Bless What Lord?

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Psalm 16, Mark 13:1-8

I said in my Facebook post about today’s service that I was going to start the sermon with a grammar joke. It ended up not fitting into where I went with the sermon, but since I promised a grammar joke you’ll get a grammar joke.

A panda walks into a bar. He takes a handful of peanuts from a bowl on the bar, shells them, and eats them. Then the panda pulls out a gun, fires it in the air, and begins to walk out of the bar. The bartender says, “Hey! What was that about?” The panda says, “Look it up in a dictionary,” and heads out the door. The bartender grabs a dictionary from someplace and looks up the definition for “panda.” The definition says, “Panda – a white and black bear-like mammal which eats shoots and leaves.”

That’s the joke. It doesn’t have anything to do with the sermon. If you don’t get it you’ll just have to think for a while after the sermon.

I remember the first time I visited Washington, DC. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember wondering if we would get to see President Johnson when we toured the White House, so I couldn’t have been older than nine.

I was so amazed at the buildings. Of course the ones that caught my eye the most where the famous ones that I’d seen on television – the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. I don’t remember the Washington City church from that trip, although we probably drove by it because we always drove by the Church of the Brethren, if there was one, everyplace we vacationed.

I remember the first time I saw the Washington Office of the Church of the Brethren. It was in the United Methodist building, across from the Capitol and next to the Supreme Court building. I was a freshman in high school, I think, and I was so impressed to meet Ralph Smeltzer, the director of the office. He talked to us about what it would be like to visit our representatives and our senators, and he had this big office with books and papers everywhere and I just thought how wonderful it must be to be Ralph Smeltzer and to live and work in Washington, DC and to lobby and organize on behalf of justice and peace in the Capitol and around the nation.

I think that’s what it felt like for the disciples when they visited Jerusalem with Jesus. Our reading from Mark 13 opens up with the disciples wandering around looking at the temple and the other grand buildings in the capital. “As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” I can almost picture Gomer Pyle looking up at skyscrapers saying, “Goll-lly!”

I don’t know how many of the disciples had been to Jerusalem before, if any. It probably was a pretty impressive place. And you know sometimes a place doesn’t have to be physically impressive or incredibly magnificent to seem pretty wonderful. Looking back at it, Ralph Smeltzer’s office probably wasn’t all that fancy. But to a high school freshman who cared about his faith and who cared about politics and cared about what his faith taught him about politics, it was one of the most amazing places in the world.

Jesus’s reaction to whichever disciple was playing Gomer Pyle is a little surprising at first. Jesus says, “All these buildings? This fancy temple? So what? Sooner or later it’ll all just be rubble. Just a big pile of rocks.”

Some of the disciples are maybe a little worried about when that’s going to happen, and so they approach Jesus privately and ask him exactly that. They are probably looking for some comfort, some reassurance from Jesus. They are probably expecting to be told not to worry, because Jesus is the Messiah and if they stick with him it’ll all be okay.

That’s sometimes what we want from Jesus, isn’t it. Sometimes we want Jesus to reassure us, to comfort us. That’s natural, and that’s one of the things Jesus does for people. One of Jesus’s titles is “Wonderful Counselor,” and we sing songs like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Jesus being a comforter, a supporter, someone who gives us strength and who encourages us through the Holy Spirit, all of that is perfectly appropriate and perfectly Biblical.

But there is another Jesus. There is the apocalyptic Jesus.

The literal meaning of “apocalypse” is an unveiling or a revelation. Over the years the word has taken on more than just the literal meaning. “Apocalyptic” or “apocalypse” now are used to refer to something incredibly destructive, and often to predictions of the end of the earth. That’s the Jesus we’re getting here, a Jesus who is talking about the end of the world.

And that Jesus, the apocalyptic Jesus, offers the disciples no particular reassurance, at least about the timing. In fact, he doesn’t actually answer their question. He says that the disciples need to be careful that they are not led astray, that a lot of people will try to lead them astray, that they should not be alarmed when they hear about wars and rumors of wars, and that there will be a time of earthquakes and famines and wars. Trust me, that’s not reassuring.

The meditation on the back of the worship folder mentions Harold Moyer. Harold was an associate pastor here at Washington City back in the early 1950s. Seeing Harold’s name made me think about some of our history here.
Washington City was a big congregation back then, with a couple of hundred people in attendance every Sunday morning and that big pipe organ in the balcony booming out the hymns every Sunday and all the rooms filled with Sunday School classes and all the offices filled with pastors and associate pastors and intern pastors and a secretary or two.
Back in the 1950s Washington City decided to do some church planting. They planted the Good Shepherd congregation in Silver Spring, the Arlington congregation, and the Woodbridge congregation. People who were members at Washington City who lived in those communities became members of the new congregations. When I pastored at Woodbridge there were eight of the charter members left who had been members here.

Washington City provided pastors as well. In 1956 Harold Moyer became the first pastor at Woodbridge, and later spent many, many years at the Williamson Road congregation in Roanoke.

If someone had said back in the 1950s that one day the Washington City congregation would have Sundays where less than a half dozen people were here, that the congregation would find it a huge challenge to deal with the basic maintenance of the physical structure here, that it would be financially impractical to have a full time pastor let alone the multiple staff that they had, that there wouldn’t be any kind of regular Sunday School, that the organ would likely be beyond repair, I don’t know what people’s reactions might have been. That might have felt apocalyptic to them. That might have felt like the destruction of everything that they held dear.

But all those things happened. All of those things have happened in just the last ten or fifteen years. And we’re still here. We’ve come out on the other side of a lot of those things. No, we still can’t use the organ but we have people sharing other musical gifts that fit us better than a fancy pipe organ would. And I say that as someone who has been known to listen to organ music from time to time.

No, we can’t really afford a full time pastor, but we have a ministry team that functions pretty well for who we are now. We don’t have a traditional Sunday School, but we have regular gatherings to study the Bible and to share in prayer and visioning and community. We’re not a big church numerically, but we’re bigger and more stable than we had been. We had times where it seemed like it might be impossible to meet the needs of maintenance of the building, but we’ve come through much of that and in some ways the building now is in the best physical condition it’s been in for a long time.

That vision that might have felt like an apocalypse to the people of this congregation in the 1950s has become a reality where we have something special here. We have something good that is happening. We are making a difference for people. We are touching people’s lives. We are seeking and sharing justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

After what might have felt like an apocalypse to people here in 1952, we have come through to a different kind of congregation. Not a better congregation than theirs was, and not a worse one, but a different one. Probably a better one for this time and place, just as the congregation they had was a better one for their time and place than ours would be.

Apocalyptic Washington City congregation became the Washington City congregation that we have now and for which I am very thankful.
Likewise the future that apocalyptic Jesus proclaims isn’t the end. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it’s scary, and it’s hard to picture. But in the end we’ll feel fine, because we know that a different world is coming. This world will pass away, but a new world, a new kingdom of love and peace and the rule of Christ, will take its place.

The Psalmist in our Call to Worship from Psalm 16 tells us to bless the Lord. Our inclination is to bless the Lord of comfort, the Lord that protects us from our enemies and strengthens us and heals us and gives us courage. And we should bless that Lord.

We should also bless and be thankful for the apocalyptic Lord. We should bless the Lord that warns us of hard times to come, that tells us of the destruction of earthly things that in this moment we think are important but have no eternal significance. We should bless the Lord who creates challenge and even destruction so that a new and better world can replace what we know now.

I hope we’re thankful to God not just this week, but all the time. I hope we’re thankful for all the sides, all the aspects of Jesus’s personality and ministry. I hope we can be thankful for comfort and peace, thankful for food and friends, but also thankful for apocalypse and for the world that will follow, both in our own lives and in the world at large. Amen.

Small Money and Biscuit

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44

We have a penny and a biscuit. This is what we have to work with and then we are finished. The widow in Mark’s Gospel has the equivalent of a penny (year of inflation value not noted in my translation). The widow of Zarephath has a bit of flour to make a cake. The cake is made of oil and flour…so I am calling it a biscuit. Cake sounds too bourgeois, too fluffy. We have a penny and a biscuit

We will eat the last biscuit and die. These words by a woman who is at the end and are stated quite directly.

Elijah, the prophet who announced the drought in the first place, then assures her that she need not be afraid but that the God of Israel has promised that the oil and flour will be replenished until the rain returns.
Does she know who Elijah is? Does she worship the God of Israel? I don’t know you or your God but, “ok, sure….we’ll go for it.” Not sure if that is faith or resignation. Ah, what the h**l it, nothing to lose.

The prophet—or random guy Elijah—makes a request and…

15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

As an interpreter I must ask—What is the purpose of this story? Well, it continues the trajectory of God’s engagement with a people and a leadership that doesn’t follow God’s way. You may remember that God was not in favor of setting up the kingly political system in the first place. In particular, in the chapter before we read that the new king Ahab wasn’t starting off well.

We read, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all of the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33b) . Mmm, not a great start. Notable, yes…good?… leaves a little to be desired. “Did more to provoke the anger of the LORD”…yikes. Because of this, God sends the prophet Elijah to declare that there will be a drought. Elijah then flees (tough luck being the bearer of such terrible news) and lives by a wadi as a source of water. A wadi is a temporary stream in the desert and God delivers food morning and evening by ravens. Specifically, the ravens bring bread and meat. Which is good because it helps him survive but made me grimace when I thought about how that would work practically. Little dirty raven claws holding meat…likely not wrapped…

The water source then dries up and Elijah leaves hiding (because I guess ravens can’t deliver water? You know—it’s the claws, water is tricky. They can’t grasp water?…wasn’t this a miracle already?, couldn’t God just rig up a little water pitcher?) Whatever the reason, Elijah goes looking for water. Which brings us to the widow. The prophet asks for water—which is presumably in short supply and she obliges. He then asks for food as well (since the ravens can’t come into town?) The famine has gone on long enough that the widow is down to her last bit of food. Now as a widow with a child this dire situation likely would happen sooner than for others, however, the drought has apparently already been taking its toll.

A few observations or questions may be in order. Firstly, the sins of a leader or leaders can lead to great suffering—I was at an event at the Middle East Institute on Thursday and the situation of civil war in Yemen and US support Saudi bombing and the dire famine in which millions are starving or on the brink of starvation was discussed. While the answer isn’t clear the negative results of the actions of leaders is quite clear.

Secondly, the question of God’s action—perhaps culpability—in this suffering is raised. Diving into the philosophical and theological tangle is not what I plan to attempt this morning, but this passage made me wonder about day 2 after this story for all of the other widows. If this widow had one more meal and then nothing what about all of the others?
Speaking of widows in dire straits who give in noteworthy and sacrificial ways….across town and x number of years later…

We see Jesus in the temple.

Beware of the leaders who wear fancy cloths, are respected, have the best seats, consume the needy, and as show, pray long. He doesn’t actually say, “don’t be this way” but watch out for them. Though one can imply that this path is a risk—Jesus-wise. Don’t be caught. Don’t be fooled! He asserts that they will receive “greater condemnation.”

After this exhortation they sit down to watch the offering plate station. In this, the wealthy give large sums and then a poor widow gives the equivalent of a penny. (Incidentally, last Sunday before I knew this was a the passage, I discovered that there was a penny hidden behind the pulpit covering—it is of so little value I didn’t even pick it up…still here). So Jesus and his people are hanging out, loitering even (hang out like it was a mall in the 90s—See Dream Cities for an interesting discussion of malls), and checking out what people are giving. Jesus then notes that this destitute and vulnerable woman has given more. More?! If we watch closely, he doesn’t say anything negative about the large sums—though this is the impression. It is the impression because of the comparison and praise for the other party, the widow. This impression of implicit critique is also because of the passage just before. The feeling is that some of the large sums are able to be given because the ostentatious “scribes” have not only done their religious duties for show but have devoured the widows’ houses.

Their wealth is based on their exploitation of others. Was this particular widow impoverished due to her wealth being consumed? We don’t know. Perhaps she is simply part of a class of people who are stripped of their means of survival. While the main point of Jesus’ teaching is about motivation in religious actions there is a subtle (or not so subtle) economic critique in Mark. [1] It is not only the action and teaching of Jesus that matter but the text—the literary structure, flow, and rhetorical jabs matter as well.

Implicit in this is the economic critique but there is the explicit teaching as well. The gift of this destitute widow, though small—nay paltry—this gift given in this way was the greater gift.

Now this is not a sentimental “it’s the little things that count.” It is not an inspirational poster nor a Hallmark card with a kitten nuzzling something…anything! No, Jesus’ point was that giving that hurts (or is sacrificial) is better. But even that may be a tired moralism.

Giving that hurts somehow means more than the more “effective” big gifts. The rich young ruler in the Gospels gets generally affirmed—“You’ve done all the correct requirements, which would include the correct religious donations, but now go sell everything and give it away. Or Luke, the sermon on the plane—“blessed are the poor.” This is what Liberation Theologians called God’s preferential option for the poor. The widow who is poor amidst the wealth of those who disposed her—the widow and her tiny gift has given the greater.

Now it is fine for Jesus to say this. He isn’t the leader who is trying to repair the temple roof. It is fine for Jesus, he isn’t tasked with figuring out a budget. Those of us who do this institutional work very much appreciate this sort of gift. A smallish non-profit that I work with got a surprise $750,000 gift a year or so ago. The widow’s penny is great but….you gotta love a large bequest.

Which is the reality that James is addressing—don’t show favoritism to the wealthy who might become your benefactors.

Whether we try to or not and whether or not it is appropriate, we tend to identify with one character or set of characters. Because of our competitive or perhaps judgmental inclinations we quite likely engage with this text from what might be called a “distorted Jesus” vantage. We may watch how or if people give and think “well that’s interesting (of course not thinking it interesting in the curiosity sort of way but using this as a jab)…that’s interesting, it doesn’t look like they gave anything. (Of course, having the online giving option now sows some doubt in such judgments.) We may also feel some degree of identification with the scribes that get such a tough word from Jesus—are we devouring? Are we doing this only for show?

A problem with Jesus is that he, at least as recorded in the Gospel literature, is very definitive in knowing peoples’ motives. Jesus knows that this is all the widow has and that she is giving it in a laudable way. This is different than my anxious self-assessment. Am I up here preaching because I like the sound of my voice or because I have a call from God and the community to do this work? Am I distressed that the number of people here on a Sunday has decreased because I care deeply about proclamation of Jesus’ Gospel of Peace through word and deed on this particular location or am I distressed because it makes me feel like a failure as a leader?

Is Jesus inviting us to perpetual internal assessment? Are my motives pure? Is the percentage of my income given high enough? What if I get it wrong? What if we fail?

Kierkegaard’s leap of faith would seem to apply to the question of belief. Can it also be used to these more “applied” matters? What if—at least for those of us who tend toward introspection or self-doubt—what if we got over ourselves and got on with the simple things, the basics?

As a movement or organizational worker, I would much rather have someone give with wrong motives than get stalled or over-think it and not give at all. Motivation counts but if you are asking if your motivation is correct you are probably on the right track. Jesus wants us to be swept up in the Kingdom of God. Swept up not squashed down by perpetual self-reflection or doubt.

Being caught up in the work of God we may then be like the widow. The widow is swept up in the work of God. Those two copper coins—a penny worth, what I didn’t even bother to pick up from behind the pulpit drapes. All that she has is given to the worship and work of God. All that she has isn’t, at least on its own, all that useful. The power of God is seen in the widow. May we be like the widow. May we be like the women who lost everything and still gave.

God Doesn’t Need Your Religion – Love Is All That Matters

Preacher: Micah Bales
Scripture Readings: Ruth 1:1-18; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Jesus spent all of his ministry preaching the arrival of the reign of God. All of his words and actions revealed the presence of God’s power, love, and justice. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom of God has drawn near.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus says this to one of the scribes. One of the Pharisees. A member of a group that Jesus criticizes a lot. The scribes and Pharisees, middle-class people who could read the Torah and write dense legal theories about how to follow it correctly.

Jesus fought so often with the scribes and the Pharisees not because he was so different, but because he had so much in common. In fact, if you were going to categorize Jesus in terms of the ideological camps of his day, you could be forgiven for numbering him among the Pharisees.

Just like the Pharisees, Jesus had an extremely high regard for scripture. In fact, just before our gospel reading this morning, Jesus had been publicly debating with the Sadducees – a highly conservative, priestly party that denied the resurrection of the dead. When Jesus rebukes them, he does so on the basis of two things: the Torah – the written testimony about God – and the power of God himself.

He says to the Sadducees, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?”

Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus didn’t accuse the Pharisees of being ignorant of the Bible. Jesus was with the Pharisees in his respect for the scriptures. They had that in common. Where Jesus parted ways with the Pharisees was their lack of responsiveness to the power of God. The God who inspired the scriptures is far beyond, far greater than the scriptures. God won’t be held hostage to human legal theories derived from the Bible. Just as Jesus is lord of the sabbath, the Holy Spirit is lord of scripture.

This is really important. We get lost whenever we forget this. Because, if history has taught us anything, it’s that our sacred texts are almost infinitely malleable. European Christians have used the Bible to justify the crusades, manifest destiny, and slavery. We’ve also used it to build the theological basis of the civil rights movement, anti-slavery societies, and nonviolent action for peace.

This may sound scandalous to some, but there is no “clear meaning of scripture.” Our fallen natural minds simply can’t comprehend the love of God, regardless of what is written down in a book. We’re not qualified interpreters. We’ll twist those holy words to justify our worst impulses. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

The scriptures, of themselves, can’t save us. Without the Holy Spirit to guide us in our reading, we are utterly blind and lost. In fact, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, in the absence of the Spirit, the words of scripture can become death to us. Without the power of God, the scriptures can be used as a dangerous weapon. The good news is that, guided by God’s love and wisdom, the scriptures can be a force for healing and liberation.

So when Jesus rails against the Pharisees he’s not railing against their respect for scripture, or the intense study they devote to understanding it. When Jesus gets into his Epic Rap Battles of History with the Pharisees, it’s not about the letter – it’s about the Spirit. It’s about the power of God to move mountains, change the rules, and scandalize us by valuing mercy more than correct religious practice.

Our scripture readings this morning are all about this dynamic power of God to change structures, relationships, and all the moralistic rules that hold us back from being truly moral beings. From Jesus’ dynamic and radical teaching from the Torah, the wisdom of the Book of Hebrews, and in the story of Ruth and Naomi, we hear of how God transcends and upsets all our expectations about what holiness should look like.

In these stories, we discover a God who cares more about love than about rules, more about justice than correctness. We encounter a God who we can trust, because he doesn’t think in the same categories we do. God won’t be boxed in by our limited minds and legalistic straight jackets. And if we’re willing to listen and pay attention, he will free us from our slavery to rules and forms. He’ll bring us into the real life and substance of the gospel.

This gospel of liberation is available in the most unlikely times and places; it emerges in the lives of the most unlikely of people. Ruth was a person like that. A person who lived on the margins in every way. She was a widow in an age where, for a woman, who your husband was determined everything. She was childless in a time when childbearing was the measure of a woman. And from the perspective of the Jewish people, she was an outsider. A Moabite. A descendent of Lot’s incestuous affair with his daughters. As a Moabite, Ruth was unclean and unfit to enter the congregation of Israel.

And let’s be realistic. Even if Ruth were a Jew, she’s married into the most marginal family she could have picked. Naomi and her boys fled famine in Bethlehem, selling their land and abandoning their heritage in Hebrew society. These were not fancy people. These were people living on the edge.

As if things couldn’t get any worse for this family, Naomi’s husband dies, leaving her alone with her two young sons – who are apparently both very unhealthy, probably from living as poorly-fed refugees for most of their lives. Somehow, these two manage to take wives from the local Moabite people – Orpah and Ruth. Despite this bit of good luck, things don’t end well for Mahlon and Chilion. Not too long after they get married, they both die, leaving Naomi alone with her two widowed daughters-in-law.

Naomi had lost everything. She was probably in her forties – too old to expect to find a new husband, as her childbearing years were soon to be behind her. The only shred of hope she had left was to head back to her homeland of Israel and see if she could beg for food there. Word on the street was that the famine had ended and there was enough grain to go around. For Naomi, it was time to go home.

As she began to make her way back to Bethlehem (which was maybe 50 or 60 miles from Moab), Naomi released her two daughters-in-law from any responsibility they might feel towards her. Naomi knew that she was headed back into a very hard situation in the land of Israel – poverty and begging. As an older, childless woman, she didn’t have much hope of integrating back into Hebrew society. Orpah and Ruth, at least, had their youth. Naomi urged them to stay in their homeland – to return to their mothers’ houses and seek out husbands who could provide for them economically and give them the chance to bear children.

Orpah weeps at the thought of leaving Naomi to face their cold and dangerous world all by herself. But she sees the wisdom in Naomi’s decision. After a tearful farewell, Orpah returns to her mother’s house and to her people.

Ruth is a different story. Ruth stubbornly refuses to leave Naomi’s side, no matter how much Naomi tries to convince her. “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth isn’t interested. She says,

Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!

This is a remarkable scene. One of the most beautiful and memorable passages in all of scripture. These words could be wedding vows, couldn’t they? But they’re not. They’re the words of a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. People who have probably only known each other for a couple of years at most. Ruth is ready to sacrifice everything to stand with Naomi, to abandon her people, land, and gods, and to adopt Naomi as her true family and the Lord of Israel as her true God. All of this, even as Naomi’s situation looks impossible. This commitment may very well cost Ruth her future.

This is unnatural – supernatural – love. This is love that breaks the rules. This is covenantal love that defies the divisions between people, that flies in the face of danger, poverty, and death, to show solidarity and commitment to another. This is love that breaks the written rules of Hebrew tradition in order to demonstrate the life, power, and spirit of the God of Israel.

The love and courage of Ruth is remarkable in every way. As a poor, widowed, foreign woman, she reveals the character of God in her commitment to Naomi. And as we will eventually see by the end of the story, she becomes the great-grandmother of King David, and an ancestor to Jesus himself. From the story of Ruth, we learn that God uses the stone that is rejected – the widow, the orphan, the poor, the foreigner – as the cornerstone of the kingdom of God.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

We human beings like to make things complicated. With all our texts and translations. Our rituals and rules. Our notions of who’s in and who’s out. We like to feel in control.

But that’s not what the gospel is about. The good news of Jesus – the good news from A to Z, from creation to the Red Sea to the cross to the end of time – that good news is very simple, and utterly challenging. When the scribe asks Jesus “which commandment is the first of all,” here’s what Jesus says:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love God. Love him with everything that is within you. Love him with your whole body, your whole mind, all the passion that is within you – love him. And love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

OK, got it!

We like to make things complicated, so that we can make them easy. But reality is simple, and much, much harder. Love God with everything we are, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Our immigrant neighbor. Our gay neighbor. Our Muslim, atheist, Republican neighbor. Love them as we love ourselves. Love God, and love even our enemies, with everything we’ve got. There is no command greater than this.

Religion tends to be about how to follow the rules correctly. How to feel justified, and know that we are on the right path. That’s the kind of religion that Israel had in the Temple. Through their sacrifices and burnt offerings, they sought to be at peace with God. But how did the scribe respond to Jesus?

“You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

God doesn’t need our sacrifices. God has already provided us with the ultimate sacrifice – his son Jesus. And as the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus himself is present forever as our high priest, offering intercession for us in the heavenly realms. It is written, “[Jesus] entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”

That is our sacrifice: Love. The Love who was nailed to a cross for our sakes. The Love who intercedes for us and offers us peace – with God, with one another, even with our enemies.

Love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love neighbor as much as we love ourselves. There is no greater commandment than this.

Let us walk in the footsteps of Ruth, who risked everything to become a living expression of the love of God. Let us demonstrate the faith and courage of the scribe, who – despite all his religious and scholarly training – was open to the radical truth of the gospel – beyond rules and rituals. Let the Spirit of love, life, and power enter into us, so that our God-loving, enemy-blessing lives may become the fulfillment of the law.

Blessed

Preacher: Nathan Hosler
Scripture Readings: Job 42: 1-6, 10-17; Hebrews 7: 23-28; Mark 10:46-52

We often speak about or at least read our scriptures in light of the injustices and pain of the world. We often seek to embrace Jesus’ hard words of discipleship.

This Sunday’s lectionary texts seemed to gather around the theme of blessing. So I thought I’d go with it—hence the title, “Blessed.”

A few hours after finishing and getting back to some house projects and family time I learned about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. So, to finish the day I helped draft a statement for the Church of the Brethren’s General Secretary. The statement reads:

“We mourn and lament the loss of lives taken Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, we recognize that this violence affects not only this congregation but sows fear in Jewish communities across the country. As the Church of the Brethren, which has committed to following Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, let us commit ourselves to bring healing and working for a world in which God’s shalom is ever more evident for all people.”

On waking this morning, I struggled to know what to do with sermon that seemed inappropriately themed. “Blessed” seemed the wrong direction. However, I decided to go with it. But with these caveats that were always implicit anyways—God’s blessing was never a wish list or design your own utopia. It was also never something to be received or flaunted over others. What we receive is never for us alone. Everyone has something to offer to others. At least for those of us who are American or white or Christian (at least in America) or male, the things we often count as blessings may very well be things we or our ancestors gained through suppression of others.

With those qualifiers I’ll begin with Mark. Mark’s writing tends to be sparse, perhaps austere. It may be the Hemingway of the Gospels. Certainly not Annie Dillard’s rich and poetic description in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. [A randomly opened page to a randomly picked Hemingway book (The Sun Also Rises) produced, “When I woke in the morning I went to the window and looked out.” In Dillard this exercise produced: “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.].

Our passage in Mark begins. “They came to Jericho.” (Definitely more Hemingway). The next sentence, “As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho…” Somewhat inexplicably the detail of location, without commentary or description is included. This could be incidental. Simply a notation. In verse 32 he notes that Jesus and his disciples were going up to Jerusalem. This is two story units before the healing which we read. In our passage, beginning in verse 46, it notes that “they came to Jericho. After verse 52 they came to Jerusalem.

Next story unit they are in Bethany. The following, “approaching Jerusalem.”
For Jesus and the disciples with other companions talking and walking between Jerusalem and Jericho—this would easily take a full day. So, the whole was at a minimum a two day round trip. The only thing that gets reported is this, what seems to be chance encounter with Bartimaeus. At least in this Gospel, the only thing that made the cut was this afterthought of an action. What happened walking to Jericho? in Jericho? and then returning? Did Jesus get to Jericho and say “oh no I forgot my wallet, let’s go back for it”? Was Jesus telling jokes? Was he teaching but being repetitive, so it wasn’t necessary to record? Perhaps it was recorded but got edited out? Trying to figure out the consciousness of the writer is not my work nor is determining the rationale.

However, the geographic notes mark time. They mark time and emphasize that it is the highlights that get documented. This is even more so the case for Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.

Bartimaeus son of Timaeus (his friends called him Bart) was blind. Because he was blind he was a beggar in order to survive. We don’t know how long he was blind nor how long he was sitting by the side of the road begging. It is safe to assume it was more than a few hours. Quite possibly it was for years. So, what is for Mark the highlight of two or more days of ministry is Bart’s highlight of a lifetime. Bart recognized the power of Jesus, called out, sprang up, was healed, and followed Jesus.

From this I make two observations:

God provides. Jesus’ healing is a provision, a blessing, to Bartimaeus

And secondly, while there are many provisions and blessings throughout our days that we often take for granted or don’t think about, the appearance of highlights that are likely to be recorded is more irregular. This is both for the hours and days of ministry and teaching that Jesus did before and after healing Bart—the time marked by the walk to and from Jericho. But also Bartimaeus’s waiting by the side of the road.

So, #1 God provides and #2 We should not assume that God’s providing entails uninterrupted bliss or uninterrupted noteworthy ministry.

I think I posted to Facebook twice this week. The first was from our ART! Night here at church. This included several pictures: George (the toddler) without his shirt painting an old table top sitting on the floor. Jacob painting with his fingers. The surrealist leaning works in which Tori clipped phrases from an old commentary on Joshua and fastened them to a background to create strange new texts. The other was of a smiling Ayuba, Scruff (our cat), and I all sitting on a chair together.

If I were to tell you about my work week, I could mention providing the welcome at a reception for a Churches for Middle East Peace event along with representatives of the National and World Council of Churches or having coffee with an academic from the UK or making new connections at an invitation only event the Council on Foreign Relations. These are all true and sound very positive. You could say they were a form of blessing. However, my telling of this wouldn’t reveal the fact that for much of the week I felt emotionally terrible and at times overwhelmed. That going to meetings and interacting took a great deal of resolve most of the time. I assume that actual depression is much worse but I have had bouts of this struggle for years. My highlights reel looks much different than the week as a whole did.

In Mark we see the highpoints and notable. As in the Gospel of John we recognize with the writer that, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them had been written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would have been written.” (John 21:25). However, it is clear there are many gaps in what is recorded. A risk of the highpoints is in part the criticism of Facebook. Posts on Facebook create a narrative arc—One not necessarily in line with actual life. From the outside this gives the appearance that is not nearly as mundane.

#1 God provides and #2 We should not assume that God’s providing entails uninterrupted bliss. (And when we don’t feel great we don’t need to feel like we are failing—as is my tendency)

Our second text is from Job. The basic outline of Job is: Job is righteous and well-off. Satan suggests that Job is righteous because God has provided so much for him materially. These things are then taken from Job in a series of tragedies. Job’s friends arrive and say “look, obviously you’ve sinned and are being punished.” This is the false theology that there is a direct correlation between wealth and God’s blessing. Job says I’ve done nothing wrong…which is kind of correct. God then responds in a swirling and beautiful reminder of God’s place in relation to creation and Job’s place within it.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?…..
“Look at Behemoth,
which I made just as I made you;
it eats grass like an ox.
16 Its strength is in its loins,
and its power in the muscles of its belly.
17 It makes its tail stiff like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are knit together.
18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,
its limbs like bars of iron.
19 “It is the first of the great acts of God—
only its Maker can approach it with the sword.

Then Job answered the LORD:
2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

12 The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning
This is also about blessing but complicates it. Blessing is from God but not in the ways that we may assume.

God provides but this doesn’t entail uninterrupted bliss nor is it directly and necessarily connected to our merit. God is the source of life. God has set the foundations of the world. God has created the Behemoth.

And then we turn to Hebrews which describes Christ’s work as a priest.
23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

Christ is an advocate on our behalf. Christ intercedes.

God provides. This provision is consistent, but we should not assume that God’s providing entails uninterrupted bliss. Through this, perhaps particularly during the interruptions, Christ continues to intercede for us.

Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

A beginning is a very delicate time. At the start of a long journey, it seems like any route is possible. In a story’s introduction, the reader can imagine any outcome. But as we walk further down the road we begin to discover what the journey really looks like. Slowly but surely, our story becomes less about what we imagined it would be, and more about what is actually happening.

Jesus’ first disciples were very young. Quite possibly teenagers, or at most in their early twenties. Jesus, the man they looked to as teacher, lord, and future king, was just barely in his thirties. The Jesus movement was a young people’s movement. A movement quite literally fresh off the boat. A movement of people with very little past and an enormous horizon for a future.

It is a wondrous and fearful thing to be a young adult. Just out of school. In that first job. Or out on the road. Exploring the world. It seems like anything is possible. Young people have no idea what’s coming, but the world of their imagination fills in the gaps. The future is so wide-open, anything is possible.

The disciples were ready for anything. They were primed for adventure, to become the heroes that Israel so desperately needed. To break the yoke of Roman occupation and restore the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. To make Israel great again.

The disciples didn’t have much in the way of personal history or life experience, but they had tradition. They had a cultural context to draw on. They had the shared story of the Hebrew people. And this story told them that they should expect a new king, a messiah, a strong man like David to emerge and to restore Israel to its former glory.

They believed that they had found this man, this new king, in Jesus. These young disciples gave up everything they had – walking away from family, friends, and jobs – to follow Jesus wherever he went. In retrospect, this seems very brave and self-sacrificial. But at the time, it was probably a whole lot more self-interested. They believed that Jesus was the messiah sent by God to restore the fortunes of Zion. Jesus was going to be the big man in charge, and the disciples were going to be his inner circle.

It’s kind of like joining an early stage startup, if you can imagine that. Sure, you’re expected to work long hours for low pay. But you’ve got equity. You own a part of the company. And if the company takes off, you get rich. All that hard work will be worth it, because you invested your life into the shared project.

For these early disciples – who we see from today’s text were really quite ambitious people – the Jesus movement was a lot like that. It was a startup, and the disciples were basically equity partners. Sure, Jesus didn’t look like much yet. Just another Rabbi wandering through the Judean countryside. But when he became king of Israel – oh, boy! Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the others were going to be sitting pretty. They’d get to command armies, serve as top officials, and generally be very important people. That initial public offering was going to be huge.

In this morning’s gospel reading, we see that the disciples really have the wrong idea about how this startup is really going to work. They’re still at the beginning of the road, and imagine it can lead exactly where they want to go. They’re still reading the novel’s prologue, imagining the happy ending that must lie at the end of the story.

They don’t understand yet. They don’t realize what it means that they’ve been given equity in the Mustard Seed Startup. They can’t wrap their heads around how this story really ends. They still think they’re going to be lords of the earth alongside their king Jesus.

They’re all thinking it. All of the disciples have their youthful ambitions and imaginations, pushing them forward into a glorious destiny. And as with any group of ambitious people, there’s a fair amount of tension within the community as the internal pecking order gets established.

All of this unspoken jostling for preeminence comes to a head in the tenth chapter of Mark. Most of the chapter is about Jesus trying to get the disciples to understand what this movement is really about. The empire of God isn’t what they expected. It’s nothing like the empires of this world, based in relationships of domination and submission, the rule of the strong over the weak.

Jesus teaches the disciples that only those who become like little children will enter the empire of God. He reveals that it is almost impossible for the rich to enter the empire of God; only by surrendering everything can they hope to enter it. These two teachings, one right after another, upended all the common wisdom about who was good, important, and worthy to rule.

Even more so than today, children had virtually no rights in the ancient world. They were at the bottom of the pyramid – better seen and not heard. The vision that we get from Isaiah, that “a little child shall lead them” was almost too ridiculous to be believed. Leadership was for the strong, not for the weak.

The rich, on the other hand, were supposed to be blessed by God. In the ancient world – including in the house of Israel – there was always a strong strain of prosperity gospel teaching. The idea that if someone was rich, it was a confirmation that God was on their side. Those who are on top of society are there because they deserve it somehow.

Today’s society has pretty much the same idea, even if we use different words. Maybe we’d say that the rich worked hard, made good choices, and were really smart – so maybe that means that one percent of the world’s population deserves to own half of the earth’s wealth. In ancient society, it was common wisdom that the wealthy were rich because of God’s favor. The world is as it should be, and rejecting the rule of the strong, the rich, the powerful, was fighting against the divine order.

In just a few short lines in the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-lenders at the heart of establishment religion. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” It says that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. So he repeated it, to make sure they understood. “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.”

Many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This isn’t what the disciples signed up for. They joined up with the Jesus movement in order to be part of the new Judean 1% in the empire of God. They were ready to be rich, powerful – people blessed by God.

So even when Jesus told them all these things directly, the disciples were having a really hard time hearing it. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Perhaps even more importantly, it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their hopes, dreams, and worldview depend on them not understanding it. The disciples were so full of their ideas about how the story should end – about the triumph and glory that should be theirs as charter members of the Jesus movement – that they just couldn’t wrap their heads around what Jesus was actually saying to them. So Jesus tried again. Mark says:

Again [Jesus] took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

And it’s right after this – after Jesus has told them to be like children. After he’s told them that it’s the bottom rung in society, not the top, that will enter the empire of God. It’s after he’s tried to shatter the disciples’ startup mentality and wake them to the trials and suffering that are coming, that James and John approach Jesus to ask for a bigger share of the company.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“And what’s that?” asks Jesus.

“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I can just see Jesus face-palming at this point. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

You don’t know what you’re asking, because you still think that this path is about glory. You still imagine that the road of discipleship ends at power, honor, and prestige in the eyes of the world. You still don’t understand suffering. You don’t know what it means to give up everything to follow me. You haven’t surrendered your naive ambitions and lust for control.

James and John think they do understand. “We’re ready,” they say. “We can be baptized with your baptism and drink the cup you’re going to drink.”

And then Jesus says what are probably some of the most ironic words in the whole Bible: “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

The disciples came to Jesus asking for the best seats in the house, but Jesus knows what it means to sit at his right and his left. Those aren’t seats. They’re certainly not thrones. They’re crosses. Those who will sit at Jesus’ right and left are those who will be crucified on either side of him. The disciples still can’t imagine it, but the inauguration of the empire of God is Jesus’ execution. His throne is the cross. His crown, of thorns. Jesus reigns from a throne that is completely opposite and diametrically opposed to the throne of Caesar. The king of Israel reigns from the cross.

In our reading this morning, Jesus calls us out of our youthful foolishness, out of our enthusiasm and imagination of what grand deeds we can accomplish, what heights we can ascend. The gospel invites us to join Jesus in the Desert of the Real. We discover victory in surrender, redemption in suffering, glory in submission and service to others – including our enemies.

This is not the path any of us signed up for. Just like the disciples, we haven’t been ready to hear it. But Jesus is telling us now, clearly. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to embrace the savior that Isaiah talks about, whose life was made an offering for sin – whose sacrifice wipes away our transgressions.

This same Jesus, this crucified king is inviting us to join him. To become like him. To allow our lives to become a sacrifice that, together with Jesus, redeem the world and usher in the empire of God.

This is good news. The simplistic, selfish minds of our youth may reject it, but the way of Jesus is one of hope, liberation, and joy. The gospel of the cross requires us to experience two seemingly contradictory realities at the same time:

First: The way of God is marked by suffering and loss.

Second: The way of God is one of triumph and peace.

These are both true. And we can’t have one without the other. No cross, no crown. No loss, no victory. No suffering, no peace. The prophet Isaiah describes this double reality so beautifully:

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to surrender our will to power – our insatiable desire to be the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most honored. Becoming like Jesus, we are invited to bear the sins of many, to make intercession for the transgressors, to become priests of the new covenant – cleansing the world through the life blood of Jesus.

As we enter into a time of waiting worship, let’s ask God to uncover all the ways that we use our religion as a mask for our own unexamined ambitions. Holy Spirit, come be in our midst. Show us our hidden darkness and bring us into the light. Make us people who are like your son Jesus – able to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism. Make us people who bless the world through our obedience, sacrifice, and love.

Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

I never knew how attached I was to the United States of America until I saw it being destroyed.

I’ve always been critical of this and all empires. Every empire of this world stand under God’s judgment, and as the most powerful empire the world has ever known, the United States of America most certainly stands judged by God.

America has a lot of blood on its hands. The rulers of this land have done what empires always do. The United States is founded on exploitation, slavery, and genocide. It is a society built on patriarchy, racism, and economic injustice. Like all empires, the United States is a social and political order founded on fear and violence.

But that’s not all the United States of America is. This country is a continent. A society that contains multitudes – every kind of diversity you can imagine. It’s a nation of more than 300 million women, children, and men. People of all ages, ethnicities, national origins, and languages. America is our home. It’s where we live. Where we raise our children. Care for our neighbors. Worship our God.

For those of us gathered in this building this morning, America is where we are called to be the church – a community of disciples that reflects the character and will of God on earth. The life and struggles of this American empire is the context in which we are given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. To share his love.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be aliens and sojourners in this and every human empire. This world is not our home. We are to be a colony of heaven in the midst of an evil and violent age. This demands a certain degree of separation from the mindset and logic of empire.

Yet this call to separation and distinctiveness is not borne out of a sense of self-righteousness. Like every calling that comes from God, this one is rooted in deep love for the world. It is because God truly loves the people of the United States of America that we are called to come out of this empire, to be separate, to turn around and think and live differently.

As the people of God, we are called to be salt and light in the midst of this flavorless darkness. We are called to seek the good of the city and nation in which we have been placed by God. We are to be patterns and examples. A new society – the empire of heaven – being birthed in the midst of the old, dying ways of this world. Like Abraham, we are called to come out of all that is familiar and comfortable so that we can be a blessing. We are to be a blessing to the world, even when that world hates and slanders and abuses us.

There’s a lot of hatred, slander, and abuse these days. There always has been, of course – but now more than ever, it’s out in the open. It’s impossible to ignore any longer. All the ugly things about the American empire – the racism, the greed, the violence, the misogyny – it’s all gushing to the surface now. The veneer of order and civility – the norms and expectations that we once took for granted – are being swept away.

We live in the age of late capitalism, an age of growing barbarism. It’s an age that our grandparents or great-grandparents would have recognized from their youth in the 1930s. We live in an age of fear and twilight. The sun is setting on the social order that we knew, and all the night creatures are slithering out of their burrows.

We are living in times that demand a savior. These are days that preachers like me have been warning us about for generations. Days when our faith will be put to the test. Days when all the deeds of darkness will be brought out into the light. Days when we will have no alternative but to make a choice – clearly and definitively – between the empires of this world and the empire of our God.

These are days when people who seemed good and respectable will reveal themselves to be moral cowards, accomplices to evil, and violent tormenters. And then there will be others, some who we never paid much attention to before, who will be revealed as the fearless and loving children of God.

In days like these, we may be surprised by which group it is we ourselves fall into. These are days of testing for those of us who would be saints. These are days that call for patient endurance. We must wake up, and stay awake.

In these days, we should expect and welcome miracles. That which is hidden will at last be revealed.

The false church – the church of empire, the church of greed, misogyny, racism, and domination – is already revealed. This is the false prophet that we read about in the Book of Revelation. The fake religion that sells its soul for a seat at Empire’s table. We know all about this kind of religion – prosperity gospel and cheap grace that has bankrupted the church’s moral influence and put a stumbling block before millions who might otherwise turn to Jesus and be healed. Jesus says in our reading this morning that it would be better for false teachers like these to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the ocean.

But we know the darkness. I want to talk you this morning about miracles. Miracles of hope.

The greatest miracle of all will be the revealing of the true church of Jesus Christ in the midst of this empire.

It won’t be who most of us expect. This moral and spiritual revival won’t find its epicenter in echoing cathedrals or mega-church stadiums. It will come from the margins. It will come from those who have been crushed and humbled. It will come from those who have been abandoned and neglected by this empire, and by those who choose to turn away from our privilege and align ourselves with God’s poor.

It our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is clear with us that we don’t get to choose who God uses for his miracles. The Holy Spirit is wholly sovereign. She moves where she will. She chooses who she will. She breathes life into the body of Christ; all we can do is open our mouths and pray to receive this breath and new birth.

In these times of darkness and violence, we don’t get to choose who our friends are. There are no human rulers in the kingdom of God – only King Jesus and the spirit of love and wisdom that he sends us. This spirit is raising up a new generation of disciples. Young and old, male and female, poor – and yes, perhaps even rich. The Spirit of God is gathering a people to endure and bring light in these dark times. Will we be part of this people?

It is time for the disciples of Jesus to be revealed. It is time for the elders to prophesy in the camp. Whether or not you showed up for the meeting, you’ve been called. The Spirit will find you.

What God tells us in the dark, we must say it in the light. What you hear in whispers, proclaim it from the rooftops! In the words of the Amos, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”

It’s a time for prophecy – yes, indeed. But it’s not a time for grand-standing. It’s not a time for pious and exciting words that make us feel better about ourselves but which fail to heal the sick, bind up the wounded, and liberate the oppressed. It is time for us to become prophets of love – demonstrating in our own lives what the empire of heaven looks like – a world beyond domination, hatred, and fear.

To be this kind of prophet may mean that some of us will get quieter. I know I’ve been getting quieter. I’ve been saying less. Writing less. Making less of my own thoughts and seeking to open myself more to God’s thoughts. In times like these, maybe talkers like me need to focus on speaking less and loving more. Practical deeds of mercy and justice.

That’s what we get out of our reading from James this morning: A vision of the church as a place of healing, reconciliation, and transformation.

Are any among us suffering? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. Are some sick? Let the elders of the church anoint them with oil so that we may be healed. Confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another. God will bring healing.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Are we becoming people of prayer? Are we willing to slow down, to take time for all the people and situations that call for prayer? As this dying society moves faster and faster, are we choosing to live in God’s eternal now?

The miraculous church of Jesus Christ is marked by the acts of care and accountability that James talks about. Now, more than ever, we must have the courage to watch over one another. Because many of us are wandering from the truth. Many of us are losing our relationship with Jesus and his spirit as we are sucked into the vortex of the news cycle. Many of us need a friend’s hand on our shoulder, calling us back. That’s what the church of Jesus looks like according to James.

The church of James, the church of Jesus, the empire of God is a place of healing and reconciliation. It is a community where real courage and sacrifice become possible precisely because we know that we can count on the friends of God to act like friends to one another.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us in the most graphic terms possible that we will have to give up everything to follow him. If your eye is causing you to lose sight of what is real, tear it out. If your hand or foot is causing you to side with the empire of this world rather than the empire of God, cut it off! Better to enter into the empire of God blind or lame than to stick around and go down with this sinking ship!

This sounds impossible to the ears of those who do not know the true church of Jesus Christ. Without the fellowship of disciples that James describes, who in their right mind would follow a man who tells us to chop off hands, eyes, and feet?

But the church of Jesus is a place of healing and reconciliation. It’s a place where wounds are bound up and made whole. It’s a place where we don’t have to be afraid to be blind or lame – because ours is a God who makes the wounded whole and restores sight to the blind. The empire of God is a community where real healing is possible, where the supposed “wholeness” that is offered to us by this world looks like a cruel joke.

As friends of Jesus, we die to be resurrected. We are defeated, only to discover that death is swallowed up in victory.

Hear this:

Be not afraid.

Remember this:

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the empire. He has promised us everything! No matter what it may cost us, God is faithful, and his way is worth it.

Only, have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.

Crumbs for the Dog

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Reading: Mark 7:24-37

This is a Bible passage that always makes me think. There is something going on, and the text is not entirely clear exactly what it is. There are some traditional answers that have been used over the years, and I’ve probably used them myself. But as I stand here this morning I confess that I’m not entirely sure what’s happening in the first part of this text.

Jesus wants a break, so he goes to Tyre. Tyre is a city that is mentioned many times in the Bible and in secular sources. It’s a seaport, and it was one of the major commercial ports of David and Solomon’s time. As recently as 20 years before Christ’s birth, Tyre was operating as an independent republic, but by
Jesus’ time it had been incorporated into the Roman Empire.

Jesus goes to Tyre the same way some of us might go to the Outer Banks or to Ocean City. Jesus wants to get away, to relax, to take a break from things. So he goes to the seaport of Tyre, and he doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s there.

How well do you think that worked? How well do you think it would work if Pres. Obama or Pres. Trump wanted to go someplace and not let anyone know they were there? Jesus was not as well known in his day as those two are, but he was well known enough. Jesus’ fame as a healer had spread to Tyre, and once he arrived word got around that he was there.

A Canaanite woman learned that Jesus was there, and ran into the house. She knelt at Jesus’ feet, and begged him to heal her little daughter who was possessed by a demon. That the woman is Canaanite matters. The Jewish defeat of the Canaanites was viewed as God’s gift. It was confirmation of the status of the Jewish people as God’s elect. It was celebrated in Jewish traditions. This woman not only was not Jewish, she was someone that the Jewish people looked down on.

This whole question of Jewish rituals and traditions may have been on Jesus’ mind when he went to Tyre. In Mark chapter 7 before our Gospel reading, Jesus had been criticized by the Pharisees for not keeping Jewish law.
Now we’re to the point where something is going on that I don’t understand. The woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus says no. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s the part I don’t get.

I understand what Jesus is saying when he says no. Jesus is saying that he came for the Jewish people, the people of Israel. Jesus is saying that his healings and his blessing are for the people of Israel first, and then for the Gentiles. His ministry to the Jews is not finished, and the Gentiles will have to wait.
I get that part. What I don’t get is why Jesus has to refer to this woman as a dog. What, precisely, is she doing wrong? She has a daughter who is possessed by a demon, she has heard that Jesus is in town, she believes that Jesus can cast out the demon, she approaches Jesus and asks him to do what she believes he can do. I get that Jesus might want to say no, but I don’t get what looks like a gratuitous insult added on to the end of it.

That’s still an insult, just to be clear. What was one of the major criticisms of Pres. Trump’s response to Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s book and her press tour? He called her a dog. And a lot of people thought that was inappropriate. And it was.

There are a couple of traditional explanations for what Jesus is doing. One of them tries to soften Jesus’ words. He wasn’t really calling her a dog – he was calling her a little puppy. It was a kind of affectionate joshing. I’ve seen that a time or two, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure that makes it a whole lot better. Whether you think “puppy” is sweeter and kinder than “dog” is up to you, but it’s still a pretty rude thing to call a woman who has come to beg for healing of her daughter.

Another explanation is that Jesus is testing the woman. I guess that’s possible, but it really doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense because the woman has already shown a lot of faith and a lot of courage by approaching Jesus as she had. She’s already shown that she believes that he can heal her daughter, she’s already done the work of figuring out where he is and how to get through to him, and she’s already overcome the natural antipathy between Jews and Canaanites to ask for help. This woman has already jumped through several hoops of one kind or another; it seems cruel to make her jump through yet another.

There are a couple of other things that go against the “test” explanation. First, there’s no indication in the text itself that this is a test of any kind. There are many places in the Bible where people are tested, and in almost all of them it says that they were being tested. Not here. Second, if this is a test of some kind it would be the only one in Mark’s version of the Gospel.
Is it possible that Jesus is just being rude? A couple of weeks ago Micah talked a little bit about Jesus being fully human and fully God. If Jesus was fully human, if Jesus was tempted as we are, if Jesus felt the emotions that we feel, then why couldn’t Jesus feel exasperation? Why couldn’t Jesus feel unwarranted anger or frustration? Why couldn’t Jesus say something rude to somebody?

One of the things we can learn from this passage is that Jesus really was fully human in addition to being fully divine. Jesus really did have the same feelings that we do, both the good ones and the bad ones. Jesus really does understand the temptations that we face and recognize the ways that we can fall short. God understands what we’re going through. God has gone through it too.
The next twist in the story is the woman’s reply to Jesus. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” I admit, I wouldn’t have thought of that. If I’d been in that woman’s place I probably would have started to cry, or I would have shouted back at Jesus in anger, or I would have just kept saying, “Please, please, please.” Using Jesus’ imagery of food and dogs and turning it around on him would never have occurred to me. It’s really clever.
And after the woman says that, Jesus replies that because of what she has said her daughter has been healed. Not because of her faith. Not because of her persistence. Not because of the love she was showing for her daughter. But because of what she had said.

It is possible that Jesus is referring to her faith or her courage or something
similar. To come up with a line like that in the midst of what was happening would certainly require a lot of bravery and a lot of faith that your words would matter. But that gets us back into the “testing” explanation we had before and that doesn’t feel right. Also, frankly, it implies that Jesus knew all along that he could heal the woman’s daughter, but that he would let her walk away and leave her daughter demon possessed if she didn’t come up with the right answer. That doesn’t sound right to me.

Something that doesn’t necessarily feel right but that might be closer to the truth is that Jesus learns something in this story. We don’t think about Jesus learning. And to be honest, why would we? Jesus is a part of the Godhead. Jesus was present at the creation of the world. As the old hymn puts it, “Immortal, omnipotent, God only wise.” If God knows everything and sees everything, then why would Jesus ever have to learn anything?

It’s possible that the baby Jesus was born speaking perfect Aramaic and Hebrew. It’s possible – the Bible doesn’t say anything about it one way or another. And that’s why it’s doubtful. When Jesus discusses things with the Jewish scholars in the temple at age 14, the Bible makes a point of mentioning it. It’s just about the only thing between the ages of 3 and 30 that the Bible does mention about Jesus. Don’t you think that if Jesus had been born speaking the native language perfectly that the Bible would have found a way to let us know?

So someone had to teach Jesus how to speak. Someone had to teach him Aramaic, the everyday language, and Hebrew, the religious language, and maybe even a little Greek since there was a Greek influence in the area where Jesus grew up. His father Joseph had to teach Jesus about carpentry. Jesus probably went to some sort of religious school from time to time, and he was probably homeschooled aside from religious training, but someone taught him things.
Maybe Jesus is learning here, in our story from Mark. Maybe Jesus is learning that his role as Messiah encompasses more than just the Jews. Maybe Jesus is learning that the Gentiles don’t necessarily have to wait for blessings until the Jews are all taken care of.

Maybe Jesus is teaching. Maybe in his initial reply Jesus is expressing what the disciples believe, and then uses the woman’s clever response to demonstrate to the disciples that wisdom, intelligence, and blessing are not the sole province of the Israelites.

We can’t get inside Jesus’ head to figure out exactly what it is that is going on for him. We cannot know exactly what this story means for Jesus, or what motivated him to respond as he did. We can have ideas about it, but we can’t know. Sometimes we have to live without answers, but that doesn’t mean the questions aren’t worth asking.

This passage can still teach us a lot, though – a lot about ourselves and our faith. Do we have the faith, do we have the courage, to do as this woman did? Are we willing to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up to insult and hurt like she did? Are we willing not just to open ourselves up, but to push through and persevere when our actions are mocked and our faith is challenged?
Are we willing to open ourselves up to wisdom and teaching from outside our regular sources? Whatever your politics, are you able to share with and learn from people who disagree with you? Wherever you are in your faith journey, do you recognize all the different places and people that God can use to bring wisdom to us? Are we able to learn from people who we might otherwise look down on?

Are we open to the transformation of our lives after an encounter with Jesus? That’s what happened to this woman. She begins the story as the mother of a troubled, demon-possessed girl. She ends the story transformed, the mother of a little girl who is as happy and healthy as other little girls of her time. That’s a change. That’s a radical re-making of her lifestyle and her expectations, and while it’s a positive change even positive change can be difficult and stressful.

This can be a difficult passage, but it is also a hopeful one. I take comfort in being reminded that Jesus had the same emotions that I do. I take hope in knowing that there can be healing, even if at first it seems like healing is going to be denied. I take courage that faith and prayer make a difference. I thank God that I’m one of the dogs that gets some of the crumbs. Amen.