The Kingdom is Now

One of the problems with being a lectionary-based preacher who doesn’t preach every week is that the appointed passages can begin to take on a life of their own, independent of the larger story.  They become bite-sized morsels, almost as if they are proverbs that you can just dust off for a week, only to eventually place them back into their slot in a compendium of vaguely spiritual ideas.  One week, it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Another week, we read about Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary.  Next, we get the Lord’s Prayer or the Rich Fool.  Taken separately, each of these short passages offers us a lesson.  Love your neighbor.  Focus on the Kingdom.  Prayer deepens our relationships.  Be rich toward God.  None of these are bad things, but taken in isolation, we learn only in part what it means to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I really struggled this week with what seemed like the most isolated of all the lessons we’ve had lately.  On Wednesday, I was in the car, driving to make a hospital visit, when I heard a quote from one of my favorite modern philosophers, Nicholas Lou Saban that put it all together.  Nick Saban is, for those who don’t know, the head football coach at the University of Alabama.  Coach Saban is one of the most fluent coach-speakers in the history of coach speak.  He can spend 20 minutes talking and say nothing at all.  Yet somehow, in this case, as I listened, I began to realize that, put back together, the last five weeks of Gospel lessons have had a consistent theme running through.  With the ubiquitous bottle of Coca-Cola Classic placed in the sight of the camera, Coach Saban spoke to reporters about the importance of his players focusing only on today.

UA Coaches Press Conference

“It’s really important that they focus on what they control today.  We have so many players here who get frustrated about what happened yesterday, or they get a little complacent because they had success yesterday.  And then we get some players who get worried about what is going to happen in the future.  Really, what you do today, correctly, making the right choices and decisions… that’s what really prepares you for the future… You know, all of us are a little bit addicted to tomorrow. I’ll quit smoking tomorrow. I’ll go on a diet tomorrow… I’ll start studying tomorrow, but really making it happen today is the way you improve. That’s the way we’ll get better. That’s the way you’ll create more value for yourself and that’ll really help our team get a lot better as well.”

Dan and Stu, the sports-talk guys I was listening to, unpacked what Coach Saban was saying, noting that he was actually tapping into something that is taught in many of the world’s religions.  “It’s not just great coaching.  You will find… there is great wisdom in that that you will find in a spiritual quest.  Eckhart Tolle [who, by the way, changed his name due to the influence of the 13th century Christian Mystic, Meister Eckhart] has written about the power of now.  The two things that happen in life that contaminate a human… are regret, which is yesterday, and fear, which is tomorrow.”[1]  As I listened, I realized that over the last five weeks, as we’ve walked with Jesus all around the Galilean countryside, the larger lesson that Luke is trying to convey to his readers is to focus on the now in order to be present to what God has given you and to what God is calling you in this moment.

It began two chapters ago with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  A lawyer, who was fearful about the future, asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  The response, that the law is summed up simply in “love God and love your neighbor,” is totally dependent on the now.  True love, the sort of love of which Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection serves as an example, can only exist in the now.  As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “true love keeps no record of wrongs” – it is not worried about the past, and “true love does not envy” – it is not focused on what I can get next.  Real love exists in this moment as you choose, minute by minute, to seek what is best for the person God has placed right in front of you.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite live in fear and worry, focused only on the future, and so, they pass by the injured traveler.  The Good Samaritan, however, was present to the need that God had placed right in front of him and thereby loved his neighbor.

Again, in the story of Jesus being welcomed into Martha’s home, we learn about the power of now.  In the hustle and bustle of the day, Martha was distracted by so many things that her worries were actively pulling her away from the gift that was sitting right in front of her.  When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he stressed the importance of hoping for the Kingdom to come, and that they should seek forgiveness for the sins of the past, but that their prayer should be focused on what God has set before each of us today, “give us this day our daily bread.”  Even last week, in the parable of the rich fool, we hear about the importance of being thankful in the present moment.  There is no wisdom in storing up treasures for tomorrow, but instead, we are called to share what we have right now with those whom God has set before us.

That theme continues into this week’s Gospel lesson with Jesus encouraging his disciples using the words that the spokespeople of God have used since the very beginning, “Do not be afraid.”  The Lectionary skipped us over similar teachings about worry, and Jesus’ famous line about the lilies of the field, “how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  During the long journey toward the cross, I have no doubt that the disciples were wracked with fear and filled with worry.  Where would they sleep?  How would they find food?  Had they hitched their wagon to the wrong leader as it seemed clear that Jesus wasn’t interested in political leadership or military power.

In the midst of it all, Jesus looked at them and said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  There is nothing that can be done about the sins of the past, but to seek forgiveness.  You have no power of the future, other than what you can do right now to make it better.  So, be present to the possibility of today.  Sell your possessions in order to meet the needs of your neighbor.  Put your trust in the Lord who will supply all your needs.  The Kingdom of God is available to you right now, if you will only be present to it.

As Coach Saban so wisely observed, the world is addicted to tomorrow.  The 24-hour news cycle, which blares at us in every waiting room, dining room, and gas pump, is dependent upon our fear of what tomorrow might bring.  Advertisers and lobbyists make their obscenely comfortable livelihoods by getting us addicted to the regrets of the past and the fear of the future, and then selling us on their particular solution to it.  Fear is the foundation of all the -isms which plague our nation: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and xenophobia, to name a few.  Fear is the root cause and the goal of the proliferation of violent acts that terrorize us on an almost daily basis.  The Kingdom of God, into which Jesus invites each of us, offers something completely different.  In the Kingdom of God, peace surpasses fear, love outweighs anger, and forgiveness overcomes regret.  It truly is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom, but you have to be present to win.  Your eyes must be open to the needs of your neighbor and to the gifts God has given you.  It is what each of us chooses to do with the now that will help bring the Kingdom just a little bit closer to earth as it is in heaven.  Do not be afraid, my friends, for it is God’s desire to bring forth the Kingdom through you: right here, right now.  Amen.

[1] The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, August 6, 2019, Podcast “Hour 3: Ron Magill”

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“Jesus Christ, Would you do something about her!”

The first time I told you this story[1], I promised that you’d one day get tired of hearing it, but it’s been two years, so you’ve probably forgotten it by now anyway.  It comes from a book called Dakota, the spiritual memoir of American poet, Kathleen Norris.  At one point, Norris begins to reflect on the tradition of hospitality that Christian monasticism has inherited from our ancient Jewish siblings.  It is seemingly written into the DNA of the monastic tradition that a wayward traveler can always find safe lodging and a meal with monks who are trained to welcome every stranger as if it were Jesus himself knocking on the gate.  Even in the monastery, however, true hospitality is challenging to maintain.  Norris tells the story of an older monk sharing with a younger monk how difficult it is to always be ready to welcome a stranger as if they were Jesus.  “I have finally learned to accept people as they are,” the older monk said.  “Whatever they are in the world – a prostitute or a prime minister – it is all the same to me. But sometimes, I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, “Oh Jesus Christ, is that you again?”

Offering hospitality is difficult, no matter who it is we are welcoming.  Whether it is a new faculty member from up the hill, a new employee at one of our may industrial plants here in town, or a neighbor experiencing homelessness, at Christ Episcopal Church we believe that we too are called to welcome each new person who enters our midst as if they were Jesus, but in our Gospel lesson this morning, we learn that actually welcoming Jesus can be challenging.  As I mentioned several weeks ago, offering hospitality to travelers was a given for people in the ancient world.  Life was still very nomadic in those days and the Hyatt hotel chain had yet to be created.  Whether you were travelling for religious, economic, or political reasons, travelers were often dependent upon the kindness of strangers for a place to rest and find nourishment.  It was just a few verses ago when Jesus sent seventy disciples ahead of him to prepare the way with instruction to take nothing extra with them, and to rely on the hospitality of others everywhere they went.  As his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem unfolded, Jesus practiced what he preached; spending a couple of days in many small villages along the way, eating what was served to him, and sleeping where he could find a place to lie down for the night.

On this particular day, Jesus arrived at the home of Martha who welcomed him and his disciples with open arms and a flurry of activity.  Luke doesn’t tell us what all her many tasks were, but we can take some educated guesses.  First, she likely prepared a bowl of clean water, in which the travelers could wash their feet from the dusty road.  Next, she stoked the fire in order to bake fresh bread and prepare the evening meal.  She likely got to work grinding up the chickpeas for hummus, while maybe a servant went to the market to get fresh olives.  Following the Law, the rituals for hand and vessel washing while preparing dinner kept Martha busy enough as she also refreshed the wine and made sure her guests were comfortable.  As the rare single woman who owned her own home in first century Palestine, Martha was most likely used to doing things all on her own, but given the celebrity of her guest this day, surely, she was working harder than usual to make everything extra special.  As she worked, occasionally she glanced at the crowd gathered around Jesus, which was probably a bad idea.  Could nobody see how hard she was working?  Did nobody care?  Who did Mary thinks she was, just sitting there, listening to Jesus as he taught?  As Martha’s resentment grew, she became increasingly distracted, literally in the Greek, dragged about, by her many tasks.

Eventually, Martha became so frustrated with being pulled around by her chores that she lashed out at both Jesus and her sister, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work?  Tell her then to help me.”  Her spirit of hospitality had long-since faded, but it is in this moment that any remaining façade of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home disappeared.  It’s not very hospitable to blame your guest for your sibling’s bad behavior.  It might be even worse to try to drag your guest into the middle of a family dispute.  “Jesus Christ, would you do something about her,” is not the sort of hospitality the Son of God would expect.

It is worth noting that what happens next is not Jesus rebuking Martha for her work.  As I’ve already mentioned, hospitality was an ethical cornerstone in the ancient world.  Unfortunately, this story has long been used to pit women in the church against each other.  If we read Jesus’ words to Martha as an admonition against her busyness, we tend to hear it as Jesus lifting up “the Marys,” those who quietly listen and obey.  While Jesus does say that Mary has chosen the better part, what the issue really seems to be about isn’t pitting those who work against those who pray, as both are required in the Kingdom of God.  Rather, the issue is about where our hearts are focused.

Do you remember back when this journey to Jerusalem first started?  Three different disciples tried to follow Jesus and were sent away.  “There was no time to rest; no time to bury the dead, even a parent; no time to say goodbye to family; no looking back.”[2]  This journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death and resurrection, isn’t a trip that can be taken half-heartedly.  It isn’t a journey that can be put on hold.  Jesus requires full commitment from his disciples, and where Martha falls short isn’t in her wanting to serve, but in how her servanthood ultimately distracted her from the bigger mission.  She had originally welcomed Jesus into her home in the hopes that the Good News would be proclaimed in her community, but she lost focus, got dragged about by her many chores, and ended up breaking relationship with her sister and with Jesus.  Mary’s better choice wasn’t that she lived into the role of the silent woman or that she chose to listen to Jesus, but rather, that she decided to focus on the relationship that God had put right in front of her face.  The one thing that Mary found was love, and she lived it out at the feet of Jesus.  Martha may have started out her service in love, but resentment and frustration took over somewhere down line.  I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Martha.  I know that I’ve begun many a project based in the love of God or the love of my neighbor, but at some point, lost focus and ended up frustrated by a lack of help, a lack of affirmation and accolades, or a lack of other people doing what I hadn’t told them I wanted them to do.

Martha is not simply worried or troubled by the many tasks she has to do.  She’s literally out of control, being dragged here and there by social constructs, internal pressure, and maybe, her Enneagram number.  Like Martha, we live in a world that is constantly trying to draw our attention away from Christ.  It isn’t for our own lack of trying that we are drawn away from sitting at the feet of Jesus, but that our minds are attuned to so many things that we end up being pulled away from him, sometimes literally dragged here and there, by our many tasks.  As the hecticness of the fall looms large, as we fill our calendars to overflowing, I pray that God might gift us with the space to slow down, to let our minds rest at the feet of Jesus, so that we might focus solely on the Kingdom of God and its mission of hospitality, reconciliation, grace, and love.  Amen.

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/true-hospitality-a-sermon/

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=625

Blessings and Woes

As promised on Monday, today I feel compelled to write something coherent about Luke’s version of the beatitudes from Matthew.  As one compares the two sets of teachings, two things come immediately into focus.  First, as I noted on Monday, Luke is much more focused on the nitty gritty, real life stuff.  Second, while Matthew is focused solely on the the “Blessed are you…”s, Luke deals with both the blessing and its opposite woe.

Blessed are you who are poor | Woe to you who are rich
Blessed are you who are hungry | Woe to you who are full
Blessed are you who weep | Woe to you who are laughing
Blessed are you when people hate you | Woe to you when all speak well of you

This parallel structure indicates that Jesus was a really good rhetorical preacher, but it also helps to highlight what Jesus is doing in this scene.  The disciples, to whom Jesus is explicitly speaking, as well as the crowd, which we have to assume is still lingering in the background, would hear these words for Jesus and immediately have their minds taken to the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy.  On the heels of some pretty pointed teaching about the sabbath in Luke 6:1ff, Jesus seems to be reordering the Law by highlighting its root intention.

In Deuteronomy 28, Moses sets down a list of blessings for those who “fully obey the LORD and follow all the commandments of God.”  Similarly, Moses lays out a list of curses that will fall upon all those who “do not obey the LORD and carefully follow God’s commandments.”  Over time, these blessings and curses had come to be associated with the letter of the law – be eat working on the sabbath or the very particular way in pots must be washed – but here Jesus is harkening the crowd back to their roots.

It isn’t about the letter of the law, but rather the spirit of the law.  The letter of the law has created a world in which there are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep.  The letter of the law, in its current abusive incarnation, has made a class of those who are so rich that they don’t know what to do with themselves, who are so satiated and yet still want more, who look down on those who are less fortunate than themselves and laugh with scorn.  Here, Jesus calls “Horse Hockey” on those who have interpreted the law to their own economic advantage.

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“You may be blessed now,” Jesus intimates, “but if your whole worldview is aimed at filling your barns today, that’s all you’ll ever achieve.  Instead, in the great reversal of the Kingdom, it will be those whose lives were dedicated to others, who found themselves poor and neglected, who were committed to deep relationships who will find themselves blessed.  Oh, and if you think that you can use this teaching to hold other down by some kind of promise of future redemption, you too will find yourself in amongst the woes.”

Called to be funny looking

Live from Mevo from Christ Episcopal Church on Vimeo.

On the morning of the third day after Jesus had been crucified, Mary Magdalene went to the garden tomb where he had hastily been laid as the sun was setting and the Feast of the Passover was beginning. She took with her spices, planning to prepare Jesus’ body for a proper and final burial. There was no part of her that could even imagine that Jesus wasn’t going to be right where she left him late Friday afternoon. When Mary arrived at the tomb, much to her surprise and sadness, she found the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body missing. As she turned away from this most disconcerting scene, Mary found herself face-to-face with a man whom she presumed to be the gardener. The man who stood before her didn’t look like anyone she had ever met before, let alone the man who she had followed and supported for the last three years, the man whose teaching had formed her into the follower of God she had become. There was nothing she recognized in the face of the man, until he opened his mouth and said to her, “Mary!”

Have you ever wondered about how strange that story is? Mary had spent years of her life working alongside Jesus, and yet, in that moment she was totally unable to recognize him, and she was not alone. Later that day, two disciples were sulking their way back to Emmaus when Jesus came alongside them, and they didn’t recognize him at any point during the seven-mile hike. That night, while ten of the disciples were locked up by fear in the upper room, Jesus appeared before them and they were terrified because they did not recognize him. It would seem that the resurrected Jesus didn’t look like the Jesus that his disciples had come to know and love. The resurrected body of Christ looked different. The resurrected body of Christ look odd. Maybe even the resurrected body of Christ looked a bit funny.

In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul had to deal with all kinds of issues in their common life. There were issues of class, power, and privilege. The poor were being excluded from sharing in the Eucharistic feast. Folks who prayed in tongues were looking down on everyone else. Those in need were being systematically ignored. It is clear that Paul was frustrated with how everyone who claimed to be following in the Way of Jesus all seemed to be operating in isolation from one another. Christianity in Corinth was about me and my Jesus, and Paul felt compelled to write a letter admonishing them that true Christianity in the Way of Jesus is a team sport. There are no lone rangers in this life of faith, but rather, the reality of church is that we are stuck together just like the various parts of our body are stuck together, sometimes privileged and sometimes forced to work alongside one another for the common good.

We can’t all be loud mouths for Jesus. Not everyone is called to walk along the margins as the feet of Christ. The thought of being a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on might be terrifying for you. None of that means that you are less a part of the body of Christ as it is made incarnate here at Christ Church, Bowling Green. In fact, without lungs, muscle, eyes, hands, tendons, bones, and a nervous system this body cannot live fully into who we are called to be. While I can imagine that the eye might want to look down upon the descending colon, the hard reality of living in a community of faith is that God has placed each of us here with great intention for the good of not just the members of Christ Church, but for the good of Bowling Green, Warren County, and the world.

Here’s the rub, however. The Christ Church Bowling Green incarnation of the Body of Christ is pretty nice looking. We have a beautiful physical plant that is well-appointed and well-maintained. We are nicely dressed, our music is fine, and our ministry is multi-faceted. We are well staffed with great people who love Jesus. We are very well funded. As a result, we have the real danger of becoming like narcissus, getting stuck admiring our own beauty and forgetting that the call of the Body of Christ is to be messy. One of our real challenges of our health is losing sight of the reality that the resurrected body of Christ didn’t look like people expected it to look.

This week, Laura, Karen, Becca, Kellie and I had the chance to gather with 400 other Christian formation ministers to grow in our vocations. At the opening Eucharist, Dr. Catherine Meeks, Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing preached. In her sermon, Dr. Meeks suggested that our calling as disciples of Jesus is to follow in the pattern of Jesus and his resurrected life by looking funny. When we dream the big dreams of God. When we imagine that the reconciliation of all the world to God is possible by way of big hairy audacious goals like ending racism, classism, sexism, and poverty. When we dream beyond our comfort zone by engaging in relationship and sharing breakfast with those who are experiencing homelessness in our Cloister Community, Dr. Meeks suggests that it is only natural for people to look at us funny. “We [our institutions, our budgets, our desire for church to be comfortable] are invested in not being funny looking, but funny looking is what we are supposed to be,” she argued. “Jesus was kind of funny looking. Always doing funny looking stuff.”

The resurrected body of Christ was funny looking, and as the Body of Christ still on earth, the Church is supposed to be funny looking too. We are called to live in a way that is at odds with what society deems to be beautiful. As we follow Jesus in radiating God’s love to all, things are going to get messy, and the truth is, they already are. I know in myself how uncomfortable I am when I feel like people are looking at me funny. I know how disconcerting it is to not have all the answers, when the rules seem to constantly be changing, when I can’t simply do a quick cost-benefit analysis and know the single right answer. I know that deep down in my DNA is a desire to conform to the patterns that the world expects of me, but I am also convinced that those patterns that are traditionally defined as beauty are a lie.

True beauty is found when each of us who are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ are utilizing the gifts that were given to us in our baptism for the building up of the Church and the restoration of the world. I am grateful for all those who shared their gifts to that good and perfect end in the year that has passed. For our retiring vestry members sharing their gifts of administration. For our breakfast teams, stretching their gifts of hospitality. For our Sacred Conversations group offering their gifts of mercy. For our pastoral care team utilizing their gifts of compassion. Sunday school teachers offering their gifts of teaching. The Wednesday Community Lunch sharing gifts of hospitality, helps, and compassion. The list goes on and on.

2019 seems to be a year in which we are being called to learn and grow together. Growth is never easy and rarely beautiful. Growing can mean awkwardness, as we get used to new opportunities. Growing can mean pain, as we stretch beyond our normal level of comfort. Growing can mean stress, as we are invited to move in new and different ways. But growing also means increased capacity for love. Growing means new chances to radiate God’s love. Growing means a greater reliance on prayer, a deeper trust in God, and a fuller awareness of our giftedness. As Christ Episcopal Church comes upon our 175th year of being the Episcopal Branch of the resurrected (and sometimes funny looking) Body of Christ in downtown Bowling Green, I am grateful for your gifts, for the chance to stretch and grow, and for the funny looking stuff God is calling us to do. Amen.

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

A Failure in the Kingdom? – a sermon

The audio for this sermon will soon be available on the newly updated Christ Church website.  Click here to listen, or read along.


This afternoon I’ll be flying out of town again.  After my delightfully awkward 20th high school reunion, it might seem odd to rush off again, but this time, I’m headed to a continuing education event at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  The two-day course is called “Stepping up to Staffing,” and there I hope to expand upon my year and a half of on-the-job training supervising a team of high-quality employees.  This continuing ed. opportunity, like every other one that I’ve ever attended, assumes that the goal of every congregation is to move forward, to maintain health, and to grow.  There just doesn’t seem to be a market for continuing ed. events that will teach you how to shrink your church, but given the trajectory of the last five weeks in John 6, maybe that’s something we should be studying.  The ministry of Jesus wasn’t always popular.  It didn’t always grow.  In fact, sometimes, it was an exercise in ineffectiveness to the glory of God.

As you might recall, our triennial summer excursion into the Bread of Life Discourse began with Jesus looking out upon a crowd of more than five thousand hungry followers and having compassion on them. With five loaves and two fish, he fed the multitudes with such an abundance that twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered.  In our time, that was a month ago, but in the context of John’s Gospel, it was only yesterday.  Yesterday, there were more than five thousand people following Jesus around the Galilean countryside.  It had likely been days on end that the crowds followed Jesus, listening to his teaching, experiencing his healing ministry, and longing for the salvation that he was promising.  Yesterday, the crowds were so impressed with Jesus that they openly proclaimed him as a prophet.  Yesterday, the fervor grew with such intensity that it looked like the crowd was going anoint Jesus their king.

A good church growth consultant would point out all the good things that Jesus did yesterday.  He preached the Gospel of grace.  He offered true healing.  He connected with his community, learned what they needed, and worked to make a difference.  To the hungry, he gave food to eat.  And when it became clear that the crowd was missing the point, trying to make it all about Jesus and not the Kingdom of God, Jesus retreated into the wilderness to pray for strength, to take stock of his ministry, and to give the crowd time to figure it out on their own.  Jesus was doing a lot of things right, and as a result, his ministry was flourishing.  Yesterday.

Today, things are very different.  By morning, Jesus and his disciples were on the other side of the lake.  Many weren’t willing to travel that far to continue to listen to Jesus, and so they returned to their daily lives.  Some were so desperate that they followed Jesus, if only to call dibs on the twelve baskets of left-overs from last night’s meal.  As Jesus looked upon this smaller crowd, he again had compassion on them.  It wasn’t just that they were hungry.  John tells us that this time Jesus’ compassion wasn’t for their physical needs, but rather for their spiritual ones.  “They were like sheep without a shepherd.”  They were lost, wandering in the wilderness, destined to follow anyone or anything that would offer them the relative security of food, water, and shelter.

Today, after yesterday’s miraculous feeding, Jesus chooses to feed the soul rather than the belly, and so we get the Bread of Life Discourse.  This short teaching by Jesus is less than 900 words.  It probably took him less than 10 minutes to preach it, and in that time, he managed to finish the miraculous shrinking of his ministry from more than five thousand to a grand total of twelve.  That is some unprecedented contraction.  Every step along the way, the crowd has asked questions, and for every question, Jesus had a more pointed and difficult response.  By the time this fifth passage from John 6 opens, Jesus is commanding the crowd that is still gathered to chew on his flesh like a cow chewing its cud and to wash it down with a cup full of blood so that they might live forever.

Yesterday, they were eating their fill in the wilderness.  Today, in the Synagogue in Capernaum they are being asked to gnaw on their teacher.  Not on his teaching, mind you, but to actually munch down on Jesus.  “This teaching is difficult,” they say, which doesn’t seem like an outlandish reaction to the direction Jesus’ teaching has taken over the last ten minutes.  “Who can accept it?”  Already Jesus has lost most of his followers.  Yesterday, it was a crowd of five thousand.  Here, all that is left are his disciples, his most faithful students, who had followed him for close of a year now.  Whether this group consists of 70 or a couple of hundred, it is already much smaller than the enamored and hungry crowd that approached Jesus on the hillside twenty-four hours ago.

This teaching from Jesus is difficult.  He is asking for their full faith.  He’s hoping that after more than twelve months together, they might be willing to follow Jesus no matter the cost, to risk hunger and thirst, to risk personal danger, to risk family embarrassment, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus is pressing in the hopes of figuring out just how far his disciples are willing to go for the bread that gives life.  It turns out that for many of them, they just aren’t willing to go quite that far.  What we don’t know is what actually scandalized these would-be disciples. Was it the eat my flesh stuff or the running away from being crowned king bit?  Were they disgusted by the imagery of bone and blood, or were they afraid they had hitched their wagon to a loser? Whatever it was, they begin to grumble, just as their ancestors had in the wilderness when God gave them manna – the bread of heaven.

Just like their ancestors, these disciples were unable to trust fully in what God had in store for them.  Lost in the wilderness, their ancestors cried out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die?  Wouldn’t it have been better to die in Egypt?  Oh, that we could return to the fresh produce, meat, and wine that Egypt had to offer.”  Ultimately, they didn’t have much of a choice but to continue to move forward.  Returning to Egypt would have meant certain death, but for the disciples of Jesus who are having trouble trusting in the promises of God, turning back seems easy.  Most of them would have been from Capernaum and the surrounding areas.  Their families would be glad to have them back.  Whatever they had lost to follow Jesus, they could have picked most of it right back up again.  And so most of them leave.  They walk away from the gift of eternal life for the relative safety of the here and now.

From five thousand followers to twelve in 24 hours is no way to run a ministry.  The church growth consultants would certainly recommend that Jesus choose a different path, and yet, the story ends with a note of promise.  Jesus turns to the twelve who are left and challenges them, “Do you want to turn back too?” Among them are Judas, who will betray Jesus to the Temple authorities; Peter, who will deny Jesus three times on the night of his arrest; Thomas, who will go missing for more than a week after the crucifixion; and at least eight others who will flee from the scene when the going gets tough.  Yet, this rather inauspicious group will, one day, take the message of the Kingdom forward.  Despite the challenges that are to come, it is this occasionally faithful remnant who will abide with Jesus, confident that the word Jesus brings is eternal life.

“Where else could we go?” Peter wonders.  No one else in the world was offering eternal life like Jesus was.  From this remaining group of twelve, some two thousand years later, 2.3 billion people[1] now call on the name of Jesus, the Holy One of God, for the bread that brings eternal life.  As we wrap up our five-week tour through this challenging teaching, I’m grateful for this final word of hope.  It won’t sell a continuing education event, but there is much to learn from the scandalizing message of Jesus in John 6, and I give thanks for five weeks to gnaw on the Bread of Life.  Amen.

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/

A Wal*Mart Theologian

One of the gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to attend continuing education events.  I’ve been to all sorts over the years, from emergent church events to Episcopal Church conferences to one United Methodist Conference sponsored gathering to a one-day social media bootcamp.  Even my four summers in the Advanced Degrees Program at Sewanee counts.  The broad spectrum of opportunities has helped me continue to grow in my ministry, but I’ve also started to notice some similarities.  Most, if not all, of these events end up in small group sessions.  Most, if not all, of these small group sessions require you to make an introduction.  I’ve introduced myself in a lot of different ways over the last decade, but perhaps my favorite is as a Wal*Mart Theologian.  That is, I am a firm believer that what I am preaching on Sunday morning has to also work in the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart. (1)

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This understanding of theology and preaching came back to me this morning as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday.  This passage offers two fairly familiar parables from Jesus.  The first, maybe less commonly cited one, is about the sower who scatters seed, which grows, though he knows not how.  It is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how it is constantly in motion, coming ever closer to our experience, even if we can’t always see it or feel it.  The second parable is of the mustard seed, which, though small, will grow to be a large bush that offers shade to the birds.  It too is a parable about the Kingdom of God, and how seemingly insignificant acts of love and grace can make a profound impact on a world desperate for redemption.

The particular nuanced understanding of what Jesus is saying isn’t what took me to the cereal aisle at Wal*Mart, however.   Instead, it is Mark’s narrative reflection on the way Jesus taught that caught my attention.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it…

Jesus shared the Kingdom of God with the crowds by way of commonly understood images.  He didn’t sit in the Synagogue and pontificate academically about a systematic theology of soteriology, but rather, he told the people stories, using the world they knew, to try to explain the unexplainable love of God.  Jesus was a first-century Wal*Mart Theologian, and by way of parables, which we often scratch our heads over, dig too deep to understand, and make super complicated, he taught the people of God’s saving love.

While you are working hard, dear reader, to prepare a sermon for Sunday on the content of these two parables, remember the example of our Lord and simply tell your people of God’s mercy, grace, and love in a language all can understand.


(1) Wal*Mart made me angry several years ago, so I rarely shop there anymore.  I guess I’m a Kroger Theologian now, but regional grocery store brands don’t carry the same weight.