We are the rich man – a sermon

Every Sunday morning, at approximately 8:02, Episcopalians at Christ Church and all over the world hear these words, “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, ‘thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’”  As I read and reread the Gospel passage for this week, I couldn’t help but notice that those words are not what our Lord Jesus Christ saith to the man who came to him seeking eternal life.  I began to wonder what was it about this guy that he would receive such a unique response from Jesus?  There is nothing in this story that would lead us to believe this man sought out Jesus with anything other than a sincere desire for eternal life.  Unlike most of Jesus’ sparring partners, this man doesn’t appear to be a spy from Scribes and Pharisees trying to trap Jesus in a war of words.  Rather, he is simply a faithful Jew, trying to gain a deeper understanding from this now famous itinerant Rabbi.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Isn’t that the question all of us have for Jesus?  Please, just tell me clearly, what exactly must I do to gain entrance into heaven?  Do I have to say the sinner’s prayer?  Do I need to have a momentous conversion experience?  Do I have to memorize Bible verse?  What can I do to get my ticket punched?  Jesus responds as only Jesus can.  Jesus never answers a question directly, so he starts by inviting the man to think about the very natures of God and of humanity.  If no one is good but God alone, then a) calling Jesus good would put him on par with God, and b) the man’s question is already answered in the asking.  No one can do anything to gain eternal life because no one is good except God.

After a brief aside, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, essentially listing the last seven of the Ten Commandments.  These are said to have made up the second of the two tablets brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai.  They deal with how members of the community of the faithful interact with one another.  It would seem that here Jesus saith only the commandment that is like unto the first, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why?  Elsewhere in the Gospels, we are told that Jesus can see into the hearts and minds of those around him.  When the Pharisees grumble amongst themselves, Jesus knows.  When the disciples are afraid or confused, Jesus knows.  Jesus knows the heart of this man as well. He knows that he has lived a good life; that he isn’t one prone to fraud, violence, or theft.  Jesus knows full well that this man knew the second tablet by heart and that his life was defined by those laws.

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  By changing the way in which he addresses Jesus, the man proves that he is listening to him – that he will really looking to learn from this Rabbi and amend his life.  It is no wonder that Jesus looked at him and loved him in this moment.  How many others had approached Jesus with some sort of need, but were totally unwilling to be changed?  This man was genuine, and Jesus loved him for it.  And yet, Jesus knew the man’s heart.  He knew that he did, in fact, lack one thing, and Jesus loved the man anyway. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.”  The man, who, we now find out was exceedingly wealthy, walked away from Jesus shocked and saddened.  He had learned what he must do to inherit eternal life, and he knew he was incapable.  Jesus had called him to a radical reorientation of his life’s values, and he knew that he couldn’t pull it off.  The rich man had loving his neighbor down pat, but it was the first three commandments that he couldn’t quite get a handle on.  Jesus, no longer the good teacher the man wanted, but rather the teacher that he needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something.  It seems it is that pesky first commandment.  You know, the one about having no other gods but God.  It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth.  His possessions were his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.

This is where we encounter the truth of the Hebrews lesson for this morning.  Scripture really is a two-edged sword.  As much as we might like to have this story be all about the rich man’s failures, it is about our own as well. It is easy to hear today’s gospel lesson and think, “Oh, that’s not about me.”  When Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” the reaction of most 21st century American Christians is to look at least one step up on the economic ladder, shake our heads, and think, as the Pharisee once did, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not them.”

This temptation is one we should be wary of.  First, Jesus wasn’t too kind to the Pharisee in that parable.  More to the point, however, is the reality that 21st century America is, by and large, a very wealthy place.  Even the average minimum wage worker in the United States earns more than 93% of the rest of the world’s population.  The monetarily rich, it would seem, aren’t that far away.  Still, I can’t help but think if this passage is both about money and not about money.  What if Jesus is using the example of the rich would-be-disciple to prove a larger point about faithfulness?  In Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic bible translation, The Message, he translates Matthew’s version of the beatitude about poverty as, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

What if being rich isn’t just about money?  What if being rich is about being comfortable.  What if being rich is about self-reliance?  Even if we are unwilling to characterize ourselves as financially rich, by virtue of our upbringing in self-reliant post World War 2 America, many of us are subject to this idea that we don’t need anyone else.  Me and (maybe) my Jesus are all we need to get through life.  When we look at the world this way, then yes, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich in self-reliance to enter the kingdom of God.

Kingdom living is about fully trusting in God’s grace.  Kingdom living is about turning outward, looking at the world through God’s eyes, and seeing that life isn’t just about me, myself, and I, but about the communities in which we live and move and have our being.  Kingdom living is about taking all we have, giving it up for the good of the world God created, and following Jesus.

Kingdom living isn’t easy.  You might sometimes feel like the rich man, ready to walk away shocked and saddened.  Other times, you might want to join with the disciples in throwing up your hands and wondering, “Who then can be saved?”  I know I feel that way from time to time.  In those moments, it is important that we hear another thing our Lord Jesus Christ saith, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  Amen.

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The Rich

In an era of growing income inequality, with many, for the first time, coming to recognize the plutocratic power of a few corporate conglomerates, it is easy to hear Sunday’s gospel lesson and think, “Oh, that’s not about me.”  When Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” the reaction of most 21st century American Christians is to look at least one step up on the economic ladder, shake our heads, and think, as the Pharisee once did, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not them.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, this temptation is one we should be wary of.  Even the average minimum wage worker in the United States earns more than 93% of the rest of the world’s population.  The monetarily rich, it would seem, aren’t that far away.

camel-and-needle3

As preachers are wont to do, however, I can’t help but think if this passage from Mark is both about money and not about money.  What if Jesus is using the example of the rich would-be-disciple to prove a larger point about faithfulness?  In Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic bible translation, The Message, Peterson translates Matthew’s version of the beatitude about poverty thusly, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

What if being rich isn’t just about money?  What if being rich is about being comfortable.  What if being rich is about self-reliance?  Even if we are unwilling to characterize ourselves as fiscally rich, by virtue of our upbringing in self-reliant post World War 2 America, many of us are subject to this idea that we don’t need anyone else.  Me and (maybe) my Jesus are all we need to get through life.  When we look at the world this way, then yes, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich in self-reliance to enter the kingdom of God.

See, kingdom living is about trusting in God’s grace.  Kingdom living is about turning outward, looking at the world through God’s eyes, and about seeing that existence isn’t just about me, myself, and I, but about the communities in which we live and move and have our being.  Kingdom living is about taking all we have, giving it up for the good of the world God created, and following Jesus.

I’m not saying that Jesus’ encounter with the rich man isn’t about money – it is stewardship season, after all – but what I am suggesting is that if we think it is only about money, it becomes too easy to dismiss.

You might join with the disciples in throwing up your hands and wondering, “Who then can be saved?”  I know I think that from time to time.  Just remember the words of Jesus, “For mortals it is impossible,” that is, you can’t rely on your self to get it done, “bur not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Living and Active

One of the great joys that came in 2017 (and there were many – new church, new house, new town, etc.) was the opportunity to write two chapters for Acts to Action: The New Testament’s Guide to Evangelism and Mission.  Edited by two dear friends of mine, Susan Brown Snook and Adam Trambley, Acts to Action is a deep dive into the eight chapter of Acts as a blueprint for being the Church in a changing world.  I commend it to you. (Full Disclosure – I receive no personal financial gain from your purchasing this book from Forward Movement for you, your congregational leaders, family, and friends.)

acts-to-action

Seriously, buy this book

One of the chapters I was asked to write was about the Bible, and how we might use it to help facilitate mission and evangelism.  The central text was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, in which Philip, led by the Spirit, helped the Eunuch to understand what he was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  As I wrote that chapter, what continuously came to mind is the opening line from Sunday’s lesson from Hebrews 4, “The word of God is living and active…”

There are two things I love about this phrase.  First, as I’ve discussed elsewhere (here and here), I think it cases the letter w properly as a lower case letter.  Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the Word of God, capital W.  The Bible, on the other hand, is the word of God, lower case w.  I can’t remember whether it was on the television or radio, but sometime in the last week, I happened upon a preacher who was talking about the absolute truth of the bible.  He suggested, with an eye toward liberal mainline Protestants, that some churches didn’t believe the bible to be absolutely true in everything it says.  Count me among those accused, but I’d argue for a bit of nuance, which isn’t the forte of television and radio preachers.  Saying that the Bible isn’t absolutely true, to my mind, means that it isn’t 100% factually accurate.  One need not look beyond the first two chapters of Genesis to see the two very different creation stories to know that the bible cannot and does not claim factual infallibility.  The bible is, however, 100% true in that it tells the very real story of God’s love for all of creation, and God’s desire to be in right relationship with humankind.  My friend the radio/television preacher was arguing for the book he was holding in his hand to be the Word of God, but I would suggest that only Jesus gets to carry that capital letter.

I’ve digressed, as usual.  What this post was supposed to be about was the titular phrase, “living and active.”  As I said, while writing that chapter, this phrase kept coming to mind.  Those who read the scriptures with regularity often note that they have found something new in their reading.  Rather than being a dry, old book that sits on a shelf, when you engage the bible, you’ll find that the Spirit is at work in and through the words on the page, ready to teach you something new, expand your horizons, or call you to a new and deeper understanding of God.

Good Teacher?

Preachers have only now begun to recuperate after yesterday’s triennial tap-dance around the divorce text when a young rich man comes running up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and cries out, “Good teacher.”  Good teacher?  Did he not hear what went down earlier in Mark 10?  Good teacher?  Is he not aware of what Jesus is about to do to him and to preachers for the next several thousand years?  Good teacher?

After a quick rebuke from Jesus, the rich man, seemingly no longer on the ground in front of Jesus, puffs up his chest, removes the good from his title and goes to to proudly claim that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth.  Good God man!?! Who in their right mind would make such a claim?  And yet, he does.  He boldly suggests that he has been able to keep all 10 of the Big-uns for as long as he’s been in control of his actions.  Good for him.

Jesus, no longer the good teacher, but now the teacher that the rich man needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something.  It seems it is that pesky first commandment.  You know, the one about having no other gods but God.  It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth.  His possessions are his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  In the words of old Hank Williams, Jr.

that-aint-good

That ain’t good, at all

It is easy, and quite tempting on the heels of last week’s text, to make this not-so-good teaching from Jesus exclusive to the rich man.  It’s be easier to say, “Jesus wanted him to sell everything, but Jesus didn’t understand late-stage capitalism, and you’re good.”  But, well, that’s probably not all true.  It would be difficult, and maybe a little tempting in a world built on scarcity, to say, “Yep, Jesus meant this for everyone.  To follow Jesus, you’ll have to sell it all, give it to the church (because the church is surely poor).”  But, that’s probably not all true either.

What the teacher, who we know to be good, seems to be saying to the rich man and to us, is that we do all kinds of bending over backwards to make sure God isn’t the God of everything in our lives.  We like to make it look like we’ve got this faith thing together, like we trust in Jesus, and like we are living in the Kingdom of God, but the hard reality is that all of us struggle to keep from making something else the god of our lives.  It might not be money for you.  It might be power, drugs, success, soccer practice, feelings, politics, or your resume.  There might be any number of things that are clamoring for you to hold on tight, lest God might come into your life and change your priorities.  What Jesus is inviting that rich man to experience is truth faith, letting go of everything he thought he could control, and trust fully in God.

That’s a teaching that might be hard, but it really is good.

Faith like a Country Ham

For the last fourteen years, I have lived south of the Mason Dixon Line.  More importantly, the last eleven years have been south of the Sweet Tea Line, thanks be to God.  I have come to love grits, especially when they are filled with smoked gouda and jalapeños. I can fry a turkey. I even like pork rinds, though you’ll never get me to try the microwavable kind I saw at a Dollar General in rural deep south Alabama one time.  Of all the southern specialties that I’ve learned to love over the past decade and half, it is smoked meats for which I am most grateful.  My first experience of the dipped pork shoulder at the Smokey Pig is something I will never forget. Driving past the Conecuh Sausage smokehouse on I-65 is truly a gift from God.  I own a smoker, and I very much enjoy what smoke and time can do to a turkey, chicken, beef, venison, pork, and even fish.  Despite all of these wonderful new flavor experiences, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I first experienced the cultural food oddity that is the country ham.

We were hosting the Diocese of Kentucky’s New Beginnings program here at Christ Church.  Clergy in new calls gather together to discuss the particular challenges of transition and to learn new skills.  As is the custom, Canon Jason ordered lunch from Cambridge Market.  There were a few vegetarian sandwiches, and then an even mix of boxes labeled turkey and “CTY” ham.  Being a good host, I took from the ham stack because it seemed to be the less popular option.  I didn’t pay much attention to the CTY prefix written on the box, but as I bit into that sandwich for the first time, I learned a few truths very quickly.  I learned that CTY meant country, not city, and for the first time ever, I began to understand what Jesus was talking about when he used the image of salt to talk about the life of faith.

The most common way to understand Jesus when he talks about salt is as a preserving agent.  As in the case of country hams, salt has been used to keep meat from spoiling for most of human history.  In the days before refrigeration, salt’s anti-microbial properties were used to keep meat fresh for long periods of time.  In Jesus’ time and place, salted fish would have been a common part of the diet, and so when Jesus talks about being salted with fire, his followers would have understood that he was calling on them to be purified, cleansed from sin.  Just as bacteria cannot live in a saline environment, sin cannot have an ongoing hold in the lives of those who claim to be disciples of Jesus.  Being covered by the Holy Spirit in prayer, Biblical study, and the ongoing support and accountability that comes in Christian community means that over time, those sins that have kept us from fully loving God and loving neighbor will be removed from our lives.

I’ve always understood the preserving image, but it wasn’t until that first bite into a Cambridge Market Country Ham sandwich that I really came to understand the second truth about salt and the life of faith – it should be noticeable.  “If salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”  As Christians who are preserved by the salt of the Spirit, when we go out into the world, we too should be conspicuous.  The world, as the 1960s hymn goes, should know that we are Christians by our love.  Our faith should be as obvious as the saltiness of a slice of country ham.  It should be noticeable in how we treat our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies.  It should be noticeable in how we care for one another through prayer, acts of loving service, and our respect for all of God’s children.  It should be noticeable in how we shop, how we vote, and how we care for the world around us.  Like the saltiness of that country ham sandwich, our faith should be evident to everyone we meet.

That ham sandwich taught me a lot about saltiness and faith – that we are preserved by the Spirit and that our faith should be obvious to the world around us – but I was still left scratching my head about that last sentence, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  Thankfully, the Lord provides when preaching on short notice, and I ran across a reflection on this passage by a UCC Pastor named Rachel Keefe.  She encouraged me to look in my spice cabinet to notice the wide variety of salts that are available.  There is the ubiquitous blue canister with a girl in a yellow rain coat filled with iodized table salt.  We use that in baking recipes that require careful measurement. There’s finely ground pickling salt that gets mixed into brines for poultry that goes on the smoker.  On the table is a grinder full of beautiful pink Himalayan salt.  Somewhere in my archives, there is even a small vessel of flavored salt that was mined from deep in the ground underneath Salzburg, Austria, a souvenir from a three-week trip with my High School German class.  Meanwhile, on the shelves at the store, there are seasoning salts, smoked salt, pretzel salt, black, pink, and grey sea salts.

Keefe wonders, “What if they all stopped being salty? Or what if all their distinct flavors became indistinct? What if they somehow became discontent with their job of sitting on my shelf [waiting to be called upon for their unique abilities], and they started to fight with each other? …

“Jesus wasn’t referring to my salt collection when he spoke to his disciples. But it’s what I picture when I read this text. I see the church as all the different kinds of salt. …  It doesn’t matter if you are the old blue canister of iodized salt or if you are regular sea salt or smoked salt or salt of a different color. You can’t shove one off the shelf or stop being salty. You are salt. I am salt. We have a job to do. To do it best we have to recognize our own saltiness and the saltiness of those who share the shelf.”[1] Only then, can we live at peace with one another.

In the end, none of us can change our God given flavor.  The gifts bestowed upon us in baptism are ours to use, and as a community, when we share those gifts with the wider world, we are blessed to come alongside God in the good work of preservation, adding our own unique flavor to the world, for the sake of the Gospel

Salt preserves.  Salt is noticeable.  Salt comes in many varieties.  There is much to learn from Jesus’ salty imagery.  I may never eat another country ham sandwich again, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of this oft-used image for the life of faith.  Have salt in yourselves, my friends, and be at peace with one another.  Amen.

[1] From “Sunday’s Coming” weekly email from The Christian Century, September 24, 2018.

Greatness in the Kingdom – a sermon

REC_0002.MP4 from Rick Mitchell on Vimeo.


 

One of the unintended consequences of the 21st century priesthood is the email forward.  It isn’t uncommon for me to get an email or two a week of funny bulletin bloopers or church jokes.  I read most of them because you never know where a sermon illustration might be hiding.  This week, as I thought about how to approach our Gospel text, one of those stories I read several years ago came to mind.[1]  It is the story of a small jet with five passengers.  While flying at thirty-thousand feet, the engine malfunctioned and the plane started to descend toward earth.  The pilot came running out of the cockpit with a parachute strapped to his back and said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.  The bad news is that the plane is going to crash and there is nothing I can do about it.  The good news is that there are several parachutes on the wall back there.  The other bad news is that there are only four of them left and there are five of you.  Good luck.  Thank you for choosing our airline, and we hope that you have a good evening, where ever your final destination may be.”  With that, he gave the stunned passengers a thumbs up, opened the door, and jumped for safety.

Immediately, a man jumped out of his seat and said, “I am the greatest brain surgeon in the world.  My patients depend on me and the world is a better place because of my breakthroughs.”  He grabbed a pack, strapped it to his back, and jumped.

Then a woman stood up and said, “I’m a partner in the greatest law firm in the country.  We go up against big tobacco, asbestos companies, and fight for the little guy.  The world is a better place with me in it.”  She grabbed a pack strapped it to her back, and jumped.

Next, another man stood up and said, “I am arguably the smartest man in the world.  My IQ is so great that I won’t even tell you what is, but surely you understand that the world needs me, so I simply must take a parachute.”  He grabbed a pack, strapped it to his back, and jumped.

That left only two people on the plane, a middle-aged priest and a teenage boy.

“Young man,” said the priest, “you take the last parachute.  You’re young; you still have your whole life ahead of you to do great things.  God bless you, and safe landing.”

The teenager grinned at the older woman.  “Thanks pastor, but there are still two parachutes left. The smartest man in the world just grabbed my backpack.”

Like this joke, our Gospel lesson today is a story about how human beings misunderstand greatness in the eyes of God.  It begins with something of a replay of last week’s text.  In Mark’s Gospel, it has been eight or nine days since we last encountered Jesus and his disciples in the coastal resort village of Caesarea Philippi.  Jesus had taken his disciples there for the first ever clergy conference.  Having stepped away from the hustle and bustle of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry, they were able to have some deeper conversations about who Jesus was and what he had come to do.

When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, Peter was quick to respond with the right answer, “You are the Messiah,” he boldly proclaimed.  Surely, Peter was thrilled to finally have it out in the open.  It’d been almost a year of following Jesus around – a year of uncertainty about to whom they had hitched their wagon – and now, finally, they could say that Jesus was the Messiah, the Chosen One of God.  Instead, Jesus sternly ordered them to tell no one.  He went on to describe what being the Messiah meant.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter, blessed, impetuous Peter, knew for sure that that was not what the greatness of the Messiah was supposed to look like, and so he tried to rebuke Jesus.  To Peter’s mind, there was no greatness in vulnerability.  There was now power in dying.  There was no future kingdom in that plan.  No, that couldn’t be what God had in mind at all.  Jesus’ response is strong and clear, “Get behind me Satan!  If you want to be my follower, then deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”  It’s been about a week since that difficult exchange.  Just yesterday, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain.  They heard him talking with Moses and Elijah about God’s plan for the salvation of the world.  They had experienced Jesus at what they thought was his greatest.

As they set off for their next stop, making their way through the Galilean countryside, Jesus again warns his disciples about what being the Messiah will mean.  “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  Mark tells us that the disciples don’t have the slightest clue what Jesus is talking about.  They simply cannot understand how God’s plan to restore Israel to greatness could look so weak.  They are totally confused, and are also completely unwilling or unable to admit their vulnerability.  They simply cannot buy Jesus’ assertion that greatness looks like self-sacrificial love.  Greatness, in their mind, is power, strength, and knowledge – not vulnerability, weakness, and death.

As their journey continues, this idea that greatness is best expressed in power and privilege spills over into an argument.  The disciples fight over which one of them is the greatest.  Like the passengers on that airplane, each one of them used their resume to make a case for greatness, angling for which one of them would sit at the right hand of Jesus when he finally gave up on this silly idea about being arrested and killed, and instead used his power to take his rightful place on the throne of David by force.   I imagine Jesus, hearing what was happening behind him, rubbing the dull ache in his forehead, and wondering aloud if they will ever get what he is trying to tell them.  “Here is how greatness works in the Kingdom of God.  If you want to be the first, the best, the greatest, then you have to put yourself last.  To be great, you have to be the servant of all.”

Spoiler Alert – the disciples won’t get it this time either, and every day since, the Church has continued to largely fail to understand it as well.  For two thousand years, the institution of the Church has been tooting its own horn, grabbing backpacks that it assumed was a parachute, and struggling with what greatness really looks like.  It isn’t about being the biggest.  It isn’t about having the most money.  It isn’t about being the closest to the ear of political power.  It isn’t about fancy buildings, or educated clergy, or flowing vestments, or giant organs, or having that Bishop who preached at the Royal Wedding.  Jesus is clear that what being great is all about is how we use all of those resources to reach outside the walls in loving service to our neighbors.

The Greek word that gets translated as “servant” is diakonos, from which we get the word deacon, but it simply means “to minister.”  Being first in the Kingdom of God, being the greatest church on the block, is about how each and every one of us, as followers of Jesus Christ, lives into our unique calling as ministers of the Good News.  Our greatness is defined by our willingness to be vulnerable; listening to our neighbors, and trying to understand how God is inviting us to love them.  Our greatness is defined by acts of humble service – through Wednesday Community Lunch, Churches United in HELP, Living Waters for the World, MEALS, INC., and Room in the Inn, among many others.  Our greatness is defined by how we pool our resources to make the greatest impact.  Our greatness is defined by how we work together to empower one another for ministry – raising up a community full of disciples of Jesus Christ who are committed to a life of servanthood.  This week, as you receive your pledge card for 2019, I hope you will begin to prayerfully discern how God is calling you to take your place in the greatness Christ Church as together, we share in the ministry of Jesus, a ministry of compassion, vulnerability, and grace.  Amen.

[1] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/finding-losing-life-alyce-mckenzie-09-11-2012

Ignorance isn’t always bliss

You know that nightmare?  The one where you haven’t gone to a single class all semester, but find yourself sitting in the final, panicking because you have no idea how to answer any of the questions?  It is a classic stress dream.  Along the lines of showing up at school in your underwear or, for preachers, not being able to find your sermon text amid reams and reams of paper in the pulpit.  We know dreams to be the subconscious working things out sideways, but there is usually a bit of truth, even in a nightmare like the first example, from which we learn the deep truth that ignorance isn’t always bliss.  We learn the same thing in our rather pointed Gospel lesson for Sunday.  Since last Sunday, when we last heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection, a few things have happened to Jesus and his disciples that the Lectionary skips over, all of which are based in misunderstanding.

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First, Jesus ends his teaching about what it means to call him the Messiah by telling his disciples that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  This promise is nothing to sneeze at, and it will be the source of consternation and confusion for the early church through the entirety of its first generation.  How do we handle the reality that people are dying and the kingdom of God is not fully inaugurated?  We will have to save that for another post, when/if the Lectionary decides to include 9:1.

Next, and more importantly, comes the Transfiguration, which in Mark’s Gospel includes the detail that Peter’s suggestion that they build some houses is based on the fact that he was terrified and didn’t know what to say.  Finally, as Peter, James, John, and Jesus come down the mountain, they find the rest of the disciples scratching their heads over a boy who is possessed by a demon that they could not cast out.  A rather lengthy story, given Mark’s aversion to details, this passage shows us that nobody, as of yet, really understands what this traveling Rabbi, miracle worker, and, hopefully, Messiah, was really about.  “Why couldn’t we cast the demon out?” the disciples as Jesus.  “Because you have no idea how this stuff really works,” Jesus intimates in his reply.

Which brings us finally to Jesus predicting his death and resurrection for a second time.  Mark flat out tells us that the disciples did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask.  The Greek word that is translated at “did not understand,” carries with it the implication that not only did the disciples not get it, but it is likely that they lacked the capacity to ever get it.  This becomes abundantly clear when the disciples next action is to argue over which one of them was greatest.  Jesus just told us that the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the greatest human being to ever live, was gong to be betrayed and killed, and their response is to try to figure out who will be there to take his place?  No, this sort of ignorance is not bliss.  This ignorance is totally missing the point of who Jesus was and what he came to do. This ignorance is Calvin flying blissfully down the hill in his wagon, ignorant of the likely painful ending to his ride.

It strikes me that many who claim to follow Jesus in 21st century America are suffering from the same sort of ignorance – following Jesus assuming it brings with it some sort of major award at the end, rather than the truth that Jesus exemplified in his life, that the kingdom of God is where the first are last and the last are first.  Following Jesus isn’t about securing celestial fire insurance or making your country greater than all the rest or about safety, comfort, or security.  Following Jesus is, as we heard last week, about denying yourself and taking up your cross.  Following Jesus is about laying down your life – literally and figuratively – for the sake of the other.  Following Jesus is about embracing vulnerability and trusting fully in God.  To misunderstand this reality is to fundamentally miss the point.