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Sermon on John 4:5-42

March 19, 2017

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we have started using fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.

And my usual disclaimer: sermons are meant to be heard, not read, but this is the manuscript I used to preach this morning. This one began with a dramatic reading of the scripture by three members of the congregation.)

Scripture: John 4:5-42

We come this morning to a story that I have always loved. No doubt, I’ve read this passage of scripture more than just about any other. I’ve written papers about it. It’s regularly taught in youth group or Sunday School classes around here. I’ve preached about it from this pulpit at least one other time, but I think maybe twice.  

This passage contains the longest recorded conversation in any of the gospels and it happens between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. I love the rhythm of the conversation, the flow of topics from actual thirst and actual water to spiritual thirst and spiritual water. I love the way God changed this woman’s life in the course of an afternoon.

And I love the way that we once again bump into The Kingdom of God. Even when Jesus wasn’t explicitly talking about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God. And once again, we are reminded that when the Kingdom of God is set against the kingdom of this world, they could not be more different.

And right away we see that in the Kingdom of God,

outsiders become insiders.

Jesus and his disciples, walking the distance between Jerusalem in the south and Galilee in the north, make a stop mid-way between in Sychar, which is well within Samaria. It is noon and Jesus is tired, so while the disciples go to try to buy lunch, Jesus sits down by a well.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water” is how the interaction begins. Two descriptions about her that make her an outsider to Jesus and his disciples. First, she’s a woman. The societal norms were clear on this one–a man, and especially a man who is a Rabbi, should not speak to a woman that is not his wife or family member. Further, she’s a Samaritan woman, which also makes her a religious and political outsider, since the Jews considered the Samaritans to be unclean.

Jesus obviously knows all of this. He knows she is a woman, he knows she’s a samaritan, he knows the expectations and he willingly reaches out to her with a simple request for a drink of water. Time and again, we see Jesus do this with folks he encountered, whether it’s touching a leper to heal him from disease to engaging a sychophonencian woman in a theological debate.

But there’s something else. It is noon and this woman is coming to the well. In the middle eastern desert during the hottest part of the day. Other women would have already been to the well, choosing instead to go in the cooler part of the day when the sun was just rising. A village well was, and still is in communities that have a common well for water, a gathering place. A place where women gather in the cool of the day before the chores at home need attention. For some reason, this woman goes when she knows she would be there alone. I imagine it’s more than the possibility that she was an introvert who wanted some time to herself.

If we jump ahead for just a second, we realize that this woman has been married multiple times and she’s currently residing with a man who is not her husband. Jesus will tell her this and she will confirm its truth.

Often we read scripture through modern eyes. In this instance, we might assume this woman is somehow to blame for this, that she was rightfully ashamed of how she had been living and that’s why she came to the well in the middle of the day and that’s what Jesus is going to talk to her about.  But we have to read this passage in the ancient context. In the ancient Middle Eastern world, this woman had little or no agency. We don’t know the circumstances of her five previous marriages, whether her husbands had died or abandoned her, how she even came to enter into those unions or even if she had wanted to be married. In the ancient world, no one really cared if a woman was willing to say “I do,” and marriage was more of a transaction, usually arranged by the father of the would-be-bride. Further, it was not advisable or even possible for a woman in the ancient world to live without a man. Women couldn’t provide for themselves. It’s possible that just about everything that was true about her situation were things she could not have changed.

But the actual circumstances do not always matter when it comes to shame, do they? Often, people with little ability to change their circumstances are blamed for the circumstances and are shamed by their communities, whether it’s deserved or not. I think about groups of people in our society in this day and age who are often blamed or shamed, maybe those who are dealing with disabilities or living in poverty. Or people who contract lung cancer–because lung cancer is the cancer that people assume must be the sufferer’s fault. Or I think about circumstances that cause individuals to feel private shame for things they could not have ever controlled, perhaps couples struggling with infertility or who have experienced reproductive loss and struggle in very personal ways, often quietly and alone. People can experience this isolation and separation from their neighbors for lots of reasons, many beyond their control, and I think this is where the woman here now at the well has been living.

This woman is an outsider to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, and she is also an outsider in her city or village, possibly all for reasons beyond her control. It is here where Jesus meets her and invites her into a different, wonderful story. And I think it is a beautiful thing that Jesus met this woman right where she was, and that it was Jesus who crossed those boundaries to reach out to her.  She had no idea when she walked to the well, her head bowed, her eyes to the ground, that she was going to meet the one who created her and that he was about to change her life forever.

In the Kingdom of God, outsiders become insiders because in the Kingdom of God, there are no more outsiders. The King of the Kingdom welcomes all to himself. This is good news not just for the woman standing with Jesus at the well, but for all of us who have found ourselves on the outside, separated from God or from each other.

And so now we come to the rest of the story. Our second point on the outline is that in the Kingdom of God,

dry wells are abandoned and living water flows.

Jesus has crossed lines to engage this woman in conversation and then he does something interesting. Out of the blue, he instructs the woman to go and get her husband and come back. And then, of course, she tells the truth, but in an ambiguous way–like we all do sometimes. “I have no husband.” And then Jesus speaks truth to her about her situation.

Considering the context and all of the things about shame and her outsider status, I do not actually think Jesus is talking about a sin problem, here. This is an assumption that is often held about this text. But I don’t think Jesus is addressing unfaithfulness in marriage…I think what may be happening here is that Jesus is acknowledging a deep emptiness and longing that has not yet been satisfied for her. The love she had experienced had not lasted, for whatever reason. Each relationship had led to a brokenness of some sort. She kept hoping for security or love with each dip of her bucket into the metaphorical relationship well, and that thirst was never permanently quenched.

Jesus offers her living water–a love that will never abandon her, a God who will always meet her needs. This is truly an opportunity for this woman to experience a permanent change in her life.

So I started thinking…what would Jesus have said to me if we had met at that well? He wouldn’t have asked about my husband, I don’t think. I thought and I thought and then it hit me.

Jesus would have looked at me from across the well and said, “Go get your perfect seminary transcript and bring it back here.” And I would have said, “Sir, I don’t have a copy printed.” And he would have said, “You’re right, because you don’t have a perfect seminary transcript because in Dr. Colyer’s doctrine class last semester you ended the term with a B.”

Because for me? That metaphorical well I keep revisiting hoping for permanent satisfaction is the well of approval. I want you, any of you, all of you, all of the people out there, all of my professors to approve of me and like me. It’s in my nature to go to whatever ridiculous length necessary to gain approval. But guess what? That’s a well that dries up fast. Because sometimes I make mistakes. Or I have to say something people don’t want to hear. Or someone just doesn’t like me. And even when I am well-liked, or my professors think I’m smart, that relief only lasts for a little bit…and then I need more praise and agreement and affirmation. But I was created and called to seek living water–the approval of ONE, the approval of God. That’s the water that will last.

What else might there be? What are the other wells that people go back to over and over again hoping for permanent satisfaction only to end up empty again?

On Sunday nights in the Fellowship Hall, a group of about 12 have been meeting to discuss Jen Hatmaker’s book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” As we read the book, we are thinking about the things that we have in our lives that we have a hard time using in moderation, and how sometimes those things become replacements for God. We’ve talked about food. We’ve talked about clothing. Tonight, Jesus be with me, we are talking about media.

One of the things we are really talking about, though, is that fact that in general, us humans have an emptiness inside of us, and that emptiness can be relentless. And sometimes, we try to fill that emptiness with…well, stuff. We buy bigger houses and seek promotions and we earn more money and we buy more stuff…and then we’re still empty, because those are not things that are eternal, and what we are really longing for, us humans, is something eternal.

So we go back to the same wells. For this woman, it was hope that the next relationship would last and bring security. For me, it’s approval and assurance that I’m good enough.

For someone else, Jesus might have talked about love of money or worldly success. Or the purchasing of new things–retail therapy. Or maybe about an addiction to drugs or alcohol or pornography or facebook. All wells that might fill someone up for a little bit, might quench a particular thirst for an amount of time…but not forever.

But Jesus offers another way, and a water that will truly quench those longings inside of us. If we would come to his well and drink deeply of the living water that comes to us through scripture, through prayer, through worship in spirit and truth, through trusting in God’s grace and listening for God’s call to us, seeking the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of this world…we will never be thirsty again and our lives will be changed forever. And through our changed lives, God will change the lives of others. Because point number 3 is…

changed lives change lives.

In this one afternoon, this one woman’s life is changed forever. Jesus offers her living water and in it she finds a new identity as a child of God, loved and accepted, and a call to worship in spirit and truth.

And then God uses her newly changed life to change the lives of others in her community. This unnamed woman is often regarded as the first evangelist. She’s the first one who calls others to faith in Christ as the Messiah. Look–(read the come and see part of the passage).

All of a sudden the woman who went to the well at noon to avoid her neighbors is calling for them to come. In that interaction, Jesus changed her life, her identity, her understanding about who she was so dramatically that now she is inviting others to come and see.

And they did come, they left the city and came to the well and they heard this woman’s testimony and they believed in Jesus as the messiah. And they invited him to stay and even more Samaritans came to follow Jesus because of this one interaction at the well between Jesus and this woman whose name we never even learn.

She was living her ordinary life and Jesus broke in, reaching across many barriers, called her to him and offered her the thing she had been truly longing for, changing her life in such a way that God used her life and story to change the lives of so many of her neighbors.

Maybe you’ve been someone like this woman. Maybe God has changed your life in such a way that you’ve been able to offer this witness to others and maybe God has used your changed life to change the lives of your neighbors near and far. Maybe you’ve been unable to contain the gratitude you feel for a God who would call you in from the outside and claim you as God’s own, and you’ve shouted it from the roads and rooftops.

Or maybe you’ve known someone like this woman, and someone else’s story of how God has been visible and at work in his or her life has been the vehicle for change in your own life.

Did you know that this is God’s plan for evangelism? Did you know that God uses people–often ordinary, broken, flawed people at that–to bring the gospel to light for others? That the plan for the movement of the gospel involves one neighbor at a time, experiencing the love and grace of God and then sharing that same love and grace with others.

Where does Jesus find you this morning? Are you feeling like you’re on the outside, looking in? Is Jesus calling you to stop going to the same dried up well for joy or relief, and instead drink deeply of the living water that will bring joy and relief eternal? Are there people around you who are thirsty and in need of the hope that comes from the good news of a God who cares and loves and changes lives?

May we know Jesus’ calling, allow God to continue to change and challenge us, and be willing to bear witness to the goodness of God for the sake of our neighbors. Praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

#Saving

December 15, 2016

“Saving” was a word I had to think about all day yesterday before I settled on a photo. What exactly does “saving”look like when it comes to a photo challenge? What does it mean to save something or some situation or someone?

I thought about the word while I took my Hebrew final exam yesterday morning and encountered this word’s Hebrew equivalent.

I thought about it while I drove past banks.

I thought about it when I reached out twice yesterday afternoon and grabbed buckets of perler beads from the hands of children who were just about to drop them all over the floor.

I thought about it while I stood with the children around the big Nativity set in the fellowship hall last night.

I thought about it while 4 girls, poised over sheets of drawing paper with pencils in their hands, considered the stories in scripture about Jesus’ birth and drew their own interpretations of them. They asked each other (and me) questions about dress, customs, timeline, and particular elements of the story that are missing or not as prominent as most would assume. They asked questions they could answer for each other and questions that no one in the room could possibly answer. “Really?” they asked each other. “Is that true?” they asked. “I never thought about it that way before!” they exclaimed.

I thought about how stories are saved and kept. How having them written down is good, but knowing them through questioning and answering and drawing is better.

“Did you know that an angel told Mary she was going to have a baby before anyone else knew? And Mary was really confused, because she wasn’t even married! And she was probably upset at first, but it turned out to be good news…the goodest news!” A nine year-old boy explained me to yesterday afternoon as we worked on his homework together.

It’s news we still tell each other about, news we still keep, save, discuss, and draw.

 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’  Luke 1:26-33

No Room For Fear

July 3, 2016

south dakota[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. But I suppose I can trust the Holy Spirit to work in the reading of the manuscript as well. Here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]

This summer I planned and participated in my 11th Summer of High School Mission Trips with our Presbytery, to the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. The plans began as usual—once the students in our Presbytery had voted on the location, I secured 40 spots with the host company, Youthworks, and made fliers and registration forms so students and leaders could sign up by early January, a week ahead of the deadline to drop spots without any financial penalty. It is understood that deposits are non-refundable, and each church that takes spaces is responsible for paying for the spaces they claim. By the drop deadline, we had almost 40 spaces claimed by churches in our Presbytery and there was no turning back—we had to pay for all of our spaces.

Sometime in the middle of February, my phone rang. It was an elder at one of the churches in our Presbytery, a church that had claimed a number of spots for the trip. She told me about how she and the youth leader at their church had been doing some research on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and she wondered if I had realized what a dangerous place it was? She told me about the high incidence of poverty, and the high incidence of alcoholism on the reservation. I assured her I had done my research on that. “And did you know,” she further questioned me, “that they have the highest crime rate in South Dakota?” I had not stumbled upon that research, but it was not incredibly surprising to me, as high poverty and high crime are unfortunately often cousins in many communities…also, there is the factor of the size of South Dakota relative to its population. It is a big space with few concentrated areas of population to figure into her “highest crime rate” research. She grilled me about how many men were going and could I insure that their teenage girls would be safe. She wanted to know specific plans for travel and how secure the building that would house the students would be. She wondered why, if Youthworks has been serving on the reservation for almost 20 years, there hasn’t been enough improvement that they are no longer needed—a fair question, I suppose, but one that revealed that perhaps she wasn’t very familiar with the tumultuous history of the Native American and our nation’s reservations.

I answered her questions as best I could and put her in touch with our organizer at Youthworks, who also answered her questions about safety and tried to assure her as much as she could about safety concerns. Ultimately, she was not satisfied that her church’s team would be safe and they backed out of the trip, which cost the Presbytery a good chunk of money for spots that could not be refunded to us, even as this particular church demanded a full refund and threatened litigation otherwise. Another youth minister and I decided that we would just offer the refund and that it was probably good not to take adults and students who through research had learned to be afraid of the very people we were going to serve.

But the point of me telling you that story is not to point out what I consider to be less than ideal circumstances for planning the mission trip. My point in sharing is to tell you what happened next and to admit here for the first time publicly that her questions and concerns ate away at me for the rest of February. What if I was taking our high school students and our Presbytery’s high school students to an unsafe place? What if her concerns about the crime rate were wise and I was being foolish? What if this trip was that trip—the trip on which something went horribly wrong  and would turn out to be the worst decision I ever made as a leader?

As usual, Jesus has something to say to me about this. It is something he teaches to his disciples as he sent them out, two by two, to serve and preach. It is something he made clear through the ministry he himself was committed to doing. Listen now for God’s word in Luke:

Luke 10:1-11; 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

 ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’

 The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Here we have a glimpse into the logistics of Jesus’ mission work. Seventy disciples were sent in pairs to go ahead of him into the towns and villages—a scouting mission of sorts. Perhaps Jesus was making decisions about where he went next based on this scouting…or perhaps he was counting on his missionaries to make a clear path for the Word of God to be preached and witnessed…or perhaps this was a way for him to prepare leadership for when he was gone. Any which way, 35 pairs of disciples carrying the good news could cover much more area than one Messiah and his closest students making their way around to the cities and towns.

In his instructions, Jesus acknowledges a few things:

  1. That he was sending them out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
  2. That this mission was best carried out with few possessions to keep track of and limited small talk along the way.
  3. That they were to carry a message of peace, and if it was received in a particular household, they were to reside there and bless the house with peace.
  4. That they would be dependent on the hospitality of the residents of the homes they would visit.
  5. And that some towns would welcome them and some towns would not, and in the welcoming places they would do ministry and in the unwelcoming places, they would shake the dust from their feet and move along.

Nowhere, does Jesus promise any sort of safety. Nowhere does Jesus guarantee that they will experience welcome and joy and have a great time. In fact, Jesus seems to imply that this could be dangerous or trouble-filled—sending lambs to wolves hardly ever ends without bloodshed, after all. We may look back with romantic blinders on and think that perhaps the first century world was safer, but a study of church history in Jesus’ day and in the first three centuries of the Christian Church will tell another story—the disciples were taking their lives into their hands by following Jesus. Jesus was always in danger and eventually, as we know, that caught up with him. Jesus and his disciples knew that their mission was a dangerous one.

Nowhere in Scripture are we promised that following Jesus or submitting to God or living a life filled with the Holy Spirit will be safe or even comfortable. But we are told 360 some odd times in Scripture that we need not be afraid.

But sisters and brothers, that is not easy is it? We live in a world full of fear and terror and terrorism. Our current presidential election cycle is overflowing with rhetoric from either side of the aisle intended to make you feel scared and register your vote from that fear. Your 24-hour news coverage will inform you about every single frightening thing that has happened, seems to have happened, or could happen one day. People prep for Doomsday, churches host active shooter drills in their SANCTUARIES of all places, our tiniest children learn lockdown procedures, and we have learned that there is nowhere safe enough or sacred enough to keep evil away.

It’s easy to see why people give into the fear. It is natural to want our families to be secure—bodily, financially, emotionally. It was easy for me to begin to succumb to fear once it was presented to me in February regarding our mission trip. I would never want anything to happen to our mission team. I work very hard in everything I plan and do to ensure safety for the kids we love.

But here is what I realized: In the Kingdom of God there is no room for fear.

Once I got my head on straight and had a long talk with the Youthworks organizer, I realized that I could look the prospect of fear in the eye and banish it with regards to our mission trip. And we had a great trip—and never once did Ginny or I sense that our team was in danger. The poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation is the worst I’ve ever seen. The children of the reservation carry such heavy burdens on their small shoulders, and our students did meaningful work loving them and encouraging them and listening to their stories and spending time teaching and playing with them. It would have been a tragic thing for us or for me to bow to the fear that might have stopped us from going. We were called to carry peace and hope, and for the six days we were there, it was received by the residents of Wanblee, SD.

This morning, we will share the words of the Confession of Belhar in the place where we normally recite the Apostle’s Creed. The reason we are using the Belhar confession today is because ten days ago, the GA of our church adopted this confession into our book of Confessions, after a four year process that involved two voting bodies at GA and a vote in each presbytery, all requiring a 2/3 majority. Belhar will be the 12th document in our book, and it will share space with the Apostle’s Creed, the Westminster Catechism, and the Barmen Declaration, which is a more recent document which came out of Germany in the 1930s as a group of Christ’s faithful refused to give into fear and participate in persecution of Jewish neighbors. Like the Barmen Declaration, Belhar comes out of a particular place and time, namely South Africa in 1982, during the days of Apartheid. The Christians who wrote this confession took a stand against what they saw as racial injustice and division in the Body of Christ and instead stood for unity, community, and reconciliation, and that Christ does not exclude Christians from the Table based on dividing factors that humanity has created. According to Belhar, God is the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged, and for this reason the church should stand by people in any form of suffering or oppression. It invites the Church to renounce injustice and separation in the Body of Christ. And the adoption of this confession by the Dutch Reformed Missionary Church in South Africa was not an easy or safe adoption. In the confession, they state this clearly: “We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.” Rather than fear, they trusted in God and they knew that God’s Kingdom is not one of fear.

Back in Luke, for the 70 disciples, it appears to have been a victorious mission. We are told they returned with joy and were amazed at how even the demons had submitted to them. Jesus celebrates with them, we read, but reminds them that it is not in these daily victories or struggles that they are to find their means of rejoicing, but in their status as God’s own children, beloved with their names written into eternal life.

St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on the world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we too have a mission—a mission to seek and offer God’s peace to those who are lost; a mission to feed and clothe and care for those who go without; a mission to be the Body of Christ here today. And some days, we’ll find a willing and ready field to joyfully harvest. At all times, however, we have the sweet peace of Christ as our constant companion. May you know this peace today and may you speak this peace and live this peace and share this peace everywhere you are called. Amen.

JESUS MAFA. Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287 [retrieved April 25, 2016].

JESUS MAFA. Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287 [retrieved April 25, 2016].

[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]

If you’re here on Wednesday nights, you know that there are usually several children here. Some of them are the children of our church families who you are also likely to see on Sunday mornings. But we also, on Wednesday nights, have several of our after school program kids who stay for dinner. They can do this because Mary Royalty, one of our children’s ministry assistants, and Dorothy Jourdan, a high student, agree to stay for the hour in between the time that after school club ends and Wednesday night dinners begin. For that night each week we can feed children dinner, and we can also include our after school kids in our children’s choir rehearsal and provide some Christian formation.

On a Wednesday night this past fall, Carolyn Dorsey was here at our church. She was sharing about the Sadie Sunshine chapter of Crochet for Cancer. She had brought with her a large sample of the items she and her team members around the world make and that she mails to hospitals and patients, and these sample hats and prayer shawls, and prayer squares were displayed creatively on a table near the lectern.

If you’re here early enough on Wednesday night, you also know there’s a bit of a procession when the kids can finally leave the gym and come to the fellowship hall. When there is a special guest with a table display set up, things get exciting pretty quickly. The children race to be the first one to look at the items on display. So on the night of Ms. Dorsey’s visit, at five minutes til six, her table was swarmed by elementary and preschool aged children wanting to look at the bright display of knitted and crocheted items.

One little girl, age nine, looked at the display before her. She’s smart and a good reader, so she began reading some of the descriptions out loud. I listened to her analyze the contents of various bags and read the tag on one of them. Suddenly, her jaw dropped and her smile disappeared. “Wait,” she said. “Kids get cancer?” I let the question hang in the air, until she directed it to me. “Ms. Becky, kids get cancer?” She asked me. So I put my hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eye and I told her some quick version of the answer that yes they do and yes that’s sad and yes we should pray for them and their families….and then in the mix of getting ready for dinner, I hurried to break up an argument about how many cookies constitute one dessert.

A couple of moments later, I looked down to see the nine year-old girl standing beside me, holding out a dollar bill. Confused, I asked her what it was for. “Kids get cancer,” she said. “I don’t want that to happen anymore. Give it to the lady so she can help them.” Now, without letting you into personal family matters I will just mention that to a lot nine year-olds, a dollar is only a fraction of what the tooth fairy brings or a small part of the week’s allowance or the amount they can make by taking out the trash at home…but to my young friend, it was a pretty big chunk of money and not something she would usually be carrying—in fact, she told me it was all the money she had with her. And I will tell you that we took that money to Carolyn and she was grateful for the child’s gift offered so honestly and purely to her work. And I have no doubt Carolyn used that dollar to send a fun hat to a child suffering from a dreadful disease and that our little friend was a partner in bringing some joy to the child who received it.

Today’s gospel reading starts in the middle of a tense moment in the life of Christ. Chapter six starts with the words: “After this…” After what? Well, in chapter five Jesus heals a man—restores health after 38 years of illness—38 years! that’s the length of my entire lifetime. And then, of course it was the Sabbath, so instead of celebrating the restoration of a man who had most likely, and understandably, given up by now that he would ever be healthy again, the religious leaders attacked with questions and accusations. It’s after this, John 5 tells us, that the leaders began to rally for Jesus’ death. Chapter 5 ends with Jesus making his case about his relationship with God and the ministry he was called to do…and then chapter 6 begins with an escape attempt—first across the sea and then up into the mountains.

But the crowd is persistent. They have seen Jesus heal—the sick man in chapter 5, others before him. They want to be with Jesus. And oh, compassionate Jesus realizes that no doubt this devoted, persistent crowd is hungry—they’ve walked around a sea, they’ve walked up into the mountains to be with him. With them, they carried children on their backs and in their arms, and I imagine some carried sick relatives they were hoping Jesus would touch.

Now Jesus is a teacher, and so he asks a question of his students: “Where will we buy bread for these people to eat?”

This is an interesting question. And in it, there is something implied that perhaps the disciples were not expecting. Jesus is implying that it is the disciple’s task—and his task, he says “we”—to provide food for the crowd.

Now notice—Jesus doesn’t ask HOW will we buy bread. He asks WHERE will we buy bread.

Philip however, responds as though Jesus asked HOW. “Jesus have you seen the crowd? We could catch and sell fish for six months and still not have enough money to feed this crowd well.”

Now obviously some conversations are missing here. I imagine that Jesus instructed his disciples to find something for the crowd to eat, as he does in other Gospel accounts of the feeding of the multitudes, sending the disciples on a mission to survey the crowd, perhaps.

Philip comes back with something—“I got a kid with a lunch box! Five barley loaves, two fish.”

And then he adds a sentence that tells us that rather than being just plain hopeful, he was feeling a bit skeptical—“but what are they among so many people?”

And then you know how the miracle goes—the people sit down (in other gospels we’re told that they were organized a bit), Jesus gives thanks, breaks the bread and the fish, and people ate as much as they wanted to eat with twelve baskets of leftovers to spare.

All because Jesus is the worker of miracles…and because a boy shared his lunch.

Now, I want to talk about this little boy. The other gospels do not mention him and I am not really sure why because it seems like an interesting part of the story, at least to me, but I might be biased since I tend to find most children to be mostly interesting most of the time.

This boy, mentioned here in John 6, helps us remember 3 really important things about offering our gifts in ministry as we are called to partner with Jesus.

First, the child present here was generous with what he had to offer. It had been a long day, he had taken a long walk, and he was no doubt as hungry as the rest of the crowd. Sure, you might believe that he was coerced into offering his food to the task at hand, but I know children and I know that they are often eager and trusting with their gifts, so I believe he offered his lunch with open hands and a willing heart, much like my little friend offered her dollar to Carolyn’s ministry.

In our human condition, especially as we get older and more cynical, we are much more likely to clench our fists and hold onto whatever good gifts we have—for fear of what? That there really isn’t enough to go around? That if we let it go, it might benefit the wrong person? That it might not be appreciated or valued in the hands of another?

But in the face of our fears and unwilling hearts, Scripture tells us a different story. In James, we read that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Psalm 24 reminds us that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it! In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul reminds us that we’ve been given a trust and the opportunity to be faithful with what we’ve been given. Nothing we have actually belongs to us—it all is God’s anyway. You can’t take it with you, you can’t even secure most of it completely—ask anyone whose home has burned down or who has lost money on a sure thing investment. Every good thing we have comes from God and we are entrusted with it. To take God’s generosity and hoard it for ourselves is not what we are called to do. Be shrewd and careful, yes; be good stewards, yes; but hold onto it for selfish gain? Never our calling as disciples.

Second, the child saw value in what he had to offer. Not only did he offer his lunch with generosity, but he offered it with childlike faith that it was a useful gift. There were, no doubt, some adults in the crowd who had pieces of food in their bags…but it’s a child who offers up his lunch. As adults, whether we are among the crowd or among the disciples, we tend to downplay our own gifts and potential offerings. Too little, too small, too tarnished, too mediocre, etc. We look at the size of the problem and we make the determination that what we have is not enough…or not good enough. Not this child! This child saw his lunch as a viable solution—otherwise, he wouldn’t have offered it. Where others saw scarcity, the boy saw the potential for abundance. The beautiful thing about children is that they believe that their dollar…or their lunch…or whatever gift they are holding out matters and is worthy.

In the Church and in our lives, we often doubt the goodness of the gifts we have to offer. We’re more like Andrew who wonders how the boy’s lunch could possibly be valuable to Jesus in the face of such a perceived shortage. The need is too great…I don’t have enough…what I have isn’t very good…these are all the things that we’ve learned to tell ourselves.

But what if we were to have faith like a child? What if we trusted that in Jesus’ hands, our gifts would be enough? Or that us + Jesus is always bigger than any problem faced?

Here’s a third thing to notice here: Jesus found a partner in the little boy. Because the little boy was generous to share, and because the boy believed he had something to offer Jesus and the crowd, Jesus called him into ministry. It strikes me that if we look in Scripture, we would be hard-pressed to find any instances of God not partnering with people. From Noah to Abraham to Moses to the judges and the prophets and even some of the kings…to Mary, John the Baptist…

And this little boy! If Jesus had wanted to, he could have called down bread from heaven—I believe that he could have. But not only did he invite the disciples into partnership in addressing the crowd’s hunger, but he used the gift of bread and fish, offered by small hands, to feed the multitude.

And Church—we are called into partnership with Jesus as well. Jesus is still asking “where are we going to get bread to feed these people?”or “from where will the resources come so clean water can become the norm in the developing world?”or “who will carry and share the gospel to the ends of the earth?” or even “who will love this one neighbor no one is loving?”

Well…I’m convinced that these resources are found among the Body of Christ. We each have God-given gifts. We are blessed to overflowing—so many resources and abilities and creative solutions and talents are present in this room…and in the Church worldwide.

May we open our hands in generosity, refusing to hoard the gifts of God…may we boldly offer what we have been given, refusing to believe that it’s not enough…and may we recognize the opportunities we have around us to share in ministry with Jesus, the one who can always make a way in hard or impossible situations thanks be to God!

Sermon: Mark 10:17-31

October 10, 2015
chinese depiction of Jesus and Rich Young Ruler

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler; Beijing, 1879 via Wikipedia

[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]

Have you ever had a reason to sell all of your possessions? About five years ago, shortly after my friend and church member Whitney Guthrie made all of the arrangements to move to Chile for a term of 3 years with Operation Mobilization, I helped her price items for her moving away yard sale. She was selling nearly everything she owned—every piece of furniture, all of her books, DVDs, CDs, knick-knacks, her dishes, small appliances, and at least half of her clothing. All of the money made would go toward her travel and living expenses in Chile while she made the transition to raising her own salary. The day of the sale, I sat with her in front yard and on her behalf haggled with neighbors who thought that $1 was too much to pay for a t-shirt. “She’s going to be a missionary,” I told one of them slowly. “Your $1 gets you a tshirt and you get to support a missionary.” “Would you take 50cents?” she asked in reply. I remember the anxiety I felt over Whitney selling nearly all of her earthly goods, so much that I even bought or offered to keep some of the items that I knew she particularly liked—a couple of t-shirts and DVDs and books—just so that I could give them back to her when she came back.

I remember watching Whitney let go of all of the things that had filled her life, as well as childhood bedrooms, dorm rooms, and apartments through the years. She was the embodiment of grace during that process, choosing to not focus on what she was losing, or how little money she was taking in for items that were much more expensive at their original purchase, but instead setting her eyes on the greater goal and her calling from Jesus.

Today we meet a man who was not ready to hear that calling from Jesus. Listen now for God’s word.

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

So here is one of those passages in Mark where it seems that Jesus is actively trying to keep Christianity weird. But this man does not just appear in Mark. Here, we see that he is very wealthy. In Luke, he is called a ruler. In Matthew, the fact that he is young is emphasized. Typically, this character is called “The Rich Young Ruler.” He does appear to be sincere, as he approaches Jesus, kneeling, calling him “good teacher.” Jesus, as he does sometimes in the gospels, seems to want to banter with the man a bit. We see him do it with the woman at the well in John 4, with the sycophoenecian woman who talks to him about dogs at the master’s table, with some of the people he heals throughout the gospels. I sometimes wonder which was more normal for Jesus—to simply do what was asked of him or to engage in some challenging conversation first.

The man’s concern is with his own soul and his own righteousness. Jesus establishes that the man does know about the commandments and has even kept them. Then Jesus says something confusing for man who had kept all of the commandments and probably considered his wealth a reward for good living: sell all you own, give money to the poor, be assured of your treasure in heaven, and follow me!

The man’s reaction is to go away grieving.

I think Jesus’ reaction is equally important. We are told that Jesus loved the man. And so when he goes away grieving, I can sense that Jesus grieved, too. I’ve been there. When I sit with a sixteen year old girl who once said “yes” to Jesus and determined to live into her baptismal covenant and follow God’s commandments, and I challenge her to stand in faith and not do the things her peers are pressuring her to do and she shrugs her shoulders and says, “I mean…everyone does it.” or “I just want to be popular.” and then she stops coming to youth group or church because she’s counted the cost and she doesn’t want to pay it, Jesus stands with me in this moment and I know a small bit of the sadness he must have felt.

We read that his immediate words are to his disciples, almost as though he’s sharing grief with them too—“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” It is here he compares that task with a camel going through the eye of a needle. I read with some interest this week that there have been various attempts throughout the years to soften this comparison by suggesting a mistranslation or mistake in copying the Greek in one manuscript or another along the way—maybe Jesus actually meant something  that is smaller than a camel, something a little more possible to fit through the eye of a needle. But friends, have you seen the eye of a needle? You can often barely get the thread that’s designed to pass through it to fit, much less anything else that is bigger. Jesus intends to be absurd here.

The disciples are as surprised as the man, we can assume. Who has any hope at completing that impossible task, they want to know.

Jesus tells us something we’ve heard before—in fact, you’ll find it on the front of your bulletin in our church vision statement: nothing is impossible for God.

I would like to suggest this morning that when faced by such a challenge by Jesus, when the cost of discipleship seems too great, we can make one of four choices.

The first response we might have is the one that the man in Mark 10 chose—to go away grieving. Jesus said something hard and the man decided it was not worth the great cost to do what Jesus said, so he simply went away. His life spent following the commandments, but this was too much to ask.

The second option we have is to brush off Jesus’ words. We may choose to simply ignore them or read them without taking them into consideration, or we can just write them off as a weird thing Jesus said or did not really mean or we can choose to hang our hope on the “with God all things are possible” part and move along. I thought this week that it would seem that there are lots of people who insist that we must interpret the Bible absolutely literally who have never even considered taking this section literally. If you’re the preacher this morning, perhaps you’d preach the Hebrews passage also into today’s lectionary instead and leave this camel and needle business alone. There are plenty who do that with this passage and I was certainly tempted to do so. Although I think that it should be said that if we read Scripture or hear the words of the Jesus and decide not to consider them because it disrupts the lives we are living, that is idolatry.

The third response would be to take this passage and all other passages completely literally and live this out—sell your stuff and follow Jesus without hesitation. And some have done that, which certainly takes much faith and resolve.

The fourth response is where I want to spend some time this morning, however. I think the fourth response is to stick around, not brush the words aside, and let the Holy Spirit work in our hearts. You see, if the man in our passage is to be blamed, it’s not because he was rich and it’s not because Jesus’ words caused him to struggle. It’s because he walked away. I wish he would have stuck around for a few minutes and asked Jesus some questions about this and allowed himself some space to consider the possibility present in what Jesus was asking him.

I come to you, Jesus’ Church, and I ask you, what are we to do with this passage this morning? Let’s take a moment to think about what that would mean if we understand that Jesus is asking us to do these hard things. What would it mean for you or I to sell everything we have and follow Jesus? What does that look like in your household? We know that a good many of the first followers of Jesus and members of the early church did just that—sell all their possessions and have everything in common. How does it feel to consider this? Honestly in your heart, ponder how you would have responded to hearing Jesus say this to you—“sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, be assured of your treasure in heaven, and follow me.”

Rather than mounting a moral high horse, I empathize with the rich young man. I could have just as easily made the same decision. These words of Jesus are difficult for me. Mark never gets back to this man, but I do wonder if maybe later on, after he had some time to think about it, if he made a different decision and decided to follow Jesus.

Having wrestled with this passage all week, I do have a few concluding thoughts.

It is very easy, when one has gathered money or things, to put trust in money or things. A truth about wealth is that often once we are on the course to acquire it, it’s possible to never get off of that course. We can always want more money or better things, and it is possible to never be content with what we have.

Jesus is speaking against this mindset, and against the natural human inclination to put our trust in things that are not God and have no place in God’s Kingdom. If wealth is our reason for being and our priority, we are not seeking the values of Jesus’ Upside Down Kingdom. Again, Jesus reminds us: the first will be last and the last will be first. The things the world values are not the values of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus’ words are hard this morning. If you are looking for the exits, it’s hard to blame you. But my hope today is that rather than going away grieving, we stay with Jesus and let the words here challenge our hearts. What is God calling us to do concerning our things? Where are our priorities and what motivates us? What are we doing to serve the Kingdom of God? How are we following Jesus rather than our own human desires?

The good news is this: what you may not be able to imagine happening by your own human power and ability suddenly becomes possible when submitted and entrusted to God, to whom all things are possible. Alleluia, Amen.

Sermon: Mark 9:30-37

September 19, 2015
jesus mafa welcomes the children

artwork from jesusmafa.com

The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon!

I’ve blogged about the incident I use as an illustration at the beginning. Here it is.

 

About six months ago, we celebrated Maundy Thursday here in this sanctuary, remembering the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples, and ending our Lenten celebration together. That night, Rich was leading worship and he and I were serving communion together. I sat right *there* (the front pew) so that I would be near the front to assist when it was time to serve the holy meal. A small child from our after school ministry sat with me. From the moment she entered the sanctuary and took her seat, she aware of the communion table. “Bread!” she exclaimed when she sat down. She kept her eye on it nearly the whole time. As the first hymn was sung, she leaned forward and studied it. As the Scripture for the night was read, she pointed to the table as it was mentioned. Occasionally she would look at me, then look at the table with an inquisitive look on her face, and I would take my finger and indicate to her where we were and then slide my finger down to the word “Communion” so she could see how much longer it would be. When Rich preached and spoke about the Bread and the Cup, she waved her arms grandly toward the table. In response to my own questioning look, she whispered, “I just want to make sure everyone knows what he is talking about.” My favorite part, though, came when Rich moved to the table and stood behind it. My little friend knew that it was showtime. She stood to her feet, even though the entire congregation remained seated, and all but took a starter’s position. When Rich finally said those long awaited words, “Come to the table, all is ready,” she was standing toe to toe with him before he could even finish the sentence, looking up at him through glasses perched on her nose and anxiously holding out her hands.

This child, small for her age, the youngest of a large number of children in her family, a member of the backpack club (at her school, this means that she gets to take a special backpack full of meal and snack food home on weekends), is “least” in a lot of ways, at least by how we would qualify it. And I imagine it was exactly a child like her that Jesus holds onto in our Scripture passage for today:

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for 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.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

Mark does not usually provide us with a very kind snapshot of Jesus’ disciples. Here, he features their failure to understand his teaching once again, and a petty argument that happens between them as they traveled together through the Galilean countryside. Truly, the disciples are just like us. They are our heroes because they left all that they knew and followed Jesus, and after Jesus’ resurrection, they helped people become disciples, they baptized thousands, and most of them were martyred for their faith. But here in the middle, they seem kind of…well, they don’t seem to be all that great at being disciples.

Jesus asks the disciples about their argument, and they are ashamed for they know that what they had been talking about has no place in the Kingdom of God. They’ve been with Jesus long enough to know how his whole disciple thing works, but probably they couldn’t help themselves. The weeks and months of walking with Jesus, watching him heal the blind, the infirm, the demon-possessed…sitting in the boat while he walked to them on water…the lunchbox of loaves and fish that became a feast for 5000—they are following the real deal. Here is the Messiah, and they are ones who comprise his closest circle. I think they just couldn’t stop themselves from speculating about what Jesus will appoint each of them to do when he comes to power.

Really, what they’ve misunderstood, though, is what kind of Kingdom Jesus is going to rule. Why do they not understand Jesus when he talks about suffering and death and resurrection? Because it does not fit into their understanding of Kingdom. Why would a promised King—a Messiah, the anointed one of God—suffer and die? Why wouldn’t the advent of his Kingdom usher in a time of victory for a people who were waiting in dark oppression under the Roman government…or at least for the nobodies that had left their lives and livelihoods to follow him?

Yet, Jesus took a child in his arms, the Scriptures say. This is not a cute, warm fuzzy story about Jesus and children. In this passage, Jesus is making a statement about power. In Jesus’ day, a child was important for the sake of the future—parents needed to have children so that they would be cared for in old age, for the sake of their family name, and because they needed someone to inherit any wealth or property. But while a child was a still a child, he or she was a liability, prone to illness, helpless, weak, and not a big contributor to the family economy. A small child is about as powerless as a human being can be. With small children, it is easy to actually overlook them.

Jesus is making a stark statement about the values of his Kingdom—his upside down, turn anything conventional on its head, Kingdom. “When you welcome this child, you welcome me,” Jesus suggests. I can almost see the disciples squirming—no, Lord, you are powerful. You’re the Messiah. You do great things. You’re so much more than a child! Oh, but in this Kingdom, greatness is not measured in power or import. Greatness is measured in humility, hospitality, and servanthood. If the greatness we seek is measured in power, money, success, or the goods we own, we are not walking the same path as the Lord we claim with our lips.

Think about any of the many overwhelming or terrible or heartbreaking situations in our nation or in world right now—there are so many to choose from.

I’m not here to debate or affirm or even to inform your politics this morning—I don’t have a degree in politics. But I can tell you about Jesus and I can tell you this: Jesus holds close, stands with, and elevates the ones who are least. The single mom working two or three jobs and still not making enough money to make all the ends meet to put food on the table, pay the rent, keep the lights on, and provide extracurricular opportunities for her children? She matters to Jesus and she should matter to Jesus’ Church. The tiny child tossed around in the sea until the waves overwhelm him and his lifeless body is washed up on the shore of the country his family was desperately trying to reach? Jesus welcomes and embraces him, his family, and his fellow travelers, and the Church should be on the front line of welcoming and resourcing that situation. The fourteen year old girl kidnapped and sold into the sex trade, abused, used, forgotten? Jesus has not forgotten her and neither should Jesus’ Church. Christian pastors, missionaries, and believers imprisoned, executed publicly—martyred for their faith? Jesus has been there too and the Church cannot turn her back to the horror of that situation. Insert whatever overwhelming or terrible situation you have thought about in the past moment and think about who in that situation is weak, terrorized, powerless, disregarded, rejected, scared, small, or abandoned. That’s where you’ll find Jesus’ heart and that’s where ours should be too.

In many ways, this teaching provides the easy yoke of Jesus. His words are hard, but being last is not hard. Everyone else is clamoring to be first, elbowing and pushing to be at the head of the line or seated in a prominent place at the table. There’s a lot less competition to be at the end of the line. Welcoming others is a lot easier than passing judgment to determine worth and assessing whether or not someone matters. There’s a freedom that comes when one stops working so hard to convince others that one is good enough or talented enough or pretty enough and simply accepts the favor of God and allows the Holy Spirit to be at work.

Jesus’ words in Mark 9 caused a bit of a stir among the disciples, no doubt, as they continued on a journey of misunderstanding. They certainly stir up my heart as I think about the values of the Kingdom of God and consider what it means for my own human pursuits. Jesus’ words are a challenge to consider the things and the people we value. We can simply dismiss them today because they are hard to understand and live into, or we can accept the challenge of the Holy Spirit to consider the ways we welcome those who have no power or no status—whether they come to us in the form of tired refugees seeking safety across our borders or a small, hungry girl eager for the communion part of the service to start.

Lord, may the things that break your heart break ours too, and may we never fail to welcome and serve the least and the last.

Photo-a-Day: #Endure

March 26, 2015

Well, I basically disappeared from Lent.

I mean, I haven’t been completely unfaithful to my practices, but I sure haven’t been posting my pictures. Part of it is because I have a new laptop and I can’t get my photostream to sync up right so if I want to take a pic with my phone and post it on my blog I either have to use a pretty fair-weather wordpress app that I don’t really like or I have to email the pic, download the pic, then post the pic. Does that make me sound lazy? I’m a little bit lazy about it.

But also, I’ve added seminary classes to my life this year and well…I have not done as great of a job this year creating and keeping time for photos and reflecting on photos and writing.

However, I’m determined to endure. Sure, I’m like 9 days behind, but that doesn’t mean I can’t share some of the pictures I’ve taken with the word of each day in mind.

I might feel a bit like this young lady who walked into the church gym for after school club last week and collapsed on the floor and stayed there (carrying on conversations and laughing at jokes) for about 15 minutes (“It’s so cool on this floor and I’m too tired to get up!).

IMG_4224

El Greco "Healing of the Man Born Blind"

El Greco “Healing of the Man Born Blind”

This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning at Presbyterian Church in Henderson, KY.

Where have you witnessed God at work? Every summer, as you may know, we join with three other churches in town for Vacation Bible School. Our theme, Scriptures and activities are always different from the years before, but one thread that runs through every VBS for the last several years are the “God Sightings.” We ask kids every day to go home and watch for God at work. We give them a visual reminder of some sort to help them in this task (sometimes a bracelet that says “Watch For God!”).

Here’s one thing we’re teaching (and learning ourselves) by doing this: if you are watching for God, you will most certainly see God. If you will seek God, you will find God. I remember growing up that my mom had a coffee mug—for some reason I seem to think it came in a floral arrangement—but either way, it said “Expect A Miracle.”

When we live in expectation of miracles, we see the miraculous around us.

The man in our story today, however, was not watching for a miracle. In fact, he wasn’t physically watching for anything and he had probably been taught over time not to expect anything miraculous, either.

JOHN 9:1-3

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 

Here we are in John 9. If we understand John to be happening chronologically, the following things have already happened: The calling of the disciples, the wedding at Cana, Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night, Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria, Jesus feeding the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, Jesus dealing with the situation involving the woman who was accused of committing adultery and was about to be stoned, and Jesus causing chapter after chapter of division and trouble among his disciples and among religious leaders. His teachings were hard and often hard to understand without further investigation and he certainly was not afraid of being called a heretic. He wasn’t trying to make friends or start a revolution. Jesus was doing the work of God and inviting people to take a risk and work with him.

So when we get to chapter 9, and the disciples turn an unsuspecting man into an object lesson, we should not be surprised at how it goes.

Hey, Jesus, here’s a guy who was born blind. Who sinned? Him or his parents?

The cultural belief was this: something bad happened to you? Must be because someone sinned. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Now, one who owns the entire canon of Scripture might point out that actually the Old and New Testaments are full of words that counter this belief, but either way, this was still embraced by the people of Jesus’ day.

The fact that the man was born blind seems to be universally understood in this passage, so I do wonder how the disciples thought it could be because of the man’s own sin. The sin that God knew the man would commit before he was born? That just makes my head hurt.

“Neither,” says Jesus. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Wait, what? This man has lived his whole life without his sight, which in ancient Palestine was a trial in itself—he couldn’t work, he couldn’t have a family, he couldn’t participate in religious life—just so God could be glorified in him? How is that just or good? He’s spent his whole life on the outskirts just so Jesus could heal him today?

Yes.

I don’t like the answer Jesus gives, but I trust in God’s sovereignty. And I know that I’ve certainly seen God glorified in painful or difficult or unfair circumstances in my own life and in the lives of people I love.

Right now, this man is an unwitting object lesson, but he’s about to experience a miracle.

JOHN 9:4-7a

We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). 

This lesson is fun to teach to kids. Jesus heals a guy with spit and dirt. Did you ever wonder why? We have lots of instances of Jesus simply touching people or declaring them healed without even touching him. Why did Jesus make mud?

It’s the Sabbath. The teaching is clear: kneading on the Sabbath—even kneading spit into dirt—is not allowed. Jesus is being clear: I’m healing on the Sabbath. Right before he mixed up the dirt, he told them why:

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” What Jesus is doing is time-sensitive.

What about the man who is at the center of the object lesson? Here he is, minding his own business, going about his usual day and all of a sudden, he’s surrounded by a group of people who talk about him like he’s not there and all of a sudden someone puts spitty mud on his eyes.

It’s a moment that changes his whole life and he wasn’t even watching for it. Literally. Or figuratively.

JOHN 9:7b-12

Then the man went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

The man is healed. He returns to the place where he used to sit and beg and can see it for the first time. Can you imagine what that must be like? I can’t. It must have been incredibly overwhelming. He doesn’t really get to enjoy the experience completely because his neighbors want answers first from each other: are you sure this is the same guy? and then from him:  “But how were your eyes opened?”

JOHN 9:13-34

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

This should have been the happiest moment of the man’s life. He doesn’t know how it happened, he hasn’t seen the man who performed the work, but he knows this: I was blind, now I see. It must be because God had a hand in it.

The Pharisees are one thing—we know they have a reputation for being skeptical, for trying to trip up Jesus at every pass, for driving out people who challenge their stance. But his parents? His own parents who have known him as long as he’s been alive, who raised him in his blindness, who had surely agonized over what his life would be like without sight…

His own parents reject him too, all because they fear that their church will throw them out if they accept him.

And then this man is tossed aside by his neighbors, his family and his church. In their failure to watch for a God who is much bigger than they have expected, they dismiss the possibility of a miracle rather than having to move their lines and consider that one has happened.

JOHN 9:35-38

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.

John 9 is a long chapter, but if you hang on this far you read the most beautiful part of it.

The man has no idea what Jesus looks like. Jesus has healed him, has given him a reason for hope, has given him a bright future and the man can’t recognize him when he bumps into him.

It was no accident he ran into Jesus, for Jesus heard what was happening and went to find him. What a mix of emotions the man, whose name we never know, must be. Joy for having sight restored. Anger and sadness for being rejected by all of the people who have ever mattered in his life.

Jesus, who has crowds following him everywhere he goes, went looking for just one guy–a guy he had already helped! When no one else wanted to stand with this man, when no one else wanted to acknowledge him or what this dramatic change in his life really meant, Jesus was there. This one person mattered to Jesus.

No gimmicks, no steps to salvation, no scare tactics. A simple question: Do you believe? A simple answer: Lord, I believe. Jesus’ miracle has changed this man forever…and gotten him exiled from his religious community. But he can see! And he is befriended by Jesus! And he devotes himself to his new Lord through worship.

But Jesus has one last word about sight and watching for God at work:

JOHN 9:39-41

Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

Jesus uses a miracle involving physical sight to teach about spiritual sight. He turns the wisdom of the time on its ear, as Jesus often does.

To those who refused to consider the greatness of God or the possibility that God could be working here and now, Jesus says:

When you were blind, you were without sin. But now that you can see, and still choose to reject me, your sin remains.

The Pharisees, the neighbors, the man’s parents: they were so concerned about their understanding, their own place, their own teachings that they missed seeing God. They missed a miracle!

What about us? Do we ever do that?

Yes, I do. I have a feeling we all do.

When we close our eyes and hold onto our viewpoints and affiliations, we miss seeing God at work.

When we put other people into columns and categories, we do the same to God.

When we would rather be right than ask questions or seek answers we don’t know, we miss the chance for God to mold us.

When we refuse to seek God outside of the boundaries we’ve set up ourselves, we will likely not find God in unexpected places. Which is where miracles usually happen.

Our Scriptures teach that you and I are created in God’s own image…yet sometimes it seem like we’re trying to make God in our image. We’d rather have a God who is like us. Who believes what we believe. Who hates the people we hate. Who respects the boundaries we’ve set. Like this man’s teachers, neighbors and family, we miss the point. We miss the miracle.

When we ask kids at Vacation Bible School to watch for God, we give them a way to record their God Sightings. Each day, they bring them to VBS and share them with their small groups. As we hear each other’s testimonies, one thing becomes clear: God works in big things and small things. Things I never thought of as miraculous or done by God’s hand are illuminated for me as a five year-old sees God at work in his grandmother fixing his favorite meal for supper or an eleven year-old recognizes God working in a conflict she’s had with her best friend. A seven year-old sees that God is present with her uncle who is battling cancer and a teenage crew leader gives thanks for the beautiful clouds God created.

When we open our eyes, we can see. We should see.

Watch for God! Amen.

This year, we are trying prayer stations in the Church Fellowship Hall on Sunday mornings that worshipers are invited to explore before or after (or during, I suppose) church services.

Find Prayer Stations for Advent Week 1 HERE.

Here are the prayer stations we used today, December 8.

Station #1 Make and Take Ornaments

This idea came via Theresa Cho’s blog.

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I used ornaments that I was able to buy at Hobby Lobby for 50% off. They are glass. I do know that there have been times I’ve been able to find plastic ornaments. Those are preferable.

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In the art room, I found little gold and silver bells, tons of glitter in various colors, confetti, pom poms, small shells and buttons. Anything that will fit into the opening of the ornament will work.

Also needed are slips of paper. I used leftover strips from a Christmas colored chain we used a couple of weeks ago.

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Ornaments are used to decorate a Christmas tree. Sometimes an ornament has special meaning or symbols to tell a story. Choose an ornament. Write or draw a Christmas wish that you have. Put it in the ornament. Fill the ornament with whatever additional decorations you’d like. Take it home and hang it on your tree.

As you hang it on your tree year after year, you can remember this Advent season.

Prayer: God of hope and peace, as we continue to prepare for Christmas, we are anxious and hopeful about what will be. Help us to wait and trust in you. Amen.

Station #2 Distraction Box

I found and adapted this idea from the aptly named site “Steal Our Stuff.”

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Set Up: A box with a lid that can be taken off and put back on repeatedly. Markers and slips of paper.

Objective: Leave your distractions behind by writing them down, praying for God’s help and leaving them in the box.

Isaiah 2:2-5

2   In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3        Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4   He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

5   O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

During this season, it can be hard to remember the reason we are celebrating. When you’re ready, make a list of the things that distract you from celebrating Jesus’ birth in ways that are simple, joyful, generous and reflective. Pray for God’s help and leave your list in the wrapped box. No names necessary, of course! This is between you and God.

Prayer: Lord, keep me from distractions and help me to celebrate your coming in ways that reflect your humility and kindness.

Station #3 Words About Peace

 

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Objective: Place peaceful words, phrases, sentences on the metal surfaces.

PSALM 72:1-7, 18-19       

1   Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2   May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
3   May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
4   May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
5   May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
6   May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
7   In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

18   Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
19   Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

Prayer: God of all who pray and long for peace in the world and in their own hearts, this Advent season, we need you. Amen.

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Station #4 Read About The Season

(This is also adapted from an idea on Theresa Cho’s blog.)

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Ahead of Time: Gather a variety of books about the Nativity Story.

Objective: look through and/or read the books provided and consider the story from various points of view.

There are many present in the story of Jesus’ birth in the Bible. The shepherds. The angels. The Magi. Mary and Joseph. The animals.

Take time to look through the books about the birth of Jesus, sharing and remembering the story of the birth of the one called Emmanuel.

Prayer: God, your story is amazing! Help us to learn it and to know you through it. Amen.

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This year, we are trying prayer stations in the Church Fellowship Hall on Sunday mornings that worshipers are invited to explore before or after (or during, I suppose) church services.

Here are the stations from Week 1 (December 1)

Station #1 Bubble Wrap Advent Calendars

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Note: I borrowed this idea from Theresa Cho’s blog.

This is a great interactive station for families to do together. The objective: make a bubble wrap Advent calendar!

Ahead of time, I cut trees out of Bubble Wrap:

BubbleWrapAdvent

I also held onto the scraps and put them in baskets on the table because it can be hard for kids and adults to resist popping bubble wrap and I wanted the trees to be safe. Providing an alternative to popping the trees worked out well.

The instructions:

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent starts today, December 1, and begins a period of time when we wait for Jesus to be born. Children all over the world will count down the days until December 25.

1. Take a tree-shaped piece of Bubble Wrap from the bowl.

2. Choose a sheet of circle stickers and write 1-24 on each sticker.

3. Stick a circle sticker on each bubble (in order or mix them up!).

4. Hang it in your house and each day, pop a bubble!

Prayer: Lord, waiting is hard! Help us to celebrate each day because it is a gift from you. Amen.

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Prayer Station #2 Read About Advent

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Ahead of Time: Gather a variety of books about the Nativity Story.

Objective: look through and/or read the books provided and consider the story from various points of view.

There are many present in the story of Jesus’ birth in the Bible. The shepherds. The angels. The Magi. Mary and Joseph. The animals.

Take time to look through the books about the birth of Jesus, sharing and remembering the story of the birth of the one called Emmanuel.

Prayer: God, your story is amazing! Help us to learn it and to know you through it. Amen.

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Station #3 Darkness To Light

I borrowed this station from my minister friend, Rev. AnnMarie Montgomery.

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Set up: Blindfolds (bandanas) and tea light candles (I used battery candles)

Objective: Experience darkness. Celebrate the light that is coming into the world through God’s Son, Jesus.

Romans 13:11-14

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Our Advent journey begins in almost complete darkness. Darkness can come in the forms of depression, discouragement, loneliness, addiction, disappointment, broken relationships, grief, regret, sin, failure, or…

When you are ready, put on a blindfold. (If you don’t want to wear a blindfold, close your eyes and put your hands over them.)  Think about the limitations of darkness. Sit in the darkness, even if it makes you uncomfortable, and consider what a gift light is. When you are ready, open up your eyes and welcome back the light and the ability to see.

Light a candle. The candle reminds us that Christ is our hope. We hope, we believe, we trust in God’s saving grace through Christ Jesus. Sit with the light as long as you like.

Prayer: Lord, let this candle be a reminder today of my hope in your coming. Amen.

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Station #4 Words About Hope

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Set up: I have a set of magnetic poetry, so I used that. And then I searched the kitchen for metal surfaces that were magnetic. These toasters were my find of the day!

Objective: Place hopeful words, phrases and sentences on the metal surfaces.

Psalm 122:1-9

I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’
Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgement were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

Prayer: God of all who hope and long to hope again, this Advent season, we need you. Amen.

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These four stations made a great start to our Advent season.

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