Courage for Community

Mark 9:38-50

What an interesting and disturbing text we have for today!

In some ways it reminds me of the Christmas Carol. You remember the Christmas Carol? Charles Dickens story about how Ebenezer Scrooge, a selfish, tight-fisted miser, oblivious to the plight of the poor around him, was transformed into a big-hearted, generous, and kind man. And a big part of his dramatic transformation was the fact that he’d been visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former partner who had been dead seven years.

In the story, the ghost of Jacob wore a long and heavy chain that he literally had to drag along with him.  When Scrooge asked Marley about it, he said that he “wore the chain he forged in life—a chain forged by all his merciless, unjust, ruthless, and oppressive deeds.”  And he warned Scrooge that his own chain was just as long and just as heavy, and that it had continued to grow even longer and heavier over the seven years since Marley’s death![I]

Now, this is an interesting, and perhaps horrifying, concept, isn’t it? The idea that in death we wear chains forged from our misdeeds in life. But in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus uses a similar type of metaphor to warn us about the consequences of a life lived at the expense of others. He says you would be better off to wear a huge stone around your neck and throw yourself into the sea rather than cause someone else to sin!  And as a matter of fact, he doubles-down and says that it would behoove you to cut off you hand, or your foot, and even to “tear out” your eye if they cause you to sin. Wow!

But before we move on, I think we need to stop here and unpack a few things. First, it’s hard to miss the violent nature of Jesus’ language, …ya think? Especially considering the image of Jesus we saw last week when he gently took a child into his arms and used her to illustrate his teaching. But the interesting thing here is that the core of the message in today’s text is the same as last week; and that core understanding is justice. Or, maybe more accurately, the injustice being practiced by the disciples.

You see, the disciples had formed their own special, little group; let’s call it the “Jesus Tribe.” And I’m sure there were rules, both spoken and unspoken, around who could be in the tribe. And, knowing human nature, I’m sure there was some sort of “litmus test” as well. Maybe even a secret handshake. In short, this was, in the minds of the disciples anyway, a closed community. And when some guy from outside the Jesus Tribe tried to “horn-in” well, let’s just say that the disciples would have none of it.

Now, John must have been the communications officer of the tribe because he’s the one that took their complaint to Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” Notice John didn’t say because he wasn’t following you but us. This outsider could have been following Jesus, but he wasn’t an official member of the Jesus Tribe; he didn’t know the secret handshake. And Jesus considered this type of exclusion by the disciples as unjust.

Now, let’s bring this into our time. I think this same kind of thinking still plagues the church today.  Far too often we define what it means to BE the church, to be a community of faith, by what it means to be a member of our tribe and by who knows the secret handshake. And when we to that, we too are being unjust.

Now, lest I be too critical, let me acknowledge that we have come a long way in recent years. With the help and guidance of the United Church of Christ, we’ve adopted an attitude of extravagant welcome to those who may be unlike ourselves. We’ve come to view Scripture in a far more inclusive way, inviting all kinds of people from all walks of life to journey with us. We’ve come to understand that our calling as Christians is one of action; to love and serve and share by doing and being out there, beyond the walls of this building. We have also recognized the gifts and graces of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people to preach and serve as ordained ministers of word and sacrament. As a matter of fact, just this year, we became the first mainline denomination to have more women pastors then men. And finally, we have come to understand that Jesus welcomes all people to the Lord’s table; young and old, baptized or not, faithful or questioning; all are welcome, as I say every month, with no exceptions. And these are but a few of the wonderful examples of how we’ve progressed as a Church and as a people.

But, even with all these awesome things going on, we can still do more. We can expand our definition of what it means to be in community with all humanity and all creation; here in the Northwoods, throughout the nation and across the globe.

So, how do we do that? How do we expand our definition of community? Well, the answer to that question is found right here in in this passage.  Jesus, amid all his harsh words to the disciples, gives them an example of expanded community. “Whoever isn’t against us,” he said, “is for us.” Perhaps that’s something we can meditate on as well: “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

You know, a young man named Drake is a perfect example of this. Drake is a singer, and this past winter he created a video for a song titled: “God’s Plan” in which he took the $996,000, the budget for the production of the video, and gave it away. That’s right, he gave it all away. Drake took stacks of cash to his hometown of Miami and gave it all away. How? Well, he provided several struggling college students with scholarships, so they could continue their education; he gave other students cars, so they could better balance family, school, and work. Drake also went to an after-school program in the inner city, where he donated $50,000 and gave Christmas presents to all the kids. He also donated money to struggling individuals he encountered on the street; a mother of a disabled girl, a homeless family, and a single mother. Drake went on to gift the local first responders and a public high school. In one scene, he actually went into a grocery store with a mega-phone and announced to the customers that could fill their carts for free. But beyond all the generosity demonstrated in this video, one line in the song really caught my attention: Drake says, “There’s a lot of bad things, but I can’t do this on my own… this is God’s plan.”

Now, I don’t know what religion Drake practices, if any, or his lifestyle or his politics; and I won’t pretend to know his motivation or what was in his heart when he made this video. But what I do know that Drake is onto something here. He could have made another flashy video; he could have used his fame to become a stumbling block to the youth who watch his videos and listen to his songs; but instead he chose to “lived-out” his understanding of God’s plan; a plan that includes expanding the definition of community.

My friends, what plan does God have for you? I know, that’s a tough question because the answers aren’t back and white; their shrouded by many shades of grey. But, it’s been my experience, both personally and from the lips of others, that if we allow God to speak to us, if we allow ourselves to be still and sit in the presence of the Divine, a plan will begin to form.  And I’m willing to bet that if you do, if you allow the plan to begin to form, God’s subtle guidance will move you in the direction of expanding your boundries, expanding your understanding of justice, expanding, my friends, your definition of community.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i]Alan Brehm. Millstones (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2012

 

Incarnation for All of Us

The seventeenth-century English poet John Donne once shared a legend about one man’s search for God.  When told that God lived atop a mountain at the end of the earth, the man embarked on a journey there to find God. At the same time, however, God thought, “What can I do to show my people I love them?” So, God decided to travel down from the mountain and live among the people as one of them. But God went down the opposite side of the mountain from the man climbing up, so, they missed one another.  The man was heartbroken when he discovered an empty mountaintop and concluded that God must not exist.

Now, we know that God doesn’t live on a mountaintop, at the end of the earth, or even in some distant heaven. From the mystics of old to today’s best theologians, the collective wisdom suggests a profoundly intimate and interconnected Divinity. And I believe that this is the key to understanding the doctrine of the incarnation. The true essence of incarnation is God’s indwelling in all of creation, from the smallest yet-to-be-identified particle to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. In short, limiting God to one place or one time or to one culture-bound expression creates barriers to the deeper understanding of the mystery of life.

So, if we, as Christians, want to take the incarnation of Christ seriously, we must come to understand that Jesus revealed what it means to be fully-human, and that by living fully into his humanity, demonstrated a way of being that could only be described as Divine. St. Athanasius suggested in the fourth century, “Christ became what we are that he might make us what he is.” John Cobb Jr. affirms this understanding when he says, “In human beings, God is the source of novelty, of purpose, of meaning, of openness to others, of freedom, of responsibility, and of much else besides. Far from diminishing our humanity, God is the giver of that humanity. The more fully God is present, the more fully human we are.”

My friends, as we continue our journey of faith and life, may we continue to walk with God and each other, hand in hand, and side by side. And in the presence of The Sacred, may we each find a fuller expression of our humanity.

Many Blessings, Pastor Phil

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Story, quotes, and process theology as express in Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. David M Felton & Jeff Procter-Murphy (New York: Harper One, 2012) pgs. 184-186

First In Caring

Mark 9:30-37

It was the Schnitzer’s second Hanukkah in Billings, Montana, and five-year-old Isaac wanted the menorah to be in his bedroom window. But as Isaac and his sister, Rachel, prepared for bed, a brick hurled from the street sent shards of glass flying through the room. The day after the incident, an FBI agent advised the family to get bulletproof glass in their windows and to take down all the menorahs. But instead of doing that, they decide to put the menorah back in the window and call the local newspaper.

The next morning, a member of the local UCC church read the story and phoned her pastor and a plan was hatched. Within days, the word was out, and paper menorahs were distributed for display in windows throughout the city. The local Target store had some menorahs in stock, but they were soon out. An antique store in Billings reported that a Christian woman had bought the only menorah that had, an expensive antique one, to place in her window. And finally, the marquee on the local Catholic High School read, “Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish Friends.”[I]

Our gospel lesson for today is chock-full of images and transitions. But what this passage finally boils down to is this: Injustice hurts everyone. That’s it!  This passage begins with a lack of understanding on the part of the disciples about Christ’s suffering and death and their fear about asking him any questions. It then transitions quickly to their grandiose musings about who might be the greatest and Jesus’ condemnation of those thoughts. And this passage culminates with an image and a lesson about injustice. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and servant of all.” In other words, no one is above anyone else, we’re all in this together.

Martin Niemöller, a German pastor during the Holocaust, put it this way, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.  Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”[ii] The hard truth is this: whenever we turn a blind eye to the injustice we risk the life and liberty, the happiness and freedom of all: including ourselves. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way, “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.” “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”[iii]

But what does injustice look like? Well, sometimes it’s easy to spot. A brick thrown through a child’s window because they’re Jewish is an obvious act of injustice. The White Supremacist, KKK march in Charlottesville Virginia was an obvious sign of injustice. Discrimination based on race or sex or orientation or age or ability is relatively easy to spot.

But what if the injustice is subtle; tougher to spot? What if it’s a part of the fabric of a society? Well, that, I think, is what Jesus was up against in our text for today. The devaluation or the striation of classes of people was a common practice in his day.  Women, children, servants, Samaritans, or those where were considered unclean for whatever reason were treated as second-class citizens. They were shunned, denied basic human rights and liberties, and in some cases, they were killed. That’s why he chose to use a child, one of the “least of God’s people” as his example. “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me,” he said.

Let’s stop here and think about the significance of Jesus’ actions for a moment. Jesus was pretty well off, societally speaking.  He was an adult man, a skilled orator, a Rabbi, and, by this point in Mark’s Gospel, he had a significant following.  I wouldn’t call him “an elite” but he was pretty far up there on the list. So, it would have been easy for him to turn a blind eye to the injustice that surrounded him to conserve his status and protect his own self-interest.

But, of course, he didn’t! And neither should we. When one member of our community is suffering, we all suffer. When one group of people are deemed as “less than worthy” the humanity of all is diminished. When one family is terrorized because of their religion, all religions feel the sting of those shards of breaking glass, as they did was in Billings Montana.

Hundreds of homes in Billings put menorahs in their windows. Yes, other bricks were thrown, and hate-filled words were uttered, but in the end, on the last night of Hanukkah, hundreds of homes had menorahs in their windows. And as the Schnitzers drove around the city that night, and as young Isaac saw all those menorahs in all those windows, he said, “I didn’t know so many people were Jewish!”[iv]

My friends, a part of our call to servanthood is to stand up against injustice. Yes, we are sent-out to provide food and shelter, warmth and welcome to all those in need; but we are also challenged by God to be a voice for the marginalized.  And this is important. It’s important because “one of the messages that Christianity has to offer is the message of both a radical equality and a radical grace.”[v] The notion that we are neither a Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free is an invitation to view justice, God’s gift of justice, through the lens of a radical equality and a radical grace. Paul’s words invite us to see that it’s somehow possible to find a way around our differences. Not do away with them, our strength is in our diversity; but rather to learn to coexist within our differences. Whether it’s providing an extravagant welcome to our LGBTQ neighbors, or by calling someone out when they use racist language or tell a demining sexist joke, or by simply putting a menorah in the window; we are called to be “first in caring.”

I’m going to leave you today with these words from the pen of the great American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A great person,” he once wrote, “is always willing to be little.”[vi]

My friends, in our “littleness” may we find a great strength; through our service to others, may we ourselves; and as we continue to seek justice for all God’s children, may we find ourselves a little closer to the Sacred.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

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[i] David M. Felton and Jeff Procter-Murphy Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Theology (New York: Harper One, 2012) pgs.149-150

[ii] Quote found at http://www.genius.com

[iii] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” May 1, 1963, p. 3.

[iv] Ibid. Felton and Procter

[v] Nancy Ammerman from Living the Questions pg. 150

[vi] Quote from www.ucc.org/samuel

Who Are You?

Mark 8:27-38

I had a friend, many years ago, who had an interesting observation about my oldest daughter Ashley when Ashley was only about three or four-years-old. Kathy used to say that Ashley was an “old soul.” As a matter of fact, her nickname for Ashley was “The Ancient One.” Kathy said this because Ashley has always been intelligent and articulate, wise beyond her years; it seems like she was born a 40-year-old.

Now, I thought of Ashley’s nickname this week because it was not only an accurate description of a young Ashley, but “The Ancient One” also articulates a deeper understanding of who Ashley was and how she interacted with the world.  And as we come to today’s text Simon Peter makes this same kind of observation about Jesus. Well, half of it anyway.

Jesus, seemingly out of the blue, asks his followers, “who do people say that I am?” And they answered, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” But Jesus pressed them further, “But who do you say that I am?” And this was Peter’s shining moment; this was his “Ancient One” observation: “You are the Messiah,” Peter said. And for a brief moment in time, Peter got it! He understood on a deeper level who Jesus was.

But what was it exactly that Peter got right?

Well, the title “Messiah” literally means “The Anointed One” or the “Chosen One of God.” The common understanding in that time was that a “messiah” was in fact, divine. So, when Peter identified Jesus as “Messiah” he was saying that he recognized Jesus to be more than just another religious leader, more than just a really good guy; he understood that Jesus was neither John the Baptist, nor was he the reincarnation of Elijah; Peter understood Jesus as “The Chosen One of God.” He understood that Jesus was more than a mere prophet, Peter understood, to some degree anyway, that Jesus was God.

However, Peter, unlike Kathy, was expressing only a portion of who Jesus was. Remember, I said that Kathy understood who Ashley was and how she interacted with the world. But Peter, while he was spot-on about who Jesus was, was still confused about how Jesus would interact with the world. That’s where the “get behind me Satan” part comes in.  When Jesus expressed that he would be executed for his positions on the equality and value of women and children; that he would be killed because of his stance on justice for the poor; that he would die because of his insistence on the inclusion of “the gentiles” …people from other religions, into household of God; when Jesus expressed these things, the text tells us that Peter, “rebuked him.” Simon Peter’s shinning moment was brief.

And this, I think, is where we, as people of faith, sometimes get off-track as well. Sometimes, like Peter, we’re really good at recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. We’re really good at comprehending the awe and wonder surrounding his divinity. And that’s a good thing. But in the end, Jesus says, it’s not enough.

It’s not enough to simply say that Jesus is the Messiah, we must also look at his deeds, his actions, and then begin to try and emulate them in our lives. We must understand that being the “Anointed One” brought with it a responsibility to live-out, to demonstrate, to embody the justice and equality and inclusiveness that Jesus preached. Do you see what I’m driving at here? We must not only try and figure out who Jesus was, but also, how he interacted with the world.

“Well, that’s great,” you might say, but how do we do that?  How do we view messiahship through the lens of how Jesus interacted with the world?

Well, that answer, I think, is twofold. First, we can look to the gospels as a guide.  You don’t have to read very far to encounter the lovingkindness and the grace and the extravagant welcome that Jesus extended to those around him; especially the poor and the outcast. Jesus was a living, breathing, walking example of what God desires of humanity. Which leads us to the second way we begin to understand Jesus’ interaction with the world: through faith. And that’s the path the remainder of this passage takes us down.  When Jesus calls upon us to “take up our cross” it’s finally a matter of faith.

But what does this cross-bearing type of faith look like?  Well, this is a place where the writings of William Slone Coffin might help us out a bit.  “Faith,” Coffin says, “is being grasped by the power of love. Faith is recognizing that what God desires is infinite mercy, not infinite control; not power; but love unending.  Faith is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so that we might become more like him. [And] we know what that means: in watching Jesus heal the sick, empower the poor, and scorn the powerful, we see transparently the power of God at work.”[I]

My friends, too often we hear the words “take up your cross” assigned to all the bad events of our lives. It’s used as a platitude like “hang in there” or “pull yourself up by you bootstraps.” And, I agree, that there is an element of perseverance implicit in this edict, but that cannot be the sum total of it. When Christ invites us to “take up our cross and follow him” it’s an invitation to faith, or even better, to faithful living.  Faithful living that includes practicing lovingkindness and grace and forgiveness and an extravagant welcome in our lives and in our church community.

One final thought today. As I look at this text with its double understanding of who Jesus was and how he interacted with humanity, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison with the Great Commandment.  Love God with all your heart and soul, body and mind, (in other words, the recognition of Christ’s Messiahship as Divine) and loving our neighbor as ourselves, (how Christ, and we, interact with others) And this isn’t a coincidence. The very core of Mark’s account, of the gospels as a whole, of the writings of Paul and the Hebrew Scriptures for that matter; at the very core of these diverse descriptions of each one’s encounter with God; is the notion of loving God and neighbor. So, it’s also no coincidence that the core of our faith as Christians, as member of this congregation, and as persons who identify with the United Church of Christ, is the love of God and neighbor. My friends, faith is both an encounter with the awe and wonder of the Messiah, and then living out that encounter by sharing the virtues of Christ with others.

One final, final thought. William Slone Coffin also penned these words, “I love the recklessness of faith,” he said. “First you leap, and then you grow wings.”[ii] My friends, as we go from this place today, may each of us, each soul present in this room, embrace the freedom to practice an outside-the-box, beyond our comfort zone, yes, reckless kinda faith. And may you then be led to take that reckless leap of faith, whatever that leap may entail, and when you do, when you spread your wings, I assure you, you will soar. That’s my wish for each of you. That’s my prayer. May it be so, Amen.

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[i] Willian Slone Coffin Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pgs. 7-8

[ii] Ibid. Coffin