want to know the answers…. And bottle them up because we think we’re Christians and this is our faith and we ought to get it.

The disciples literally walked with God Incarnate and didn’t get it.

They were scared to ask the questions, too.

But the questions are… liberating. They let our faith grow more complex to answer our complex lives.

I am guilty of hiding my questions like the disciples. Before I found the United Church of Christ, I sat with a Buddhist who didn’t know anything about Christianity. I could tell her all my questions around Christianity and she wouldn’t try to give me the simple answers because she didn’t know them. She wouldn’t say my soul was in danger for questioning the goodness of God, or the divinity of Jesus, or the reality of the Holy Spirit because soul isn’t really a concept in Buddhism.

She didn’t feed me answers at all. She sat with me in the questions.

She didn’t FEAR the questions.

And so I asked.

Of course, she had no answers. Christianity wasn’t her faith! But the answers weren’t as important as vocalizing the questions, looking at the questions, and considering the various answers. The journey into the questions was more important. And we journeyed in them together.

Jesus offers his disciples to ask him the hard questions. He doesn’t promise answers – he tends to answer in parables anyways – but he promises to stick with them through exploring the answers.

That is what living faith is about.

Exploring. Moving. Changing.

Our lives are not static. Our lives are dynamic. We gather more and more experiences. Our faith should be the same. Dynamic, growing, changing as we change.

The simplistic theology is important, and good, for when we are drinking the infant milk of our faith. But as infants age, they need solid food. They need carrots to crunch and meat to tear. As we grow into mature lives, we need a mature faith that is crunchy and has substance we can bite into. We need a faith that is satisfying to our more complex needs.

That faith can only come from permitting our faith to be exposed to life. The moment you feel you need to defend your faith from life is the moment you’ve outgrown your faith. Let her out! Let her stretch and grow and yes, pick up some bruises, but grow into the faith you need for your adult life!

The disciples have stopped growing in our reading today. They’ve begun to protect their concepts of Messiah from life. Jesus has been telling them of the bad fate for himself when he returns to Jerusalem, but they are scared to ask what this means. Instead, they focus on their simple faith in the messiah. The simple faith says the messiah will be a military warrior, go to Jerusalem, be crowned king, and toss out the Romans.

The simple faith says your lot in life is based on how much of God’s fortune you have earned. The simple faith says Jesus is a pretty amazing guy, so God’s going to reward Jesus with everything.

So they look at themselves who are also healing the sick and walking with THE Jesus, and they say – hey! We’re pretty amazing guys ourselves. Who is going to be the second most awesome person in the land and the second in charge for Jesus? Who has the most miraculous power, who’s cured the most ill, who’s preached the most good news? Let’s rank up!

And Jesus looks at them, hears their concerns, and realizes they have not grown into the new experience of a servant messiah at all. He realizes their faith is not ready. And we know Jesus is right. They all will desert him in the end.

And “It’s not just that they don’t understand some piece of information. It’s that they don’t understand this specific teaching, at the very heart of the Incarnation. How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die? And why should it happen?

The question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propels so many early Christian attempts to construct an intelligible, if misguided, Christology. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (Docetism) or maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched (Gnosticism). Early Christians struggle with what sort of deity lets her/himself get into a corner like that? They needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies. Underneath verses 31-32 are the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Such a self-demoting God could hardly be trustworthy.” ((Amy Oden https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1356))

Faced with the terror of a suffering God, arguing over a victorious god’s right hand man is much easier. Faced with the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the world is much easier. But it leads to infighting, and all the other woes James writes about. When we avoid the hard questions, our faith doesn’t grow, and the small answers don’t satisfy and cause more issues. Remember, bad theology kills.

Jesus won’t abandon these disciples in their fear. He calls over a child. A child – who has not done a single miracle. Who cannot read or write. Who didn’t see the bread broke and the fish shared. A child – likely not baptized. Maybe not even Jewish. A child – someone wholly dependent on others for protection, food, and clothing. A young child who has no wealth, no status, nothing but themselves.

And Jesus says, “This is the greatest here.” Not any of the disciples, but this unnamed child. “Whoever welcomes the least, such as a child, in my name, welcomes me.”

Jesus is found in the lowest.

“Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

God is found in the lowest.

“The greatest among you will be your servant.”

Not kings. Not princes. Not the best Christians. Not politicians. Not the rich. Not the sinless. And especially not in the person who says they have all the answers. But in children and those like them.

The greatest are the servants… the ones who are humble, low, don’t know better, and not scared of appearances. The ones with curiosity, who are growing, who are changing, who are embracing life as it comes.

The disciples are scared to ask Jesus questions. They want to look like they know it all to each other. And they don’t want their simple theology challenged.

The woman at the well asks Jesus lots and lots of questions. She doesn’t care what others think of her. And she hasn’t a simple theology to be challenged.

We, ourselves – are we scared to ask our hard questions? Do we fear what one another will think of us? Are we scared of how our faith may be changed, or challenged?

I’m guilty of this at times. At times it hurts to grow and the unknown is scary. It is painful to be vulnerable and suffer your friends, family, and congregation’s judgments (perceived or real.) It is terrifying to consider whether or not God is all good, all powerful, or all knowing.

But we’re a denomination of godly wisdom, not worldly wisdom. We’re a denomination of questions. Some of our mottos include

Don’t leave your brain at the door.
Never put a period where God has put a comma, God is still speaking.
Our faith is 2000 years old, our thinking is not.

Our roots are the Puritans who dreamed of free public education for every child, so that every person could read the Bible for themselves. Our roots are the Protestant Reformers who dreamed of a Bible translated into local languages and a physical copy there for each person to read. Our roots are roots of asking the questions and exploring answers.

How would our story of Christianity be different if the disciples had asked their hard and scary questions?

How will our faith be different?

How will our congregation be different?

This is a safe spot. We are on a journey together. We are asking the questions together. It is a journey, where sometimes we will find an answer to our questions that satisfies awhile, or satisfies one or two people but not all people. It is a journey where sometimes we won’t find answers at all… but we can live into the questions.

We can live into the faith.

We can live into the mystery.

There are no stupid questions. Carl Sagan once wrote, “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question”

A question asked might risk you looking foolish for 5 minutes.

A question not asked may leave you foolish for 55 years.

Do not be afraid – ask!

Amen.

Call to Worship: Prayer

Call to Worship
(Based on James 5:13-20)
One: Are any among you suffering?
Many: We pray for one another wholeness.
One: Are any among you cheerful?
Many: We sing songs of cheerful praise!
One: Are any among you sick?
Many: We anoint one another with prayers and oil.
One: Are any among you wandering into sin?
Many: We confess our sins to one another, and are forgiven.
One: My brothers and sisters, our prayers are powerful and effective!
All: We gather to pray, to praise, and worship in the name of Christ!

Call to Worship: Listening

(Based on Isaiah 50:4-9a)

One: The Lord God has given us the tongues of teachers
Many: That we may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
One: Morning by morning, God awakens–
Many: And then God awakens us to listen.
One: Listening, we stay in peace among conflict.
Many: Our listening God helps us.
One: The world may clamor, and accuse, insult and spit,
All: But we gather in peace ready for the sustaining Word and listening Spirit.