Tag: Mark

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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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.

Breaking Down the Dividing Wall

Ephesians 2:11-22 ArizonaBorder.jpg
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Let me tell you what’s in the news –

– Ah. I see winces. You don’t want to hear it. It isn’t the news you want to hear.

It’s news about how our nation is being made great again. It’s news about non-Citizens suffering wanton abuse from government officials. It’s news of traitors, protests, uprisings, capital punishment, corruption and refugees and job woes and trade wars and unfair taxes and …

These are the headlines… from 62 AD.

Into this mess, Paul writes the Ephesians a letter that makes them wince and look over their shoulders with fear.

He writes, “Remember, at one time you were immigrants by birth, called illegal immigrants by the citizens – a status given to you by humans and not God – remember that you were at one time without Christ, being an alien to the land of God’s people, strangers to its laws, and without hope, and without God. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For Christ makes our nation great again. He is our peace. In his flesh, he made both immigrant and citizens into one group and broke down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments of who is or isn’t a citizen based on birth, that Christ might make in himself one new nation in place of two, thus making the nation great again, thus the peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So Christ came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off in other lands and peace to those who were near in this land; for through Christ both of us have access in one Spirit to the same God.

So you are no longer strangers and aliens to one another. You are no longer countrymen and women of this human nation or that. But you are citizens with the saints and also members of the house, the nation, of God, built upon the foundation of the non-citizen apostles and the citizen prophets, with Jesus Christ as your cornerstone. As your president. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple, a holy place, in God. You, listening to this letter, are also built together spiritually as one into a dwelling place, a home, for God.”

Does it make you as uncomfortable in 2018 AD as it made the Ephesians in 62 AD? It should. Paul is challenging Caesar and his claims of making a great nation built on peace. That peace is built on the back of murdering people, such as Jesus. It is built on having citizens who can do as they want to non-citizens. It is built on corruption, deception, hostility, and lies.

The Spirit is challenging our nation and its claims of making itself great again and a land of liberty. This liberty is being built on the back of murdering people who are like Jesus: who are our fellow Christians. It is built on having citizens living safely in homes while non-citizens lie on concrete floors, with aluminum foil for blankets, in rooms kept at 62 degrees or lower. It is liberty built on corruption, deception, hostility, and lies.

I am uncomfortable. Like the Ephesians, I am looking over my shoulder and wondering who else just heard what Paul wrote. Who else heard Paul claim my citizenship — which lets me tuck my daughter into bed at night — and my skin color — which lets me drive without being at risk of a cop shooting me — and my flesh — all this who I was born as — Paul is claiming my flesh is nothing. God has taken it away. I’m wearing the flesh of Christ.

I’m wearing the flesh of a Middle Eastern man who is challenging my government.

A man tortured and killed by my own government.

Paul’s news is uncomfortable. To we readers in 62 AD and in 2018 AD.

He tells me that the wall of hostility I was born into is false, wrong, and ungodly. In Christ there is only one flesh. If I am truly born again in Christ, then my body is Christ.

My citizenship is Christianity.

My brothers and my sisters are all who are Christian.

My cousins are all who follow God.

My neighbors are all of humanity.

For all who were baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Or, there is neither Hispanic nor American, impoverished nor affluent, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.

There is a wall of hostility we are called to oppose.

We are called to break down walls that divide us. Physical walls – barrier walls – border walls. And social walls – walls preventing access to medical aide, equal rights, security. We’re called to break down spiritual walls – the kind that make us hate seeing a hijab or star of David, or making room for other faiths in our schools, and jobs, our homes, and even our churches. We’re called to be citizens of a new nation that abolishes all the old laws with a new law of love. We’re called to be citizens that give up our nationalities, our own flesh, our own births, for a new nation in Christ’s body through being born again in the Spirit.

We’re called to love our neighbor.

Love our selves.

And even love our enemies.

For we are known as Christian by our love.

What does this citizenship of God look like? All we have to do is look to Jesus as our role-model to see.

Jesus today makes more political commentary. Shepherd is the image of the leader of the land. The person who keeps the sheep, the people, safe. He or she is who provides peace, provides good food and clean water, scares off the wolves, and lets the people multiply. In the reading before today, we met ancient Israel’s shepherd, Herod. He foolishly takes his sister-in-law as his wife, and promises their daughter anything she wants. To fufill this promise, he has to murder the prophet of God, John. He fed his heads of state but served his sheep John’s head on a platter.

Out among the people, Jesus sees they are desperate. They have run from all the towns and villages around the sea of Galilee dragging and carrying their sick loved ones on mats and rugs, and on their backs and in their carts, laying them out in the center of the town begging Jesus to let them just touch the fringe of his cloak so they can be healed. The center of the town is the marketplace. The place of affluence. The sick are the outcasts, the homeless, the foreigners and supposed to stay away from the rich. But they overwhelm the shops, choke up the streets, and fill the air with their petitions.

Picture if the stock market had to be closed because the trading floor was filled with the family, friends, and neighbors of people targeted by ICE all begging for their children to be reunited, their loved ones having access to food, water, and a lawyer, and asylum. There would be anger from the elite who don’t want to be bothered by this. Chaos. Government officials calling for the ring leader of this ‘protest’ to be arrested, or shot. That ringleader is Jesus, and the Spirit.

Picture the highways now in Chicago – filled with black women begging the government to stop persecuting their sons as guilty criminals until proven innocent.

Picture the 99% protests.

These are people whose mortal shepherd has failed them. And Jesus has compassion. Jesus goes among them bringing healing. Tangible healing – such as attending a protest, or paying for a sitter or sitting kids so another can go to a protest, or donating money to organizations like HOLA Ohio to bail out mothers who have sat in prison for TWO MONTHS after being picked up here in Ohio…

And Jesus brings intangible healing along with the tangible, touchable, healing. Jesus we’re, told, begins to teach the crowds. He gives education.

Education such as… did you know that HOLA Ohio has found the rules to bail someone out is different every day? Currently: “Bond can’t be posted on the same day as court for the Michigan women; bond can’t be paid after 3 p.m. in the Cleveland office; bond must be paid with one cashier’s check, not two–even if both are addressed to U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security for the same individual on the same case, and were accepted that way last week, and so on and so forth.” (HOLA Ohio July 2018 Facebook Update)

Education such as… RAICES “staff and volunteer pro bono attorneys arrived at the Karnes detention center to meet with clients and were told they couldn’t meet with anyone as Karnes was empty. Around 3:45pm two of our pro bono attorneys watched as a bus was loaded at Karnes with mothers and children. Having been lied to all day, they decided to follow the bus from Karnes to see where they were being transferred to. An hour in to the drive they call our Comms Director to let her know they had been pulled over by 3 state troopers in SUV’s for “illegally” following the bus and demanded to see their client lists. They were held for 15 minutes by police, and now continue to follow the bus which looks to be headed to Dilley detention center.” (RAICES July 2018 Facebook Update)

Detention centers where children are ordered to stand, “No sitting on the floor, no hugging your siblings, and it’s best not to cry.” Or face bleach in your water, and guards kicking you if you sit during the 16 hours a day you must be awake. Where over 1,000 reports sexual abuse have been filed against ICE agents. ((https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/us/migrant-children-shelters.html?smtyp=cur&smid=tw-nytimes; https://theintercept.com/2018/04/11/immigration-detention-sexual-abuse-ice-dhs/))

Education such as even though the government is purposefully trying to prevent lawyers and help to the refugees, groups like HOLA Ohio have volunteers who have “been spending up to 6 hours a day in the ICE office to post bonds, [paid] eight bonds to date, six bonds of $2,000 each and two bonds of $1,500 each, and arranged transportation through a network of volunteers for nine women to be reunited with their families.” A dozen more hearings are happening this week.

The Spirit of God is in us, because of our anointments in baptism in Christ, “to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 18-19.

The Spirit of God is in us to tear down these dividing walls and be the good news to the poor. Be the ones paying bail. Be the ones teaching our family and friends and neighbors to open their blind eyes to see the hurt happening to the body of Christ — their own bodies. We are to use our privilege as citizens to the benefit of those oppressed. We are to proclaim the year of God’s favor — that God’s reign is now — the kin-dom is now — the nation of God is now — and no Mexican, Canadian, American, Russian, British or any other human government is going to stop us from loving one another.

Because we are citizens of heaven. Our leader is God. Our God is love.

Amen.

To Gather Up All Things

Ephesians 1:3-14 glitter
Mark 6:14-29

Sometimes our lectionary hands us readings that are very difficult to understand and fathom. I feel like this Sunday’s have given us two hard to delve into texts. One is an introductory  letter to the Ephesians; and the other is a long aside about John the Baptizer in the gospel of Mark. Supposedly, they’re related! Whoever worked on the lectionary outline believes so.

Therefore, let’s take a close look at Ephesians and see what the author is claiming, and then let’s use that like a lens, something to help us focus, on Mark’s story.

The letter to Ephesians is broke up in English into sentences, but in Greek, it is one big long sentence listing blessing after blessing that is showed upon us from God.

1. The first blessings is that before the world was built, God chose us for adoption. To be children of God, although we have mortal parents, and although most of us aren’t biological descendants of Abraham – God’s chosen. So – why did God do this? Because God is good. God chose this for God’s own good pleasure and will. Not because of anything we’ve done. God just decided God wants to create us, and create us to be loved.

2. The second blessing is God freely chose to give us God’s Beloved. Not only were we chosen to be children, but given God’s beloved child Jesus. When God created us, we were created for praise. So just living praises Jesus.

3. Our third blessings is that in Jesus, we have redemption, forgiveness of our trespasseses or sins, and this is due to the rich grace of God and again – not because of anything we have done.

4. Fourth – we know the mystery of God’s will, because God wants us to know it out of God’s love for us. We know God’s will because we know Jesus. This will is to love God and love one another!

5. Fifth, in the fullness of time, in the right moment, God will gather up everything on heaven and earth and bring us all together as one. Love unites us.

6. Sixth, in Christ we’ve been given an inheritance — a gift– from God. This is the Holy Spirit within us. It, again, is a free gift from God.

7. Seventh blessing – That Spirit works in us to accomplish everything God has planned. So when you don’t know how to love God or love another, you can pause, pray, think, reflect, and listen for the Spirit to guide you.

8. An eighth blessing – As we work for God, we live in praise and glory of God. We’re not asked to live counter to our nature or to God. We’re asked to live our lives, and in living, love. That love is a constant prayer of praise for God.

9. Nine blessings! All who have the seal of the Holy Spirit, all who have the Spirit within them, have gotten a down payment towards the full redemptive work of God. It’s a foretaste, a little snack, of the big meal to come when we’re all one in love and unity in God.

10. And ten! Ten blessings! And all of this is because God is gracious and glorious. Not because of any deed any human has done.

So what does all that mean?

It means Christianity is a weed.

You might try to get rid of it, but it comes back because God generously spreads love’s seeds everywhere. You may ignore God, but God won’t ignore you. You may curse God, but God is going to keep showering love and blessings on you because THAT IS WHO GOD IS.

Who is God? We have seen God in Jesus. What did Jesus do? Live generously; preach courageously; advocate spiritual, physical, and mental health; and confront all forces that harm others. All this he did humbly, and did not return violence for violence.

Like a weed, this movement won’t die. It just keeps resurrecting. Because the love of God is life itself. All of creation was made and is made in love. Although death is a part of reality, it isn’t the final word. Life is the final word. Resurrection. Life after death. Life continuing to beat the odds and find a way because God wants it to.

It means Christianity is a weed, or glitter (as in the kids’ chat), or fire – and spreads and spreads because it is God’s will to spread love all around!

Mark tells us of how Jesus sent out his disciples spreading the movement of God’s love. They came back with good news of the success of healing people, inviting people into God’s new age, and forgiving sins. That’s when our story begins today when Herod realizes this love won’t die.

King Herod Antipas hears of this success of Jesus’ movement too. He hears some people commenting, “Jesus is John, come back from the dead!”
Others say, “Oh no. Jesus is Elijah, come back from heaven!”
And others say, “He is a brand new prophet, but is as powerful as our ancient prophets.”

Herod, however, has no doubts. He is quivering in his sandals. Jesus is surely John resurrected. And who killed John?

Herod.

Perhaps Herod is thinking of the prophets who have wrote God says ‘Vengeance is mine, sayth the Lord.’ Perhaps Herod is terrified because he ordered the death of God’s holy man. This Jesus fellow can heal the sick, raise the dead, and has a direct line of communication with God. What is God going to do to the man who killed God’s prophet?

Herod is scared.

Mark takes a moment then to explain how Herod got in this position. Some years ago, Herod took his sister-in-law as his wife. John appeared from the desert saying, “Hey! That’s not right! You can’t take another’s wife just because you’re the king!” This is much the same situation that got King David in trouble, when he stole Bathsheba from her husband.

Now, Bathsheba hated David for doing this and killing her husband Uriah. She worked against David.

Herodias, however, doesn’t want her brother-in-law-husband to dump her. She likes being the queen. So she works against John.

The issue is… she can’t do anything without Herod’s permission… so she has to scheme a way to kill John and make it look like an accident… or convince her husband some way to kill John.

As Herodias schemes to kill John, Jesus begins to learn from John. This is the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus is John’s disciple until John is arrested by King Herod just a few verses into the story. You see, Herod can keep a close eye on John in the dungeon. It is protective custody. It is saving Herod from Herod’s wife Herodias who has people out in the cities seeking to kill John.

Herod listens to John, and knows John is a holy man. John speaks and it perplexes Herod, but Herod likes it.

The first banquet of Mark is thrown for Herod’s birthday. Lots of people and guests and leaders attend. There, Herod and Herodias’ little girl dances. Her doting father is so pleased, he makes the same foolish offer as the king in Esther’s story: name anything you want, up to half of the kingdom, and it is your’s!

The little girl goes to her mother and asks, “What should I ask for?”

Her mother doesn’t waste a moment. “The head of John the baptizer.”

Picture this little girl, the word means she’s under the age of 12, dancing back out to her daddy before all the heads of state and saying, “I want the head of John the baptizer… on a platter!”

Leave it to a child to embellish their requests with ‘on a platter.’ I wonder if she did it to try to gain her mother’s pleasure. I’m certain Herodias was tickled pink.

We’re told Herod is deeply grieved. But everyone is watching. Will he renege on his oath? If he will, what other oaths will he violate? He won’t even keep an oath to his little girl… imagine the lies he’s telling the other heads of state.

So Herod sends for a guard to behead John. The head is put on a platter and given to the child. She leaves and gives it to her mother. A sneaky, sly mother and a foolish, weak father led to the death of God’s prophet.

John’s disciples hear of the gruesome capital punishment, and come and get John’s body and bury him.

Why does Mark take all this space to tell us this story? Mark – who wastes no words and who’s favorite word is ‘immediately?’

Because it is foreshadowing John’s disciple, Jesus.

Jesus will host the next banquet in the story and invite all the outcasts from the state. He will preach against the state when its leaders are immoral. Jesus will be arrested and brought before the leader Pilate. Pilate will listen to Jesus, and be perplexed, and admire him. Pilate will find Jesus to be a holy man, and not want Jesus killed. But for the sake of keeping face, and staying in power, Pilate will order Jesus’ gruesome death during a time that should be a celebration. Jesus’ disciples will take Jesus’ body and bury it.

Will that be the end of the story?

Was it the end of the story for John?

No. God kept on acting. Bringing out new voices out of the woodwork, raising up new songs from the very stones every time people were silenced.

Like a weed, the movement won’t stop appearing.

Like a mustard seed, it just keeps growing and spreading.

As told to us in the letter of Ephesians, from the beginning of time God’s been working on teaching us humans generosity, love, care for God’s garden, care for each other, and morality.

From the beginning of time, God’s been sending us prophets, messages, dreams and visions and voices to guide us.

From the beginning of time, God’s been creating and recreating our world and we, in it.

From the beginning of time, God has willed, mysteriously, goodness upon all things.

Greed and fear can’t crush this goodness. It might kill it. It might spray Round-Up on it. Greed might steal the last miter of the widow; gobble up the single-parent houses; or make orphans of refugees. But God won’t let greed win.

Fear might drive the people to mob mentalities where they cry out to crucify their very savior; abuse their fellow neighbor; and attempt to exploit the strangers who are angels in disguise. But God won’t let fear win.

Blessing upon blessing continuously and ponderously tip the scales of the world towards goodness. Generosity upon generosity, forgiveness upon forgiveness, grace upon grace continue to counter whatever evil springs forth from our hearts, moves our hands, poisons our minds, and promotes a hell on Earth in the name of security, national pride, or the economy.

God does this not because we’re good. Not because we’ve got it all together. But because God is good. And God wants good for us. God wants good for God’s creation.

Our job is to be messengers of this goodness and help spread it along. We’re the rainbow of hope in our uncertain world. We’re the chosen community working to live into God’s reign, now. We’re the children of God who have chosen to give up our citizenship to the United States of America, or Great Britain, or Canada, or Mexico, or planet Earth and take on the citizenship of the Kindom of God.

So we’re ambassadors. Bringing messages like those very first disciples of repentance, forgiveness, healing, and love to village after village. We’re a rebellion. Preaching peace in war; forgiveness to wrongs; and God’s love for all. We’re God’s children.

Greed and fear will always be attacking us, locking us up, silencing us… but we’re mustard seeds. A light on a hill. A contagious laughter filled with the Holy Spirit that is resurrected again and again again until all things are gathered into one.

Amen.

Powerful Weakness

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 81vRnmnrlBL
Mark 6:1-13

Have you been Saved? Call out the day and the hour and the minute you felt Jesus in your heart!
Have you seen angels? When and where and what did they do?
Have you been touched? What miracle did you witness?
What about out of body experiences?
What about dreams of heaven and visitations from the dead?
Can you feel the Spirit!?

In some churches, the space between this world and the unseen is very thin. They feel these great revelations and know the flow of the Spirit as strong a presence as someone right here. Sometimes it is so strong they get possessed, speak in tongues, fall into seizures, or even faint.

And for some churches, and for some people, faith and grace keeps them going. Not supernatural experiences. Not out of body moments. Not miracles.

Minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, they keep on going to church, keep on praying, keep to their religion in their emptiness.

And in emptiness, we are still strong.

Mother Theresa wrote the following confessing prayer to Jesus:

“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no One to answer–no One on Whom I can cling–no, No One.–Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart–& make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”

Over her life, she felt in her soul so alone, so empty, so without the Spirit in her…

… and yet, she came to see this as a gift.

She knew this is the feeling Jesus had on the cross. This is the pain that made him cry out “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?” This is the emptiness that Jesus poured himself to for us.

And that is the loneliness that the forsaken and poor of our world feel from society.

She drew strength from the Emptiness

The weakness forced her to become Strong in ways she wouldn’t have known otherwise

Jesus’ weakness of being human is the strength that unites us with God.

Jesus’ emptiness of his divinity on the cross to feel death is how no matter whether we live or die, our God is with us, our Christ experiencing and having had experienced this with us, and pulling us towards the final victory over death, over sin, over separation.

There is strength in not being self contained.

There IS strength in relying on Christ.

Whether we do so with the gift of tongues and visions, or we do so with the gift of a long, dark, night of the soul where we feel spiritually dry and alone.

There is still strength in relying on Christ versus solely ourselves.

And that is what Paul is arguing today.

Paul knows of churches where the Spirit manifests boldly.

Paul knows of people who have had great visions – himself included.

But he also knows there’s people who practice their faith for minutes, and hours, and days, and weeks, and months and years and never sense anything supernatural. But that does not mean they have less faith than those who can manifest Pentecostal tongues or those who have visions. No – he knows God has said “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Christ’s presence is all we need.

When we are weak, we are strong – because then we are relying on Christ and not ourselves.

When we have times when we really feel our faith we should delight in that. And delight in others who do. And when we have times we are just doing the motions out of faith, not out of feeling it, we should delight in that too. Those are times Jesus is carrying us. And we should delight in others who are being carried by Jesus too.

Remember this is Paul who will argue that the body of Christ is made of all kinds of parts and people. Not everyone can be an eye, for we need ears. Not everyone can be an ear, for we need eyes. Not everyone will be a mystic, and spiritual; we need thinkers and doubters and questioners. Not everyone needs to be a thinker and doubter and questioner either — we need our people sensing the divine.

It is our weakness – not being able to be everything for ourselves- that makes us strong. For then we rely on one another; and rely on Christ.

Jesus’ message is the same as Paul’s. Or rather, Paul was preaching similar lessons as Jesus.

We read today that Jesus came to his hometown after having been out and about preaching and doing miracles. He goes to the synagogue and begins to preach.

Just like at the other places, people are amazed at what he is saying. But instead of celebrating the good news of God’s forgiveness and the in breaking of the reign of God… they are amazed at his audacity. They’ve always heard of great preachers and prophets as larger than life characters. Amazing people. Astonishing in person.

But this is just Mary’s son.

There’s his sisters.

And his brothers.

He’s not some super trained doctorate of religion… he’s a carpenter. Look, I’m using the chair he made last year. And Bobby over there used to make mud pies with little Jesus and Tammy there changed his diapers.

This is no miracle worker. This is Just Jesus.

Our church is no church in Corinth. No Saint Paul’s Cathedral or none-denominational mega church. This is Just Saint Michael’s.

What can we do?

The people in Jesus’ hometown thought he was nothing and so saw him do nothing. They were limited by how much they would permit him to be. They knew the human Jesus who had faults and flaws and was so mortal. And they demanded miracle workers to be fully perfect and have everything in order.

But that’s not the message of God. God loved us while we were still sinners. While not perfect, we’re called. While full of the Spirit or full of spiritual emptiness, we are included into the Body of Christ and told there is a spot for us. Those full of visions and those questioning the existence of God both are called to be saints, and to “Come be [Christ’s] light” to the world. (Jesus to Mother Theresa)

So Jesus sends us out. Sends the disciples out. Sends us out. Not loaded with everything figured out and perfect, but carrying just Jesus. He tells them to go with the bare minimum and to rely on the hospitality of strangers. He tells them to go with nothing spare. No backups. No money. Not even an extra cloak or pair of shoes. Just themselves. “Eugene Peterson offers Jesus’ instructions this way: “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment” (The Message).

God never calls the equipped. God equips the called.

God never picks perfect people, perfect churches, perfect situations. God makes perfect the strength in those called.

And we, all who are Christian, are called to be Christ’s light to the world.

In your weakness, strength is made perfect.

In your need of Christ, you are filled with Christ whether you feel it or not.

In your brokenness, you are the perfect person to help another who is broken.

In your pain, you understand the pain of another.

Rev. Sally Brown applies these thoughts to our world today. She writes, “…culture is eyeing the churches these days, testing our credibility. Congregations may imagine that they cannot think about public witness until their internal problems, doctrinal and budgetary, are all resolved. But it may be precisely our internal challenges that press us into the kind of engagement with each other and with the Spirit that can turn us, sooner rather than later, away from cloying self-absorption and outward to the world God loves. Even in our weakness, maybe even because of it, we become credible witnesses of saving news in this frantic, fearful world.”

In other words… our culture is looking to us, looking to church communities, to see how to get through our trying times.

America is fractured and fighting. As we fight ourselves, we affect our world. The effects are helping raise tensions everywhere. Are we heading towards another world war?

I don’t know.

I do know, that we, in our imperfection, are called to this hurting country and hurting world. Not because we have it all together, but because we’re authentic in our tries to live together in our diversity. We are the equipment. We are the witnesses. We are the people called to say, “I wholly disagree with you, but I can still love you.” “I will not ever vote like you do, but I will share bread with you.” “I am not you, but I am glad you are my neighbor.”

Who you are now, without everything figured out, is needed now to be Christ’s light.

Amen.