Sermon on John 4:5-42

(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.

 

Fearfully and Wonderfully

Today, I wrote the devotional for a health and wellness challenge group I’m participating in on Facebook. Here is what I shared:

13 For it was you (God) who formed my inward parts;
  you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
  Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

15   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
  intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
  all the days that were formed for me, 
when none of them as yet existed. Psalm 139:13-16

Let’s take a moment and consider a truth that is among the easiest to forget: You, child of God, are fearfully and wonderfully made by a Designer who knows every part of your body and every breath you will take. God created you with intention, on purpose, and God did not produce anything defective or unuseful.

Your body, the one you are maybe hoping to improve or restore to health, was fearfully and wonderfully made by your Creator. You have one body and you should absolutely seek to be as healthy as possible to honor God. But your body, even just as it is, is God-made.

Your inner self, which probably frustrates you a good bit as you struggle to control your thoughts or actions, as you carry around burdens of sin and despair, is seen by God. You should absolutely seek to repent of your sins and bring your burdens to God, but the God who always sees what is inside of you loves you with an unshakable love even still.

The book of your life, which you might sometimes believe seems boring or mundane to everyone else, was written by God. You should definitely seek to live the best story possible, but know that God is the one with the pen in hand, and your story matters in God’s Kingdom.

There is a whole industry built around making you feel like there is something wrong with your body and your life and that you (without their products) are not enough. As you seek to be healthy–body, mind, spirit, and strength–give thanks to the God who made you in a fearfully wonderful way.

 

#Presence

“Jesus and the Lamb” by Katherine Brown, 1982

This artwork hangs in our hallway. It hung in our hallway at our first house, too, and before that, it hung in my apartment. The print was a college graduation gift from my friend Katie.

Many days, I walk right past it and forget to see it. Other days, I stop and trace each sketched line with my eyes and think about how comforted and safe that lamb is in the arms of its shepherd, Jesus.

Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away. 
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely. 
You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me. 
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it. 


Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence? 
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’, 
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you. 


For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well. 
   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed. 
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them! 
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
   I come to the end—I am still with you. —Psalm 139:1-18

#Confession

It is Saturday.

On Thursday, I finished my fall semester at UDTS. Yesterday, I cleaned, ran errands, got a haircut, celebrated my mother in-law’s birthday, and made a late night run to Michael’s with Jason.

Today, I slept all the way until 7am, something I haven’t done for weeks. And then when I got up, I poured the coffee and started making my pretzel, chocolate, M&M buttons to give away to neighbors, delivery people, co-workers, and some of Jason’s clients. And–here’s the confession–I turned on the cheesiest, happiest, most implausible Christmas movies I could find. And I’m currently on my third Christmas movie. And I expect to watch at least three more today as I finish writing cards, crocheting gifts, and wrapping things.

Tomorrow is church-a-palooza with all things 4th Sunday of Advent. And Monday, my J-Term professor gives us our pre-load for the class that starts January 2. So today? I’m doing whatever I want.

Oh, and hey, I found this:

#Watchful

Simon and Jonas…sometimes a hastily taken photo turns out all right.

Somehow, I ended up in Habakkuk tonight. Habakkuk is the book of the Bible I am least able to spell, and the book I am least likely to read, I’d figure.

But tonight, there’s this:

I will stand at my watch-post,
   and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
   and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 
2 Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
   make it plain on tablets,
   so that a runner may read it. 
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
   it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
   it will surely come, it will not delay. 
Habakkuk 2:1-3

#Thankful

15300656_10153925608076993_1561035477_nI’m thankful that I have so many things for which to be thankful. I could start a list and never find an end, probably.

Since it is Tuesday, however, I am especially thankful for a specific group of people. Every Tuesday for nearly 16 years, I have met regularly with a group of youth ministers, serving various Henderson churches.

We’ve had a variety of meeting spots and meeting times. Back in the day, when the Henderson McDonalds were trying out their McDiner concept, we met there for breakfast after most of us went to the local middle and high schools to meet with students. We met for 11 a.m.  prayer at our various churches for a good span of time. We transitioned to lunch a few years back, and then made the switch back to breakfast/coffee. Today we met at Donut Bank, but next week, we’ll be at Eastgate Restaurant, and then at Planters downtown the following week.

When we meet, we share stories from our lives, seek advice or prayer for various life or ministry circumstances, and we pray together. We don’t meet for official business or planning, although occasionally we do attempt to tackle a project together. We meet because we love each other and we understand some common struggles and we have committed to praying for each other, ministry and personal lives alike. These people have prayed with me on my hardest, darkest days, and they have celebrated with me on my best ones. When times have been hard or when times have been good, at work or with family, I know I can tell them like it is and they will mourn or laugh with me appropriately and I know that they will always care about either thing and pray with me through it. We love to meet students who belong to each other’s churches so we can tell them how we know their youth minister.

Our callings are unique, our church doctrines differ in small ways or big ways, our gifts are varied, and we are all at different points in our lives or our ministries. I wouldn’t know how to do any of this without them, and I’m so thankful for them.

The cups today belonged to Charlie, Steve, and Doug, but there were some cups missing. And there are some friends I miss because they have moved on, either to another type of work or another location.

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. –Philippians 1:3-11

Sermon: Mark 10:17-31

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

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.

Holy Hunger

IMG_3986Today is Maundy Thursday. In my congregation, we worship together on this night and read the passage from John 13 where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. We sing hymns and share the Lord’s Supper.

Tonight, I sat in the front row of the sanctuary because I was the liturgist for the worship service. A little girl who comes to our after school program and often shares meals and worships with us sat next to me.

There was something about sitting next to her in a communion service that may forever alter the way I take communion.

She walked into the sanctuary and was constantly aware that there was bread on the table. She gestured at it with exclamation when she sat down.

During the first hymn, she leaned forward and studied it.

While the pastor read from the Bible, she followed along with me in my Bible, pointing at the table as the table was mentioned in Scripture.

Throughout the service she would look at me pointedly and then indicate the bread on the table, with a questioning look on her face. I would show her where we currently were in the bulletin and then point to the word “communion.”

As the pastor preached, he talked about the Bread and the Cup and she made a fanfare gesture with her arms. It was my turn to look at her inquisitively. “I just want to make sure everyone knows what he’s talking about,” she assured me.

As the pastor moved to the table, she stood to her feet and all but took a starter’s position, ready to race to the table as soon as she got the go ahead. She shifted anxiously on her feet as Rich read and prayed and broke and elevated the elements.

When he invited people forward, she was standing toe to toe with him before he even finished the sentence, looking up at him, waiting for him to share the bread with her.

Some in the sanctuary tonight might think that my young friend does not have the proper regard or understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

I think she might understand it better than the rest of us do.