Sunday, November 11, 2018

Life over Death

Sermon for St. Thomas/Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, Year B, All Saints’ Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018
John 11:32-44
                32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

          So there are a few things we tend to take for granted as Lutheran Christians.  We are “confessional,” which means we follow a Confession—in this case the Augsburg Confession, which I’m sure you talked about last week.  Not that we are wicked and need to confess a lot.
          We are creedal.  We say the creed and we believe what it says.
          At least we assume we all believe what it says.  But I want to check that today, because you know, I’m new here and before we talk about this lesson—this iconic story of the Raising of Lazarus—I want to ask you:
          Do you believe it?
          Do you believe that Jesus raised Lazarus?
          It’s a thing we need to believe.  There are some things in scripture that leave a little room for interpretation.  It helps to understand that our lesson from Revelation comes from a long allegory about the abusive Roman empire.  It’s not “fake news.”  It’s just symbolic, rather than factual.  And it’s okay that it’s symbolic.  Symbolism is important.
          This story before us this morning…this story of how Jesus called Lazarus forth from death…this story is true.  Jesus did it.  The things Jesus did are true.
          As Lutheran Christians, we confess that it is true.  We declare that it is true when we recite the creeds.
          God.  Has power.  Over death.  That power existed in the body of Jesus Christ, who is “God from God.  Light from Light.  True God from true God.”
          Jesus has power over death.  We believe that…right?
          We need to believe that, today of all days, when we gather to remember those who have gone before us, those who have made the journey into God’s loving arms. 
          We gather this day in the certain hope of reunion with them.  In the absolute certitude that God’s triumph over death means that we will meet our beloved ones again.
          How many are lighting a candle this morning?  How many have lost someone and can’t wait to see their beautiful face again?  Maybe you will be looking for a lot of faces on your personal All Saints Day. 
          The Saint I most want to see is this guy [show picture].  Sorry the picture is kind of grainy and that Hi Fi gives you an idea of just how old I am.  (If you are under forty, ask someone at Coffee Hour what a Hi Fi is.)
Image may contain: one or more people, child and indoor
          So that’s me and my Daddy.  We apparently had a rollicking time carving that pumpkin.  Not sure why we did it on the living room floor, but I was probably too short for the chairs in the kitchen. 
This is my favorite picture of me and my Dad.  I cleave to every year at this time, since it is for me an image of both Halloween and All Saint’s.
          My Daddy loved me like no one else could.  For two and a half more years after this picture was taken.  Then he was felled by a brain tumor, and our lives were shattered for a long time.
          I can’t wait to see my Dad again.  I hope they have pumpkins in heaven.
And I believe with every fiber in my body that I will see my  Dad again.  Because I believe that Jesus raised Lazarus.  That Elijah raised a widow’s son in Zarephath, that Paul raised Eutychus after he fell out of a window (Acts, Chapter Twenty—look it up if you don’t know the story—it’s a good one.)
          I believe all those stories.  Don’t you?  Don’t we believe that our God has power over death?  That one day we will indeed be united with the ones we love?
          And that God has given us some of that power?  We believe that, too.  Right? We know that God has delivered into the hands of prophets and apostles the power of life.  Moses had it—or at least his snake-on-a-stick had it. Elijah had it.  Paul had it.  Jesus was born with it.  There are apocryphal gospels that tell stories of him using that power as a little kid.  But our gospels tell us that he began using the power at about age thirty, when he began his public ministry.
          That power is the main character in the story before us.  No disrespect to Lazarus, but he doesn’t even get a speaking part.
          If you know the whole story—how many do?—you know that Jesus got word that Lazarus was sick, and then he waited two days.  He told the disciples that it was time to go to Judea to see Lazarus, because Lazarus had fallen asleep, to which they answered “Lord if he’s just asleep, he’ll be okay.”  They just don’t understand metaphor.  It’s not their fault.  So Jesus said, “no, he is dead.”  To which Thomas, St. Thomas, the patron of this very congregation, replied, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
          So they go, though I am pleased to report that they do not, indeed, die with Lazarus.  They do, however, encounter one person after another who believes that death will have the final word in this story.  First Martha, then Mary, then the crowd, and then Martha again.
          Jesus demands that they roll away the stone and Martha objects.  “He’s been dead in there for three days.  Even his spirit has left his body by now.  And Jesus, the smell!”
          Leave the stone alone, she cries.  They all believe Lazarus is gone.  And there is nothing that Jesus can do about it.  Which is why he is there.  Why he prays this prayer before the tomb:
“Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 
          Then he calls Lazarus back into life.  Jesus can do that.  Restore life.
          Anybody here need a little restoration?  Anybody got something in your life that has been given up for dead—a relationship…a dream.  And you’ve stuck it in a cave and rolled a stone in front of it?
          We do that.  Sometimes we even do it to ourselves.
          For a while when I first came out, I hung out in that cave.  I was so afraid that the people I had known before—as Fake Straight Me—would hate me, or disown me.  I lost some relationships forever, not because I was gay, but because I was afraid to trust the other person.  It took me a couple of years to realize that the people who loved me loved me.  I was still the same person, after all.
          I’m guessing others of us have done the same thing, for lots of different reasons.  Given up on relationships.  Given up hopes and dreams.  Just put ‘em in a tomb and rolled a big heavy stone in front and all that’s left is the pain you feel when you think about them. 
          The pain never wants to stay in the tomb, though.  And Jesus doesn’t want us to be in tombs.  All of us, or part of us.  He wants us to have life, and have it abundantly.
          People of God, the power of life is in our hands.  The power to roll away those stones is in us.  Jesus has made us his disciples and reminded us that no death is final.  If you have lost a relationship, or given up on a dream, there is still hope.  The heaviest of stones will give way to the Power of Christ flowing through us.
          If you come today with a heart heavy with grief over loved ones who have died, hear this promise today:  you will be united.  There will be restoration.
          We are confessional, Lutherans.  So I confess this on our behalf this morning:      
          Our God is a God of life.

          Our God is a God of hope.
          And life and hope are in our hands, and in our hearts, by the power of Jesus Christ.  Power which is stronger than death, stronger than stones, stronger than doubt.

Can You Drink the Cup?

Mark 10:35-45
               35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And Jesus said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
               41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

          Anybody have a file of all of the really stupid things you’ve said or done over the course of your lifetime?  Probably not a physical file—wouldn’t want anybody reading that!  But a file you keep in your brain.  And take out every so often to review, to remind yourself that “yeah, I really did say that.”  Kind of like you worry a sore tooth with your tongue.
          I find 3 am to be prime time for reviewing my Stupid Stuff File.  The dead of night always brings our misdeeds into sharp relief. 
          Now, the impulse to review these things isn’t necessarily a bad one.  We want to learn from the things we have done, in order to maybe do better the next time.  That’s a primary task of adulting—learning from mistakes and trying to be, you know, decent.
          Don’t you wonder if James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, and [play thunder noise] had a Stupid Stuff File?  If they did, I’m not sure there was a lot of reviewing and learning going on in the time that they were with Jesus.  They seem to move pretty seamlessly from being the ones who want to “call down fire” on inhospitable Samaritans to asking for the seats of honor next to Jesus in his glory, without much time for self-reflection.
          The Sons of Thunder.
          There’s no explanation for why Jesus named them Boanerges—the Sons of Thunder.
          And we don’t need one, do we?
          As you have probably figured out by now, I love the Sons of Thunder.  I love their thunder-y-ness.  I love their boldness.
          I love what they teach us, through what Jesus taught them.
          The lesson before us this morning is one of the best examples in the gospels of Jesus the Pedagogue.  Jesus at his professorial best.  Good teachers don’t just make good lesson plans—they are ready to turn any moment into a teachable moment.
          And luckily for Jesus, the disciples are pretty good at presenting opportunities for daily lessons on ethics and agriculture, fishing and forgiveness.
          James and John are among the best.  And this is their crowning achievement as unsuspecting object lessons.
          “Jesus,” they thunder, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
          Oh, really?!  I’ve had a lot of teachers in my thirty years of schooling—I added it up—exactly thirty—I can tell you how 99% of them would respond to that opening salvo.
          But Jesus simply asks, “What is it you want?”
          “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
          An impertinent request, yes?
          More than that, in fact.  They want the seats of glory, of honor.  They want the seat that belongs to God, in fact.  What is it we say about Jesus in the creed? 
On the third day he rose again,
ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father.

          Jesus sits at the right hand of God, tradition holds, because the earliest scriptural record—from the Psalms on—teaches that the place of greatest honor is at God’s right hand. 
          So when they ask to sit at the right and left hand, they are asking to take a seat of honor, and a seat reserved for God (if Jesus is on the right—God is on the left).
          The one who sits at the right hand of God shares honor, and power, and authority, with God.
          This is not a small request.
          And the other disciples are not amused.
          “How dare they presume to have the seats of honor!  What jerks!”

          The other disciples are human. 
Jesus is human…and also God.  God’s incarnate one, come to be our object lesson in power, authority, and humility.
          Rather than joining the disciples in their anger and frustration, Jesus realizes that this is the moment to try once again to explain what this discipleship thing is all about.  How is God calling us to live together?
          So Jesus calmly turns to the Sons of Zebedee and says, “you think this is about power, right?”
          “Yeah, yeah yeah, Jesus!” they reply.  We wanna do the deeds of power like you do! 
          “Can you drink the cup I drink?  Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
          “Yeah yeah yeah, Jesus!  Cup.  Baptism.  Check!”
          This has to be entry one in their Shared Stupid Stuff File.  Has to be.  Because, of course, they have no idea what they are saying.  It’s pretty clear to  us, looking back on it with our great 20/20 History Vision, that no one in this story understands what it means to drink the cup that Jesus will drink and to be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized.
          No one truly understands it, and no one ever has.
          That’s why there was an Incarnation.  God became human because despite all the burning bushes and parted seas and prophetic words and deeds, people have persisted in struggling to understand how God has called us to live together.  We have been mired in the foggy vision of James and John forever.  Believing that what God wants is for us to be all-powerful, to have authority over others, so that we can bend them to our will.
          And we’ve used everything at our disposal, including the Christian faith, to try to get there.
          So God decided to just come down here.  To stand before us in the flesh, to look through our bluster and our naivete and our lust for power…and love us anyway.  Just as Jesus looked at James and John that day, when he said, “Yes, you can drink the cup.” And then turned calmly to the other disciples and explained about The Power.
          “The Power isn’t in lording it over each other.  It isn’t in having the seats of honor. 
          “The Power is Love, children.  Loving and serving each other.  Giving your life as a ransom for others.  The cup that I drink is a cup of suffering alongside those who suffer.
It is a cup of forgiveness.  A cup of joy born of true humility.
          It’s hard to imagine it from what we know, but history records that James and John did in fact drink that cup.  They became the bookends of the martyred apostles—witnesses to Jesus Christ from both sides of his passion.
          According to the Book of Acts, Chapter 12, James was so zealous in teaching the Way of Jesus that he was the first of the Apostles martyred by the Empire.
          John, his younger brother, was the only one of the disciples who did not die a martyr’s death.  History holds that he died of natural causes as late as 98 CE, after a long career of preaching Jesus Christ to thousands of new Christians.
          They could drink the cup.  They did drink the cup.  Jesus reminds us this morning that we are all able to drink the cup.
          James and John remind us that no matter who we are…no matter where we’ve been and what we’ve done…we can be witnesses to the Way of Jesus Christ.  No matter what’s in our Stupid Stuff File, we can be the ones who share a servant love with the world.  No matter what’s going on in the world—how coarse and unforgiving the rhetoric, how cruel and greedy the leadership—we can love and serve each other.  We can love and serve the world.
          Because we are loved.
          And we are forgiven.
          And Loved and Forgiven people have a power beyond any gold or silver or conquest.  We have the power of the cup, the power that lies within us at all times and can never be taken away.
          My prayer for you, people of God, is that you feel that power today.  You feel how much you are loved and how fully you’ve been forgiven by our God, and by our great teacher Jesus Christ.  I pray that being loved and forgiven helps you to unleash the power of love and forgiveness on a world that seems tilted another way. 
          We can tilt it back.  We can drink the cup.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

For He Had Many Possessions

Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 23, Oct. 14, 2018
Mark 10:17-31
               17As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
          21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
               23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth* to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

          So here’s what I’m wondering…
          What happened next?  We have this story.  Most of us have heard it before, and likely all of us have heard the phrase “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.”
          We know the rich man came to Jesus and Jesus told him to sell everything and give the money to the poor, and that the young man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
          But isn’t it deeply unsatisfying not knowing what happened next?
          Like, is this the end of that man’s story?  He asks about the kingdom, Jesus gives him a really difficult task to do, he refuses…end of story?!
          I don’t know about you, but I’m looking for something more.  Because single encounters with Jesus shouldn’t be the end of the story.  What makes Peter’s story, and the story of James and John, The…Sons of Thunder!...what makes those stories so compelling is that their single encounters with Jesus aren’t the end of their stories.
          The Peter who rebuked Jesus for his passion prediction is the same Peter who preached that gospel narrative on the first Christian Pentecost.
          The Sons of Thunder are all thunder-y throughout the gospels, but they are also the ones whom Jesus wants with him in important moments.  Peter, James and John are the only witnesses to the raising of the daughter of Jairus.  They are also the only witnesses to the Transfiguration.
          Their story didn’t end the day they wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town.  The story of our relationship with Jesus doesn’t end the day we do something stupid, or selfish, or I daresay this sanctuary would be empty this morning.
          The rich man’s story didn’t end that day on the road, when he asked Jesus a question and didn’t like the answer.  (And who hasn’t been there?)
So I thought I’d spin out a possible ending for this little Morality Play, based on all of the other stories we have of encounters with Jesus that aren’t the end of the story.
          Like, maybe Jesus continues up the road a bit, and they stop in a town.  They go to the home of the wealthiest Jew in town, knowing that the family will put them up for the night—Middle Eastern Hospitality Code—and the Lord of the house comes to greet Jesus and his apostles.
          And guess who it is?
          It’s the man.  Your Bible might say “the rich young man” or even “the rich young ruler,” but the text actually just says he is “a man.”
          The man who owns the big house on the edge of the town.  Which is not a surprise to Jesus, because he’s Jesus and he knew which house he was going to.  But the man is stunned to see Jesus again and just stands there for a moment…until he recovers his manners—Middle Eastern Hospitality Code—and calls for water for the washing of their feet, and the preparation of a celebratory meal.
          The water comes, and the servants set about washing the feet of the disciples, but the Lord of the house moves his servant aside and kneels to wash the feet of Jesus.  They say nothing, just engage together in the last-as-first model of discipleship, the man awkwardly engaging in this ritual as the washer, for the very first time, having been waited on by servants his entire life.
          When the dinner is ready, the man invites Jesus to the place of honor, next to his elderly parents.  The disciples take their places, and soon all are enjoying good food and plentiful wine.
          Seeing a good opening, the Lord of the house turns to Jesus and says, “Lord, I want to follow you.  But who will feed and shelter all of the people who work here?  No one else in town has the means.  And who will care for my parents?  I am all they have.”
          And Jesus looks at him once again, and feels love for him, once again.  “You have many things, my child,” Jesus says.  “You have many reasons, and many possessions, and so much to consider.  It is not easy to let any of these things go, in order to commit fully to discipleship.  Full discipleship requires you to be willing to let all other things go.  You are not yet ready or able to do that.
          “What can you do?”
          The man thought for a while.  He was used to his life looking a certain way.  He was comfortable with the way that it looked.  But he also wanted to be part of this Jesus Movement taking his village by storm.  And he liked the idea of inheriting eternal life.
          “I could sell the field beyond the house and give the money to you and your disciples!” the man said to Jesus.
          “Close!” said Jesus.
          The man thought back to their original conversation.  “I could sell the field and give the money to the poor!” he cried out with enthusiasm.  “And I could invite them to come here for their gifts and I could throw a banquet for just the poorest people in the village!”
          “Now you are getting there,” Jesus told him.
          And that’s all we get for now.  Still an unsatisfyingly unfinished story.  But discipleship is like that.  Some days you’re really good and you think, “hey, I’ll do this great thing for someone else.  Maybe someone who really needs it.”
          And some days you are madly in love with your i-Phone and your computer and your dinners out and you can’t imagine giving those things up…even for Jesus.
          And make no mistake, absolute discipleship requires the willingness to give up your i-Phone.  All that stuff gets in our way, and Jesus wants us to be free to focus.
          But Jesus also understands that we are flawed human beings who struggle to follow his call.  Who struggle to do the right things and say the right things and give up the right things.
          And Jesus loves us.  Just as he loved the man.  Loves us in spite of who we are and because of who we are.
          Jesus loves us and Jesus forgives us and Jesus gives us second and third chances to get it right.  Because Jesus knows that we are trying to get it right.
          And when we don’t get it right, Jesus loves us and Jesus forgives us. 
          That is always the next part of the story.  Always.

What has been put together...

Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 22, Oct. 7, 2018
Mark 10:2-16
               2Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3Jesus answered them, “What did Moses command you?”4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
               10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
               13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

          So…divorce is a bummer.
          It is very important that you hear what I am saying here, because I don’t want anyone going home and posting on social media that Pastor Donna preached a sermon judging divorced people.
          You know, because I know you spend your Sunday afternoons reacting to my sermons on social media.

          I do want you to hear what Jesus is saying to us this morning, and what we can probably agree to:  in general, divorce is a bummer. 
          Except in cases of abuse, when divorce can literally be a life-saver.  And in other cases I bet we can name, cases in which the greater good could be found in an amicable parting, rather than an antagonistic pairing.
          So even as we hear Jesus offering this morning those words which are still pronounced in many a marriage ceremony—“What God has joined together, let no one separate”…even as we hear those words, and we recognize a clear preferential option for marriage over divorce…
          …we want to start by acknowledging that it should be clear that the concern Jesus is raising here is the same one he has been raising to us for three weeks now—first in Capernaum, and now in “Judea and beyond the Jordan”: concern for the most vulnerable members of society.
          Divorce in the time of Jesus left vulnerable people—women, and often children—without the means to live a good and productive life.  The division of labor was clear—men work for money or goods, women tend the home.  There were rare exceptions, but the structure of first century Palestinian life was pretty simple and consistent.
          And marriage structured the household for the care of all the people—women, men, children.  It was outlined throughout scripture, and reiterated by Jesus that day “beyond the Jordan:”  “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”
          God intends for us to be in relationship with one another.  God longs for us to be in relationship.  Shortly after creating the first human, God realized that a second human was necessary.  According to the Genesis account, which we heard this morning, as soon as God called that second human into being, God ordained marriage as the structure for their life together. 
          And it is possible to read the account in Genesis 2 and assume that God’s only hope for deep relationship is marriage between a man and a woman.
          If you don’t read past Genesis 2, that is.
          Further on in Genesis, and throughout the scriptural narrative, human beings are called into several types of deep relationships of love and fidelity.
          Abraham loved his son Isaac so much that God used that relationship to test the depths of Abraham’s faith. 
          Moses couldn’t have been Moses without his sister Miriam’s strength and his brother Aaron’s voice.
          James and John, the Sons of Thunder, are seemingly inseparable disciples of Jesus who speak and act in unison.
          David the future king, loved the son of King Saul, Jonathan, so much that upon the death of Jonathan, David sang this Psalm:
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
   your love to me was wonderful,
   passing the love of women.[1] 
          Ruth swore fealty to her mother-in-law Naomi.  Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”[2]
          And then there are these two.  Joseph defied the law to marry a woman carrying a child not his own.  And raised the son of God to be a great human as well as a great Messiah.
          So many relationships. So many kinds of relationships.  Parents and children, stepparents and children, siblings, friends, lovers.
          Relationships marked by bonds of all kinds which share one trait:  a sense that the destiny of the one is caught up in the destiny of the other, caught up in what Dr. King called “an inescapable mutuality.”
          Think about the relationships in your life.  It is my hope for you, and it is certainly God’s hope for you, that you have those sorts of relationships, relationships of “inescapable mutuality.”  God ordained those relationships because they serve important purposes for us. 
          When God created the first woman, it was with clear purpose…which was?
          Help and companionship.
          A marriage relationship, and for that matter any other sort of covenantal relationship, should provide love and companionship.  God ordained marriage in order to provide a helper, a lover, a companion for Adam.  The marriage relationship shelters the persons within it, especially those who are vulnerable.  Protection of the vulnerable is one of its primary purposes. 
          Protection of the vulnerable should be a primary goal of any of us who claim Jesus Christ.  For three weeks now in our gospel lessons, alongside discourses on a range of topics, Jesus has been drawing little children near to him.  In the midst of a conversation about marriage and divorce, Jesus insists that children will be the ones who will inherit the kingdom.
          And during those weeks, in the world beyond this sanctuary, we have seen vulnerable women mocked and vulnerable children locked away.  If this discourse on marriage seems antiquated to you, do look again.  It is the failure to honor and respect one another that has brought us to the precipice of civilization.
          Those who will coax us back from the ledge will be the ones who understand as Dr. King did, as Jesus did, that we are bound to one another, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
          The garment of our destiny is a bit frayed, but it can be mended, when we begin to realize that God called us into relationship with one another for just that purpose.  That we might work together. 
          That we might rise together, and fall together.
          That we might build up what is good, together.  And tear down what is not.  Together.
          God ordained marriage to be a melding of equals for the purpose of care, help, love, and joy.
          God raises up other companions for our journeys as well, because, as God noted in God’s first moments with us, “it is not good for us to be alone.”
          Let us not be alone.  Let us be together.  All of us.  Honestly, the world is counting on us.

[1] 2 Samuel 1:26
[2] Ruth 1:16-17


Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 20, Sept. 23, 2018

          Before I read the gospel text, I want to show you some pictures.  As you look at them, ask yourself one question:  “Which of these persons is the greatest?”
[Show slides]
          We have Bill Gates.
          A teacher, helping a student.
          And Patrick Mahomes, who last Sunday set the record for touchdown passes in the first two games of the season.  In his third start.
          Got your answer?  Shout it out.
          Now I’d like to read the lesson:

The Holy Gospel according to St. Mark, the ninth chapter.  Glory to you, O Lord.
Mark 9:30-37
          30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
               33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
The Gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you,  O Christ.

          Let me show you the pictures.  And ask again.  Of all of the people you see, which one is the greatest?
          Who is it?  Who would Jesus tell us it is?
          “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.  Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

          The greatest of these is the student, who needs help from his teacher.  The one with little autonomy, probably no big bank account.  And little chance of throwing a touchdown pass in the NFL.
          We have now reached the part of Mark’s gospel that is about Identity.
          Who is Jesus?
          Who are we as his disciples?  What do disciples look like, and what values do they hold? 
          We can talk about what disciples do, but it is clear that Jesus is more interested in teaching them who they are.  Because—as we’ve noted before—what we do flows from the values we hold.
          It’s not enough just to put on a t-shirt that says “Christian.”  People will know you are a Christian when they see how you treat others…especially the Last Ones…the least of these.
          Christians move the last to the first, and themselves to the places of less honor.
          So Christians hold some pretty counter-cultural values.  Those are not the values of our 21st century Western culture, are they?
          Who would our culture say is “the greatest” of the people I showed you?  Probably Bill Gates, since Patrick Mahomes hasn’t quite proven himself.  Maybe if I put up Kobe Bryant…  And our culture isn’t exactly holding up and valuing teachers—or children—these days.
          But our call to do so should be very clear.  There should be absolutely no question for us as Christians where greatness lies.
          It can be hard to understand a message so countercultural, can’t it? 
          Our lesson opens with Jesus offering his disciples another chance to understand his purpose.  “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
          How did they do?
          They didn’t understand and were afraid to ask.  In Mark’s gospel especially, the disciples have a very difficult time understanding things.  Understanding Jesus.  And discipleship.  Kind of important things.
          Jesus keeps telling them that the end game of this whole operation is suffering and death.  And that doesn’t make much sense to them.    
          After all, this is the most powerful human ever, right?  Since they’ve been with him, they’ve watched him still a storm, walk on water, feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish, turn around and feed four thousand people. 
          He has cast out demons and healed people of all manner of diseases.
          He even brought back a little girl everyone thought was dead.
          Jesus has incredible, super-natural power.  If he can raise other people from the dead, why would he allow himself to be betrayed and killed?
          It makes no sense to the men who were, just that day, arguing about which of them was “the greatest.”
          Do you think they were arguing about which of them was the most like a powerless little child?
          The most likely to welcome a little child?
          The one who would be willing to suffer on behalf of other people?
          Probably not.
          The word “Great” seems to have a life of its own these days.  It’s not an eternal life, though.  That’s the life we find in following Jesus.  A life which sacrifices for the other.  A life which cares about the last and the least. 
          As Christians, we are called to stand over against the sort of “greatness” that sacrifices the little ones for the sake of earthly power.  And these days that means standing up when we see our children yielded to the bottom line of gun manufacturers.  It means speaking up when we see our immigrant neighbors sent back to dangerous places and their children incarcerated.  For the sake of a seven hundred fifty dollar a day payoff to the prison industrial complex. 
          “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
          That is the place of the disciple.  End of the line.  Giving up power, rather than accumulating more.  Following those who lead us to serve, not to destroy.  Strength through vulnerability.  Power through grace.
          It ain’t pretty.  It ain’t glamorous.
          It ain’t “Great.”
          This world will not reward our discipleship.  And that is how we will know that we are doing it right.