Sunday’s sermon: Keeping Up Appearances

widow pennies

Texts used – Mark 12:38-44; Acts 20:32-35

  • I want to let you all in on a little secret this morning. Some of the best shows that can be found on television … come from Great Britain.
    • Doesn’t really matter what type of show you’re into – those coming from the BBC are generally among the best
      • Historical drama – e.g.s: Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife
      • Awkward humor – e.g.s.: The IT Crowd and The Office (actually originated with British television before the American version became wildly popular)
      • Classy reality TV (yes … I just said “classy reality TV”) – e.g.: The Great British Baking Show
    • One particular show – sitcom: Keeping Up Appearances
      • Initially aired in the early to mid-1990s
      • Follows the life of Hyacinth Bucket (which she insists on pronouncing “bouquet”) and her beleaguered and often-exasperated husband, Richard
      • Hyacinth’s greatest goal in life is to climb the social ladder → episodes packed full of all the ridiculous lengths Hyacinth will go to in terms of her garden, her home, her looks, her vacations, her hostessing/entertaining, her car, and even her breakfast cereal to keep up the appearances in the eyes of her neighbors, her sisters, and – most importantly of all – herself
        • E.g. – exchange between she and Richard over breakfast one morning[1]: Richard is looking for regular cornflakes but Hyacinth presents new “exclusive European high fiber breakfast cereal” – it’s merits: it was “highly recommended” by the Dutch Royal Family and (even better) it has a royal-looking crest on the packaging à All Richard wants his is regular cereal, but in her attempts to appear more affluent, more “high society,” and more important than she really is, Hyacinth insists that even their breakfast must be grander. Breakfast cereal, y’all … Breakfast. Cereal.
  • Gospel reading this morning tells a similar tale of characters around Jesus trying showcase their wealth and status
    • Text: Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.[2] → Before we go any further than that, let’s talk about the layout of the temple a little bit so we can get a better picture as to what this scene might have looked like.[3]
      • Temple was elevated → approach up some grand steps that ran all the way around the perimeter of the structure
      • Many different gates to enter the temple structure itself – one of the most common = East Gate which led into giant courtyard (roughly the size of 2 football fields) surrounded by columns → “Women’s Courtyard” because this was as far as women were allowed to go in the temple structure
        • “Women’s Courtyard” = where Jesus did much of his teaching because more people were allowed to be there
      • From the Women’s Courtyard, you go through another huge, elaborate gate into the inner temple which included things like the altar, the places for sacrifice, and the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant
      • Temple treasury and vessels for money collection were located in the Women’s Courtyard : 13 giant, trumpet-shaped receptacles that ringed the courtyard → gave people plenty of opportunity to toss their money in in plain view of everyone else milling about in the courtyard
    • And this is exactly where we find Jesus and the disciples in our Scripture reading. Jesus has been teaching in the courtyard of the temple for quite a while.
      • Scope of the gospel – today’s text comes after Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey (“Palm Sunday reading”) in that intermittent time between entering the city and Jesus being arrested → Jesus did a lot of teaching in the temple during that last week of his life, and today’s passage is part of that teaching.
      • So Jesus and the disciples are hanging out in the Women’s Courtyard of the temple teaching and preaching and basically people watching when Jesus comes out with this warning – text: As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged harshly.”[4] → Jesus is basically talking about the Pharisees here. That’s who the “legal experts” are.
        • Interesting because this passage comes on the heels of what we read last week – exchange between Jesus and one of the scribes in which Jesus and the scribe agree that the greatest commandment is to love God with your whole heart, would, mind, and strength and also to love your neighbor as yourself → Last week, we talked about how, even though most of Jesus’ encounters with the scribes and Pharisees were antagonistic encounters, this one was actually cordial and agreeable. The scribe recognizes that Jesus’ answer is correct, and Jesus affirms the scribe by saying, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”[5] But then, after the scribe turns around and leaves, Jesus gives his disciples this warning – a warning that, when you get down to the heart of it – is about authenticity and righteousness and motivation.
          • Why do the legal experts parade around in long robes and say their long prayers? To be known, to be acknowledged, to be recognized → They desire greetings of honor and places of honor in the synagogues. They are supposed to be leaders of faith – helping people to understand God through the observance and practice of the laws, and yet Jesus says their desires fall more on the side of worldly recognition. It’s an ostentatious sort of way of going about their days that reeks of exaggeration, self-aggrandizement, and self-righteousness. They are living their faith not for the sake of faith itself but for the benefits it will bring them.
            • Not so different from Hyacinth who attempts to live the life she wishes she had, not because it’s practical or because it’s a true reflection of her life, but because it “looks good”
    • Contrast = the widow with her coins
      • NOT grand
      • NOT self-righteous
      • NOT seeking any recognition for her contribution → contribution that is the very definition of meager in comparison to the amounts being tossed in by all the other, wealthier people around her – just 2 small, copper coins totaling a single penny together
      • Scholar: [The widow’s] actions and her commitment to pursuing them reveal something basic about her: that she is in need. … Whatever else is driving the widow, it is not hypocrisy.[6] → This cuts to the heart of the matter. Very often, this Scripture reading is preached in terms of holding up the widow giving out of her lack as opposed to the rich people giving out of their abundance. How many times have you heard this preached as a stewardship sermon? “You can give even out of nothing. Be like the widow!” But in truth, Jesus has no words of judgment for the wealthy people who are contributing as well. Jesus doesn’t disparage them for their offerings. He simple holds the widow up – not because of the size of her contribution but because she gives and lives authentically.
        • Text: Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”[7] → “She from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” It doesn’t get much realer than that, does it?
          • Interesting note: I mentioned that this encounter is part of the week leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and that knowledge plays into this interaction, too. The widow gave all she had, even what she needed to live on. And Jesus himself will give all he has, even his life, to demonstrate God’s utmost love and grace for all people. – scholar: in anticipation of his act of self-sacrifice, [Jesus] teaches his disciples not to limit their commitment by keeping the law’s demands, but to give their whole being to God.[8]
  • Other NT reading this morning from Acts gets at this idea of giving and living wholeheartedly and authentically as well
    • Context
      • “I” in this passage = Paul speaking → speech as he’s getting ready to leave the city of Ephesus after establishing the Ephesian church
      • Part of a larger warning against those who will come in after Paul has gone and attempt to distort the teachings of the church → So this is Paul’s way of reminding them, “This is who I am. This is how I’ve conducted myself while I was among you. This is how I have lived my life and my faith together as one.” – text: I haven’t craved anyone’s silver, gold or clothing. You yourselves know that I have provided for my own needs and for those of my companions with my own hands. In everything I have shown you that, by working hard, we must help the weak. In this way, we remember the Lord Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”[9]
        • No ostentatiousness or self-righteousness like the legal experts
        • No disingenuousness or hypocrisy
        • Just a man living and working and doing what he could for the gospel – giving of himself and his time not because of how it would benefit him but because of how it would benefit God’s Kingdom – text: In this way we remember the Lord Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”[10]
  • Friends, the whole notion of keeping up appearances doesn’t matter. It makes for a great sitcom basis, but in the real world, that’s not what counts! No matter what society tries to tell you.
    • Poignant ill. of this – phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”
      • Disputed origins[11]
        • Story 1: came from a comic strip of the same name by American cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in the early 20th
        • Story 2: inspired by ridiculously opulent mansion called Wyndcliffe Castle built for Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones as her summer home in Rhinebeck, NY in 1853
          • 24 rooms
          • Gothic style
          • Entirely brick exterior
          • Originally sat on 80 acres of wooded property overlooking the Hudson River
          • Inspired other well-to-do New Yorkers to build even bigger, fancier homes so they could “keep up with the Joneses”
          • But today? Today, that beautiful, massive, extravagant American castle is abandoned and crumbling. It’s been abandoned for almost 70 years. What was quite literally a monument to wealth and status and privilege is now deteriorating – completely beyond rescue and repair. Because in the end, it’s not about the flashiness of life. It’s not about the flourishes and the flaunting. It’s about faith. Pure and simple. It’s about how we live our faith. Are we more like the legal experts? In it for the look and the return – what it might bring back to me? Or are we wholehearted and authentic like the widow with her coins? Committed and purposeful and all-in? Amen.

[1] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0619133/quotes.

[2] Mk 12:41-42.

[3] https://www.thinglink.com/scene/641642807773102081 and https://www.ritmeyer.com/2015/05/15/the-treasury-of-the-temple-in-jerusalem/.

[4] Mk 12:38-40.

[5] Mk 12:34 (NRSV).

[6] Mark Douglas. “Mark 12:41-44 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 396.

[7] Mk 12:43-44.

[8] James W. Thompson. “Mark 12:41-44 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 397.

[9] Acts 20:33-35.

[10] Acts 20:35b.

[11] https://www.sloww.co/keeping-up-with-the-joneses/ and https://www.littlethings.com/keeping-up-with-wyndclyffe.

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Sunday’s sermon: The Look and Feel of Love

love

Texts used – Ruth 1:1-18; Mark 12:28-34

  • Orpah. Ruth. A scribe. And Jesus. An interesting cast of characters for our Scripture readings this morning, right? We have an embittered widow, two foreign wives of Israelite men, a religious man whose profession required him to spend all day focused on the rules, and the Messiah. What could this ragamuffin group possibly have to teach us about the light of God’s love in our lives? Well … I’m glad you asked.
  • Let’s start with the passage from Ruth.
    • First, we meet Naomi.
      • Lived a tough life
        • Left her homeland because she and her family were starving → move to a hostile land
          • Relations btwn Judah and Moab = always contentious
        • And to make matters worse, after moving to Moab, Ruth’s two sons decide to take Moabite wives. → serious transgression for Jewish men at the time
          • Deut: Don’t intermarry with [outside nations]. Don’t give your daughters to one of their sons to marry, and don’t take one of their daughters to marry your son, because they will turn your child away from following me so that they end up serving other gods. That will make the Lord’s anger burn against you, and he will quickly annihilate you.[1]
        • Within a span of 10 yrs., husband and both sons die → Now, I want to make it clear what a terrible position this leaves Naomi in.
          • Status of widows = non-existent, zero rights/privileges/property of their own → women in ancient Is. had to have a male relative to take care of them or their only option would be begging on the street
        • In desperation, finally heads back to Bethlehem with daughters-in-law → But part of the way back, Naomi stops. In her darkest hour, when she herself is desperate for comfort, support, and love, Naomi realizes that Orpah’s and Ruth’s best chance at a good life is back in Moab. So despite her own time of need – or maybe because of it – Ruth tries to convince her daughters-in-law to turn back for their own good.
          • Text: Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the LORD deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the LORD provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. [2]
      • In this selfless act, we see the power of Naomi’s love → sacrificing love
        • Scholar explains: [Naomi] seeks a place of settled security for [her daughters-in-law]. This word … means “settled down” after movement or wandering. … In essence, it connotes permanence, settlement, security, and freedom from anxiety after wandering, uncertainty, and pain.[3] → This is Naomi’s wish. When Naomi says, “May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security,” this is what she wants for her daughters-in-law: this permanence, this comfort and security, this settled circumstance after hardship and pain.
        • And this is the kind of love that God has for us – a love great enough that God willingly came to earth to live and love and die and rise again as Christ. And isn’t this also the kind of love that we aim to have for those we care about? A love that would move mountains, dry tears, and shatter fears no matter the cost to ourselves?
          • E.g. – story of Dave learning to walk and falling down the basement stairs → Dad swinging his leg out to catch him before he hit the cement basement floor and ending up with a broken toe
    • Next, we encounter Orpah.
      • Sometimes gets a bad rap – she turns and leaves when Ruth stays → But there’s actually an important lesson we can learn from Orpah, too. You see, Orpah’s love is an obedient love. It’s a love that obeys, a love that follows, a love that is devoted.
        • 10 commandments kind of love – Honor your father and your mother, exactly as the Lord your God requires.[4]
        • Remember, Naomi wasn’t the only one weeping at their parting. Orpah also wept. But she does what Naomi asks because Orpah is being faithful. I don’t believe she wanted to leave any more than Ruth, but her obedient love for her mother-in-law led her to turn back. In this love, we find reverence and humility. I wonder what our lives might be like if we showed God this kind of devoted, faithful love?
    • Finally, we come to Ruth.
      • Ruth’s love = also devoted → But unlike Orpah’s obedient devotion, Ruth’s is a involved devotion.
        • Ill. in her own speech: “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”[5]
          • To be sure, not a form of love without its struggles – scholar points out: There is a unique attribute to the Hebrew [word] “to [stay],” … the [staying] here [indicates] a place of discomfort, laden with complaints or bitterness.[6] → So this staying that Ruth is committing to is no picnic. Ruth knows that following Naomi is going to be difficult. She’s aware of the Israelite’s prejudices toward her people. She understands that she’ll be shunned and taunted, mistreated and distrusted. And still … she clings to Naomi.
            • Powerful form of love that can see us through darkest of times – pain, loss, fear, doubt, anxiety
            • Reminds me of devotion you hear in weddings vows: For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, so long as we both shall live.
    • Important Heb. word woven throughout this passage: hesed – steadfast love, trustworthy love, love full of faithfulness and grace
      • Kind of love that pops up time and again in psalms
        • E.g. – Give thanks to the LORD because he is good. God’s faithful love (hesed) lasts forever! Give thanks to the God of all gods— God’s faithful love (hesed) lasts forever. Give thanks to the Lord of all lords— God’s faithful love (hesed) lasts forever.[7]
      • This is the kind of love that God has for us. This is the kind of love that we are made to have for God. And like Naomi, Orpah and Ruth, this is the kind of love that should be reflected in all our relationships.
  • This is the message that we encounter in our New Testament passage for this morning, too.
    • Need to grasp just what an odd situation we find Jesus in in this story → remember, along with Pharisees, scribes were the ones always getting on Jesus’ case – It was the scribes and Pharisees who …
      • Trying to trip up his teachings by incessantly citing the law
      • Trying to keep him from healing on the Sabbath
      • Eventually demand that Jesus be crucified
      • And yet today, we witness this strange encounter – this unexpected peace between opposing sides → not only civil to each other but actually in agreement with one another
        • Scholar: The exchange between Jesus and the scribe becomes itself something of an illustration of the Great Commandment. Even though the exchange occurs in the middle of a dispute, … Jesus and the scribe are able to … join together in the conviction that there is no commandment greater than love of God and neighbor. … Both the scribe and Jesus have stepped away from the “us” versus “them” categories.[8]
    • In the scribe, we actually see an open-minded and respectful love.
      • Right off the bat, this scribe admits that Jesus has answered his companions’ protest and accusations well – no small words coming from one of Jesus’ most zealous and forceful critics. → text: One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”[9]
        • Answer that has become quite familiar to us: You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.[10]
          • Implies that we are to put our whole selves into this love → not always easy, especially when our views don’t exactly line up with our neighbors
        • Scriptural e.g. → Ruth and Orpah’s love for Naomi and her love for them
          • Moabite women clinging to their Israelite mother-in-law
          • Israelite mother-in-law weeping at having to be parted from her Moabite daughters-in-law
          • Labels didn’t matter → love did!
        • Recent real-world e.g. of this in an unlikely place → response to shooting at Tree of Life synagogue last weekend
          • People all across the country standing in solidarity with Jewish friends, neighbors, co-workers, and strangers against such a horrible, hateful act
          • Greatest amount of money that was raised to help Tree of Life Synagogue and the Jewish community that it serves was raised by the local Muslim community in Pittsburgh→ This might be surprising when we think of the tensions between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East – tensions that have simmered and raged for centuries – and yet the Muslim community in Pittsburgh showed up en force for their Jewish neighbors.
            • Finding love even in the midst of stark differences and historical tensions
            • Truly inspiring e.g. of how we should treat our neighbor
          • Also an apt reminder for how we approach God → come as the scribe before the Messiah – thoughtfully, respectfully, open to teaching and guidance
      • There is incredible power and encouragement, love and acceptance, forgiveness and grace in this kind of love. It is an all-encompassing love.
        • Gr. “love” in this passage is agape love – that special, generous, other-focused love
          • Scholar – what this means in terms of our neighbors: To love my neighbor agapically requires that I recognize my neighbor as one who is irreducibly valued. Agape toward the neighbor enjoins that we love our neighbor even when our neighbor refuses to reciprocate.[11]
    • You see, all of this – the sacrifice, obedience, desperation, open-mindedness, and guidance – this is the core of the love that God gives freely to each and every one of us. It is this great love that should inspire us each day to draw closer and closer to God. And it is on this supreme love that we should base all other loves in our live.
      • Crucial reminder in our exceptionally divisive political climate today
      • Especially crucial on the cusp of an election when the rhetoric and the mud are flying fast and hard
    • So this morning, I want to leave you with a question: How can we embody this kind of love in our lives? In our congregation, our communities, our denomination, our families, our workplaces? How can we be the heart and soul and mind and strength of God’s love in the lives of those around us, especially in the lives of those who differ from us? Amen.

[1] Deut 7:3-4.

[2] Ruth 1:8-9.

[3] Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. The Book of Ruth. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 105.

[4] Deut 5:16a.

[5] Ruth 1:16-17a.

[6] John Ahn. “Proper 26 (Sunday between October 30 and November 5 inclusive) – Ruth 1:1-18, Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 247.

[7] Ps 136:1-3 (hesed added).

[8] Pheme Perkins. “Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 8. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995). 679.

[9] Mk 12:28.

[10] Mk 12:30-31.

[11] Victor McCracken. “Proper 26 (Sunday between October 30 and November 5 inclusive) – Mark 12:28-34, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 262 (emphasis added).

Sunday’s sermon: The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Blind Can See

light in darkness

Texts used – 2 Kings 5:1-14; Mark 10:46-52

  • When we encounter something different … something out-of-the-ordinary … something that breaks with our routine, we take notice of it, don’t we?
    • Driving your usual, familiar route from pt. A to pt. B → road construction
      • Bright orange cones/barrels
      • Flashing signs
      • Sometimes even people in neon vests on the side of the road directing traffic
      • It could be a road that you’ve driven multiple times a day for decades – a road with which you are so familiar that you don’t even see the road or the scenery anymore – and suddenly you’re paying attention in a new way because someone has drawn attention to the different (the construction).
    • Christmas decorations on houses → houses you’ve driven or walked past a thousand times before and never really noticed but the twinkling lights or the “Merry Christmas” projected on the garage door or the giant, 12’-tall, inflatable Santa penguin popping out of the chimney catches your attention because it’s different.
    • The most obnoxious e.g. – those sale displays at Target that are shaped like giant, red shopping baskets that they’ve placed in the middle of the aisle → different from the norm (not in a good way, I would say), so you take notice of whatever sale item happens to be on that display.
    • Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God the way Jesus presents it in Mark 10.
      • 1st week: upside-down nature of power (Jesus: Kingdom of God belong to the children → most powerless in society)
      • 2nd week: upside-down nature of economics (Jesus: you must give it all away because the Kingdom of God is given, not earned)
      • Last week: upside-down nature of pride (Jesus: to be great, you must become a servant)
      • This week: upside-down nature of seeing → Who can truly see? Where does that sight come from? How do we choose to see or not see? Who do we choose to see or not see?
  • Start with our gospel story this morning
    • Gospel context
      • Comes directly after our passage from last week – Jesus telling the squabbling disciples that they must become servants in order to be considered great in the Kingdom
      • Come directly before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday – last sentence of today’s reading: At once he was able to see, and he began to follow Jesus on the way.[1] → followed Jesus straight into Jerusalem
    • And in today’s story, we encounter Bartimaeus, the blind man. → a couple of interesting, out-of-the-ordinary things about Bartimaeus and his story
      • 1st: Bartimaeus has a name → In all the other healings throughout Mark’s gospel and the other gospel’s as well, we read countless stories of Jesus healing people … and never to we learn the names of those people.
        • Come close with Jairus’ daughter[2] – learn her father’s name, but not her name → So just that fact that Bartimaeus even has a name catches our attention.
      • Also important: the way that Jesus heals him – text: Throwing his coat to the side, [Bartimaeus] jumped up and came to Jesus. Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said, “Teacher, I want to see.” Jesus said, “Go, your faith has healed you.” At once he was able to see, and he began to follow Jesus on the way.[3] → With almost all the other healings throughout the gospels, there is physical contact involved.
        • Jairus’ daughter → Jesus took her by the hand
        • Hemorrhagic woman → touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak[4]
        • Unnamed blind man a few chs. back in Mk[5] → Jesus spit on his eyes to heal him
        • Similar story from Jn[6] → Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud, places the mud on the blind man’s eyes to heal him
        • But here in today’s story, Jesus’ miraculous healing is all verbal. He asks Bartimaeus what he wants Jesus to do. Bartimaeus replies, “Teacher, I want to see.” And Jesus simply says, “Go, your faith has healed you.” There is no direct, physical contact, at least not that Mark tells us about. There is no furtive, stolen brush of Jesus’ garments. There’s no spit. No mud. Just Jesus saying, “Your faith has healed you.” And immediately, Bartimaeus is once again able to see.
          • Reminiscent of God speaking light into existence in the very first moments of the world: When God began to create the heavens and the earth – the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters – God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared.[7]
    • Scholar: This is a story that therefore reminds us of the ways that God is still in the business of eliminating blindness and bringing light to all creation.[8] → highlights theme of blindness woven through Mk’s gospel
      • Various encounters (including what I think we can affectionately calling Jesus’ “spit healing”) in which Jesus heals people’s physical blindness
      • But even more to the point, throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus is battling against and attempting to heal people’s spiritual blindness, especially that of his disciples. Time and time again, Jesus says and does things meant to reveal the true nature of who he is and why he’s come. He is the Son of God, come to bring salvation and wholeness to a broken, fearful, unseeing world. And time and time again, the crowds and the Pharisees and even the disciples fail to see.
  • OT story this morning is an interesting e.g. of nearly choosing not to see
    • Story of Naaman, general for the king of Aram, and Elisha, the prophet
    • Context
      • Kingdom of Aram = shared a sizeable border with Israel to the northeast → located in present-day Syria, skirting the Sea of Galilee
    • Story
      • Naaman = great and powerful man in Aram BUT he’s also got an unnamed skin disease (often assumed to be leprosy, though Scripture doesn’t actually name it)
      • Within Naaman’s household is a servant girl from Israel who tells Naaman and his wife about the prophet Elisha → Naaman tells king of Aram → king of Aram gives Naaman permission to go find this prophet who can heal his “skin disease”
        • Originally sends Naaman directly to the king of Israel at the time – text: So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. He brought the letter to the Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”[9] → mistake in that, according to Naaman’s servant girl, it’s not the king of Israel who can heal Naaman but “the prophet who lives in Samaria”
        • King of Israel’s response reads a little bit like an old-fashioned melodrama – text: When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”[10]
          • First instance of blindness: blindness brought on by anxiety/fear → The king of Israel is so afraid that his country is going to be attacked by the king of Aram that he sees this simple, genuine plea for help as a conspiracy to start a war. His fear and anxiety as a ruler is blinding him to his neighbor’s need.
      • Fortunately, Elisha to the rescue!: When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”[11] → Can you hear the exasperation in Elisha’s voice? Just a little bit? Can you hear him biting back finishing off his first question with, “You silly king”? Elisha is attempting to calm the king’s worries and fears and help him to put his faith back in God: “Let me heal this man. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel. Let God work. Let God open not only Naaman’s eyes but maybe your own eyes as well, Your Majesty.”
    • Finally, Naaman’s encounter with Elisha provides us another e.g. of how we choose not to see – text: Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.” But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.[12] → Naaman lets himself be blinded by pride. He lets himself be blinded by preconceived notions and baseless expectations. He lets himself be blinded by his own delusions of grandeur – his own self-importance. “Washing in the river is silly! It’s stupid! Why would I do that? The water back home is better than these Israelite rivers anyway. This isn’t going to work. I’m going home.”
      • Today: plenty of ways that we are blinded or ways that we choose to be blind
        • Blinded by all those things we’ve already talked about turning upside-down: power, money, pride
        • Blinded by expectations – the ones we place on ourselves and the ones that are placed upon us by those who know us and by society
        • Blinded by toxic things like fear, hatred, prejudice, ignorance, misinformation, and rhetoric
      • In so many ways, we either fail to see or choose not to see glimpses of God in the world around us. In so many ways, we either fail to see or choose not to see glimpses of God in the people around us, especially if those people are different. → had a terrible, violent, painful example of this just yesterday in yet another mass shooting, this time at a synagogue in Pittsburgh[13]
        • 11 dead
        • 6 wounded (including 4 police officers)
        • Peaceful morning in a sacred space of worship shattered
        • All because one man was blinded by his own hate and distorted ideas. Sadly … sickeningly … frustratingly … maddeningly, this is the world that we live in, friends. This is the world that God calls us to turn upside-down with our actions, with our priorities, with the way we live and share God’s love and grace and forgiveness, not just in here (where it’s easy) but out there where it’s hard … really, really
  • You see, the whole idea of this upside-down kingdom is that it’s different. It’s outside the norm. It’s strange. And because of that, it caught people’s attention just like the orange traffic cones and those stupid, red sale displays at Target. And because of that difference, it’s still catching people’s attention. That’s the whole point! If we follow this Jesus … if we live into this idea of the Kingdom of God … if we deliberately try to act and think and love and forgive and welcome upside-down from the values and expectations and golden idols of this culture and instead uphold what God values and expects and treasures, then we will be drawing attention, not to ourselves or for ourselves, but to and for God.
    • Witness of action
    • Testimony lived out in what we do and say → how we treat others
    • Basically: where the rubber meets the road → talking the talk and walking the walk
    • Scholar: What is the deep, impenetrable haze that fogs our eyes and blocks our vision? How are we facing a kind of blindness today?[14] And to that I would add: What are we doing to bring light to that darkness? What are we doing to work for God’s Kingdom here and now? What are we doing to turn things upside-down? Amen.

[1] Mk 10:52b.

[2] Mk 5:21-43.

[3] Mk 10:50-52.

[4] Mk 5:25-34.

[5] Mk 8:22-26.

[6] Jn 9:1-12.

[7] Gen 1:1-3.

[8] Magrey R. DeVega. “Fall Series 2: The Upside-Down Kingdom of God – Proper 24: Where the Least Are Greatest” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 156.

[9] 2 Kgs 5:5b-6.

[10] 2 Kgs 5:7.

[11] 2 Kgs 5:8.

[12] 2 Kgs 5:9-12.

[13] Campbell Robertson, Christopher Mele, and Sabrina Tavernise. “11 Killed in Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged with 29 Counts” from The New York Times website, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html. Posted Oct. 27, 2018, accessed Oct. 28, 2018.

[14] DeVega, 156.

Sunday’s sermon: The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Least Are Greatest

servant

Texts used – Psalm 28; Mark 10:35-45

  • The world is full of epic stories of sibling rivalry.
    • Royal sibling rivalries – e.g.: King Richard vs. Prince John
      • England
      • 1100s
      • Richard = king → Richard went off to fight in the Crusades with his army → John usurped the throne in his absence
      • Immortalized by story Robin Hood
    • Historical – e.g.: John Wilkes Booth vs. Edwin Booth
      • Both actors
      • John (younger brother) = good reviews, Edwin (older brother) = bad reviews
      • Edwin got tired of being upstaged → forbade John from taking part in profitable Northern productions → drove John south → introduced John to extreme secessionist ideology that eventually led him to assassinate Pres. Abraham Lincoln
    • Less grand scale – stories of sibling rivalry[1] that may sound a little bit more like your life (either growing up or life in your house with your own kids right now)
      • “When my little brother was 6 and I was 14, I convinced him that the tornado sirens were alarms letting us know there was an alien invasion under way and that he needed to help defend our home by spraying them with special chemicals that will make them melt. It was really colored water. I told him aliens came down in human form, so any human he encountered, he had to spray. He sprayed Dad and Grandma.”
    • Biblical
      • Cain vs. Abel = didn’t work out quite so well for Abel
      • Jacob vs. Esau = epic twin rivalry from Day One
      • Rachel vs. Leah = competing for Jacob’s affection/attention
      • Joseph vs. all his brothers = coat of many colors
      • The Prodigal Son and his older brother
      • Mary vs. Martha = Jesus, who is doing the “right” thing?
    • Most of the time, sibling rivalries end up being about getting and keeping attention – one parent or another, a grandparent or teacher, maybe even a friend. Sibling A is enjoying the limelight. Sibling B wants some of that attention. And the battle ensues. At its core, sibling rivalry comes down to one thing: pride.
      • Last few weeks – talking about the Upside-Down nature of the Kingdom of God as Jesus presents it in Mk 10
        • 1st week = God’s Kingdom inverts society’s expectations about power (giving power to those not afforded any in society: children)
        • Last week = God’s Kingdom inverts society’s expectations about economic importance (Kingdom is not obtained or earned but given through God’s free gift of grace)
        • This week = God’s Kingdom invert’s society’s expectations about pride
  • Begin with yet another sibling rivalry → James and John, sons of Zebedee
    • James and John = “Sons of Thunder” (probably the coolest nickname in the Bible) → Remember, these are the two disciples that wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy the village that refused Jesus and the disciples hospitality just a few chapters back in Mark’s gospel.
      • Certainly an episode that gave us pretty clear insight into James’ and John’s personalities
      • Today’s passage gives us even more insight – text: James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They said, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”[2] → Now, before we go any further with this story, let’s place it in context with Mark a little bit.
        • Little chunk of text between last week’s passage and today’s = Jesus predicting his death and resurrection: Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, with Jesus in the lead. The disciples were amazed while the others following behind were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he told them what was about to happen to him. “Look!” he said. “We’re going up to Jerusalem. The Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and the legal experts. They will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles. They will ridicule him, spit on him, torture him, and kill him. After three days, he will rise up.”[3] → In Mark’s gospel, this is the 3rd and final time that Jesus will predict what will happen to him for the disciples, and it is by far the most explicit time. And yet, despite Jesus’ candid speech and unequivocal detail, the disciples still fail to grasp the significance of what Jesus has told them.
          • Immediate context makes James’ and John’s request at the beginning of our passage today even more astounding
    • See effects of the insensitivity of their question later on in our gospel story as well: Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with James and John.[4] → While I doubt this episode ended in an all-out brawl between the disciples right there on the side of the road, you can imagine the bickering and arguing that ensued between them. “Did you hear what James and John just asked Jesus? What makes them think they’re so special? Why would they even ask something like that? Why didn’t I think to ask it first? I wanted that spot! I deserve that spot! I’ve certainly been a better disciple than they have.” And so on and so on.
      • Sibling rivalry between James and John, for sure → “right hand” spot was the most revered and honored – Which one of them was going to get that particular distinction?
      • Also a form of sibling rivalry between the disciples – some brothers by blood (like James and John and Andrew and Simon Peter) but all brothers by choice and circumstance → Sometimes the family we choose is even more powerful, even more supportive, and even more important to us than the family we’re born with, and for these disciples – who had left homes and livelihoods and families behind to follow Jesus – this was most certainly the case.
        • Scholar: Imagine. The disciples were in the presence of Jesus Christ. He had been disclosing to them the mysteries of the kingdom and giving them a glimpse of the future God had in store for the world. But instead of relishing his teaching and hanging on his every word, they were completely fixated on their own agendas. Competing for Jesus’ attention. Debating who would get to be second in command. Trying to one-up each other for greatness in the kingdom. This was sibling rivalry on a cosmic scale.[5] → And I think we can pretty safely guess that what drove them to that place of sibling rivalry was their pride.
          • Pride that they had already been chosen to be part of the Messiah’s inner circle
          • Pride that they were learning from the rock star teacher at the time
          • Pride that they were privy to teachings others weren’t
  • But friends, how different are we from these disciples, really?
    • Ways that we try to one-up those around us
      • At home
      • At work
      • In our social circles
      • In society in general
    • Ways that we try to optimize situations just like James and John in order to get a leg up and secure that special privilege or opportunity
    • Petty arguments that we get in with those around us about …
      • How prepared we are …
      • How capable we are …
      • How qualified we are …
      • How important we are …
      • Compared to everyone else. We want to be noticed. We want to be recognized. We want to be rewarded. Because we are proud.
        • Difference btwn confidence in our abilities and boastfulness
      • Scholar: Are we really that different from these greedy sons of Zebedee? We might not make outlandish requests, but in our hearts we often covet the best of the lot, the top spot, the place of recognition. Indeed, this is part of our human condition. … In any event, this is the way we are. Or, as Jana Childers has said, we have Zebedee DNA in our genes.[6]
  • So how did Jesus handle this tricky situation? How did Jesus navigate these choppy waters of the disciples’ competing pride?
    • In response to James’ and John’s initial request – text: Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said, “You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive, but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.”[7]
      • Puts James and John in their place (literally!) → Jesus: “Yes, you have done good things. I recognize your dedication. I recognize your sacrifice. I recognize your desire to be with me. But that place is not for you.” It’s clear. It’s to-the-point. But there’s also a gentleness and a compassion in the way that Jesus response to James and John and their outlandish request.
    • In response to the disciples’ bickering – text: Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”[8] → With this response, Jesus is even more to-the-point and, frankly, blunt.
      • Imagine being the disciples: walking along trying to have those under-your-breath arguments so Jesus doesn’t hear you → Jesus calls you over to the side of the road (first recorded incident of being called to the principal’s office?) → lays out the clearest, most striking comparison he can – comparing the disciples’ bickering and pridefulness to the greatly-despised Roman authorities → finally gives them a directive: “That’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be slave of all.”
        • Reminds them that this whole experience – the coming of the Messiah, following and learning from Jesus, being a disciple – none of it is about them
        • Reminds them that they are not called to power for power’s sake → that they are, instead, called to service
        • Reminder from our psalm this morning, too – text: I cry out to you, LORD. You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me. If you won’t talk to me, I’ll be just like those going down to the pit. Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you, when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary. … Bless the LORD because he has listened to my request for mercy! The LORD is my strength and my shield. My heart trusts him. I was helped, my heart rejoiced, and I thank him with my song. The LORD is his people’s strength; he is a fortress of protection for his anointed one. Save your people, God! Bless your possession! Shepherd them and carry them for all time![9] → God has done this. God has given mercy and salvation. God has been the strength and the rock. God has offered the blessing. God has done this … not the disciples, not the Roman authorities, not us. God and God alone.
    • Friends, we live in a prideful world. We reward pride, sometime to such levels that it becomes obscene. Think of the amount of money and attention and fame we give to people like professional athletes, actors, and musicians. Think of the number of reality show out there today aimed at rewarding the best singer, the best cook, the best survivor, the best fill-in-the-blank. Think of the number of kids today who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, respond by saying, “I want to be a YouTube star.” Just the fact that that’s a thing – that we have things like kids eating knowingly-toxic things like laundry pods just for their 15 minutes of fame – is kind of mind-boggling! But we reward that in our society. And yet Jesus says, “Nope. That’s not what’s important. You want to be a big deal? You want to be important? You want to be a part of my kingdom – of God’s kingdom? You need to put yourself last. You need to do for those around you before you do for yourself. You need to check your pride at the door.” Jesus makes the point that, contrary to what we might think, humility is not the opposite of pride. Service is the opposite of pride. And that is how we enact our faith … how we live it out before God … how we work for God’s kingdom here on earth. Amen.

[1] Suzee Skwiot. “25 Worst Things Siblings Have Ever Done to Each Other” from The Stir, CafeMom website, https://thestir.cafemom.com/big_kid/184115/25_worst_things_siblings_have. Posted Mar. 25, 2015, accessed Oct. 21, 2018.

[2] Mk 10:35-37.

[3] Mk 10:32-34.

[4] Mk 10:41.

[5] Magrey R. DeVega. “Fall Series 2: The Upside-Down Kingdom of God – Proper 24: Where the Least Are Greatest” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 154.

[6] David B. Howell. “Proper 24 (Sunday between October 16 and October 22 inclusive) – Mark 10:35-45, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 190.

[7] Mk 10:38-40.

[8] Mk 10:42-45.

[9] Ps 28:1-2, 6-9.

Sunday’s sermon: The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Last Are First

grace

Texts used – Mark 10:17-31; 1 Peter 4:7-11

  • It’s just around the corner, folks. It’s coming to a mailbox near you. It’s the thing that every child dreams about and every parent dreads with every fiber of their being: the giant Christmas toy catalog.
    • Used to be Toys ‘R’ Us → “Big Book of Christmas Magic”
    • Other stores have since followed suit: Sears, JC Penney, just to name a few
    • I vividly remember this coming in the mail when I was a kid. The minute it arrived, my brother and I would sit down with our markers and start turning pages.
      • Eyes would get bigger and bigger the deeper we got into the catalog
      • Scour every single page
      • Circle everything our little hearts could possibly desire
      • I mean, really, how else were we supposed to know what we wanted for Christmas? There were things in that book that I didn’t even know I needed until I turned the page!
        • List got longer and longer → unsettlingly long, ridiculously long, impossibly long
    • But in our consumer-driven culture, what else can we expect?
      • Bombarded every which way by advertisers trying to sell us something bigger, better, shinier, prettier and definitely more expensive than what we have now
      • Wealth gap in America[1]
        • Richest 1% hold 38% of all privately-held wealth in the US
        • Poorest 90% hold 73% of all debt in the US
        • Which means that the richest 1% hold more wealth than the poorest 90%. So if you pulled that 1 richest person out of 100, he or she would have more wealth alone than the bottom 90 people combined.
      • All about the bottom line
        • How much can I make?
        • How much can I spend?
        • How much can I have?
        • How much … how much … how much
    • Grappling with this in our gospel text this morning, too → Last week, we started talking about how this 10th chapter of Mark finds Jesus basically turning the world and all its expectations upside down and how, if we’re going to be followers of this Upside-Down Messiah, we, too, need to work to bring about this upside-down Kingdom of God in our world today.
      • Last week = talked about inverting power priorities with children – lowest of the low in society – being blessed – text: God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.[2]
      • This week = talking about inverting economic priorities
  • Couple of key elements of this story
    • First, Mark tells us basically nothing about this man that approaches Jesus. – text: As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”[3] → just “a man”
      • Mt = “young man”[4]
      • Lk = “ruler”[5]
      • But all Mark gives us is that he is a man. He’s a person. Period. In Mark’s version of this story, the one who approaches Jesus is a person, plain and simple. Any person. Every person. This man could be anyone – just a regular guy who likes his stuff. → shows that the desire for/love of stuff that we grapple with today is certainly not a new concept – scholar: In the ancient world (Greek, Roman, and Hebrew), material prosperity was widely seen as a reward or byproduct of spiritual value. Things go well for the good, for men and women of good character, and poorly for the bad, for those who lack good character and self-discipline.[6]
    • Leads to 2nd important element = what Jesus is actually asking of this man – text: [Jesus] said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.”[7] → It sounds like Jesus is talking about stuff, right? “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. … And come, follow me.” We cannot deny that a statement like that is about the man’s possessions. And even though Mark doesn’t tell us explicitly that this man is well-off, it’s implied in what Jesus says here. He isn’t going to ask someone who has nothing to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor.
      • reveals this is about more than just “the stuff” – Gr. “follow” = very particular word: akolutheo
        • Root of a word we know today: acolyte = assistant or follower, especially in a religious sense
        • Only used a handful of times throughout the NT → same word that Peter uses later in the passage: Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.” Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”[8]
        • You see, there is an element of devotion inextricably tied up in this word. Jesus isn’t just asking this man to tag along for a while. He’s asking him to shift his attachment and his adoration from the things he has accumulated to the Savior standing in front of him.
          • Fundamental shift
          • Powerful shift
          • Life-altering, world-inverting shift
          • Jesus is truly asking this man to turn his world upside-down – to abandon the social recognition and status that he has acquired for a life solely focused on someone else: God. – scholar: Jesus knew that one’s relationship with money is, for many people, the greatest obstacle to living a life of full commitment and faithfulness. How much of not just our money but our time is spent in the procurement and upkeep of our possessions? Whether we like it or not, what we own has a tendency to define, or at least influence, who we are. If people can get their economic priorities right before God, then they can give their entire lives to God.[9]
          • Brings to mind Jesus’ words in Mt: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[10]
    • The man’s response – text: But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.[11] → Of all the stories in the gospels and all the reactions to Jesus and his teachings that we see scattered throughout the gospels, this is probably one of the hardest, one of the most heartbreaking. We don’t know whether the man ever does was Jesus asks him to do. We’re sort of left dangling. But this statement certainly infers that this was a pretty hard sell for Jesus.
      • Gr. “dismayed” = shocked, appalled, and “become gloomy”
      • Gr. “saddened” = irritated, distressed, offended
      • Neither indicate an encouraging response from the man → Whatever it was that he wanted Jesus to say when he asked his question – “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” – Jesus’ response was clearly not what he had expected, nor was it what he wanted to hear.
  • But this gets down to the crux of this whole passage. From the very beginning, the man is asking the wrong question – text: As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”[12]
    • Other translations: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
    • But that word that gets translated as obtain or inherit isn’t the problem. It’s a teeny, tiny, seemingly-inconsequential word that shows up just before it: What must I DO. It’s about grace.
      • Man is asking how he can earn the Kingdom of Heaven → “What can I do? See how good I’ve been? I’ve kept all the commandments. I’ve done everything right since I was a boy. Have I done enough? Have my previous actions merited me a place in the Kingdom?”
      • Jesus’ message from the beginning: the Kingdom of Heaven is not something that can be earned → Grace is grace exactly because it is free and un It’s not about what we do. It’s not about what we earn. It’s about God’s gift, given not because we deserve it but because God loves us. Period.
        • Made clear in the rest of our passage – text: Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words started the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”[13]
      • Grace is where our 2nd Scripture reading from 1 Pet comes in this morning, too: Whoever speaks should do so as those who speak God’s word. Whoever serves should do so from the strength that God furnishes. Do this so that in everything God may be honored through Jesus Christ. To him be honor and power forever and always. Amen.[14] → The word comes not from us, but from God. The strength comes not from us, but from God. The grace to do these things in love and compassion and hope comes not from us, but from God.
  • This is a powerful statement that Jesus is making. As we said earlier, material wealth and abundance were considered a sign of God’s favor for you and your family in Jesus’ time. But instead of towing the party line on this one, Jesus flips the assumption, the expectation, the established belief on its head: the greatest blessing of all is not material but immaterial and yet wholly substantial grace. The greatest blessing of all is not earned at all but freely given. Welcome to the Upside-Down Kingdom of God, my friends. Let’s hunker in and get uncomfortable. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealth_inequality_in_the_United_States.

[2] Mk 10:15.

[3] Mk 10:17.

[4] Mt 19:20.

[5] Lk 18:18.

[6] James J. Thompson. “Proper 23 (Sunday between October 9 and October 15 inclusive) – Mark 10:17-31, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 164, 166.

[7] Mk 10:21b.

[8] Mk 10:27-28.

[9] Magrey R. DeVega. “Fall Series 2: The Upside-Down Kingdom of God – Proper 23: Where the Last Are First” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 153.

[10] Mt 6:21.

[11] Mk 10:21.

[12] Mk 10:17.

[13] Mk 10:23-27.

[14] 1 Pet 4:11.

Sunday’s sermon: The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Children Are Blessed

Jesus and children 2

Texts used – Mark 10:13-16; James 2:14-26

  • For the next few weeks, we’re going to spend some time hunkering down into the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel together.
    • Critical ch. in Mk
      • Last bit of Jesus’ ministry before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday
      • full of Jesus’ teachings on true discipleship
      • “Upside-Down Kingdom” ch. because all those teachings show us that the perspective and priorities that the world expects are usually not the perspectives and priorities that God expects
        • God’s Kingdom = upside-down from the rest of the world’s way of thinking
        • God’s Kingdom seeks to turn the world upside-down → to invert the culture at large and bring about a different kind of community altogether
  • Start with a little background information on Mark = odd gospel
    • Lots of stories/encounters with Jesus that, while they can also be found in Lk and Mt, are told differently
      • In the timeline of when the gospels themselves were written, Mark was the first gospel written – probably somewhere around 60 or 70 CE [explain CE vs. AD]. Because of that, scholars are fairly certain that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of the main sources when they were writing their own gospel accounts.
        • Gave Mt and Lk time/opportunity to flesh out their versions of a lot of these stories
        • Results in Mk’s telling being much more short-and-to-the-point → Basically, Mark’s version is the “Reader’s Digest” version of many of the gospel stories we’re familiar with.
    • Audience = unknown
      • In comparison with other gospels
        • Mt = gospel for the Jews
        • Lk = gospel for the Gentiles
        • Jn = gospel for believers (full of flowery theology that presumes understanding and belief in Jesus as Son of God)
      • Mk = gospel for ???[1]
        • Emphasis on Jesus suffering = gospel for those Christians being persecute under Emperor Nero?
        • Emphasis on Jewish-Christian conflict = gospel for Christians living in Palestine or Syria?
      • One certainty = gospel that emphasizes the cost of following Jesus
      • Short plug → Coffee and Conversation!
      • Okay, so that’s the quick rundown of Mark as a whole. And in the context of that, we have basically four short teachings from Jesus in Mark 10 about how to live as a true disciple – how to live right side up in an upside-down world.
  • Begins with today’s passage about children
    • Very familiar passage, I’m sure → conjures up all sorts of placid images of Jesus surrounded by a gaggle of cherubic, smiling, perfectly clean, perfectly groomed children
      • Soundtrack of this passage = always 2 competing songs for me
      • But all of this – the pictures, the songs, the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that we tend to get from imagining Jesus opening his arms wide to the children in this passage actually miss the point of what Jesus is trying to say and do here.
        • Yes, Jesus = expressing love for the children BUT that love was not a given at the time → In our society today, we place inherent value on children and childhood for what they are. Children have value because they are children. They are treasured. They are precious. We know that they’re going to be silly and vulnerable and tender. We encourage them to play and learn and grow in a wide variety of ways. But this was not the case during Jesus’ time.
          • Scholar: In the ancient Roman world, there was an understood hierarchy of power and authority. At the very top, of course, was Caesar, followed by members of the upper class, including senators. Below was the lower class, made up on commoners and most families. Families were led by the father, with women and slaves below them. The children had no rights in society and were often treated as commodities or worse. … Children’s value was primarily economic, as workers and heirs, not sentimental.[3] → It’s hard to wrap our minds around this mentality today. While parents certainly loved their children even then, they weren’t cherished simply for being children in the way that kids are today. Childhood wasn’t seen as the crucial phase of life that we view it as today. Children were simply seen as people who hadn’t grown into the usefulness of adulthood yet. They were a non-entity in the eyes of all those in power – those in power in the household up to those in power in the government.
    • But what does Jesus say? – text: “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Then he hugged the children and blessed them.[4]
      • Scholar: Here [is] Jesus, telling his listeners to let the children come to him, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. In one bold stroke, Jesus took the entire Roman establishment and flipped it upside down. Those who are at the bottom are at the top; those who are disregarded by society are favored by God. Those are on the outside are welcomed into the kingdom.[5] → Jesus is using the children to upend the system. They are, quite simply, the lowest on the totem pole, and by paying attention to them … lifting them up as an example … and blessing them, Jesus flipped that totem pole right upside down.
        • Did society value the children? No → Does God treasure children? Absolutely.
        • Did society value those who had been pushed aside? No → Does God treasure those who have been pushed aside? Absolutely.
        • Did society value those who had been abandoned and forgotten? No → Does God treasure those who have been abandoned and forgotten? Absolutely.
        • Jesus is making it clear to all who were listening and all who were following him that God’s expectations are not our expectations and that, if we want to truly be followers of this soon-to-be martyred Savior, we have to work on realigning our expectations with God’s, not society’s.
  • This is where our 2nd Scripture reading comes in this morning: realigning those expectations and also our actions → word and deed hand-in-hand
    • Writer of James pulls no punches here – text: My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.[6] → It’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Having faith is important. It is a building block … but it is not the only building block. Without actions – without stepping out in that faith and embodying the love and grace and compassion and generosity and extravagant welcome and forgiveness of God in the world around us – then our claims of faith ring hollow. And those actions need to align, not with the places that society tells us are the most important, but those upside-down places where God truly resides.
      • With those most in need
        • Those who are broken
        • Those who are hurting
        • Those who are desperate
        • Those who are lonely
        • Those who are in need of healing
        • Those who are in need of forgiveness
        • Those who are in need of a helping hand
        • Because when we’re honest with ourselves and each other, we all fall into at least one of those categories sometimes, don’t we?
      • Difference between the true good news of the gospel – that the love of God embodied in Jesus Christ came to earth, died on the cross, and was resurrected in eternally triumphant glory to bring us salvation … Aligning our acts of faith with the upside-down places that God deems important instead of the places that society deems important is the difference between sharing the good news of the true gospel and sharing the twisted and damaging idea of the Prosperity Gospel – that false belief that because you have done good, God will bless you with money and possessions and power and prestige. That is not faith for those in lowest places. That is faith for me, myself, and I.
        • Text calls this out: Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. 19 It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. 20 Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all? … As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.[7]
      • Mother Teresa: Faith in action is love, and love in action is service. By transforming that faith into living acts of love, we put ourselves in contact with God Himself, with Jesus our Lord. → As we continue to explore this idea of God’s upside down Kingdom this month, let us remember that – that, even as upside-down and countercultural as these Kingdom ideas might be, they are God’s call for our love, our service, and our embodiment of the good news of the gospel in this world. Amen.

[1] Suzanne Watts Henderson. “Mark: Introduction” in The Common English Bible Study Edition. (Nashville, TN: E.T. Lowe Publishing, 2013), 66 NT.

[2] Disney for Our Children: To Benefit the Pediatric AIDS Foundation album, released by Walt Disney Records, May 1991.

[3] Magrey R. DeVega. “Fall Series 2: The Upside-Down Kingdom – Proper 22: Where the Children Are Blessed” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 151.

[4] Mk 10:14-16.

[5] DeVega, 151-152.

[6] Jas 2:14-17.

[7] Jas 2:18-20, 26.

Sunday’s sermon: Named and Claimed

baptism

Texts used – Isaiah 12; Galatians 3:23-29

  • This past week, Peter and the kids and I did something really exciting: we went out and bought … a tree!
    • Reason for buying the tree: just needed a little something extra in our backyard
    • Did a little research (meaning: talked to Lance)
    • Thursday Night Adventure (“adventure” being tree-buying at Sargent’s and a trip to Costco that included dinner!)
    • And let me let you all in on a little secret about being married to a science teacher: you learn a lot more than you ever even imagined you might want to know no matter where you go!
      • Peter’s questions to the tree guy
      • Grafting: technique when you take tissue from one plant and join it to tissue from another plant so they can continue to grow together as one
        • Upper part = scion
        • Lower part = rootstock
      • Nursery guy: nursery trees are actually branches of a variety of trees grafted onto rootstocks of other trees (not necessarily the same species) → They do this because they want the rootstock to be healthy and hearty and strong. So there could be a whole bunch of different kinds of trees – oaks, maples, aspens, even crabapples – grafted onto the same kind of rootstock because that’s what will make them grow the strongest and truest. That’s what will help those trees grow to their greatest potential.
    • Friends, that is why we’re here this morning. Today is a joyful day in the life of the church because today, we get to celebrate a baptism. – baptism = essentially being grafted onto the body of Christ
      • Book of Order, “Theology of Baptism”: Baptism enacts and seals what the Word proclaims: God’s redeeming grace offered to all people. Baptism is at once God’s gift of grace, God’s means of grace, and God’s call to respond to that grace. … Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place.[1]
  • Hard to pick Scripture readings for this morning because there are so many places in the Bible that talk about the power and significance of baptism
    • Story of Jesus’ own baptism in the River Jordan when God comes down in the form of a Holy Spirit dove and proclaims, “This is my son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”[2]
    • Great Commission at the end of Mt’s gospel (Jesus to the disciples): Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.[3]
    • Plethora of times that Paul talks about the significance of baptism → just about every letter Paul wrote to any group of believers
    • OT passage often used for baptism: But now, says the LORD— the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you. I am the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior.[4] → So says the prophet Isaiah. “I have called you by name; you are mine.” Let those words sink in for a minute, friends. “I have called you by name; you are mine.” Mine … mine … mine. Is there a more possessive word in the English language?
      • Only claim something as “mine” when it’s really important, really precious to us
        • Something you’ve worked hard for
        • Something you’ve long desired
        • Something near and dear and precious to your heart
        • Something you would fight for in a heartbeat
          • My family
          • My friends
          • My home
          • My career
          • My church
      • Opening passage from Isaiah says explicitly that this is exactly what God has said to us: I have called you by name; you are mine. → Let that sink in for a minute. You have been claimed by the One who created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. You have been claimed by the One who had the imaginative beauty and creativity to invent waterfalls and volcanoes and rainbows and platypuses. You have been claimed by the One who breathed life into clay and named it “human” and called it good. You have been claimed by One whose love surpasses anything you can ever imagine or hope to receive anywhere else. You have been claimed by One who is both mighty and powerful and yet tender and attentive enough to know each and every one of us by name. “I have called you by name; you are mine.”
        • Love and tenderness and openness of the way that God claims in baptism always makes me think of a poem by Irish poet W.B. Yeats:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.[5]

  • In naming and claiming us in baptism, God lays out dreams for us to follow – hopes and dreams for our future, for our faith formation, for our participating in God’s work of grace and love and justice in this world. Sometimes we forget how truly precious a gift this is, and we stumble and trample and even stomp upon those dreams. But sometimes we remember. We remember what a blessing it truly is to be named and claimed as a Beloved Child of God. And when we remember, we rejoice and give thanks.
    • Hear this echoed in other passage from Is that we read this morning – text: God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid. Yahweh, the Lord, is my strength and my shield; he has become my salvation. You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. … Sing to the Lord, who has done glorious things.[6]
      • And today, we get to celebrate Julia being named and claimed by this One – this holy one of Israel, everlasting God of all.
  • “God of all” = critical element of baptism → reason I chose NT passage from Galatians
    • Text: You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ has clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.[7] → one of the most powerful marks and purpose of baptism = It is completely and wholly indiscriminate. No matter who you are, no matter how you are baptized, through this holy sacrament, you become grafted onto the body of Christ. You are named and claimed as one of God’s children. Period. Full stop. No qualifiers allowed.
      • Great meme on FB this week – 2 doughnut pictures side-by-side

doughnuts meme

      • Book of Order: In Christ, barriers of race, status, and gender are overcome; we are called to seek reconciliation in the Church and world, in Jesus’ name. … Unity is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. Just as God is one God and Jesus Christ is our one Savior, so the Church is one because it belongs to its one Lord, Jesus Christ. The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone.[8]
      • Also speaks to what I love about how Presbyterians do godparents → You all – all of you here today – are considered Julia’s godparents in the church. You all are already playing a part in her growing up. You will all play a part in her being raised and nurtures and love in faith. In this church, we recognize and believe in a priesthood of all believers meaning that you don’t have to be specially ordained to any particular office to share your faith with others and to let your own spiritual journey impact and inform someone else.
        • Book of Order: God pours out the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon each Christian in Baptism, and all are called to use these gifts for the glory of God. Therefore it is appropriate for any member of the church to pray, read Scripture, or assist in worship in other ways according to his or her gifts.[9]
  • And so it is with great joy – joy in celebrating Julia being named and claimed as well as joy in remembering and honoring our own baptisms when God named and claimed us as Beloveds … it is with great joy that we come to the font. Hear again the words from the prophet Isaiah this morning – text: You will say on that day: “I thank you, Lord. Though you were angry with me, your anger turned away and you comforted me. God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid. Yahweh, the Lord, is my strength and my shield; he has become my salvation.” You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. And you will say on that day: “Thank the Lord; call on God’s name; proclaim God’s deeds among the peoples; declare that God’s name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, who has done glorious things; proclaim this throughout all the earth.” Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion, because the holy one of Israel is great among you. → Friends, as we come to the font with Julia this morning, we come with joy. We come to this wellspring of salvation thanking God for that everlasting and eternal grace that washes over us all and welcomes us into this blessed family of faith. Alleluia! Amen.

 

[1] W-3.0402 in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II: The Book of Order, 2017-2019 ed. (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly), 2017.

[2] Mt 3:17.

[3] Mt 28:19-20.

[4] Is 43:1-3a.

[5] W.B. Yeats. “Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/aedh-wishes-cloths-heaven.

[6] Is 12:2-3, 5.

[7] Gal 3:26-28.

[8] W-3.0402, F-1.0302a in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II: The Book of Order, 2017-2019 ed. (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly), 2017.

[9] W-2.0301 in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II: The Book of Order, 2017-2019 ed. (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly), 2017.

[10] W-3.0402 in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II: The Book of Order, 2017-2019 ed. (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly), 2017.