The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Isaiah 60.1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold, and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

“A banana phone?”

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

My family was sprawled out around my parents living room, all in matching pajamas, as we patiently awaited the first gift of Christmas.

My mother, having her progeny surrounding her, ripped the wrapping paper with precision, and inside… was a banana phone.

It was yellow and curved, as you’d expect, and it just sat there in her hand as she looked across the room at my father.

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

“It connects via bluetooth,” he said, with just the hint of self-justification in his voice. “It’s for those times that you can find your cell phone in your purse, you can just grab the banana and bring it to your ear and have a normal conversation.”

“There’s nothing normal about talking into a banana.”

And in the brief moment of awkward silence as all of us took in the scene of not only the first gift of Christmas, but the first strange gift of Christmas, my toddler promptly jumped up and, diffusing the situation, he declared, “I play with the banana phone.”

We didn’t see him for the next ten minutes as he walked around the house having a pretend conversation about who knows what.

I love asking questions, particularly those that even out the playing field and those that give everyone a chance to respond.

What’s one of your favorite Christmas presents of all time? 

That’s a great question, because it immediately gets people thinking nostalgically about the past and inevitably it draws people closer to one another as they share collective memories from the past about toys long forgotten, or no longer created.

But there’s an even better question than the best Christmas present… What’s one of the strangest Christmas presents you’ve ever received?

People will normally furrow their brows in response as they think deeply about an out of left-field gift from days long ago, but usually somebody will start laughing before they even start the story.

I know that for the rest of her life, my mother will consider the banana phone one of the strangest gifts she’s ever received. 

It’s certainly practical, to some degree, thought it’s not something she needs and, more importantly, it’s not something she will ever use.

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Sometime after Jesus was born, though we’ve not entirely sure when, magi or wisemen or astrologers from the east came to visit the newborn Messiah. They conspired with King Herod to discover Jesus’ location but when they discerned his fear and/or jealously, they set out ahead of him until they arrived in Bethlehem. 

They were overwhelmed with joy and entered the house where the little family was huddled together and they opened up their treasure chests: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. We don’t read about Mary and Jospeh’s conversation with the magi, or even if they picked the little baby up in their arms, or even what their names were!

And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself wondering about this particular scene from scripture. 

What did Mary and Joseph think about the gift? 

Where were the magi with the diapers, and pacifiers, and formula? 

Did anyone offer to give the new parents a night out on the town without baby duty? 

Who brought the casserole to put in the refrigerator for late night meals?

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – Are they the gifts that keep on giving?

Today is Epiphany, an often overlooked moment on the liturgical calendar. It marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas and it celebrates the extension of the gospel to the gentiles. 

In the magis’ moment at the manger we witness the great scope of God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ insofar as it will not be limited to a particular people in a particular place, but will indeed fulfill the words from the prophet Isaiah.

Arise, shine; for the light has come! Darkness cover the earth and all of her people, but the Lord has arisen, and his glory has appeared.

Nations will come to the light, and even kings will be beckoned to the brightness of God’s new dawn. 

Just open your eyes and look around, all have gathered together, and in the seeing we rejoice with radiance because the gifts have arrived.

There is a strange temptation in the season of Christmastide, better known as the time after Christmas, in which we still faintly revel in the music and the lights and even the presents that once sat under our tree. But now, 12 days later, the luster is starting to diminish as the real world catches back up with us. 

Some of the things we opened have already been returned, others have been regifted, and some have been placed in a box never to see the light of day!

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Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh were, and are, gifts that go far above and beyond the recipients. Mary and Joseph were of a certain way of life such that that was probably the first, and only time, they ever saw, let alone held, those kinds of items. They demonstrate the paradoxical subversion of the status quo.

Up until this manger moment, it was the poor and the marginalized who were expected to present presents to those in power – people like the magi.

But now, in Jesus, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first. That’s the power of the light that shines in the darkness, it draws us in like flies on a hot summer night to a florescent neon glow, and we can’t help ourselves.

The gifts of the wisemen were not particularly helpful to a pair of new parents – they weren’t going to make Jesus fall asleep or quit his crying or even pacify his hunger, but they do point to one of the things that’s right with the church.

The church is the place where the power of the light that shines in the darkness is made intelligible through practices like being the church in worship!

When we gather to sing and praise, when we hear the good news of the gospel, we are living into the drama of the multitudes that Isaiah is describing.

Here in this place at this time we are in the great company of people from all nations and all ages.

And to be abundantly clear, our church lives into this in a way that many others do not. If you take a look around our sanctuary we are not nearly as monolithic as other places of worship are. Thanks to the hard work of those who came before us we are one of the more diverse churches in the area and we are therefore a foretaste of the vision Isaiah describes.

But, lest we walk out of here with heads too big to fit through the door – we certainly have room for improvement. 

The light of Christ shines among us so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, but the light also shows us a glimpse of what can be.

Isaiah’s powerful words about the light made possible in Jesus remind us that the healing and solace we find in a place like the church is not the ultimate reason the church exists. Otherwise we would be just another self-help group among the many others that exist. Instead, God restores us to a newness and a wholeness in and with the church so that we can take our place among the people of God while making room for more to join us.

One of the things that’s right with the church is the fact that it is the powerful place in which we are uplifted in the recognition that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that we belong to something different than ourselves.

I’ve said it many times before but the church seems to be the only place left where people willfully gather together with others with whom they fundamentally disagree on a number of issues except for the fact that Jesus is Lord.

We, as the church, are part of a multitude that includes the magi, and the saints, and the martyrs, and the sinners, and everyone in between. There is no other place that can quite build us up while also pointing toward the difficult truths we’d otherwise ignore.

In Jesus we are made perfect, but we are still the fallible sinners in need of Jesus’ saving grace. The church is indeed the better place God has made in the world and God is still not quite done with us yet!

The beginning of Isaiah’s proclamation, Arise and Shine!, is not a suggestion, and it’s not even an invitation – it is a command. Get up! Shine! Go!

Here, on the day of Epiphany, as we celebrate the total scope of the gospel extending to the gentiles, we are challenged by Isaiah’s words to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness, and beyond the mystery of the Christmas incarnation, toward the brilliance of the brightness in Christ the Lord.

But the brilliant brightness is only necessary because of the thick darkness that covers the people. During the time of Isaiah the darkness was nothing new to the people Israel. They truly knew what it means to dwell in thick darkness while exiled in Babylon. And today, we too dwell in our own version of exilic darkness.

We are far more persuaded by the talking heads on television than we are by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are regularly fearful of the other and anything that appears strange and yet Jesus Christ is the strange incarnation of God in the flesh.

We are more likely to turn our heads away from the suffering in the world around us even though Jesus regularly walked into it again and again.

So what’s right with the church? 

If we are broken people in need of grace, if we routinely make the wrong choices or avoid making the right choices, if we perpetuate the thick darkness that Jesus came to destroy can we really say there is anything right with the church?

Jesus is what is right with the church, not us. Jesus is the one great gift that really keeps on giving. But he does not bring us prosperity and peace and preferential treatment. 

The great gift of Christ, the light that shines and never fades, is nothing but the cross upon which he was killed.

As I said on Christmas Eve, the same baby in the manger is the one who was hung for the sins of the world. The same child to which the magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the same one who broke free from the chains of death. 

Jesus Christ will forever be the gift that keeps on giving because he gives himself for you and me, knowing full and well who we are who and who we are meant to be. Amen. 

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The Demands of the Divine

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Michelle Matthews about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent (Malachi 3.1-4, Luke 1.68-79, Philippians 1.3-11, Luke 3.1-6). Michelle serves as the pastor of the Kingstowne Communion in Kingstowne, VA . Our conversation covers a range of topics including being obsessed with the Enneagram, burning up the excess, the whole OT in one Psalm, the God who will die, the theology of discernment, and the scandal of particularity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Demands Of The Divine

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Spooky

Revelation 21.1-6a

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

I love Halloween. There’s just something about people, both young and old, getting dressed up in costumes that draws forth a feeling of frivolity that feels almost completely absent in the world today. This Halloween, in particular, felt like a great pause and retreat from the never-ending horrible news cycle; rather than having all of the same conversations about the same stuff over and over again, for one night, people put on the masks and let it all go.

And nowhere was this more present than in our parking lot for the Trunk or Treat. We had over 200 hundred children from the community make their way from trunk to trunk and our property was filled with laughter, wrappers being ripped to shreds, and the monster mash. But perhaps the thing I enjoyed most, even more than watching kids go down the Bouncey house slide, or my son dancing in his Luke Skywalker costume, was watching the parents.

I recognized a number of people from the neighborhood, and some of whom regularly gather in our lot for the Flea Market or for the food distribution, but during the trunk or treat they seemed different. Instead of the normal anxieties and frustrations, they appeared at ease. I saw smiles, and giggles, and even the occasional sleight of hand removing a Twix from a kid’s bucket for a quick treat.

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Halloween is awesome, and it is good for kids and adults.

Underneath the costumes and the candy, beyond the Butterfingers and the “Boos!”, Halloween contains a recognition about the complicated nature of life, and in particular that life doesn’t last forever. On Halloween both the young and old are forced to come to grips with the often avoided truth: death is real.

But for as important as Halloween is, particularly for Christians, All Saints is even more important. 

All Saints is the set apart liturgical day when we pause, remember, and give thanks for the dead. Some churches will highlight the Saints in their community, others will offer time for silent reflection, and other will simply name the dead and leave it at that.

There are lots of liturgical moves that can be made on this day, but All Saints also raises a lot of questions, in fact some of our most profound questions: Who and what are we really? Is there anything permanent in the universe? Do our lives have any meaning?

And those questions can be far more spooky and frightening than anything we might’ve encountered on Halloween.

Here’s a frightening thought to put it all in perspective: When was the last time you walked through a cemetery? What did you make of all the countless names you didn’t know or even recognize? Have you ever though about how many people will walk past your grave one day not knowing or caring at all about who you were?

Or mull on this: I have lost track of the number of families that have come to me with questions about what to do with the stuff of a person now dead. Sure, the big pieces of furniture will eventually find new homes, but what about the random box of newspaper clippings? What should we do with all the old notes and the brief sketches? Who wants all the sentimentalities that mean nothing to those who are still living?

Or still yet this: On Wednesday we drove our son to his godparents’ house so we could trick or treat with them around their neighborhood. Elijah loaded up on gobs of candy and he rejoiced in screaming “Happy Halloween” while he was still walking up the driveway before knocking on the door. But at the end of the evening, we loaded him and all of his gleanings into the car, and while driving home we encountered 5 different rescue vehicles with all of their lights and sirens blazing, all on their way to horrible accidents on what is supposed to be one of the most magical nights of the year.

Did you know that more pedestrian traffic fatalities occur on Halloween than any other day during the year? The majority of which happen to children under the age of 8…

No matter who we are, no matter what kind of life we’ve led, we all want to know the answers to some ultimate questions: Is death all there is? Do our lives have any real meaning? What happens if we die with things unresolved? Are we going to be separated forever from the very people who meant the most to us?

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Contrary to the Hallmark channel, or any of number of institutions and industries, the biblical view of humanity is that if we were left to our own devices, if this was all there is, then our lives would all end in emptiness and we would truly and irrevocably return to the dust from whence we came.

No amount of power, or wealth, or resources, can stop the inevitability of the end of our days.

And so it is here, from this spooky, frightening, and terrifying vantage point that I want to read our passage once more:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

I hope it gave you some goosebumps, or at least some divine comfort made manifest physically and tangibly, particularly after thinking about graveyards, leftover items, and ambulances on Halloween.

Because the true depths of God’s promise in Revelation can only felt when we’ve actually considered the alternative. 

Revelation can appear wild and weird but it is also wonderful. In addition to visions of beasts and flaming altars, it also offers moving images of comfort and hope to people like you and me who live in troubled times.

Though, of course, what we might consider “troubled” would pale in comparison to the early Christians. John’s letter was written from a place of exile to a growing community who were experiencing horrific persecution. The letter, in different ways, claims that despite all appearances to the contrary, the Roman Empire’s power was not absolute – it is only God who reigns supreme.

The differing visions and divine battles between good and evil offer a lens into the penultimate victory of God over and against everything else. No amount of physical abuse or religious persecution, no number of graveyards, or leftover belongings, or even ambulances on Halloween have the final word.

Sure, they will sting like nothing else on earth, they might derail everything we thought we knew, they can even bring our lives to an end, but they are not the end. 

There’s a reason that this text, these words from Revelation, have been associated since ancient times with the rites involved with Christian burials. 

There’s a reason we read these words when we bury our friends, our families, and even our children.

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They are words of hope for a people who feel hopeless. And, of course, it may be difficult for some of us to image what the persecution that necessitated the writing of this letter looked like – lives of fear and trembling, always on the run, always faithful, but never sure of tomorrow. It was a life of utter terror that the Roman emperor inflicted on the early Christians who passed this letter around.

They were the very first saints of the church, brothers and sisters who lived by faith, without whom we would not have these words. Those saints risked it all for one name – not the name on their emperor, but Jesus the Christ – the name above all names.

But maybe we know some of that suffering. Maybe it doesn’t come from some megalomaniacal leader who suppresses the words we read here today, perhaps we won’t ever fear for our lives because of our faith, but we’ve got plenty of things to be afraid of, we’ve got plenty of questions that keep us awake at night, we know what it means to be spooked.

And the normative response to this fear is a desire for control – we want to be the masters of our own destiny. But, to be very real, control is exactly what the Roman Empire wanted over the first Christians – it’s what led them to harm, and persecute, and even kill in the name of the country.

But the first Christians, they didn’t want control – they just wanted Jesus.

Brokenness is all around us, its in our schools, our churches, our government, our businesses, our national institutions – all of those things that we normally look to for stability, and hope, and even control… all of them fall short of the glory for which they were created.

And thus John has a vision where all things are made new.

And when he says all, he means all.

That includes the countless and unknowable bodies buried in our cemeteries.

It includes the families and friends and spouses and children that we placed in the ground.

It includes those who lives came to their end because of accidents on Halloween.

It even includes us.

To read and hear these words on a day like today is to be re-communed with every saint that has come before us, with those who risked their lives to get us these words, with every saint will will come long after we’re gone, with those who will hold onto these words in the face of as of yet unimagined persecution.

We belong to and believe in the communion of saints, past-present-future.

And so we can be afraid, we can lay awake at night asking those deep and profoundly existential questions, but being a Christian isn’t about adopting a certain set of ideas or beliefs that prevent us from ever suffering or wondering or even doubting. 

Following Jesus is instead about being included among his friends. 

In baptism we are washed with with the same water the Jesus washed his friends.

In communion we are feb by the same meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.

Our stories, whether long or short, whether filled with joy or pain, are taken up and become part of the great story that is God with God’s people. 

And it is in recognition of the great and cosmic scope of what our stories become in the person of Jesus that our lives acquire a meaning that extends far beyond us.

And, most importantly, it is at that profound moment of new discovery that we know, or at least strangely remember, the end of the story!

When we know the end, everything that appears mundane or frustrating, the trivialities that keep us awake, and even the spookiest notions of our lives are outshined by the glorious Alpha and Omega who is, and was, and is to come.

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Amen.

Getting Out Of The Way

Devotional:

Job 42.17

And Job died, full and old of days. 

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Eugene Peterson died yesterday.

Peterson was a pastor, scholar, author, and poet. Throughout his life he wrote over thirty books, and served a church in Bel Air, Maryland for almost 30 years.

His name might not be familiar, but he leaves behind a legacy of bringing people closer to the Word through The Message. The Message is Peterson’s paraphrased version of the Bible for the modern vernacular. The story goes that in his early days of leading a church, he would “translate” passages in little bits as devotionals for the congregation, but as they became more and more popular, he eventually tackled the whole of scripture and had it published.

By 2015, The Message had sold more than 6 million copies.

To be clear: The Message is not a translation of the Bible, but is an interpretation of what it might sound like had the Bible been written today. There are of course problems with trying to adapt any piece of writing this way, but Peterson’s commitment to the paraphrase most definitely brought people to the church in a way that was exciting, refreshing, and life-giving.

I am grateful for Peterson’s work, and in particular The Message. I have used parts of his paraphrases throughout my ministry in order to bring people closer to the God that has come close to them. There is a comfort with hearing what God has said, as if God was saying it right now in a conversation.

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But Peterson’s contribution to the church extend far beyond The Message and his memoir (The Pastor), which was published in 2011, played a huge roll in my call to ministry. In fact, the passage below was so powerful, that I copied it in a notebook when I read it for the first time and have kept it in my top desk drawer ever since:

“What does it mean to be a church of Jesus Christ in America? We had let Luke’s storytelling in The Acts of the Apostles give us our text. We saturated our imaginations in the continuities between the conception, birth, and life of Jesus and the conception, birth, and life of the church. As we let Luke tell the story, it became clear that being the church meant that the Holy Spirit was conceiving the life of Jesus in us, much the same way the Holy Spirit had conceived the life of Jesus in Mary. We weren’t trying to be a perfect model or a glamorous church. We were trying to get out of the way and pay attention to the way God worked in the early church and was working in us. We were getting it: worship was not so much what we did, but what we let God do in and for us.” (Eugene Peterson, The Pastor. 171-172)

Like Job, Eugene Peterson lived a full life. The church is better for having had him in it and his legacy will last long after his death. His life was never so much about what he did with it, but what he let God do in and through him. 

We would be so blessed if someone said the same for us when we die. 

We Definitely Need To Talk

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The midterm elections are coming up.

Do you all know what those are?

I’m sure you haven’t heard of them. I’m sure that you’ve been able to watch your favorites shows on television, and listen to your favorite radio station, and even get on the computer without hearing about who is running and where.

All of us here don’t care about politics. And we certainly never talk about politics. Not here at church when we’re milling around before the worship service. Not at work when we’re sitting around at a common table with fellow employees. Not at home when we’re catching up with a neighbor over the fence.

No. Politics are a rather boring endeavor these days. It’s just too bad that we don’t care about our politics enough!

So, for the vast majority of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about (read: sarcasm), the midterms elections will be taking place on November 6th. They happen every four years, and they always fall during the mid-point of a president’s four-year term in office. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, and there are 33 being voted on in the Senate. 

In certain places there will also be state governors on the ballots in addition to ordinances that pertain to the local community.

All in all, it is just another voting day.

Yet, in all of its regularity and perfunctory nature, all the research and data made available points to the conclusion that more than 4 billion dollars will be spent on the elections by election day, with at least 1 billion of that being spent on television ads alone.

4 billion dollars for an election.

Now, don’t get me wrong – elections are important, they are part of the fabric of our country, and they represent a freedom many people in other parts of the world will never know. And, of course, not all politicians are bad or evil or corrupt. Some of them feel called to run for office because they want to make things better.

But, at the same time, I want to just say again… 4 billion dollars!

That’s more than what it cost to make every single Marvel movie, combined!

What does it say about those running, and those of us financially supporting those who are running, that we are willing to spend 4 billion dollars on an election?

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James and John were two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and he referred to the sons of Zebedee as the sons of thunder. Why? We don’t really know, but if it was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for us.

The thunder brothers were pretty self-absorbed.

Jesus has just predicted his passion for a third, and final, time. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and I will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn me to death; then they will hand me over to the Gentiles; they will mock me, and spit upon me, and flog me, and kill me; and after three days I will rise again.”

And what happens next? The thunder brothers approach Jesus, immediately after he told them for the third time what was to happen. Like the children they were, they said, “Hey Jesus, will you do whatever we ask you?”

“What do you want?!”

“Allow us to sit at your right and left in your glory!”

They wanted all the power. They wanted to be Jesus’ Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense. They wanted to be the junior and senior State Senators. They wanted to be the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate of whatever Jesus’ kingdom would be.

And yet, their question comes on the heels of Jesus laying it all out for the disciples. So either they were not listening to what their Messiah said, or they were just plain dumb.

Which makes me wonder how people reacted to this story the first time they heard it. Did they laugh? Because it is laughable.

Did the other 10 point their fingers and ridicule the thunder brothers for their idiot question? Well, apparently not. Because, lest we bash the thunder brothers alone, the rest of the disciples fared no better. Hearing Jesus’ utter rebuke of their request, the rest of the disciples got angry. 

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture these would be rag-tag followers of the holy one bickering with each other about who was the best, and who would get the authority, and who held all the power.

It was such a squabble that Jesus had to respond with his teaching about true greatness and true power: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The whole story reads like a comedy. We have the benefit of knowing the end of the story, we know that the tomb is empty, but did any of us feel like laughing when the text was read today?

We, for some reason, feel either defensive about their behavior, or we’re apathetic. 

We might not like to admit it, but we can feel for the thunder brothers; maybe they just want to make sure they’re protected should anything serious happen to Jesus, or perhaps they’re just seizing their moment and shoring up future opportunities…

It’s far too easy to bash the thunder brothers across the sands of time, because all of us here have a little bit of that same thunder in us, and maybe our thirst for power and security has us asking for things that we do not really understand.

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Surely, we know better than to make outlandish and insensitive requests like the thunder brothers did, but most of us still want to be first in line at the grocery store, we want our children to go to the very best schools, we want to pay the lowest amount of taxes possible. 

We want, we want, we want…

We actually want a whole lot of things that we’d never actually admit out loud.

But maybe the thunder brothers were just desperate. And then, could we really blame them? Here they are, getting close to the end of the gospel, Jesus has thrice told them about his impending death… Maybe the thunder brothers just wanted to make sure their pension was going to be okay. 

So, perhaps it was just pure desperation that propelled them to ask for such a crazy thing – and therefore their desperate clutch for power blinded them from the truth of the Messiah they were following.

But desperation, particularly in the face of the cross, is a strange thing to experience in the kingdom.

And we really are no better. Each of us, in different ways, are desperate for our own power. From the frightening ways that we are so gripped by the politics of our time (4 billion dollars!) to the strange ways we isolate ourselves from experiencing anything other than what we might deem as normative. 

We are a people hell bent on securing our futures, rather than risking the way of the cross.

Even the church itself is guilty of the thunder brothers temptation. We water down the gospel and present it in bite-size pieces in order to appeal to as many people as possible. We want all the grace without all the transformation. We want Jesus to fix our problems, but when someone else is in need, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye.

We, sinners and saints, are all filled with insecurities and fears that drive us toward greed and covetousness. As individuals, and families, and communities, and political parties, and even as the church, we do it all the time. 

Overcoming these deep seated insecurities is no easy thing, and it certainly can’t change overnight. But it does start to transform into something else through service, whatever that might mean. Because it is in serving those we might otherwise deem unworthy, that we are confronted with the profound truth – we are unworthy.

In the other we see the sin of our desire for power.

But serving others, putting others’ needs first, doesn’t “fix” us. It’s not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. All serving does is reorient our perspective, while transforming the world for someone else. Serving the other helps us see how often our thirst for power is what drives us away from the cross instead of toward it. 

Jesus’ rebuke of the thunder brothers, and the rest of the disciples, might sound harsh to our modern and prejudiced ears, but it’s actually a promise. Jesus promises that we need not live in fear, we need not wake up every morning worrying about our security, we need not scheme to accrue as much power as possible. But Jesus doesn’t promise our protection, or our safety, or even our power – Jesus promises us the cross!

The way of prosperity and power, though decisively tempting in a time like ours, is but a shadow and shallow promise of what the empty tomb ironically contains. Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, is a way of resistance to the dominating systems that are all around us, and are within us. 

Those domination systems are those that do whatever it takes to maintain and exert power dynamics that keep the weak weak. From politics, to families, to churches, the thirst and hunger for power lives and breathes by controlling people, subordinating the marginalized, and further dividing the weak from the strong, the powerful from the powerless, and the rich from the poor.

But the way of the cross is the ultimate alternative to the domination systems that plague our existence. Jesus lived and breathed not by amassing power and prestige, but by bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus regularly resisted the kind of power that is still all too present in the world. From being tempted with ultimate power in the wilderness, to the temptations of the crowds jeering while he hung on the cross – Jesus always believed in something that we often forget.

True power comes through weakness, true power comes through service, true power comes through sacrifice.

We know that among others those whom they recognize as their rulers, the politicians and the powerful, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it not so among us; whoever wishes to become great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all. 

For Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

For us.

And that changes everything. Amen.

We Really Need To Talk

Mark 10.17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good by God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these word. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brother and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” 

The old pastor had a reputation for turning church finances around. Every where he went he encountered the same sorts of stories: “we’ve lost some really big givers, we’ve had to cut corners, we just don’t know what to do.”

And it was his responsibility to preach fiery sermons about the virtues of generosity such that a church would receive the kind of cash flow that could bring resurrection out of financial doom.

He wasn’t really sure where he developed the aptitude for financial sermons, but people kept calling him to fill in from time to time, particularly when the offering plates started to feel a little light.

And so it came to pass that he received a phone call from a very wealthy member at a church on the other side of the state. It didn’t take long for the old pastor to discern some of the same problems he had heard before; The church was suffocating under horrible debt that had accrued over years of bad financial management. Finally, after describing all of the problems, the wealthy church member said, “When you come to preach you are welcome to stay at my country house, my town house, or my seaside cottage.”

To which the old pastor responded, “I’m not coming.”

The rich member was incredulous, “But you have to come, we need your help! How else can we pay off our debt?” 

The pastor said, “Sell one of your homes and pay the debt yourself.” And then he hung up.

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Woe to those who are rich! It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God!

Last week we spent the entire worship service addressing one of the topics Jesus spoke about all the time, a topic that for some reason we avoid in the church – divorce.

And as I stood up in this place and preached those words, I witnessed some pew squirming as the rigidity of Jesus’ proclamation landed upon our ears. Whether we’re divorced, or we know someone who is divorced, this was a place defined by a feeling of anxiety last week.

But now we have to talk about money. And if you thought people were uncomfortable last week, you should’ve seen how you all looked as the scripture today was being read!

Money! 

Presumably we all interact with money on a regular basis, and presumably most of us here wish we had more of it.

And perhaps some of us truly need more money – maybe we don’t have enough to pay our bills, or purchase groceries, or fill up our gas tanks. 

And maybe some of us have just enough – we’re able to make ends meet, save a little for the future, and splurge every once in awhile.

And still yet there may be some of us who have more than enough – we never have to think about bills because we know we have enough to cover them, we’ve can’t remember the last time we bought something used, and we are always the ones who reach for the check at the restaurant.

Money, whether we are poor or rich, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else. 

Jesus was about to set out on a journey when a man ran up and knelt before him. In the other gospels we learn a little bit more about this man, but in Mark’s version we don’t know anything about him except that he apparently kept all of the laws and that he had a bunch of stuff.

Teacher! What must I do to inherit eternal life?

You know the commandments! Do them.

Of course I know them teacher, and I’ve kept all of them since my youth. 

And Jesus, looking at him with love, said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

He wanted to know what he could do to inherit the kingdom of heaven. He had apparently done a lot already, even from the time he was young. And Jesus had the gall to look him in the eye and say, “That’s not enough.”

When Jesus invites people to follow him in the gospels, they almost always drop everything right then and there to do so – but not this guy. For some reason his wealth was such that it was not something he could walk away from – whether it was the materialism of it, or the power that it created, or the comfort that he appreciated – he, unlike almost everyone else, walked away from the kingdom with grief.

And, lest we skip over the detail that stands out with strange absurdity, Jesus’ response to them man was apparently born out of love!

What kind of love compels someone to say, “you know what… the only way you can do this kingdom thing is to do exactly the thing you are not going to do.”

This is painful stuff! This is the Messiah peering into the heart of the man and naming right then and there the sin that has wrapped itself around his heart.

And to make things worse, Jesus doesn’t even wait until the man is gone before he begins regaling the crowd!

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed, much like us.

So, some sermons would now logically shift into a “each of us can surely take look at our own lives…” And someone like me who ask people like you to imagine what in your life is keeping you from the kingdom – an attachment, a desire, a hope – something that acts more like a shackle holding you back than a spring that pushes you forward.

I’ve heard plenty of sermons like that, in fact I know I’ve even preached some sermons like that. A sermon where the final line is something like, “just let it go.”

But what if the point isn’t about what we must give up, but that we won’t be able to?

Jesus is clear with his disciples about the impossibility of the rich man’s salvation; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

And yet he also proclaims the Almighty power of God to make the impossible possible.

So… which is it?

In theological terms we call this divine tension, it is an impossible possibility. One cannot inherit eternal life in the sense that so long as you do this, this, and this it’s all yours. Time and time again the gospel, what we call the Good News, grace offered freely to us in spite of us, gets whittled down to a proposition. 

If you do this… then the kingdom is yours.

If you repent of your sins… if you pray everyday… if you sell all your possessions.

And when that becomes the defining message of the church the Good News is no longer good news. Instead, its just another version of the law whereby impossible tasks always remain impossible.

There is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom. 

And of course there are things in this life, sins and desires and temptations, that prevent us from being all that God would have us be. But when those very things become the lynchpin to everything we experience and know as disciples, then our lives will be little more than chaos.

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We really need to talk about money and our unhealthy obsessive attachment with it – but perhaps it’s more important for us to talk about the fallacy of earning the kingdom. 

This moment with the rich man reveals the kind of righteousness we think we require to acquire the kingdom of heaven. We make it out in our minds that its even more than following the laws, its more than checking off all the boxes. We take it to dimensions of frenetic fear and imply that to acquire the kingdom its all about who we are behind closed doors, who we are when no one else is around.

And then we boldly proclaim that Jesus is waiting in the wings to ask us to drop the very thing that we know we cannot. 

Why?

Perhaps Jesus wants to suck out all of our self-righteousness. Jesus asks the rich man a question, and vicariously asks all of us a question, as a reminder that we are no better than the people maligned in the media and the people dropped because of bad drama.

Maybe Jesus asks the question because he wants us to know that we really are sinners. That its not just a noun that we throw around all the time, but really, truly, deeply, who we are.

But where is the Good News in that?

The tension of the story, that pull from what we are asked to do to what we know that we cannot do, is at the very heart of Jesus’ message to the rich man and to people like you and me: We have a job to do, and we cannot save ourselves.

That is the uncomfortable comfort and the impossible possibility of our salvation – that we worship a God who, in spite of our best and worst intentions, desires our salvation even when we cling to the things we know we should not.

God, in the midst of our chaotic and frightening dispositions, waits for us to realize that it is because we are sinners, it is because we cannot save ourselves, that we are saved.

When we read the story of the rich man, and we make it into a call for better stewardship, then it appears that none of us, poor and rich alike, none of us will inherit the kingdom. When faced with our own version of the question, we would all grieve while looking back over our shoulders.

But friends, that’s kind of the whole point – inheriting the kingdom is not up to us!

If all the Christians we know make us feel like we’re not doing enough, if every sermon leaves us feeling guilty, then we cannot call it amazing grace. 

When the gospel becomes a commodity to be propositioned – Jesus did something for you and now you have to do something for Jesus, then the cross is foolishness.

We all, the rich and poor, fail to live according to the law. If any of us were there that day, Jesus would have given us our own impossible task. That’s why the passage ends with the terrifying list of things to be abandoned for the sake of the gospel – friends, family, property.

Sure, selling our possessions to help the poor is a great thing. But it doesn’t earn us a ticket to the kingdom.

Sure, confronting a family member for their bigotry and hatred is the right thing to do. But it doesn’t earn us a spot in the resurrection.

Sure, abandoning our sinful desires that prevent us from being who God wants us to be would be a smart idea. But it doesn’t procure us anything.

Were our salvation up to us, it would be impossible.

But nothing is impossible for God. Amen. 

We Need To Talk

Mark 10.2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

She was almost 8 months pregnant. Her ankles were constantly swollen, the fatigue was nearly unbearable, but every kick she felt made it worth it. She and her husband had prayed and prayed and prayed for this baby, and in a month the baby would finally arrive.

Her parents lived states away, and she and her husband decided she should fly home for a quick weekend, one last chance to spend time with her parents before she herself became a parent.

The airports were challenging as she carried around a bunch of extra weight, but every eye that darted to her belly, and every strangers’ smile was enough to keep her moving forward.

Her parents enveloped their baby girl in their arms knowing that soon they would be grandparents and that their prayers had been answered as well. The time at home was destined to be a joyful reunion filled with the hope of the coming days, weeks, and months.

The day before she was set to fly home to her husband, she sat at the breakfast table with her parents. She held her mother’s hand on top of her belly, hoping for a quick kick that would surely bring forth a tear of unadulterated happiness, when the door bell rang.

In walked a young professional looking man, who walked straight over to hand her a large manilla envelope. But as his eyes moved to her belly, he froze in the middle of the kitchen. He muttered a barely audible, “I’m so so sorry,” deposited the parcel, and walked out of the house.

The parents and soon-to-be-parent slowly opened up the envelope.

Divorce papers.

She was almost 8 months pregnant.

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Marriage is weird. Out of all the people in the world, among all of the possible conversations and interactions, some of us are brought together in a way that we believe we should make a covenant to be together for the rest of our lives.

It’s pretty strange when you take a step back to think about it.

I had a professor who loved to say that we always marry the wrong person. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with the individuals we marry, but that we don’t really know who we are marrying or what marriage really is until we do it.

Marriage is the weird and wild journey of discovering the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

And, for as many marriages as I’ve been blessed to preside over, I can’t help but wonder why people get married at all; particularly today. I’ve heard all of the reasons: “We love each other, “It’s the next logical step in our relationship,” “I can’t imagine marrying anyone else.”

But is that what marriage really is? 

Love and logic ain’t enough.

A successful marriage, whatever that means, will never be contingent on the whims, or the romantic feelings, or the love, of those who are married. Love, as strong as it can be, is not enough to sustain couples in the midst of great tribulation. Love cannot make up for horrible lapses in judgment, terrifying domestic violence, or disturbing amounts of adultery.

Marriage is always about more than love. Marriage requires endurance, patience, hope, conversion, renewal, forgiveness, sacrifice, and reconciliation.

Marriage isn’t easy.

And that’s why more than half of all marriage end in divorce.

In the US the top three reasons for divorce have to do with money, children, and ironically enough, church itself.

All of these particular hangups stem from poor, or totally absent, communication. A couple disagrees about how to budget their money, or one of them gambles it all away without telling the other.

A couple disagrees about how to discipline a child or whether or not to have children at all.

A couple disagrees about the role the church should play in their relationship or their religious convictions can no longer harmonize with each other.

In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 per day, 16,800 per week, and 876,000 per year.

Divorce is one of the most remarkably prevalent occurrences in our culture and society to the degree that most of us have become numb to it, and we almost never talk about it in church. 

We don’t take it very seriously.

Many are quick to end their marriage whenever the first hiccups are experienced, but as Christians we are called to hear what Jesus had to say about divorce, which can be a bitter pill to swallow.

So, for just a moment, imagine if you were standing up here with me looking out at everyone else. If the church is at all average, half of the married people in the room either have already been divorced, or will be by the end of their days.

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That is a frightening reality considering Jesus’ words. 

Some Pharisees tried to test him regarding the law on divorce because Moses allowed men to write certificates of dismissal to divorce their wives. And during the time of Moses, and Jesus, receiving that certificate was just about the worst thing that could happen to a married woman because she would effectively lose all of her rights. She could easily find herself on the street begging for food or prostituting her body for income. 

Jesus was deeply deeply concerned with the marginalized people within his community, and in this particular case women who were handed a signature that destroyed their lives.

Of course, we can all admit that things have certainly changed since the days of Jesus – but maybe they haven’t changed enough.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees that day is one that still casts a great shadow over families, churches, and communities: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Jesus talked about this kind of stuff A LOT, and yet we in the church often avoid it at all costs. Probably because half the people in the church have, in all probability, experienced divorce.

But let us at least consider something Jesus said that is of paramount importance: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”

God is the one who does the joining; we are the ones who do the separating. 

Or maybe a better way to put it is this: Divorce is certainly not what God intends or hopes for, but there are times when there might not be another option. Times of horrific physical abuse, or traumatic adultery, can be nearly impossible to move through, but plenty of people get divorced for some of the most mundane reasons:

“Our interests have grown apart.” “We no longer communicate effectively.” “I’m not in love anymore.”

As long as we are human beings, divorce will be a reality. Which is to say, as long as we are sinners we will sin against each other. However, we worship a God of impossible possibilities who believes in us even when we do not. We follow a first-century Jew who believed in the sanctity of covenants even when we do not live according to them. We are empowered by a Spirit of truth, and renewal, and reconciliation.

Marriage is a strange and serious thing – it is perhaps one of the most strangely serious thing that any of us will ever do.

And we know the strangely serious dimension of marriage because it is one of the preferred metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people.

Marriage is not normative for Christian people, and is certainly not the expectation. If any us discover someone in whom we believe God can keep us covenanted with, well then good for us. If we find ourselves moving through life without ever coming to altar to make that particular covenant, then good for us too.

But marriage, whether we experience it or not, is something we are all called to know because God has covenanted to remain with us. 

God stands before us again and again knowing full and well how we have failed to respond to the promise. We regularly pursue our own desires, we sin against neighbors, friends, and strangers, and we forget what God was willing, and is will, to do for us.

Jesus was able to speak with such ferocious certainty and conviction about the virtues of marriage because Jesus is the one who holds fast to the covenant even when we do not. It was in holding on to the promise that Jesus found himself nailed to the hard wood of the cross while abandoned by the bride which is the community we call the church.

Marriage is a strange and serious thing. And so is divorce. Which is why we need to talk about it.

In every marriage there is the strange discovery of realizing we don’t really know the person we married. We move through tragedies and hardships, we experience mountaintops of joy and deep valleys of sorrow, and if we are still married in the end it is because we found the true nature of the God of covenant and hope. 

Marriage, though we sometimes forget, is a radical and countercultural endeavor. Jesus subverted the expectations of marriage with the Pharisees because he believed married couples should exists in plains of equity. No longer would the patriarchal norms in which women had no autonomy be present in something like marriage (though we clearly still have work to do).

Marriage has to be more than something that can be ended with a simple piece of paper. But as long as that option remains (as it should in some circumstances) the church is the place where that broken covenant can be redeemed.

After she opened the envelope, it felt like a tornado ran through the house. Every part of her hopes, and dreams, and expectations felt shattered and annihilated. 

The covenant was broken.

She moved back in with her parents for the remainder of the pregnancy, and when the time came to go to the hospital she was surrounded not by her husband, but by her parents and friends. 

Every bit of her life felt lifeless until she held her baby girl for the first time. And though it certainly hasn’t been easy, and she still feels the sting of pain and betrayal and hurt on a regular basis, every time she looks into the eyes of her daughter she discovers something beautiful that came out of the darkness.

Weddings take place in the church because the church is strange compared with the rest of the world. While others might ebb and flow like a kite in the wind, the church stands for something that resists our subjectivity. The church is a willing witness to the sanctity of marriage, particularly in light of Christ’s willingness to beckon us back to the throne over and over again.

The church is where married couples learn what is means to remain faithful to something that they never really could’ve imagined.

The church is where divorced individuals discover a community that will remain steadfast even if their partner didn’t.

The church is also where the sinful partner can one day find a new home and hope of redemption on the other side of repentance.

The church is where single people who never feel called to the covenant of marriage embody similar covenants with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

The church is where the virtues of marriage and the destructive nature of divorce can be laid on the throne because being together is never really about us; it’s about God. Amen.