Sermon: Great Service

A Sermon Based on Mark 10:35-45

Donald Meichenbaum, one of American Psychologist’s ten most influential psychotherapists, tells a story of the time his car was struck by lightning while he was driving home from work one afternoon. When he returned home, safe and sound, he began to tell his teenage son about what had happened; he was expecting a small degree of sympathy for what had happened to him. Instead of sympathy, his son interrupted his story, “Dad, let’s go buy a lottery ticket. They say the chances of being hit by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”

It would seem that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, missed the point as much as Meichenbaum’s sons did when they come forward to Jesus saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus politely asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” They respond, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

To get the full picture of the story we need to back up a little and read verses 33-34. Jesus and his disciples are heading up to Jerusalem. Jesus has been teaching them about how things are different with his teachings. He has given them a new definition of marriage and divorce. They witnessed his telling the Rich Young Man to sell all he has and give it to the poor and then come and follow him. The disciples were trying to figure it all out along the road and discussing things among themselves as they walked. They Jesus says to them, in verse 33:

“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, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Now, we do not know how much time has passed since Jesus said these words and the Sons of Zebedee come up and ask this question but, this was the third time that Jesus has talked with them about his death. He has been somewhat truthful about what is going to happen when they reach Jerusalem; the end of the three-year journey is coming to a close. Jesus has just told them that he is going to be put to death and a rather disgusting way and these two want the best seats in the house. It’s as if they have not been listening at all.

Every time I read this particular passage, and I am struck by the sheer arrogance of these two, coming forward as they do, and asking for Jesus to promote them to the best seats. I can only imagine what the others must have been thinking, “look at these two sucking up to Jesus again.” I also feel a little embarrassed for them but at the same time feel a little kinship with them for I too, at one time or another, have been a son of Zebedee.

We have all been there. We all, at one time or another, jockey for position. We try to get our work noticed by the boss so we might land that promotion. We might know someone who works for this or that sports team or at the theater, and we ask about tickets to a game. There is nothing wrong with putting ourselves out there and trying to get noticed, but we have to consider what our motives are when we do it.

When we push ourselves forward are we doing it at another’s expense? Are we stepping on a co-worker to get ahead? I do not think this is what James and John were doing and I also think they only heard the good parts of the Kingdom of God Jesus was describing, and they glossed over, in their minds, the bad parts, but, Jesus is about to remind them.

Verse 38 and following:

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “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.”

Jesus is speaking about his death, and he was right to tell them that they would also die. James is considered the first Christian martyr, and his death is recorded in the Acts of Apostles. King Herod has James Martyred by the sword around the year 44 so a little over ten years after Jesus’ death.

So the question remains, are we any better than the Sons of Zebedee?  Sure, we might not make outlandish requests as they did but, we want what we want. We may not be as upfront about our self-centered yearnings, but many spend their lives scheming for these kinds of privileged positions, and some believe that as Christians, we deserve them.

Years ago, I would go to a little restaurant not far from where I was living. I would go most days for lunch or maybe some quick take out in the evening. As you would imagine, they go to know me after a while, and they found out I was clergy. One day when I went for lunch, they told me it was no charge since I was a minister they were not going to charge me. Believe it or not, I did not like this, and I told them that if they were not going to charge me I was going to go somewhere else, my position did not grant me a special privilege. I appreciated their gesture, but I wanted them to charge me. So they did double. Only kidding. However, the point is I did not want something that I did not earn, some of my clergy colleagues feel they deserve things like this, I am not one of those. However, a veterans discount is a different story.

Some would argue that our desire for these things comes as a result of the human condition. Some would pass it off in psychological terms as part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Erikson’s stages of development or Freud’s id impulses. However we chose to describe it, or justify it, we all have, as Jana Childers has said, we have Zebedee DNA in our Genes.

Just like the Rich Yong man from last week’s story, we have to face up to the Sons or daughters of Zebedee inside all of us. We have to come face to face with our tendencies and to come to terms with our humanity and live this new life of discipleship that Jesus is calling us to live. This new life is a life of putting others before ourselves. Caring for others before we care for ourselves. Thinking of others before we think of ourselves, why, because this is the example that Jesus left for us.

The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote, “Only those who face their wounded condition can be available for healing and so enter a new way of living.” When we are honest with ourselves about our condition, we can then begin the journey towards wholeness and the new life that Jesus is calling us too.

Jesus is our example of wholeness because he told us that he had come to “serve and not to be served.” When we have come to grips with our reality and begin to overcome our insecurities that drive us to greed and coveting, then we will be in a better position to serve, some of the time, rather than being served all of the time.

Transformation happens when we become servants. Last week, the Rich Yong Man asked Jesus about eternal life, and Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Following Jesus in a life of servanthood transforms us unto eternal life. Servanthood is a means of grace, and it needs to become a lifestyle if we are to truly follow as Jesus invites us to.

I typically close with a prayer and today I have chosen the words from St. Francis so let us pray:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Elizabeth Warren and the DNA Test


The results of my DNA testing. on the left and My Heritage on the right.

In my life, I have seen politicians do some pretty stupid things but Elizabeth Warren releasing her DNA test has to make my top 10 list of all-time most ridiculous things. I am not sure who advised her to do it but whomever he/she is they should be fired. She walked right into a trap and now, if she plans to run for president in 2020, this will follower her around.

Some 30 odd years ago my brothers and I set off on a quest to research my father’s side of the family. This was back before DNA testing and before Ancestry and all of the other sites, so one had to write letters and visit town clerks offices. We discovered that the first to bear the name Preble in the new world was Abraham Preble who came to the town of Scituate Massachusetts in the 1630’s.

The population of the area was of a size that people intermarried and, if our family has been here that long, it means you are related to a whole bunch of people. For example, John Adams is my 6th cousin 10x’s removed, and Abraham Lincoln is my 6th cousin 5x’s removed. Suffice it to say because my family has been here for over 350 years I am “related” to just about everyone who claims to be here that long.

I am, what Boston Globe Columnist Jeff Jacoby calls a “typical white person.” My family origin is mostly European with some Scandinavian thrown in on my father’s mother’s side. So I am pretty white when it comes to my ethnic background.

Jacoby wrote a column today chiding Elizabeth Warren for making a big deal out of her “1.5 percent and 0.09 percent” Native American DNA; I am not going to use the word heritage because I believe that word to mean much more than what we have coursing through our veins. In a statement released on October 15, 2018, Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr. had this to say about DNA testing and Native American heritage:

“Sovereign tribal nations set their legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

The problem with all of this is Senator Warren has been claiming minority status as a Native American since 1987 when she was a law school professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. U Penn and Harvard Law, where she went on the faculty on 1995, have been using her “status” to show diversity amongst the faculty. Did she personally gain from any of this, I am not sure, but politically I believe this has hurt her.

However, there is a much larger problem according to the Jacoby’s Globe column:

“Having a dab of American Indian ancestry doesn’t make Warren an American Indian, any more than having a Viking or Charlemagne in her family tree — you probably do, too — makes her a seafaring Norse warrior or a royal highness. Warren’s meticulously choreographed DNA rollout doesn’t prove that she is a proud Cherokee-American, as Cherokee activists and tribal authorities have adamantly pointed out. Genetics determine only biology — not social identity or culture or tradition.

The racist trope that a man was black if he had “one drop” of African blood was a pillar of segregation in post-Reconstruction America. US Census enumerators used to subdivide Americans into pseudo-scientific racial classifications — “white,” “Negro,” “mulatto,” “quadroon,” “octoroon.” Those labels rightly make us cringe today.”

Jacoby Continues,

“The Warren DNA hype is just one more manifestation of the whole rotten business of judging or valuing people on the basis of race. Whether you love Warren or loathe her should depend on her ideas and ideals, her deeds and words — not on her genetic ancestry. Professors and senators, like plumbers and stockbrokers, should be selected or rejected because of their abilities and the quality of their work. The color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and ethnicity of their ancestors shouldn’t even enter into the equation.”

I am of the opinion, and I am no big fan of Senator Warren, that she has done more harm to her case and the case of others and their DNA. With all that said, I think it is beneath the dignity of the office of the President of the United States to call someone, in a derogatory way, Pocahontas and for anyone to be making fun of anyone for his or her genetic makeup. However, this President continues to use this “term” at rallies and other such events in an attempt to whip up his base similar to the “lock her up” chants during and after the campaign about his opponent Secretary Hilary Clinton.

By the way, I had my DNA tested several years ago (as you can see from the graphic above) and it confirmed what we thought, I am a white guy from Europe.  However, according to My Heritage DNA, one of the leading DNA research site, I am also 1.1% Nigerian.  So using the Warren yardstick of genetic measurement, I should be able to check the box that says I am African American.  Maybe I should, but I don’t think I will.

Sermon: What Must I Do?

A Sermon Based on Mark 10:17-31

I have mentioned to you before that I use the Revised Common Lectionary when I am preparing sermons. The lectionary is a collection of biblical passages, Old, New, and Psalms for each Sunday of the church year. The lectionary runs in a three-year cycle starting the first Sunday of Advent when the new church year begins. I tell you all of this, so you know that I did not choose this gospel passage about selling all you have and giving to the poor of this the Sunday we begin our Stewardship campaign, it was God ordained that I preach from this passage today!

With that said, however, I will tell you that this passage is not about rich people who have to sell everything they own in order to follow God. It’s not about poor people who will be the beneficiaries of the largess from the aforementioned rich people. No, it’s not even about trying to shove a camel through the eye of a needle, I have eight years of higher education, and I have no idea what that means…. Nope, this Gospel is not about any of that today’s gospel, simply put, is about you, and me, it’s about all of us, and it is about taking the first step, and it’s about having compassion.

Let’s back up for a minute.  So a young man, a rich young man, runs up to Jesus and kneels before him.  With bowed head, he asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus, being Jesus, does not answer the question straight away he reforms the question, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” However, then he moves on. “You know the commandments…” Jesus then lists a few, possibly as a reminder, murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, defrauding, honor your father and mother….

The man looks at Jesus and says, “Teacher,” notice he no longer calls him the good teacher, “I have kept all of these since my youth.” Jesus looked at him, I bet he looked him right in the eye, but with compassion, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; the come, follow me.”

The man stood, pondering what he had just heard and scripture tells us what happened next, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” And just like that, we never hear about him again.

Now, most commentators on this passage believe the man went away sad because he had a lot of stuff and he did not want to sell it all. I mean, after all, he worked hard and earned his stuff. He liked his stuff, and he liked to show off his stuff. However, I, like a small minority of commentators and scholars, I always seem to fall into the “small minority of commentators group” suggest another possibility. What if the man did not go away “grieving” because he had a lot of stuff that he did not want to sell, what if he went away grieving over the all that stuff because he just did as Jesus said? What if he sold everything and was mourning that loss?

Let that sink in for a moment.

Here’s another point. When the man asks Jesus what he must do Jesus lists off the commandments that he must follow, in other words, Jesus quotes the law to him. The man replies that he has followed the law since his youth.  However, Jesus tells him he lacks something….  So apparently following the letter of the law is not enough you can follow the law to the “t” but if you’re a jerk, for example, you’re out.  You see for Jesus it is no longer about strict adherence to the law for Jesus tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” John 13:34-35

I have mentioned to you before that I officiate at many weddings and the most common wedding reading comes from 1 Corinthians 13. This is the love chapter that Paul has written, and it is a beautiful summation of what love is but listen to the words at the start of the chapter:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

If we do not have love, we are nothing, and we have nothing.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not easy. Being a follower of Jesus Christ means we have to love everyone no matter what.  We have to love everyone without qualification because that is the way God loves us, without qualification. How much does od love us? God loves us too much that, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

Whoever, not whoever and….. Just whoever believes shall not perish but have eternal life.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not easy; we have to give up our stuff. We have to give up our prejudice towards others. We have to give up our hatred towards others, yes, including our enemies. We have to give up our ideas that we, even as Christians, are better than others. We have to give up our ideas that because we are white, or American, or male that we have some sort of supremacy over others who are not those things. We have to give up our hatred of people who believe differently than we do about religion, sexual orientation, politics and all of the other things we use to divide each other and keep us separated from each other. Why do we have to give all of that up?  Because every one of those things I just mentioned, and more, stand in direct opposition to the command of Jesus to love.

I mentioned earlier that maybe the young man did just as Jesus suggested and he did go and sell everything and that his turning if grief was not because he would not have eternal life but because he had sold everything. In selling everything he owned, he took the first step towards the kingdom of God.  He found the strength within himself, or maybe he found it with the help and support of others we do not know, but he found the strength and did as Jesus asked, he gave up the thing that was keeping him back.

The rich young man had many possessions, and that is what kept him gaining eternal life.  What is it that Jesus is asking you to give up? Sure, there will be grieving and sadness when we give whatever it is up, but the grief and sorrow will eventually turn to joy, joy in the Lord.

Submit to One Another: How Rev. Mark Harris Got it all Wrong

Recently, on the Facebook page of Now This News, there was a feature video of a sermon preached by the Rev. Mark Harris, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.  In this sermon Rev. Harris, who is a candidate for Congress in the North Carolina 9th District, quoted from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians chapter five and verse 22:

Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.

Rev. Harris goes on to posit that the husband is the head of the wife, which Paul does say in verse 23 and also calls into question women having careers outside of the home. The problem with all of this is that Rev. Harris forgets the verse that comes just before the one he has cherry-picked to make his point.

“… submitting to one another in fear of God.” (Ephesians 5:21)

It is not surprising to me that Rev. Harris, who opposes Roe v. Wade, Marriage Equality, and Transgender Rights would also stress that the women should sit in the corner and keep their mouths shut. This is the problem with a strict reading of Scripture and a lack of biblical hermeneutics on a passage of Scripture. Paul is often looked upon as a misogynist by some, but a deeper understanding of his theology reveals much more.

The problem is, the emphasis on this passage is entirely misplaced if the focus is only on the subordination of the wife to the husband. Verse 23, “the husband is the head of the wife” is often quoted out of context and context in this instance, as it is with all biblical understanding, in extremely important. If we study the entire passage we see that the basis of this passage is not control, as Rev. Harris seems to be insinuating, but love.

For Paul, the love a husband must have for his wife should be sacrificial. The husband must love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for the church (v 25). This love must not be selfish love for Christ did not love the church so that the church could do things for him, but quite the opposite.  Christ loved the church so that he could do things for her. This love must never exercise tyranny over the wife by the husband but should be a love that is ready to make any sacrifice for her good.

The type of love Paul is suggesting must be a purifying love. Paul is thinking of the waters of baptism for by the waters of baptism and the confession of faith; the church has been purified from all soil and spot. Any love that would drag a person down is a false love. Any love which does not refine the character of the object of that love and requires deceit and weakens the moral character is not love. Real love is the great purifier of life (v 26).

The love that Paul is referring too must be a caring love.  A man must love his wife as he loves his own body (v 28). Real love does not look for its physical comfort but cherishes the one that it loves. There is something wrong when a man regards his wife as the one who cooks his food and washes his clothes and cleans his house. The love Paul is speaking of does not care about its physical comfort but is directed toward the other.

This love is unbreakable. The husband is united with his wife as the members of the body are joined with one another. One cannot think of separating their arm or their leg from their body for it would tear their own body apart. This love must endure and be an unbreakable bond between the two (v 30-31).

So, Rev. Harris, you are mistaken. We are to be subject to one another as Christ was subject to the Church.  We are to love each other, as equal partners in the relationship, and we must be willing to sacrifice everything for that love, even our ideas of who gets to be in charge.

Democrats Should not be Afraid of Religion

Faith-based groups from both sides of the political spectrum are working to inspire voters for the midterms. A man listens as Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown speaks at a church as part of The South Rising Tour, aimed at getting more voters to the polls.
John Bazemore/AP

National Public Radio has produced a story regarding faith groups and their efforts to get out the vote for the coming mid-term elections.

It has been widely reported that 80% of white evangelicals helped elect President Donald Trump. Evangelical leaders mobilized their congregations and got people registered and to the polls on election day. As the country prepares for the Mid-Term elections in less than a month, religious leaders on the left are mobilizing their congregations to register and, hopefully, will get them to the polls in November.

For better or worse, the Republican party has always courted the religious vote and it seems that they are now in full control of agenda. Evangelical leaders left it all on the field and organized like I have never seen them organize before to get Donald Trump elected and all of their work has paid off.  Since his election, President Trump has changed the make up of the United States Supreme Court for what could be a generation putting the religious left on a collision course with those on the right.

Megan Black, a national organizer for the progressive group Faith in Action, says avoiding politics is a luxury they can no longer afford.

“I think that the desire to remove oneself from the political arena especially today, when there is so much at stake for so many people, is a privilege that is exercised inappropriately,” she said.

Black’s group is seeking to reach one million people in person, especially in areas where turnout is traditionally low, and persuade them to vote. For Faith in Action, the main moral issues are voter suppression, immigration crackdowns and police shootings.

Back at the seminary, Dillon Green, a first year student from Alabama, believes in mixing his religion with his politics.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m passionate about voting,” he said. “I want … to say, you know, I believe in Jesus Christ AND I believe in liberal progressive values.”

Green hopes the religious left’s renewed political zeal will yield fruit. But he also recognizes that conservative evangelical efforts to turn out the vote have been more productive in the past.

For both groups, the moral character of the country now hangs in the balance.

The Democratic Party should not fear religious people and they should embrace us.  We are, after all, working for the same outcome.

Read the rest here

“Mormon” has become a four-letter word

At the recent General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it was announced that the name used for the church “Mormon” is now out and the full name of the church should be used in it’s place. Apparently is was the “Lord’s will” that they stop using the name Mormon. I did not know the Lord was interested in such things.

It was also announced that church services would be shortened from three hours to two hours starting in 2019.

In the Sunday morning session, President Russell M. Nelson hammered hard on the name of the Church, urging members to stop using the nickname “Mormon.”

Instead, they should use the full name of the Church.

It’s not a rebranding effort, Nelson emphasized. Nor is it a trivial matter.

Nelson said it’s the Lord’s will that the entire name be used, since it places focus on Jesus Christ.

Read the Rest here


Sermon: Enfolding Love

A Sermon Based on Mark 10:2-16

Mark 10:2-16

A Newly ordained minister had just finished preaching her first sermon in her very first church when a woman approached her at the welcome reception being held in the fellowship hall.  The woman, dressed in a flowered-print dress had a stride of purpose as she came across the hall as soon as the minister appeared in the doorway, this is never a good sign by the way. The newly ordained minister extended her hand, and she approached, and started to open her mouth to say something like “good morning,” when the woman blurted out, “Pastor, do divorced people go to hell?”

The brand new minister thought, “I just passed my ordination exam. What is this? Another test of some sort?” She raced through her mind’s date bank for something that she might have learned in pastoral care, or New Testament courses that she might be able to offer this woman, and also get her off the hook. She finally spoke, “Better people than me get divorced.” The woman smiled and walked away.

During a more extended conversation in the woman’s home, she told the minister about her son who had recently divorced. Behind her question at the reception was a deep concern for her son, who had chosen to end a troubled marriage and was about to remarry. As a serious student of the Bible, she knew the word of Jesus to the Pharisees (who put him to the “test” with the question about divorce) and his words to the disciples (“whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.”) Although her faith would mature later, at that time the woman was in distress and she held to a rigid belief about sin and punishment. She believed that her son was endangering his soul.

This is not an uncommon situation that ministers face and one that is enhanced by a strict and rigid interpretation of scripture.

But first, never ambush the minister at fellowship with profound theological questions.

These are always difficult conversations to have, and I have had my share of them over the years of ministry, and there is one thing I have learned, there is no simple answer.

We like to have things in nice tidy little piles especially where religion is concerned. We want to have a list of rules to follow so we know how to act, even though we ignore the most basic of the rules that Jesus left us. However, the problem with rules is there are always exceptions to these rules.

You see there is no “one size fits all” solution to problems that we might face. Situations are always multifaceted and require a tremendous amount of pastoral sensitivity. Not knowing the situation with the woman’s son during the first conversation it is difficult to come up with a response other than, “well, let’s talk about it.” However, the more significant problem was, the woman had a strict understanding of the Bible, and as we discussed last week, that can lead to a lot of problems.

Stepping back to the books of the Old Testament, we find many books, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, to name a few, that are filled with laws and the penalties for breaking those laws. Here are only a few of the more than 100:

Failing to include salt in your offering to God.
Failing to testify against any wrongdoing you’ve witnessed.
Failing to testify against any wrongdoing you’ve been told about.
Bringing unauthorized fire before God.
Letting your hair become unkempt.
Tearing your clothes.
Eating – or touching the carcass of – any seafood without fins or scales.
Going to church within 33 days after giving birth to a boy.
Going to church within 66 days after giving birth to a girl.
Reaping to the very edges of a field.
Picking up grapes that have fallen in your vineyard.
Swearing falsely on God’s name.
Perverting justice, showing partiality to either the poor or the rich.
Spreading slander.
Seeking revenge or bearing a grudge.
Mixing fabrics in clothing.
Planting different seeds in the same field.
Trimming your beard.
Cutting your hair at the sides.
Getting tattoos.
Not standing in the presence of the elderly.
Mistreating foreigners.
Working on the Sabbath.

So, how many of us here today, based on these rules, will not be thrown into the fires of Gahanna?

The point to all of this is while we focus on the silly little things we miss the big ones, like love God, and love your neighbor. What Jesus is saying is that we have to show compassion and although there are rules to follow, we must be sensitive to others and what they might be going through. The other point is that although you might have a personal ethic and believe strongly that this or that is wrong, does not mean that everyone thinks that way nor should he or she. It also says that we cannot force our beliefs on others.

So back to the question about divorce and how I might advise the woman. First thing I would say is that no, her son has not endangered his soul and no he is not going to hell because he divorced, and I don’t think Jesus was saying that either. As the minister learned, the marriage was troubled. There is no indication that couple attempted to seek counseling, which is something I would advise, the couple and, we are not sure of the reason for the trouble, was it infidelity, abuse, or some other problem that led to the dissolution of the marriage? None of these questions I would ask of the mother but I would of the couple if they came to me.

As everyone here who is married knows, marriages take work, and they have their ups and downs, there good days and there bad. I believe that far too often we throw in the towel on marriage because we do not wish to do the work necessary to make it work, and, it is my experience that the number one thing that breaks down marriage is lack of communication.

However, the bottom line is, the woman’s son is not going to hell for getting a divorce. You are not going to hell if you plant different seeds in the same garden nor are you going to hell if you get a tattoo. The good news is Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came and replaced all of that with a simple summation of the law, love God and love neighbor and yes it is that simple.

The good news is an angry, vengeful God does not punish us. God does not send weather events to wipe out cities and towns. God does not send earthquakes to kill off bad people. God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ who became flesh and dwelt among us so that we might know the love that God has for each and every one of us, just as we are the whole divorced, seed planting tattooed bunch of us!

The one lesson that Jesus teaches time and time again is compassion and mercy, and that is what we are to have in every situation. We have no other choice than to look at another human being as a child of God who is loved and cared for by that same loving God that loves and cares for us. It is up to us to show that compassion in every situation we encounter.

God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Sermon: First in Caring

A Sermon based on Mark 9:30-37

On infrequent occasions in the gospel, do we get a glimpse of Jesus alone teaching his apostles. There are not many times recorded when Jesus is truly alone with them, but this is one of those times. He has taken them aside, and he begins to tell them that his time is coming to an end but, in typical Jesus fashion he does not come right out and say he is talking about himself. We get another glimpse of the confusion of the apostles and Scripture tells us “they were afraid to ask him.”

As they were on the road, a discussion started among them, not a debate about what he had just told them but a discussion about “who was the greatest.” Jesus had just said to them that he was going to be betrayed and killed and their discussion was about who was going to be the greatest.

One of my favorite pictures of Jesus is the one that is known as Facepalm Jesus. I am not sure who the artist is, but there he is with his face in the palm is his hand in utter disbelief. As I read this story, I can almost see Jesus doing that. Sometimes I picture Jesus looking heavenward, arms outstretched, looking toward his father in heaven and shouting, why me?  What have I ever done to you? However, then I remember that Jesus is not only human but divine, and it is his divinity that inevitably takes over in times like these.

Jesus sits them down and begins to teach them about power and greatness. He starts by telling them that if you want to be great, you have to learn humility. If you’re going to be great and if you’re going to be first, you have to be last, and you have to be the servant of all. Jesus is making it understandable that he is identifying greatness with service and with empathy.

In the world of the first century Palestinian there was a stringent system of class, and the servants were at the bottom.  At the top, of course, was the ruling class both politically and religiously but at the bottom, the place where Jesus just said you have to be to be great, is the servant. In this first-century world, one did not move from the servant class to the ruling class, but this is precisely what Jesus was telling them, if you want to be great, start at the bottom.

I like cooking. I love watching cooking shows, I collect cookbooks, and I like cooking.  I think I like eating more, but I do like to cook. Several years ago I decided I want to be a chef in a restaurant. I mean I love to cook, and that is what these guys do for a living. So I enrolled in cooking school. It was fabulous, we got the white jacket, the big hat, a brand new set of the best German knives I could afford, and I set off to class every day it was amazing.

After the first semester, it was suggested that we might want to look for a job in the profession to see if we liked cooking at that level. At the time my brother was managing a place in Boston, and he secured me a spot on the line in the kitchen. I had an interview with the chef, he had me cook him something, asked me a few questions about mother sauces and the like, and I was told I got the job and should report the following week.

I was so happy.  I went out and bought and new white coat and a new big hat, and set off to my first job as a chef at a restaurant in Boston.  I arrived early, to make a good impression, met the chef and the others in the kitchen, was showed around a little, and then I was handed a rubber apron and a pair of rubber gloves and told I was going to wash dishes.

What? Surely there was some mistake. I am a chef! Look, I have the white coat and the big hat. “yes, it’s very nice” I was told by the head chef, but tonight you will be washing dishes. You see in the restaurant world everyone in the kitchen begins by washing dishes. Then, if you are lucky, you move up to salads then maybe you get to make sandwiches and so on. No one, in their first year in the kitchen starts at the top, you want to be top chef?  Get over there and wash those dishes. Being the dishwasher was the hardest job I ever had, and it’s also the job that taught me humility. We do not seek after greatness, greatness seeks after us, and it involves being a servant first.

True greatness involves humility and the willingness to serve all, and the most excellent example of this is Jesus.

During the Last Supper, Jesus tells those assembled that he has to wash their feet.  Now, you have to understand how striking this would have been to not only hear Jesus say this but then actually to let him do this. When one entered a house in the first century, the first thing that would happen is your feet would be washed. You had just come off the road, the dusty streets, and your feet would be dirty. In houses without servants, there would be a basin with water, and a towel provided at the door for you to wash your feet. In homes with servants, a servant, the youngest and therefore the lowest of the servants, would be dispatched to wash the feet of the master’s guests. Here is Jesus taking on that role!

Jesus has turned society on its head. Up is now down and down is now up. Everything they thought they knew has changed in an instant. Jesus is telling them that if they hope to be great, they do not get there by stepping on others or making fun of others or Tweeting disparaging remarks about them, we become great by being servants, by humbling ourselves with service and with empathy.

I have told you this before, as Christians, we have to be able to look at another human being and see the face of Christ in their face, and they have to be able to see Christ’s face in us. We live in an ugly world, a world that tells us the exact opposite of the message of Jesus today. The world we live in tells us that we need to do whatever we need to do, even if that involves destroying people to get what we want. It tells us that it is okay to lie and cheat. It tells us that it is okay to put down those who are different then we are. It tells us that it has to be someone else’s fault that we did not get that job. It tells us that we have to demonize other races, nationalities, and religions to make us feel better about ourselves. Also, it tells us that if a woman waits 37 years to tell her story of abuse, it is okay to make death threats against her and make her out to be some wicked person so that we can get what we want. That is the world we live in today. Oh, and by the way, most of that is being done by people who will be hearing this same passage of Scripture that you have listened to today.

At the end of the story, Jesus calls over a little child. Children are the most vulnerable members of our society. They need care, and love, and support. Jesus calls the small child over and says, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Greatness is embodied in caring for the most vulnerable members of our community, first of all by embracing them with love, hearing their stories, and responding to their cares. Greatness does not involve demonizing them and putting them in cages; it means being a servant to all, no matter who they are or where they have come from.

Being a Christian is not comfortable it means we have to sacrifice ourselves for others. It means that we have to put others first and it means that we have to be servants.

Jesus Wept

In the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John, we read the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.  We do not know much about Lazarus other than he lived in a town called Bethany and he had two sisters Mary and Martha.  Lazarus and his sisters are the only people in the Gospels referred to as Jesus’ friends so they must have had a special relationship. We have no idea how they met or how long they had been friends, but the friendship was so important Jesus went to their home when he found out Lazarus had died.

We pick the story up at the tomb of Lazarus.  He has been dead for three days, and Martha has just chastised Jesus because he had not been their sooner to help her brother and his friend.  Jesus reminds her that her “brother will rise again.” She misunderstands him thinking that he means when all will rise again, but he tells her that he is the “resurrection and the life and those who believe in me, though he may die, he shall live.”

They leave that place and arrive at the tomb where Lazarus has been placed. Mary and Martha come with others, and they are grief stricken.  We get the sense that the death of their brother Lazarus was unexpected. There are many gathered around, and they are all crying. Scripture tells us that when he saw them weeping for Lazarus “he groaned in the spirit and was troubled.” This was a deep groan from one who had lost a brother and a friend. Even though Jesus knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, he felt it deep within himself and had such compassion on those around him that he wept.

I take great comfort in this story from John’s Gospel. It shows the humanness of Jesus and the compassion and love that he has not only for those with him but for all of us in our times when we “groan in the spirit.” Jesus wants to be with us and bring us comfort in our times of distress.

Sermon: Who Are You, Jesus?

A Sermon Based on Mark 8:27-38

When you meet someone for the first time, you might ask them their name and where they are from. As the relationship continues you find out more about them, are the married? Do they have children? If you are applying for a job, the interviewer might wish to dig into your past and ask about where you went to school or your professional training. All of these questions move us towards a greater knowledge of each other as we discover more and more about each other.

The same seems to be true in the gospel passage we have heard today. Jesus asks his followers, “Who do others say that I am?” His disciples seem to be unsure. They respond, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others say one of the prophets.”

However, then the question the question becomes much more personal as he asks those in his inner circle, “Who do you say I am?”  Immediately Peter responds, “You are the Christ.” Also, Jesus tells them, “Don’t tell anyone.” There is uncertainty as to who Jesus is, and it becomes clear that the vast majority of those following him have no idea who he is, including those in his inner circle.

When Jesus appears on the scene, the Jews have been waiting for the Messiah for a very long time. They have been in and out of captivity since Moses led them through the wilderness out of Egypt and now they face captivity under the Romans. Some in the Jewish community were looking towards the Messiah as the one who would come and break the hold that the Romans had on them, this Messiah would be a military leader who would raise the people up in revolution and break the shackles that held them and free them politically.

This question of the military leader comes up time and again concerning Jesus.  “Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see,’ said Philip.” John 1:45-46.

Nazareth was the back of the beyond and nothing good, especially not someone that was going to defeat the Romans was going to come from there. Nathanael was one of the ones standing there when Jesus asked: “Who do you say I am?” We only hear Peter’s response so was Nathanael still not sure?  We don’t know.

So historically who was Jesus?

We can look through the pages of scripture to determine he was, born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph who was his stepfather. He was a refuge have to flee from Herod when he was tiny and lived in Egypt for many years. He trained as a carpenter, like his stepfather Joseph. We know very little about his childhood other than when he was 12 he got lost in Jerusalem and was found, by his parents, in the temple. He look astonished when they chastised him, and he said, “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Luke 2:49

We know that his stepfather died sometime after that because he is not at the wedding at Cana with Jesus and Mary. It was at that wedding that Jesus starts his public ministry with the changing of the water into wine. We know John baptized him in the Jordan. We know he spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by the evil one. We know, or at least we think we know, he was never married nor had any children. We know he was a charismatic, itinerant preacher who liked to stir things up. We know he was an agitator against the Romans and the religious leaders of his day. We know he was a radical in his thoughts on caring for and loving others. We know he was a healer and a reconciler and one who cared deeply for everyone, not just a few. Jesus was very political, but he was not partisan. His methods got under the skin of those in power which he spoke truth to on every occasion.

We know he was betrayed, turned over to the Romans, tried in a kangaroo court, which wanted to release him. We know he was crucified, died, was buried, and rose on the third day and eventually ascended into heaven. We know all of these things from scripture and history.

Now, since the time that Jesus walked on the earth it has been determined that Jesus is the Son of God, he says so in scripture, but it is confirmed. We know that he was both human and divine, an argument that led to the first division in the church around 325 AD.

Since the time Jesus walked on the earth multiple wars have been fought in his name. An untold number of people have been slaughtered, and continue to be murdered in his name. Since the time the healer and reconciler walked on the earth, an untold number have been cast out of his “church” and told they are not wanted by the one who welcomed all. Since the time the Holy One walked on the earth the church that was founded in his name has risen, and fallen, from political power and causes the suffering of millions of people. Since the time the one who commanded us to love everyone walked on this earth his followers, and his ministers have caused physical, emotional, and spiritual harm to those who wish to follow the Savior. Moreover, from the time Jesus walked on the earth and gave his life for all, many have been told they are not worthy of the love of God.  All of this has been done in his name.

So all of that answers the first question of Jesus for us this morning, “Who do others say I am?” Now comes the hard, personal question, who do you say he is?

When I was younger, I was out with a priest friend of mine, and we were discussing all things religious. In the middle of the conversation he stopped, looked at me very serious, and he asked me, “Who is God for you?” I did not know how to answer since I had not only ever been asked this question before I guess I never really thought about it. At the time the movie “O God” was very popular; you know the one with George Burns as God and John Denver as the one looking for God. So it the heart of the moment I blurted out God is George Burns! Ultimately my priest friend was not satisfied with my theological understanding of the Godhead, but he let it pass for the moment. However, what he did say was that we all see God, and Jesus, differently as we are all different people.

I am not particularly eager to share my image of my Jesus because I do not wish to sway anyone but I will share with you today how I picture Jesus.

For me, Jesus is a dark-skinned man with a radical theology who is not afraid to mix things up. He is compassionate and loving and accepting of everyone, even those he disagrees with. Jesus is forgiving, even of those who are murdering him. He goes along when he needs to, but he is not afraid to flip over the tables when necessary. Jesus is concerned about the greater good not the narrow opinions of political or religious leaders. He is a firebrand preacher that tells it like it is and is not afraid to take a position that is not popular but righteous. Jesus is someone who believes that love is the ultimate goal as Jesus was willing to sacrifice it all not for some political or religious purpose but just because he loved. He is someone who is willing to sacrifice everything he has to feed, clothe, and house people. Jesus is the one who reconciles people with each other and with their God. Also, he is someone who truly loves me and forgives me, and he accepts me just as I am. Moreover, Jesus is the one who calls me to follow him and the one who left me an example to follow. Also, he is the one who tells me, from time to time, to flip over the tables.

That is my Jesus, but the question remains, who do you say Jesus is?

Each of us has to determine who Jesus is for us. However, how do we do this? Just like in the relationship example I gave at the start, we get to know him through prayer and his words. Don’t let any politicians, television preacher, or even me tell you who Jesus is. You have to determine for yourself who Jesus is for you but I will caution you, if your image of Jesus does not include radical welcome and inclusiveness, if it does not include love for everyone especially those on the margins, if your image of Jesus does not involve feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and house the homeless, without qualification, if your vision of Jesus does not include unconditional love for all then I am here to tell you that you have the wrong image of Jesus because every one of those things Jesus did in scripture and every one of those things Jesus commanded us, as his followers, to do. If your image of Jesus says it is okay to look at another human being, created in the image and likeness of God, and think they are less than you are because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic situation, the country they come from, their legal status, or their political party then that is not the image of Jesus from Scripture.

We must, all of, determine who Jesus is and help others along the way the time is here and the time is now.