Posts Tagged ‘year b’

A sermon preached on Christ the King Sunday, from Revelation 1:4-8

Well, this is the second time I’m preaching a sermon from the book of Revelation– which I swore I’d never preach on at all. (God has a marvelous sense of humor…) But yet again, as I consider the world we live in–I fall in love with words that were meant to bring me comfort. Somehow they grab ahold of me, and offer me something that none of the other passages quite will: a word of very deep and real hope, even in the midst of turmoil.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, a day which is celebrated on the last Sunday of the Christian year, and it’s a place where we may stop and consider both a beginning and an ending. As we look at the end of our Christian year, we celebrate all that Christ’s reign on Earth and in Heaven means for us. Maybe it’s like a high point: a final chapter in Christ’s book of days, before we start reading the story all over again next Sunday. Next Sunday, we will begin to be presented with pregnant women, anxious father’s to-be, a world with no room, and all the other things with which we are flooded during the time of ardent waiting during Advent.

But today, we see not only who that tiny little baby grew up to be, but what his life here on Earth meant for us. The man who lived like us, and died in a way that we will learn to do– but today, we envision him on a great and glorious throne and we hail him “King of Kings, and Lord of lords.”

Oh, I can speak the language as well as anybody can. I could quote divine liturgies that talk about Christ’s rule in creation. But as I look around, as I hear about people starving to death, or mothers who sell their five year old daughters into prostitution, or about gunmen who are teased to their breaking point, my heart becomes heavy.

I’ve told you that I’m not so great about keeping up with the news. Partly, it’s because I’m busy and am never around the TV during news time, and I sure don’t have time to read the paper. (Though as I say this, I have several preacher’s voices in my head, reminding me that Karl Barth said I ought to be preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.) But as much as the busyness keeps me away from the news, that’s also partly a defense mechanism. Truthfully, I can’t bear to watch it, and have more or less adopted the mindset that “No news is good news.” I can’t bear to watch how awful human beings are to one another: the ways that we literally kill each other, and the ways that we make another person’s life a little less worth the living.

When I do happen to catch a news blurb, or my news-saavy husband tells me something that’s going on, my prayers/cries of anguish alternate between “Lord, rend the Heavens and come down!” and “Hey! Who’s in charge here?”

Oh yeah, I can “talk the talk” like anyone. But as I look around, it doesn’t feel like there is a King. In fact, it feels more like it’s kind of a “free for all” for anyone who wants to take charge.

I went to the movies for the first time in forever, and we went to see a movie based on a beloved children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. This is the story of a boy who doesn’t feel like he is loved enough. His sister and her friends are mean to him, and his mom is too busy worrying about money to worry about him as much as he’d like.

So he sets off on a wild adventure, and happens upon this place full of wild beasts who are nothing like he has ever seen. He’s about the wildest thing they have ever seen too, and their first instinct is to eat him. But, being a little boy with a great imagination, he makes up this long list of conquests which are somewhat impressive to the wild things. Finally, he tells them he’s a king.

At first, they look at him a little skeptically. After all, he’s only a small child. But the wilder his tales become, the more they believe him. And besides that, they’ve been desperately looking for a king. (The fact that they’ve eaten all the kings they’ve had, notwithstanding.) But they’re looking for someone who will right all the wrongs that have come into their land. They suspend their criticisms of him and why he doesn’t look like a king, and suddenly they’re his most loyal subjects. In return for their loyalty, he promises to make them a brave new world where only happy things can be.

This has been rattling around in my brain as I’ve been working on this sermon. One of the things that grabbed my attention is to what an extent all of us are so willing to settle for a king. In fact, it doesn’t much matter whether or not that person, or thing, or institution even has any credentials. We’re just nervous enough about the state of the world, that we’d happily let anything that even hinted that it might be powerful have our undivided attention.

Oh sure, we know that Jesus is our Lord. But, we reason, that’s a much more spiritual thing. It’s kind of one of those things that works fine for contemplation, but if we were honest with ourselves, perhaps we’ve relegated Jesus’ lordship to only one of those spiritual things. Practically, a king like Jesus is no good. Really, we think to ourselves, Jesus doesn’t do anything. Now, of course, we would never intentionally let anything take away from the ways that we serve Christ. We definitely don’t mean to. We’ve just created for ourselves a nice dualism where we have Earthly kings and a Heavenly king. And we’d even go so far as to tell ourselves that that’s ok, never meaning any harm.

I wonder if we’ve created all these other “Kings” because more than once, we’ve been disappointed in the sort of King Jesus has turned out to be. He never came charging in on a big white horse with his battle sword drawn. The closest he came was riding into town on a little, tame colt, in a small parade. He wasn’t born into a palace greater than we can imagine. Instead, he was born in a place meant to house barnyard animals. He’s never once made our lives any easier. Instead, he complicates them infinitely as he subverts “the norms” that we’ve come to appreciate. He’s not vanquished the ones who hurt our feelings. Instead, he’s told us to consider all better than ourselves. He’s not rewarded us for our careful accumulation of wealth and accomplishments. No, he’s told us we can be the greatest by giving ourselves away.

I’ve been thinking about what makes it hard for us to trust in Christ’s lordship, and I’ve come up with two things.

First of all, movies and books have told us what we’re supposed to think about Kings. We know what kings are supposed to look like and do. And Jesus hasn’t met any of the criteria. Just what kind of king is this Jesus guy anyway? Well, surely not the kind we thought we were looking for.

So instead, we settle for the kinds of earthly “kings” that promise to make us a brave new world with only things that make us happy. We’d choose a king named “Sir Stuff”, or “Prince Power” or whatever else. We seek first those kingdoms, and hope they live up to their campaign promises. Things are great for a while, until we realize we need more and more and more, and that instead of resting easy as beloved children in the arms of the One who loves us, we’re mean-spirited, power-hungry, possession-loving little monsters. And then we turn and look at our “kings” with wide-eyed wonder and can’t believe that we have been let down.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, we turn back to Jesus. But then we’re back to the problem of Jesus not behaving the way we think he ought to.

Another scene that grabbed my attention in Where the Wild Things Are, was when the wild things realize that Max is just a little boy, and not any sort of king at all. One character, Carol, was particularly hoping that Max would turn out to be a great king, and is wildly disappointed when Max doesn’t do anything that Carol thinks he should. Carol, the wild thing, complains about this fact to Max. And Max hangs his head and says, “I’m haven’t ruled the Vikings, and I’m not a king.” Carol is quiet for a while, then wonders exactly what Max is. Max says simply, “I’m a Max. I’m just me.” And Carol reminds Max of his earlier fear that he wasn’t much loved by saying, “Well that isn’t very much, is it?”

I wonder how many times we’ve been disappointed in the things of the world, and finally in our frustration turn to Jesus, only to find him standing there staying that he’s not going to slay our dragons for us, that he’s not larger than life, and that life with him isn’t only going to “cookies and milk” moments. Then like Carol, we ask Jesus what he is, and when he says, “I’m just me”, we turn our backs thinking that that’s not very much at all.

The other thing, I think, that is a hinderance to us trusting Christ’s reign is that we’re used to fads. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, think back to the 1980’s. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of glad I don’t dress now like I did then. Or think about all those Christmases where you stood in line waiting to get “The Toy” of the year– which was nothing like the previous year’s “Toy.” We’ve gotten used to the fact that things don’t last. They either break, or they go out of style.

So then, this Jesus guy, who doesn’t look or act much like the King we think he ought to be, shows up. And while we know we’re supposed to think of him as an Eternal King, we don’t, because we can’t really contemplate anything that lasts forever.

I think this passage where a people like us finds a hope that we won’t always be like this.

We love the pieces of this passage that talk about Jesus who is going to come. While we don’t yet know what to do with ourselves, we trust that Jesus is coming to reign and that he’ll “sort everything out”. That gives us a hope for a future beyond ourselves, and that’s easy for us.

What causes us to stumble is that Christ might already be reigning. The world doesn’t feel that way. I don’t feel that way. When I ponder the coming of Christ, I’ve envisioned myself being made whole, and perfect…or at least nice.

I wonder if it might dash our hopes to really realize that Christ already reigns. Does that crush our dreams of being able to love like Christ loves one day? Does that make us hang our heads, and send us back to our original thought that maybe we should have an “earthly” King, and a “heavenly” one, you know, just in case?

Or does it give us hope that the process is both long, and ongoing? And that we are being made new over and over again?

I don’t know how you feel about it, but here is what I can offer you.

This passage isn’t about a backup plan. In fact, it’s about the beginning and end, and every piece of bliss, and every road of turmoil in between.

This whole book is about a revelation (one revelation, not lots of them) of who Christ is, what Christ has done, and what that means for us.

The book is about more: more power, more transformation, more dignity for God’s children. More than we can see presently, more than we can dare dream.

And this book is about promise: things are not as they seem. The things that seem so final and sure turn out to be neither one. The earthly kings which we are so willing to give so much power turn out to be mere pretenders.

This passage begins with familiar words, “Grace and Peace to You”, words which are a rare commodity these days. But the promise in this passage is that the days when those words are the first on our lips are being ushered in by the one who is both already here, and still yet to come.

This passage is not about a king for “the meantime”. In fact, if we take the words we see today seriously, it negates our need to even bother with the “in the meantime” thoughts.

The one we worship and celebrate today is the “King of King and Lord of Lords.” Even if the world says otherwise. Even if we accidentally let our allegiance roam to other beings. The promise I see is that Christ is still king, and king over even the “even ifs”. Can your “in the meantime kings” say that?

Didn’t think so.

As you’re waiting for the days when the clouds are rolled back, and everyone knows just what sort of king Christ is, may you not look at the ways that Christ doesn’t match up with the world’s expectations. May you instead stare with wide eyed wonder at the ways that Christ is changing the expectations, and giving you a hope for more.
Coca-Cola has taught us that their product is the “real thing”. But if you had to choose a “real king”, who would you pick? The ones who make all sorts of “campaign promises” and who are here today and gone tomorrow? Or would you pick the One who tells you that the road might be tough, and filled with potholes, but that the journey will be so worth it? If I had to guess, I’d think that this last choice is the one that has some staying power.

A king for “the mean time”? Or the King of Kings, Lord of Lords– who has dominion over all things?

Glory be to the one in whom we have our beginning and the one in whose hands is our ending; the one who is, and who is to come.



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“Give Yourself Away”
Isaiah 55:1-6, Mark 12:38-44
Nov 15, 2009

I wonder how many sermons you’ve heard on this particular story. Perhaps, every three years or so, as it rolls around on the lectionary, during what is traditionally “stewardship season”. Perhaps, it’s about as predictable as having turkey on Thanksgiving. And I’d almost be willing to bet that every preacher has hailed this poor woman up as a model for giving, because she gave all that she had. Perhaps, they’ve told you how you need to be more like her, and really dig deep in your pockets, trusting that God will provide. Or perhaps they told you to quit giving God the leftovers, and give as Abel did, from the best of what he had. And while the finance committee pats your preacher on the back, because they just know that pledges will go up, you go home with a heavy heart, because it’s just not possible for you to give everything you have.

Yeah, I’ve heard that one too. I don’t know. Maybe it’s on the checklist of what every “good” preacher should do.

And as the session is getting ready to sit down with the budget in the next couple of weeks, some part of me is going to wish I could preach that sermon. As we look at the ways our budget has been or has not been met, perhaps I’m going to wish that I had said something brilliant to make our contributions go up.

I was pretty excited upon finding this text in my group of lectionary choices for the week, because I had planned to do some sort of stewardship thing in November. It looks like it ought to be every preacher’s gift. It looks like there ought to be a neatly packaged sermon in there somewhere that both challenges its hearers and uplifts them for the things they are already doing.

But the problem arises in really digging deep in both the text and commentaries around it.

It’s definitely an interesting pairing that Jesus talks about the priests in their long flowing robes in just the couple of verses before he praises the woman that nobody would otherwise notice. He’s condemning their hypocrisy for saying one thing, and really thinking other things. They’re all about looking like they care about doing God’s work, but what they’re really interested in is padding their own pockets.

I wonder if it’s possible that instead of just holding the woman up as a role model, that he is also using her to point a finger at an institution that is ok with a widow giving all she has so that same institution can keep worrying about itself.

As far as I can tell, Jesus isn’t worried about the amounts people are giving. I don’t think he’s even worried about how much people are giving in proportion to what they have. I think he’s drawing a sharp contrast between the hearts of the givers. The ones that give are worried about who is watching them give. They’re worried about what giving gets them. And not only that, but these folks are giving out of their excess– they probably don’t even notice as the money leaves their wallets and their lives. No, with them, it’s not about the giving at all.

But for the woman, these coins are all she has. Because she is a widow, she is a nobody. She has no power, no status, and certainly no money she can call her own. We commend her for giving all she has, but it’s also worth noting that these two coins wouldn’t have changed her life.

Any tremendously poor person would tell you that that having a buck or two in their pocket won’t get them off of welfare or change their world.

Both Mark and the early readers would have known that. Yet Mark, the man of few words, chose to bring this detail out. Maybe what we were supposed to take from it is she gave up anything that even resembled independence, willingly making herself fully dependent on God, and others around her.

I’ve thought about this a bit, and I’ve realized that this woman is our direct opposite, just not in the way we’re taught we are. The problem is not that she gives out of her need and we give out of our excess. What’s different is that as she gives, she gives away her claim.

I think, the more we give, the greater our claim becomes. It’s almost like we’re buying a piece of the church as if it were a company on the stock exchange. The more we give, the greater the piece of it we own. I’m not even really talking about this church in particular– I am, however, quite aware of just how much consumerism affects not only our lives, but that even permeates our churches. We’re taught that you “get what you pay for”, and of course, since that works everywhere else, it must work in the church too. As far as we’re concerned, putting our offering in the plate means we get to put our proverbial “two cents” in, because by golly, we’ve bought the rights to do at least that.

And here is this woman who probably literally has nothing freely giving what little she has away. In some ways she reminds me of the people I met in Africa. While I was there, I was, comparatively, quite wealthy. Yet, these folks wanted so badly to be hospitable, that they tried to give me anything they had. If they had a mango, then they wanted to take the whole thing, and felt offended if I tried to say no. It was their great joy to give it away.

I’m not sure I would have connected this had I not just been working on it, but last Tuesday our Celebration of Discipline Study discussed the Spiritual Discipline of Simplicity. The author of the book contends that to live a life of simplicity is to live a life that is much more free from anxiety than most of us know. He says that simplicity is gained when we do three things.
Believe that all we have is a gift from God.
Believe that God, not us, is responsible for caring for those gifts.
Make all that we have available to others.1

We live in a culture that does not value simplicity. In fact, if we’re not buying into “new and improved”, and “bigger is better” then something must be wrong with us. I guess that’s why these three things would be so hard for us to do. First of all, we see little, besides maybe our health and our family, as a gift. Everything thing else, we more or less reason we’ve earned. And because we’ve earned it, it’s our job to take care of it. We could simply reason God out of that picture, saying “God, you watch out for our hearts, and we’ll take care of the STUFF”. And then, because we’ve earned what we have, and because we feel obligated to care for it, we are unable to make it available to others. We sound like the little birds on the Pixar short who all want a piece of the wire to sit on, going “Mine! Mine, mine! Mine”.

But today, we bump into a woman who is an absolute radical. She’s not radical because she gives so much when she has nothing to give. She’s not radical because she can mark 100% in the tithing column on her checklist of what a good Christian should do. No, those things make her different. She’s radical and subversive because she is not bound by the things that bind us. It doesn’t matter who is watching her, because her two coins would, if anything, underwhelm them instead of overwhelming them. Perhaps, if she were being watched, she’d even be the object of scorn because she couldn’t give more. She’s radical because she is so free to “Seek first the Kingdom of God”, and trust that everything will fall in place afterward.

In some ways, I envy this woman. I know that doesn’t sound very intelligent. After all, who of us with many material blessings would willingly change places with someone who has nothing? But to life a life without the anxiety that comes from needing to hang on and protect what’s mine– wow, that’d be great. She’s not worried about what people will think of her. She’s not anxious that she’s giving in her last two coins. She’s not worried that her next meal is questionable. In this act of worship, we see a woman putting in all her chips. She could be the posterchild for faithful giving. But she could also be the posterchild for practicing the discipline of Simplicity. What a freeing thing that must be!

But what surprises me is that she’s not giving to a worthy cause. Before you sit there fuming in the seats saying, “But she was giving to the church!” I know that. But the church she was giving to hasn’t exactly been hailed as a model. In fact, Jesus calls it a den of robbers! I think this woman must’ve known. I don’t see her as some teary-eyed sentimental who could say nothing bad about the church. She knew that it was corrupt. She knew that if it was really seeking first the kingdom of God that it wouldn’t expect her to give out of her poverty to pad the priest’s pockets. Yet she gave anyway. And not just that, but she gave all she had…to an institution that was thoroughly corrupt.

How different is that attitude of giving from what we do! Our first instinct, when we see something we don’t like in the church is to cut our pursestrings. We say to ourselves, “That’s not MY church. When it straightens itself out, then I’ll put more in. When it is worthy.”

But we don’t just do it with money. We even do it with our participation. We say “When they stop this or that, I’ll go back. When such and such a person leaves, then I’ll resume my participation.” Not just in this church, but in all churches. It’s a widespread thing!

I couldn’t swear to it, but maybe those attitudes are because we feel like we own the church. One of the things of which I was reminded as I was preparing for last week’s study on Simplicity is that “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” The church, the coins in our pocket– they’re neither mine nor yours. They’re the Lord’s.

I wonder what Christ would say to us if we were seen holding ourselves back, because the church isn’t worthy? I think he might hang his head, and say, simply, “Do it Anyway.”

Probably most of you have heard the country song, “Do it anyway.” Martina McBride talks about praying and believing and loving when it doesn’t make sense. It’s a great song, but I think she might have based it on a poem that was found written on Mother Theresa’s home for Children. Hear these words:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.  What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

Mother Theresa, it seems to me, is telling us to give ourselves away, even if we don’t think the recipient is worthy. That’s a tough thing to do, until we start to realize that nothing we have is ours alone. Not ourselves, not our money, not our love. All is a gift, and all will be cared for by God.

The woman who literally puts her two cents in is quite a role model. Not because she gives 100%, but because she literally gives herself away, without worrying about the consequences. Can you imagine the freedom that must bring?

What if the church did that? Gosh, what if we loved recklessly, without regard for the consequences? What if we didn’t worry about what was in the bank, what if we didn’t worry about what people might think of us, what if we didn’t worry about our property and how it might be misused? That’d be downright dangerous! Here are more words of calling from our own book of order:

The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk
of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of
life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that
point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ.

The church is called to do these things, even at the risk of losing it’s life. That’s scary territory. But like the church, like the woman who put in all her chips, we’re asked to give ourselves away completely, because we’ve been freed to do that.

My apologies to the finance committee who thought I’d preach a sermon to raise the pledges. Tithe more, give as much as you’re able. That’s fine and good. But I’m asking you to pledge to give yourself away, even at the risk of losing those things that are most comfortable for you. Give it away, give it all away– because the Earth is the Lord’s and ALL that is in it. Our only task is to be faithful stewards of what we’ve been given, and we do that best, by letting it go.

Kim Justice, Copyright 2009
Sherwood Presbyterian Church, Fayetteville NC

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A Sermon preached on November 8, 2009 from Revelation 21:1-6. (Due to my illness, we were celebrating All Saints Day a week late)

I swore I wouldn’t do this– I wouldn’t preach from Revelation because it’s just too often misunderstood. But as I started looking at the texts for All Saints Day, I fell in love with the passage.

If most of us were honest, a casual reading through the book is enough to “scare us straight”– and if we’re not scared for ourselves, we’re scared for someone we know– who either doesn’t know Christ, or who isn’t doing the job of walking the Christian walk that we think they ought to be.

But at it’s heart, the book of Revelation was intended to be a comfort. It was written by John of Patmos during a time of severe persecution– intended to bring hope and comfort to seven churches who were also undergoing this persecution. It was never intended to be the book of damnation that we’ve come to believe it is.

Scholars look at the book of Genesis as a story of beginnings– a story of how we got here. In the same sort of way, they look at Revelation as a promise of where we’re going. I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot better at thinking about how I got here than I am about figuring out where I’m going.

One of the things I immediately love about this passage is that the writer is given the opportunity to step back from the world, and view life from the perspective of eternity.
Do you ever have the feeling that you have so many things to deal with that you’re only seeing such a small part of the world? I often have the “can’t see the forrest for all the trees” sort of sensation.

But what if you were given the opportunity to step back, way back, from all these things?

When I was a kid, my neighborhood seemed pretty big. I could hop on my bike and ride for an hour and still not see all of it. And by the same token, my town seemed huge (though I’ve since learned that town is barely a “map dot”). I remember the first time I got on a plane that I was old enough to see out of the window. As I was waiting, I couldn’t even comprehend what was “out there”. I mean I just knew I’d see my house, and my church, and my school– but then couldn’t really imagine what else I’d see as we flew to florida. Imagine my surprise when I didn’t even get to see my house or church or school or any of the things that seemed so huge in my world. By time we were off the ground, those things, had I even been in the right place to be able to see them, would have been no bigger than ittty bitty legos.

So what if you had the opportunity to view your life from the perspective of eternity? What would you see? I don’t think you’d see the bills. I don’t think you’d see your infernal, ever growing todo list. I don’t think you’d see the things that worry you so much. Even if you’ve been stuck in bed for what seems like the longest two weeks like I have, I can’t imagine that in the grand scheme of things, that would even be noticeable.

The things that seem so huge, and so overwhelming, and so all consuming wouldn’t even be noticeable.

I can’t put my finger on why it is, but that thought is so incredibly freeing to me.

Maybe it’s because it reminds me that I’m but a speck in the world, and I guess that takes some of the pressure to be and do and have away. But it also reminds me that my speck of existence is connected to your speck of existence. My world has more or less been the walls of my house for almost two weeks– and maybe my yard if I felt really daring. I didn’t watch news, and I couldn’t really connect with anybody. It’s like I was vaguely aware that a world existed “out there”, but that’s all it was– a vague existence. But finally, I got out– and I remembered what it was to be in the world: I saw little Grays Creek, and some of Fayetteville.

How easy it is to forget that we’re only part of a world, and that the world is so much bigger than the little itty bitty thing that we think it is. At least for me, it’s really helpful to be reminded that I’m a community member, and that how I interact with other people is really important.

I guess, thinking about these “getting the big picture” sort of ideas leads me to wonder something else: what do our lives look like from God’s perspective?

I’ve been thinking and praying about that for a while– and though I believe that our God is intimate enough with each of us that no detail escapes God’s notice, and I definitely believe that some of the things we do make God weep, I also believe that God sees us and says, “Yup, there’s one I can redeem with my love.”

Today, we’re celebrating All Saints Day– it’s a day that carries generations of traditions. It’s a day when we’re specifically pausing to remember those saints in our lives– the ones that have somehow made us the people we are– and have shown us the people we hope to one day become. For the church, especially in the middle ages, All Saints day was a huge feast day, that carried all the festivities of even Easter and Christmas. And fittingly enough for us in this congregation today, it was also a traditional day for Baptisms, because at one’s baptism, he or she is officially counted among the Company of Saints as he or she publicly joins Christ’s family.

At first, I was flustered at the idea that being sick last Sunday would pile too much on this Sunday. When we originally scheduled the Baptism, I carefully looked at my calendar and thought, “that will be great– the Baptism will be the only thing going on, and we won’t even be doing communion or anything!” Ha! “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” But as I’ve been thinking about everything, I discovered it couldn’t be more perfect if I’d planned it that way.

What does it mean to be welcomed into the Company of Saints? I don’t think that’s the high pressure title I used to think it was. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a saint. Rather, I think, it means that you join the rest of us ragamuffins who rarely get it right, but whom Christ is working to redeem.

As I was putting together the slide show, it was quite a holy experience for me. I quite literally felt like I was holding Saints in my very hands. I know, I know. The pictures you submitted were of brothers and sisters and cousins and mothers and fathers and grandparents and friends. And the folks who submitted the pictures are the only ones who know the stories behind the pictures. You might chuckle to yourself when you hear me call them saints, because you know they weren’t– you know they got mad, or that they forgot your birthday, or gosh–maybe they even pulled your hair. Yet, out of all the people you know that have died, these are the ones you picked for me to include. Not, I think, because you were under the impression that they were perfect, but because you know that your love for them erases most of their shortcomings, at least in your mind. And not only that, but something you saw in these people makes you want to be a better person.

I wonder if the same principle applies with Christ looks at us with eyes brimming with love? Even though we rarely get it right, Christ doesn’t just give up on us. Rather, Christ loves us so much that it makes us want to be better people. And the promise that grabs hold of me, especially on this day when we’re celebrating All Saints Day, is that Christ won’t stop working for my newness of life until I really am a saint.

I said earlier that we were a lot better at thinking about the places from which we’ve come, and not so great at thinking about the places we’re going. But being a Christian takes a lot of the work out of it– we’re not just going anywhere. We’re going back to God. The picture we saw in the words of Revelation today is our ultimate destination. It’s a picture of what it will be like when humans and God dwell together in complete communion, just as we did before the fall.

One of my favorite songs is “Graceland” by Paul Simon. It was a tradition that every time we took a family car trip, we would listen to this album. At first, I probably loved it because my dad loved it (and it was one of the few songs he’d sing to.) Then maybe I loved it because it had engaging rhythms. But as I’ve grown, it’s kind of become a piece of who I am and what I believe. In fact, the name under which I do things like writing and photography is Going to Graceland.

The song I’m talking about is a story of a very broken man and some of the broken people he’s encountered. And this man, and his little boy “a child from my first marriage” are going to Graceland, in Memphis Tennessee.

One of the choruses says this,

In Graceland Graceland,
I’m going to Graceland,
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see
And I may be obliged to defend
Every love every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now,
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

I guess the reason this has become so much a part of who I am is that I know it describes me, and I’m guessing it describes most of humanity. We’re a people broken apart, and we’re all on this incredible journey. We don’t know exactly what we’ll find when we get there, but we keep on going. We don’t know what will be asked of us, we don’t know which decisions we’ll be asked to defend. But still we go– and we like the man in the song, trust that despite our brokenness, we will be gathered up and received in Graceland.

This beautiful passage from Revelation never talks about Saints. It doesn’t talk about even talk about sin. What it does speak of is a glorious gathering up, when God redeems those who have been unlovable. And God himself comes and dwells among them.

But here’s the amazing part. This passage isn’t just a “One Day” passage– it’s a passage that started when Christ died for us. The redeeming and making new is something that has already started. We get to participate in the ongoing reclamation of creation.

“Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. … He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

I AM makING all things new.”

When God looks at us, I think he sees neither sinners nor saints. I think what God sees is a whole world of people that can be made new.

Sinners? Yeah. Saints? Yeah. Broken people? Sure. Those barely old enough to have sinned, those who’ve had a whole life time to miss the mark, Whoever you are, c’mon.

We’re going to graceland, and maybe I have reason to believe that we will be received. Amen.

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Preached on 10.25.09 using Job 42:1-6, and Mark 10:46-52

This sounds morbid, but I’ve decided something about the sort of send-off I want when I leave this world to meet my maker. I’ve decided I want a big New Orleans style parade during which great jazz musicians will loudly and joyfully sing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

I’ve only seen the New Orleans jazz funeral in movies, but it always looks like it’s a proper celebration of life. And folks just join the parade!

Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved that image. I mean, first of all, who doesn’t love a parade? And not only that, but I’ve always loved the chorus “When the Saints Go Marching In, How I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.” I always imagined my less than saintly self just joining the parade of saints as they march into heaven, and being in that number!

As I was looking at the text this week, that’s the first place my brain started. In a lot of ways, it’s a pretty good analogy of what’s going on. Jesus is more or less parading through town, and he’s got a bunch of groupies, who more or less just want to be “counted in that number” as he goes through town. I’m not entirely sure they even know what’s going on, or even what it would mean to be in Jesus’ parade, but they want to be there, nonetheless.

All of the sudden, a poorly dressed blind beggar stops the parade with his loud cries. I’ve been both a watcher of and a participant in parades, and like everyone else, believe that if a parade is going to stop, it’d better be for a really good reason. Just imagine– what if the Macy’s Parade stopped and they went to a blue screen– or even more irritating, went to commentators who were speculating about why the parade had stopped? Understandably, the crowd is irritated with the blind beggar. After all– this is a celebration! Who is this nobody to stop such a grand occasion?

I can imagine him defending his choice–
“Bartimaeus, this is a parade! What were you thinking?”
“Really guys, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to touch Jesus, and this is my only chance.”

“But Jesus works every day. His regular office hours are from 9-5. There is no need to bother him unless it’s an emergency.”

“It is an emergency! In fact it’s a matter of life and death! But I guess Jesus has no time in his busy schedule for a man as worthless as me.”

Fortunately, before he leaves with his head hung and the weight of the world on his shoulders, Jesus asks one of the rebukers to get Bartimaeus. Commentaries differ here. Some say that the crowd feigns pious hospitality because Jesus is watching. Some say that the crowd is changed by Jesus’ compassion.

I think I’d rather believe the latter. It’s like being at a middle school dance. If you’re a nobody, but the cool kid thinks you’re somebody– then you too become cool by association. Besides that, if you look at the preceeding passages, Jesus has been working to overcome the spiritual blindness of his followers. In the passage right before this one, James and John were absolutely oblivious as to what it meant to be a follower of Christ. They were vying for the positions of greatness in the eternal kingdom. Clearly, as Mark is laying his story out, he wants his readers to be changed in response to Christ.

Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus the same pointed question he asked James and John, “What is it that you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus, knows what he wants: he wants to see again.

That’s funny to me–at least in a divinely ironic sort of way. I get the fact that Bartimaeus is physically blind. Who, in his shoes, wouldn’t want to have his sight restored? But what’s funny is that Bartimaeus seems to be the one most able to “see” out of the whole crowd.

He sees how people treat him. He sees how people decide he’s not worthy of getting close to Jesus. He sees that he’s a nobody in the eyes of the world. He sees who Jesus is, and even what it means to follow Jesus.

And all of this while being blind.

The crowd doesn’t see it, and his disciples are no better. Interestingly, it takes a blind man to help the seeing ones really see.

That’s a great story– a nice reversal. But what catches me off guard is the ways that the ones who count themselves among the followers are the very ones that keep people away from Jesus.

If they were Jesus’ PR people– they’d fail miserably. I sure wouldn’t want them on my church’s evangelism committee!

What haunts me even more is that I’m not entirely sure that churches don’t still do this. Granted, if you asked anyone here, we would say that our mission is helping people get to Jesus, and I think we really believe it. But, we never realize that what we do affects the ways that people come to Jesus.

We’d never intentionally push people out of the parade.

But what about the ways we, along with Christians all over the world, unintentionally push them away? Do we push them away from Jesus when we squabble about petty things? Do we keep them from drawing close to Jesus when we don’t treat each other with the love of Christ? Don’t misunderstand– we’re amazing when it comes to visitors. Anyone that comes through our door will be warmly welcomed. If they choose to not to come back, it’s not because they didn’t get enough attention. We pat ourselves on the back, and are truly confused when our visitors don’t come back–which happens in just about every small church.

“But we have a brand new nursery for them to play in.” “But every person here went up and greeted them.” “But we have this new young preacher.” And still, it feels like everything we do hits a brick wall. We scratch our heads, and think “We’re a great church! Why can’t we grow?”

Have you ever watched a group of runners or swimmers? When the starting gun goes off, they are all over each other. Before I did the triathlon several years ago, someone warned me that unless I wanted to take a chance on getting my teeth knocked out (again) that I should stay back, and wait until all the really competitive swimmers got out of the way. I knew I wasn’t well trained enough to win, so that knowledge kept me out of the starting pack. And the advice giver was right– arms and legs were flailing everywhere, and some got knocked or kicked. It was ugly to watch!

I wonder if visiting a church is like that? (I’m basing this on visiting several churches over the years.) The first few times you visit, you could swear that you finally found a church home. But as you start getting involved, you realize more and more exactly what’s going on. And if you stand there long enough, all you can see is elbows jabbing. You see the petty fights. You see the power struggles. You see who is gossipping about whom. You see who cares more about what you’re wearing than they do about who you are.

It’s ug-ly!

We think people don’t see those sorts of things, that we’ve hidden them well. But even if people can’t put a finger on it, I think they do sense when a church is divided. And as far as I can tell, it has the same end result as the crowd with Bartimaeus: People are pushed farther away from Jesus.

Thanks be to God– the story doesn’t end there. As Jesus often does, Jesus steps in, and doesn’t leave either Bartimaeus or the crowd the way he found them.

Commentaries place this story in the category of “Miracle” story along with stories like the raising of Lazarus, and the feeding of the 5,000. Miracle stories are those where Jesus breaks usual human circumstances and changes the expected outcome.

Even though this is kind of a funny looking miracle story that doesn’t follow the usual parameters, I think it is really a miracle. Even though the miracle itself only gets a small shoutout in one verse of the story, what happened that day was absolutely miraculous in that it took one from darkness to light, from blindness to sight.

Theologian Rudolf Bultmann says, “Miracle means ‘work of God.’” And what a good way to describe this story, because at it’s heart, this story is about the power of Christ to restore and redeem.

As I think about the ways that this story might speak to even this particular church, I think it might be a miracle story for us too. Just like Jesus doesn’t leave either the crowd or the one seeking him alone, Jesus likewise refuses to leave us as we are, and seeks to restore us, jabbing elbows and all. Just as Jesus has the power to restore Bartimaeus to health, so he has the power and desire to restore us to health.

Well, that’s lovely. I could totally pull a cheesy preacher move, and stop there. But then you might not get to see the surprise that caught me off guard.

I was happy to trust the commentaries, who after all seem to know much more than I do, until I read the story while paying attention to the last line: “Go on your way, your faith has made you well. Immediately, he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

What I realized is that just as much as this is a miracle story, it’s also a call story.

When we’re talking about call stories, we’re talking about stories like Abraham and Moses and Saul/Paul. Call stories are those stories in which a person is just going on about their life, when all of the sudden God gets ahold of them, and makes it known to them that they are wanted as followers.

This story doesn’t exactly follow these rules either– because Jesus sends the man on “his” way. Yet, the man realizes his ultimate life’s goal is to follow on Jesus’ way, and he becomes a follower.

I know, I know… I’m getting dangerously close to what could be considered theological minutia. But if this is both a miracle story and a call story for Bartimaeus, then it must also be both a miracle story and a call story for us.

The miracle is that Christ isn’t done with us, and seeks to restore this church, both individually and corporately. The call is that we’re to get up, take our new health, and follow Christ.

We know that Mark doesn’t just write to write– he’s direct and to the point. And that makes the fact that he chose to include the part about Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak a very interesting choice. It wouldn’t have made sense to those watching– he was a beggar, and he needed that cloak. After all, he didn’t have a nice warm place to sleep, and cold times were coming. It’s not like he could go buy another one either.

The fact that Mark includes this detail makes me pay attention. It’s got to be a symbolic move. Bartimaeus is throwing off his cloak, even before he is healed–because he is confident that he will be healed. And he is confident that once he is healed, his life will be so utterly different that he won’t even need that old cloak. I’m not sure, but I’d guess that as much as that cloak meets physical needs, it’s also somewhat of a security blanket. It’s probably been with him everywhere, and if he has to, he can draw himself into it and blend in with his surroundings.

But he throws it aside, carelessly. What a gesture of freedom!

Today is Reformation Sunday– the day when protestants celebrate the fact that Martin Luther got stinkin tired of the wrongdoings of the church, and took some action.

But if you change the pronunciation a little, you’re left with something that bears even more significance. Today is also re-formation Sunday. It’s a chance for us that are still stinkin tired of the wrongdoings of the church to allow ourselves to be re-formed and re-shaped. It’s a chance to toss away our security blankets, and to take steps of faith. It’s a chance to trust that Christ will make us well. It’s a chance to peak out from under our cloaks of blindness to see how other people need Jesus just as much as we do. It’s a chance to look at ourselves, and be chagrined at the way we accidentally push people away from Jesus. And it’s a chance to answer Christ’s question of “What do you want me to do for you?” with “Lord, Jesus, help us to see.”

Celebrating Reformation Sunday means that we truly believe that God isn’t done with the world, or with us. And that is both miracle and calling.


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You Can’t Take It with You
Mark 10:17-31
Oct 11, 2009 Ordinary 28B

“We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve month mission. ‘And heaven knows’ our mother predicted, ‘they won’t have Betty Crocker in the Congo.’”1

This is an early introduction to a family of missionaries in a novel called “The Poisonwood Bible.” The father, Reverend Nathan Pierce, has signed his wife and four daughters to move to the jungles of Congo, and the ways they get ready are kinda funny.
They try packing everything they might need: dozens of cans of deviled ham, an ivory plastic hand mirror, a stainless steel thimble, a dozen number-2 pencils, bandaids, anacin, Absorbine, and a thermometer, a cast iron skillet, bakers yeast, pinking shears, and all sorts of other things.

As they get to the airport, they realize they’ve brought too much– and frantically try to pare things down. Then they remember they can have 46 pounds per person–not including the actual person. In effort to keep more of what they’ve packed, they rush into the restroom and layer their clothes, so that they finally end up wearing “six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all weather coat.”2

Having lived in Africa for three months, I find this terribly funny. Funny, I guess, because I tried to do something very similar–and I wasn’t to be gone anywhere near a year. I bought the jumbo bottles of shampoo, and more socks than any one person should own, much less pack. I packed snack crackers and chocolate and toilet paper and stationary– all the things that, looking back, seem utterly ridiculous. But who could blame me, or these missionaries? After all– how could you head off to a world about which you know nothing– without even the barest of creature comforts?

After all, in some small way, these things protect you. At the very least, they set you apart, so that you are reminded that you’re not really one of “them”– you’re just a visitor. And you just don’t know that you’ll be able to find these things there–things which represent a style of living as much as they meet your needs.

So what do you take with you?

I’ve always thought that you could tell a lot about a person by the way they pack for a trip. (Which is one of the reasons I’m deeply grateful that we have a garage in which we can pack the car– you might draw all sorts of unfortunate conclusions about us if you saw us!)

One of the things you’d see are several pillows– two for Donovan and one for me. Not that the place we’re staying won’t have pillows, but they won’t have our pillows. You’d also see a camera bag, a knitting bag, a range bag, a cosmetic bag, a book bag, a hanging bag, a snack bag, and not one but two computer bags. And that doesn’t even include our suitcases–mine, of course, is always bigger because I can never make up my mind as to what I might want to wear.

Clearly, these are the things that matter to us.

But the classic question that gets to the heart of one’s priorities bugs me: if you were going to be stranded on a desert island, and could only pack three things– what would you take? (And you can’t take a person)

Or with a slightly different spin: If your house were burning down, what would you rush back in to save?

I know I’d pack my dog Bella, and the classic cheesy preacher answer– a Bible. But out of everything else, I couldn’t pick just one more thing.

If I had to rush back in my burning house, I think I’d grab my wedding pictures, and my grandmother’s kitchenaid mixer. But who could choose what else?

Those decisions about priorities are really tough.

But what if you had the chance at a brand new life that was everything you’d never dared to dream of? Great. But what if the condition on which you might have that life came at the cost of having to leave everything you love and hold dear behind. What then? Where then would those priorities be? ]

And that’s where Toe-Stepping-On Jesus walks into the picture. The rich man has been everything and done everything– he’s at the top of his social ladder. And he’s still not content. He knows there must be something more.

Maybe that something more comes in the form of eternal life? “Sure,” Jesus says. “But it doesn’t come cheaply. How badly do you want it?”

“Well, gosh– it has to be so much more amazing than my life now. Besides, if I were at the top eternally, then I’d really be something. Why, I’d do anything!”

“Anything?” Jesus must’ve said.

“Sure. Anything. I’d pray more. I’d love more. Gosh, I’d even donate my time folding bulletins in the temple.”

“Ok– how bout this? Go and sell everything you own, and give the money to the poor.”

The man turns and leaves in silence, because he knows that Jesus has bested him. That’s the one thing he could not do. Not only would it be impossible to sell all those things which he worked so hard for, but he’d be selling his soul– because those are the things that represented his success. And not only that, but to give the money to the poor would mean elevating people that didn’t deserve it to the place where he was. And for a triple whammie, he’d be completely broke– just your regular old person on the street, which was not what he’d had in mind when he was so busy climbing to the top.

This is such a peculiar story to me. First of all, what a passage to preach in tough economic times! This would be a lot easier if we were all on top of our games. But nobody that we know is really rolling in it. Even this church, though filled with strong tithers, still worries about money. Most of us just don’t have piles of money laying around collecting dust. We need what we have.

But what catches me off guard every time is that Jesus doesn’t criticize or condemn the man for having money. Maybe this surprises me because in Christian-eese we render the “the love of money is the root of all evil” as a much more demanding “money is the root of all evil”. There is a difference between those two things– and in our pious moments, we think all Christians ought to have taken vows of poverty.

Yet, this is not Jesus’ attitude, at least in this particular story– though on the surface, it seems like Jesus might feel this way, as we think of the demands Jesus makes on the well-intentioned man.

Jesus doesn’t seem to demand this of everyone he meets. This particular condition seems to be for this particular man. I’ve been pondering this, and the only conclusion I can come up with is that Jesus asks the one thing of the man that is holding the man back.

The text says, “The man had many possessions” but I wonder if Jesus really meant “The man was possessed by many things.”

I don’t know for sure, having never been rich, but I’d imagine that money could create a certain kind of slavery. You get used to having things a certain way, or to people treating you a certain way, and then you’re not really free to leave that way of life. Everything you do, every decision you make comes back to how it will affect you and your carefully guarded nest egg.

Like I said, I’ve never been rich. But I know what it is to have things grab ahold of me and never let go.

But then again, I’d guess we all have that experience with one thing or another.

Jesus says to the man, “Go, sell all your possessions”, but I think he means something much more broad than that. I think he means, “Go sell the things that possess you. Get rid of the things which hold you back from serving me with your whole being.” I think, for some of us, the things that hold us back might be money and “stuff” related. But for others, the things that hold us back are things like “history” (a yearning for the good ol days– even for the golden era days of things like church.) Maybe something that holds us back is a desire to maintain a certain reputation. Maybe it’s a need to be recognized. Or maybe it’s all these things and more.

But what strikes me as I think about Jesus and the demands he makes of the rich man is that Jesus might also be asking the man to give up the things of his former life, and hold on to the things that are of God.

Down here in the south, we get concerned about what people do with their money. And if they aren’t doing the things we think they ought to, we’ll either say to their face or behind their back some version of “You can’t take it with you”. Usually, what we mean is that even if you had bricks of gold buried with you, it’s not going wherever you go. It’s just going to sit there in the ground and not do you much good.

But maybe that’s what Jesus says to the rich young man and to us. And maybe it means something slightly different.

Maybe it means “You can’t take it with you on the journey with me.”

As I was thinking about this passage this week, I happened to hear an interview with Mitch Albom, who wrote “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” He has a new book out, “Have a Little Faith” and it is the true story of two very different types of ministers.

One of the stories Albom tells about getting to know the 82 year old priest that asked Albom to do his eulogy is that they were sitting in a hospital and heard a baby cry. The priest said, “That reminds me of something. Babies come into the world with their fists clenched. Why? Because they think they can grab ahold of everything. I’m getting ready to die, and I’m going to die with open hands. Why? Because you can’t take it with you”

I’ve been thinking about that this week, about how we try and try to hold on to everything that we believe makes us happy and secure. But, I wonder, at what cost?

This is a literal thought on a metaphorical idea I’m trying to get across, but I hope you’ll indulge me. As the weather gets cooler, I start thinking about hiking– which I used to do fairly often, before life got in the way. During all my hiking trips, I never went with my hands full. Instead, anything I needed for the trip went in some sort of backpack. After all, how cumbersome would it be to climb a strenuous hill with your hands overloaded? With your hands free, the trip is much more enjoyable. You’re free to swing your arms if it helps you. You’re free to pick up rocks and pretty leaves. You’re free to touch the moss that grows in that beautiful way. And, even though we’re told not to do this, it’s such a natural instinct that that’s a moot point– if you fall, you have something with which to catch yourself– or to grab on to your partners hand for much needed support.

Maybe the same idea applies to journeying with Jesus. How much would having full “hands” or full pockets or full egos hinder your journey? How much less free would you be to fully do the things that Christ asks of us? How much less free would you be to reach out and help someone else if you’re too worried about dropping the load of sticky possessions that you’ve been holding onto? How much less free to receive the blessings that come with allowing God’s grace to wash over you if your heart is full of illwill or mistrust?

And besides, as one of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says, “You cannot accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it with. You cannot make room for it if your rooms are already full. You cannot follow if you are not free to go.”

Don’t misunderstand. I haven’t softened Jesus’ harsh words any. What Christ asks is that we quit holding on to the things that hold onto us. That we quit grabbing onto safety and security, so that we may be open to receiving the blessings that we are offered. Christ asks that we let go of the things of our “former” lives, and become the new beings we were created to be.

Jesus says, “No. You can’t take it with you. But trust me, the blessings you’ll find along the way will more than fill the emptiness left behind by letting go. You can’t take it with you– do you still want to come?”


Reverend Kim Justice, Copyright 2009.
Fayetteville, NC

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“I’ll Pray for You”
James 5:1-13
Ordinary 26B– September 27, 2009

I always wondered if she was a miracle . It’s not that she was super-woman, or even that she was a super-human. She was an ordinary lady in my dad’s church– whom we called “Mike”. And as far as I could tell, her gift was prayer.

That sounds like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill– like I’m exalting something so ordinary, when the truth is that we should all have the gift of prayer.

But her gift showed up in really remarkable ways. Every time my dad would have a tough day, somehow a card or letter or phone call showed up– usually a card or letter, because “Mike” hated to be a bother. But what was so amazing is that the card wouldn’t show up in the mail two or three days after dad had had a rough day, and had a chance to tell “Mike” about it. No, it always showed up the exact same day– which means she had to mail it two or three days before. And it always said something that exactly fit with whatever the problem was.

It was amazing really. Once would be a coincidence. Twice would be crazy. But the number of times that this happened leads me to think that maybe it was something else all together: Divine.

I think that “Mike” was a person who exemplified the verse that says “Pray without ceasing.” I think she might have been in such close communion with God that God gently nudged her to put a card with exactly the right message in her mail box on exactly the right day.

And I think that’s what James’ call to prayer is– I don’t think he’s asking us to toss up a prayer every now and then when someone is in trouble. I think he’s asking us to live a life of prayer

I wonder if there’s a difference between prayers and prayer?

My best guess is that prayers are the things we toss up when we need something– when someone is really sick, or there’s this problem that we just don’t know what to do about.

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says this,
Prayer is more than saying set prayers at set times. Prayer is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing….When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer.”1

The idea of prayer has long fascinated me– and sometimes I feel like it brings up more questions that it answers. And too, it something we toss around so easily, and with so little thought, that I wonder where our prayers are rooted.

I’m quite certain that every person in this room has had someone say, “I’ll pray for you.” And I’m just as certain that we’ve all had the feeling that someone said that to us as a copout. As in– “I have no idea what to say to you or how to make you better, so I’m going to tell you I’ll be praying for you.”

But where does that leave us– and how we feel about prayer?

I’ve always believed that prayer is a gift– the sort of gift that is given fully to some, and not as fully to others. I’ve met some folks that are really great pray-ers. These are the folks for whom I think prayer comes more easily than it does for the rest of us. For me, prayer has always been tough (which is tremendously unfortunate for a preacher). Sometimes, I, like everyone else, feel like I am talking to the ceiling. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t have the words I want (even though I know the Holy Spirit “gets” what I’m trying to say.) And sometimes, to tell the truth, I wonder if it changes anything.

I’m not sure where this comes from, but I think most of us have the feeling that things are “set”. We say we believe that God is active in the world, but I don’t know how we feel about saying that God might just change God’s mind.

And if God isn’t open to having his mind changed, why in the world would we bother pray?

And if God is in the mind changing business, on what does that depend? Does it depend on how hard I pray? Or how many people are praying toward the same end that I am? Does it depend on how faithful and righteous I am, as James suggests?

And while we’re at it, does prayer really play any part in healing? Or has God just decided who to heal and how? I read an article in the Washington Post2 that says the United States has spent approximately 2.2 million dollars in trying to figure out the connection between prayer and healing.

As we would expect, the results are quite varied, and indeed controversial.
This same article mentions a study where a group of Christians were asked to pray for 192 people hospitalized for heart problems. There were 201 not specifically targeted for prayer, and none of the patients knew of the study that was going on. Interestingly, the patients that were prayed for needed fewer drugs and both their time in the hospital and their recovery time was, on average, shorter than those patients that were not prayed for.

But there does seem to be an odd consensus on people who know they are being prayed for verses the ones who don’t know they are being prayed for. Folks who know they are being prayed for seem not only to have a brighter outlook and happier disposition, but they also seem to heal more quickly than patients who don’t know that someone is praying for them.

That particular conclusion makes me believe that there is something really important about being a part of a community. It seems people have both a greater sense of self worth, and a brighter outlook on life if they are somehow connected. To be really a part of the community is to feel valued and loved– and that makes anything more bearable.

But I think there might be something even more special about being a part of a praying community. To be a part of a community that prays is to feel like your concerns are held up by someone else. But to be a part of that same praying community also means that individuals are given the job of coming together to hold someone else up.

When I was in seminary, we often prayed together in small groups. And a favorite type of prayer involved standing in a circle, and everyones thumbs pointing toward the left. Try that– you’ll notice that one of your palms is down, and one is up. Now if your neighbor also does that, you’ll notice that where your palm is down, your neighbor’s palm will be up. And if you match hands with your neighbors, you’ll notice that you have one hand supporting someone else’s and one hand that is being supported by someone. That’s what it’s like to be a part of a praying community.

One of my favorite poems, at least content wise is John Donne’s “No man is an island.” He says, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

I think James would have wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment. James, I think, would especially like that part about “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” But James might step it up a notch– any one’s spiritual mire is everyone in his community’s problem. If one was ailing or struggling, James just might want to know not only what the community were doing to fix it, but what the community had failed to do that landed the person there.

As I read back through the book of James (which I’ve managed not to preach on this lectionary cycle), I realized that James isn’t terribly worried about individuals. To him, we all have tremendous responsibility for each other– James really sees prayer, and even Christian life, as a community effort.

For James, the health of a congregation or community is everyone’s concern. If the church is unhealthy, James wants to know what the whole congregation is doing about it.

That’s tough for us individually minded folks. We want to worry about our privacy– next time I’m home sick in my pajamas, I sure don’t want the entire session showing up to pray for me. I’d just as soon suffer quietly without anyone knowing, thankyouverymuch. I think in some way, we’re all like that. We’d like to know when someone else is sick or suffering so that we can pray for them– but when it comes to illness or distress in our own families, we don’t want to be a bother. I’ve noticed that the very ones who are so great about making sure that I get whatever news is on the prayer chain, are the same ones who are very quiet when they are sick “Maybe”, we think to ourselves, “this is not that important.” We feel selfish in asking for prayers for ourselves, or for those we love.

But I think James would chastise all of us. Prayer is the most powerful tool we have in our arsenal against acute cases of the human condition. James would say to us, “How could you not allow your community to pray for you? You would deny them that opportunity to do their Christian duty?”

See, this is why I haven’t preached James until now. He doesn’t mind stepping all over folks feelings. He’s been stepping on my toes all week, especially as I was lying sick in bed, and thinking it’d be better if no one knew.

But James has been stepping on my toes in another way too. James seems to relate sickness to sin.

I’ve had to look in lots of commentaries about this one– and one conclusion seems to be as I thought, that this is a pre-scientific answer to “why bad things happen to good people.”

They didn’t have any “science” as we would consider it. No x-rays, or mri’s or ctscans– a doctor’s knowledge was quite limited. What else could they blame it on? I mean, they didn’t even know about germs or anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, for pete’s sake!

But, some commentaries took an entirely different approach, and I’ve been wrestling with this all week.

While we may not like to think about it, to an extent, there is a link between wrongdoing and illhealth. And in saying this, I really don’t think one necessarily causes the other–I really do believe in things like germs and bacteria.

But I to think the two have some commonalities.

To an extent, both wrongdoing and illhealth make us extraordinarily vulnerable. When you have wronged someone, how much guilt do you carry around? How much do you dread seeing them again. And even if you’re on the receiving end of wrong doing, how easy is it for you to want to slip into “revenge mode”? Neither the wrong-doer, nor the recipient fare especially well.

To be sick also has the same result. You’re no longer your usual “strong” self– if you’ve really had the wind knocked out of you, you almost need someone in your corner, whether they bring food or run out to get you cough drops, or whatever. In sickness, we realize that we can’t do it all ourselves, and there’s a certain amount of vulnerability in that.

Both, in their own ways, cause separation from the community– sickness causes physical separation from your community. All we hear about these days is the Swine Flu, and how people who even THINK they may have it should stay far away from other people. But too, wrong doing causes separation– any time we fail to treat someone with anything other than the love of Christ, we put a division between them and us, and that not only affects our relationship with that person, but it affects the whole community.

And so what are we to do?

The best answer for James is that we pray. And that’s not nearly the copout that it’s grown to sound like. For James, prayer is real work.

I’ve been reading the Celebration of Discipline chapter on Prayer in preparation for our upcoming study this week. The author says, “Real prayer is life creating and life changing. ‘Prayer–secret, fervent, believing prayer–lies at the root of all personal godliness.”3

To be in prayer, changes the vulnerability. No longer are we vulnerable are we vulnerable because of our condition– we are vulnerable to God’s word and work breaking open in us.

I had a friend in Seminary, who when he would find anyone cutting up and being silly– which I might add, he was usually a part of, would laugh and cut up, and then roll his eyes at the ceiling, finally saying, “I’m gonna pray for you. Heal her, Jesus!” Only he didn’t say it in the serious way we usually think of it– for us, it was a joke. It was the same as saying “Bless your Heart.” or “God love you– somebody has to!” or “You ain’t right. You just ain’t right.”

We’d always say in a way that jokingly said, “I’m gonna pray for you– cause Jesus is the only one who can do anything with you.”

While it still makes me smile, I’ve come to realize our joke was positively serious.

“I’m gonna pray for you. Heal her, Jesus…”

Funny– but the only thing that makes a bit of difference. Prayer changes things, and without a doubt it changes us. When we pray, we are opening ourselves to God’s presence in us and in our community. If we really believe that God is alive and active in the world, then we must also believe that through prayer, we are working with God to determine the future.

And that’s no laughing matter.


Charge– A beloved hymn says, “there is a balm in gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sinsick soul.” Perhaps the writer was really talking about prayer.

May it be so.

As you go out into the world, may the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift his countenance to you, and give you peace. Now and forever more. Amen.

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Today’s Sermon, using Mark 9:30-37



“You are not better than me.”

“Are too.”

“I’m Jesus’ favorite”

“No I am– Jesus doesn’t even like you. He says you smell like wet sheep.”

“Well, he says you smell like a fish.”

“So, what do you do that he might even think about calling you great? I keep all his commandments religiously.”

“Well, so do I. And I pray. A lot. So there.”

This is what we might have heard if we happened to near the disciples on this particular day, as they traveled to Capernum. No wonder they were embarrassed to tell Jesus about their discussion!

Maybe they had the feeling they weren’t understanding as fully as they might. After all, Jesus kept talking about dying– and that must mean something, but why would he say such a thing? He was just getting started! So far, he hadn’t done anything spectacular…at least not anything they expected him to do.

No riding in on a white horse. No dazzling anyone with his military proweress. No– he hadn’t done any of those things.

Jesus was great, no doubt, but when was he going to show everybody how great he was?

And since they didn’t feel comfortable talking about all that, they decided to talk about their own greatness. I mean, sure it was nice to be chosen as a disciple, but every good organization has leaders, and top dogs, and big cheeses and all that. So someone in that group had to be it. Might as well talk about it, so that at least everybody knew where they were in the group.

I guess I’d be embarrassed to let Jesus overhear a conversation like that, too. After all, Jesus has spent a lot of time upsetting social “norms”. Clearly, things that society considers great don’t do much for Jesus– he remains unimpressed.

But I wonder if we’re any better? We, as not just individuals, but as whole societies too, grab and pull and try to climb our way to the top. We strive to be great, not only in Christ’s eyes, but in each other’s eyes (which we might even deem more important that being great in Christ’s eyes.)

Society demands a lot of those it considers great: great money, great influence, great power. Unless you possess one of those things, you are pretty much just one of the crowd.

But at least we know and understand what it takes to be great in society’s eyes. The things Jesus asks of us are much, much tougher. Seriously, it might actually be easier for us to be billionaires than to get the “love your neighbor as yourself” really right really often.

We laugh at the disciples, and their pettiness. We grimace as we remember that we’re this same way.

But, as I’ve been wrestling with this text, I don’t know that either our prayer or that of the disciples is really “Lord, make me great!” What I think is at the heart of the prayers both we and the disciples have prayed is, “Lord– I don’t have to be great, but please don’t let me be least!” And if we’re really honest, perhaps what is at the heart is our desperate desire not to be invisible.

Invisibility doesn’t sound all bad. Some days, I would LOVE to be invisible. Some days, I would love to be one who just blended in– who just quietly eeked into the background. And some days, I’d love to be invisible so that I could be a fly on the wall. I’m sure there are some interesting conversations that I’d love to be able to hear!

But I wouldn’t much like it if I were invisible all the time. I’d like to be able to turn that quality on and off– and be immediately recognized and attended to once I decided I no longer wanted to be invisible.

For a long time, my mom dad and I were beginning to wonder if we actually were invisible. We would go to somewhat empty restaurants, and wait, and wait, and wait, and never so much as have our drink orders taken. We’d finally flag down a waiter, and invariably, s/he would say, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t see you there.” And my dad has actually had the experience of standing in line, being right at the counter, and having the clerk lean around him to say, “Next!”

But I’d bet most of us in this room have had the experience of feeling invisible. Probably most of us, at some point, were in a big crowd as children. Some adult “up there” maybe held our hand to make sure we didn’t get lost or carried away, but that didn’t do us much good, because all we could see were pairs of legs.

What a horrible feeling!

Can you imagine feeling like that day in and day out? I think it’d be awful!

But perhaps, there are tons of people that go through their days feeling like that. I think it’s really easy for us to see the people who are most like us– the ones who look like we do, the ones who act like we do, the ones who believe like we do, the ones whose checkbook size is similar to ours. I’ve noticed that about myself– I have 20/20 when it comes to seeing people like me, when it comes to seeing people of about my same level of “greatness”.

But it’s much harder for me to see and appreciate those who are different from me, or whom I deem less great than I am.

I guess that’s why this passage has been stepping on my toes all week long.
And not only that, but I’ve really had to wrestle with it.

Jesus’ words to me are confusing. As I began my week, I was pretty excited to hear Jesus talking about welcoming the child. I mean seriously, whenever we have a child walk through our doors, we roll out the proverbial red carpet and treat them like the royalty they are!

Clearly, Jesus wasn’t the pastor of a small church praying for children!

So what exactly is Jesus talking about, when he makes it sound like such a tough thing to welcome a child?

I had to take off my 21st century hat for this one, and dig way deep to find my Greco-Roman hat. I had to look back and remember exactly how children were regarded in those days.

The truth is– they weren’t really regarded at all. While we shower new parents with love and tell them what a blessing their baby is, this would not have been so in Jesus’ day. Children were sort of seen as non-persons, or at least not-yet persons. They weren’t useful. They didn’t help the household. They weren’t even impressive– no one that made any difference in society would’ve been impressed that a man had a new baby. And since women weren’t “going anywhere” anyway, the thing was just another mouth to feed.

Children were the lowest of the low, on the same social rung as those who served food or cleaned up pig slop. For us modern folks, it seems like Jesus makes a big jump in going from talking about being a servant of all, to welcoming a child. But in the Greek, the words for “child” and “servant” are close enough that the hearers would have made the association really quickly.

What Jesus is really talking about is welcoming the nobodies, the invisibles. Children and servants would have both been seen as weak and powerless– completely at the mercy of others.

But watch out– we love to relegate this story to the “cutesy” box which fits right there with the “Oh, isn’t that lovely” box that where we’d like to file away most scripture lessons. As is the case with most of the stories we’d place in those boxes, this is not a cutesy story about welcoming children.

Jesus is being subversive, through and through. What Jesus is doing is really upsetting the social order.

As he does in several places, Jesus reminds us that we don’t get any brownie points for rolling out the red carpet for those like us. He reminds us that real hospitality (and in this scripture) real greatness is about welcoming the nobodies.

But, I wonder, if that’s the only challenge in what Jesus offers to us today. For some, that’s challenge enough…some will go home today, and worry all week about how they are doing at showing God’s love to the invisibles.

As this passage was wrestling with me, I discovered a surprise. I’d much rather give love to someone that couldn’t earn it, than I would to allow myself to become a “nobody”.

While God’s Grace is something I preach regularly, and it’s actually at the core of my belief system, the truth of the matter is that I’d never let myself simply sit playing at Jesus feet, and believe that that’s enough.

I’ve never really considered that I was trying to “earn my way” with God, because I don’t think that the things I do will get me into heaven, but there’s a great possibility that I’ve spent my whole life trying to “earn my way” with everyone I meet. I know I’m not the only one, because that’s what human beings do. We grab, and pull, and conquer, and do, and achieve– and try to make ourselves great in each other’s eyes.

When I was a kid, every evening during the summer, all the neighborhood kids and I would meet at one child’s house. This child had a marvelous, random hill, in the middle of his yard, and our favorite game was “King of the Hill”. (Queen in my case!) The whole point was to get to the stop, and stay there using whatever you had to– even, and especially if pushing everyone else was necessary. And you know what, as much fun as it was to be at the top– it sure took a lot of hard work to stay that way.

But Christ’s invitation to us this week is to stop. Stop being a part of the “rat race”. Stop smooshing others so that we feel bigger. Stop putting pressure on yourself to be amazing.

If Christ telling us to choose servanthood feels like a burden, maybe it’s easier to see it as an invitation to the Good Life. If we’re choosing to be least, that opens up two opportunities: First, we’re able to let go of our need to be great, which takes a lot of pressure off of us. In fact, it frees us up tremendously to enjoy being in a relationship with God, without the continual striving to avoid being invisible. And Second, it provides an opportunity for someone who might otherwise remain invisible to been seen and welcomed and appreciated for a while.

Living the Good Life means letting go of the pressures society places on us–which we in turn place on each other. It means serving the one without social standing as if welcome friend, and knowing that they might never be able to pay us back. And it means sitting at Jesus’ feet playing, without the pressure to be, and do, and achieve.

Great isn’t “upward mobility”– which is a term our society uses a lot to describe those that are climbing to the top of the social ladder. Jesus says that’s backwards. The real ticket is “Downward Mobility.” It’s not about climbing to the top. It’s about sliding gracefully down to the bottom, and choosing the path of invisibility so that someone else has the chance to be seen for a while.

And here’s the funny thing– when this becomes such a habit, a way of life, when this life of choosing servant invisibility becomes so much who we are that we think we might just have actually dropped off the earth as far as anyone can tell– that’s the moment when we become most “upwardly mobile” in God’s eyes.

Christ has a pretty big soft spot for the “invisibles”, who are never invisible to him.

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