All Bartimaeus

(sermon 10/24/21)

Mark 10:46-52

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

He sat there along the side of the road that day just as he did most days, calling out to people as they traveled from there in Jericho to Jerusalem, or from Jerusalem to Jericho and beyond. There was a bit of irony in his situation. He was Bartimaeus – Bar-Timaeus, literally, “son of Timaeus,” his father’s name, which was a variation of a word combining concepts of worth, value, wealth, inheritance; and here he was – broke, considered worthless, cast aside, presumably being punished by God with blindness for some sinfulness in his life, relegated to begging for spare change from people as they passed by just in order to survive, but most days getting more scorn than shekels as most of them tried to ignore him as awkwardly and unsuccessfully as when we might try to ignore the panhandler waving at us while we’re stopped at a red light.

Some days were better for business, as it were, than others. This was one of the better days, as traffic had picked up on the road as large numbers of people were flooding into Jerusalem to observe the Passover. On this particular day the numbers seemed even a little bigger, and based on the conversations he was overhearing it was because Jesus, the itinerant rabbi was passing through town on his way to Jerusalem and a large crowd was following him independent of the Passover festival.

Bartimaeus apparently knew a bit about Jesus – that he was wise, insightful, maybe sometimes even annoyingly so; and having an ability to heal the lame and the sick. Some were even saying that he was the long-awaited messiah. For his own part, Bartimaeus may or may not have thought Jesus was the messiah as he sat there along the dusty road, but at very least he believed that Jesus was able to heal his blindness, and in the process, exorcising several of the social demons, if not literal ones, that were plaguing him. So when Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was near, he began to call out to him for help. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

It was a cry that could have been a reference to Jesus being the messiah; or, it could have been an association of Jesus with Solomon, the literal “son of David” who was widely believed to not only be wise, but also to have been able to heal the sick and cast out demons. Either way, Bartimaeus’ bases were covered, and the double meaning of that term might have pleased him.

As he was calling out, we heard that the people in the crowd told him to be quiet, he was being a bother, annoying; with all of Bartimaeus’ yelling and wailing, they could barely hear what Jesus was saying as he was walking and talking. It was just rude of him to be so disruptive.

But Bartimaeus didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, this was his moment; maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so he just kept yelling and crying out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” On that day, Bartimaeus had the unenviable but real freedom of having nothing left to lose by upsetting the polite civility and conventions around him in order to be heard, and to maybe cause some improvement to his lot in life.

When the people told him that Jesus had heard him and was calling him over, the text says that he jumped up and cast off his… well, something, we’re not totally sure what, because the Greek word used here in the text is ambiguous. It could mean just his outer garment, or it could mean all of his clothing in their entirety; and while the story would still work with either meaning, maybe it would be even more profound, more powerful. if Mark meant the latter. Bartimaeus coming forward to encounter Jesus, naked, completely open and honest, without pretense or cover or camouflage; just as I am without one plea, son of David, have mercy on me.

And in doing what he did, the supposedly sinful and punished Bartimaeus was just one in a long line of people who had exercised that same hard-earned freedom. Job did it before him, as we’ve been hearing in our First Readings the past several weeks. And long after, the supposedly sinful Protestant Reformers did the same, and long after them, supposedly sinful blacks and supposedly sinful women, and supposedly sinful LGBTQ folk, all of them cast off convention and false civility, refusing to be silenced, seeking confirmation of God’s blessing as equal children of God, and seeking betterment of their place in society.

So there stood Bartimaeus, in front of Jesus, waiting. Jesus looked at him, eyes intent, and simply asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus told him. I want to see. He may not have known whether Jesus was the messiah, or just what being a messiah might actually entail; he didn’t understand anything about the fine points of Trinitarian theology or the dual nature of Jesus’ being; he certainly didn’t know anything remotely like any kind of Christian atonement theory. All he knew was that he believed Jesus could help him, in a way that maybe no one else could.

That probably wouldn’t be a sufficiently well-developed statement of faith to get him membership in a lot of churches, maybe most churches, but according to Jesus, it was enough. It was faith sufficient to receive what he’d asked for, and more. He received his sight, yes, but he actually received so much more. He’d been made well, in the deepest sense of the word. In fact, what Jesus actually says here is that Bartimaeus’ faith, his trust, had rescued him, liberated him, healed him – had saved him.

In short, what Jesus did was to make him aware that in fact, he was truly “Bar-Timaeus” – son of value, of worth, of inheritance.

In some way or another, maybe even multiple ways, we’ve all found ourselves sitting in the dust along the roadside of life as all the rest of the world, intentionally or unintentionally, ignores our suffering, our deepest need, however we define that. Maybe they’ll feel sorry for us, maybe some of them will blame us as the cause of our own suffering, but most of them probably just oblivious to us as they go on, wrapped up in their own lives, priorities, destinations. Yes, more than half of us find ourselves in some category of humanity that’s historically had to reject polite rules of engagement, as Bartimaeus did, in order for our voices to be heard and for any real progress to be made. But even if you aren’t in one or another of of those groups, you can still end up sitting in the dust of the roadside, too. The world just keeps going while you struggle with the death of a spouse, a parent, a child. You deal with the stresses of caring for a family member who has special needs, maybe with little or no help from others. Or you deal with uncertain finances, discord in family relationships, or health problems of your own. So many things can put you, put us, in places of suffering as profound as Bartimaeus’. Son of David, have mercy on me.

Frankly, hearing stories like Bartimaeus’ can lead us to consider some really disturbing things: why are other people’s prayers answered but not mine? Does God care more about them than about me? Is God punishing me for something, or rewarding them for something? Does God care about me at all? What was so special about Bartimaeus? Because there were thousands of sick, lame, blind, who Jesus walked past day after day and didn’t heal, and there are countless people who suffer today while others don’t. Truly, Bartimaeus received a gift that very few people do.

But we do have something that Bartimaeus didn’t. He had to wait for Jesus to come along to hear him and save him. We don’t. We don’t have to sit and wait for Jesus to come walking by some day and maybe hear our suffering. For us, Jesus is always with us, when we’re walking down the road, and especially when we’re in the dust alongside it. So with faith – imperfect, sometimes with questions, sometimes doubting, sometimes not fully understanding, but still faith – we still call out to God with our deepest longings, just as Bartimaeus did. And we do still have the great gospel truth that even if we do have to endure suffering, or problems, or neglect, or injustice, or scorn, then God will endure it all along with us. God hears us, loves us, accepts us, even when no one else does. Just as he did with Bartimaeus, Jesus has truly rescued us, liberated us, healed us, saved us. He has literally made us all Bartimaeus – sons of value, daughters of worth, children of inheritance; today, tomorrow, and forever.

Thanks be to God.

And the Votes Are In…

(sermon 10/17/21)

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

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This past week, I saw that LEO Weekly came out with their “Readers’ Choice Awards,” their annual Best of Louisville roundup where readers vote for their favorite choice in a long list of categories – Best Movie Theater, Best Farmers’ Market, Best Chocolate Shop, and so on. As I looked through the listings, I agreed with a lot of the winners. Keeping away from categories that people might consider politically partisan, or the even more contentious categories like Best Place for Pizza, and just looking at some of the creative categories, I was delighted to see three incredibly talented people get top honors on the list: Jon Cherry for Best Photographer, Kyle Gordon for Best Videographer, and Hannah Drake for Best Local Writer. There were some other choices that I disagreed with, too. I suppose it’s possible that some of those disagreements were just a result of my particular age – I’d have likely voted differently for Best Local Radio Station than most 20 year-olds, for example. And I know that with each trip around the sun that you make, the relevance of certain categories changes. I mean, even if the answers varied, people of any age would have an opinion on the Best Place for a Romantic Dinner, but over time, the odds are that you might be less interested in categories like Best Body Piercing, Best Head Shop, and Best Twitter Feed, and more interested in seeing categories like Best Urologist, Best Orthopedic Surgeon, and Best Place to Buy Sensible Shoes. I’m not entirely there yet, but still, I’m just sayin’…

The LEO list does identify some of the best in our city; people, places, and events that help to make our city great and that really deserve recognition and the glory of being name to the list. But it is a bit subjective, of course, and it will always be more a popularity poll than any kind of scientific, objective determination of the “best of” some particular thing. So while it would definitely be fun to have year-long bragging rights if Springdale Presbyterian was voted Best Place to Worship – we weren’t – I’m not exactly going to lie awake at nights worrying about it.

It’s also definitely true that lists like this one can be subject to distortion by vote-casting campaigns, lobbying efforts on the part of some in order to beat out their competition and get top billing in their particular category.

As we heard today’s gospel text, we were peeking in on a similar kind of lobbying attempt to gain a place of honor and glory. Admittedly, in the case of the apostles James and John asking to be seated at Jesus’ right hand and left hand when Jesus had come into his glory – basically, being named Best Apostles – the stakes were a lot more serious than getting named in the LEO list, but there’s a similar human emotion and motivation involved. We heard that the other ten apostles took a dim view of the brothers’ efforts, and for the most part, biblical commentators and two thousand years’ worth of preachers have, too. It was presumptuous, self-serving, and frankly, just plain tacky. I’ve preached this text that way multiple times in the past, and I probably will again in the future. This time around, though, as I let their words dwell and simmer in my brain, I heard them with a slight bit more grace.

As Mark points out in his lead-in by reminding us of James and John’s father, Zebedee, these two bothers have given up a lot to be there on the road with Jesus that day – family, friends, community, business, a steady income and social respectability – all to follow Jesus, the homeless, wandering preacher and maybe-messiah, relying on charity to survive and undoubtedly being looked down upon by more polite society for it. Keeping that in mind, and granting that their request was self-serving, I can still imagine that at its core was something much more respectable and valid – the basic, existential human need that we all have to know that our efforts, our sacrifices made in order to do what we think is right, was ultimately worth it – put another way, the deep existential need to know that our lives actually mattered.  

Maybe it was with that more palatable way of understanding the brothers’ request that Jesus offered them his answer – that paired along with the need for a childlike nature that we heard about a couple of weeks ago, to be truly great in God’s estimation, in God’s realm, a person needs to be a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and not in a grudging or transactional sense, as if we were trying to buy their way into heaven, but rather, recognizing that we’ve already been redeemed; that we and God have already been reconciled. And recognizing the depths to which Christ became a servant to all, we’re grateful, and with God’s help, now we can, and need to, reflect and offer that same servant nature to others, by offering them love and compassion and acceptance and assistance. Jesus didn’t put it quite this way, but maybe we could say that exhibiting that servant nature is the best evidence possible that a person has really, truly grasped the core truth of the gospel, and *that’s* what makes them great, and worthy or real glory, in God’s eyes.

In our Presbyterian tradition, our form of governance and leadership rests on this exact principle. We have a carefully thought-out balance of sharing congregational leadership responsibilities. Certain duties are reserved for the pastor, a Minister of Word and Sacrament, also sometimes known as a Teaching Elder. Other leadership duties are reserved for the Session, made up of the installed pastor – or pastors, if there are more than one – and  Ruling Elders, who are elected and ordained by the congregation. Being elected a Ruling Elder isn’t a small thing. It isn’t the same as being elected to the Board of some social club or organization. It’s something very serious. A person being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder first prayerfully seeks discernment from God whether this kind of leadership is something that God is calling them to; and to consider that the call will require them to share their talents, their time, their imagination. And whether we’re talking about Minsters of Word and Sacrament or Ruling Elders, it isn’t a kind of leadership that “lords it over” people, as Jesus says, and our own Book of Order echoes, but rather, to exhibit what compassionate servant leadership looks like as a spiritual discipline.

We believe that the congregation is an equally important part of this discernment process, to correctly sense God’s will. Voting for someone to be ordained and serve as a Ruling Elder isn’t just a vote of expediency in order to just fill a slot. It’s far more meaningful than being voted to a “Best of” slot on the LEO list. In their vote, the congregation is validating the person’s sense that God may be calling the to this particular kind of servant leadership. It’s community affirmation that they’ve carefully, prayerfully considered the person, and in them, they recognize not only an abiding love of God and a strong, mature Christian faith, but also particular gifts for this kind of leadership of the congregation in ways that keep it on the path that God is leading it on. The vote is confirmation that in this person, the congregation recognizes the servant nature that Jesus talks about.

So as a member of the congregation, recognize that every single one of us who drinks of the same cup as Jesus, and who is baptized in the same baptism as him – every single one of us – is called in some way or another to be a leader, by being a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and a servant’s way of living the gospel. As a member of the congregation, when we vote on servant leaders for Session and other positions next month, remember what it really represents. And if you yourself end up being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder, and if, as you’re considering it, you wonder and worry if it’s worth the effort – remember this particular gospel text, and that in it, Jesus has already cast his vote that most definitely it is.

Thanks be to God.

A Place at the Table

(sermon 10/11/21)

Photo by Anna Shvets at pexels.com

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Then Job answered: “Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!

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Hebrews 4:12-16  

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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How many of you have heard of Eliphaz the Temanite? Does anyone here know who he was? Anyone? How about a quick show of hands; who here has ever heard of Eliphaz the Temanite?… Right, (almost) no one. Well, Eliphaz was one of the so-called friends of Job, who came to him in his time of intense distress and suffering, and who give Job pretty much universally bad advice and incorrectly tell Job that his suffering is his own fault; that it’s God’s response to something wrong that Job is doing in his own life. For his part, Eliphaz accuses Job of some apparently hidden “great wickedness” in his life, and that he needs to “return” to God by getting his life right.

The passage from Job that we heard today is part of Job’s reply to Eliphaz. Later in his answer, Job points out that the specific accusations that Eliphaz made are untrue. But first, Job offers what we heard today – that yes, he definitely feels estranged from God, and that he would certainly turn to God, but he can’t actually find God. No matter where Job turns, God doesn’t seem anywhere to be found. God seems to have completely abandoned Job, and Job can’t understand why.

The Book of Job is one of the most fascinating, complex, thought-provoking books in the Bible. The issues, the emotions, and the theological questions it raises are things that we’ve all wrestled with in our own lives. As we develop our own personal theologies regarding theodicy – why there’s pain and suffering in a world created and sustained by an all-loving God. About whether God inflicts suffering on us in order to teach us something. Even whether God is the kind of God who would actually be willing to destroy our lives as a game, over a bet with Satan, a bet just as callous and meaningless as the one made by the horrible Duke brothers in the movie “Trading Places.” Beyond those deep theological questions, Job’s suffering, his emotions, simply resonate with us. We feel them in our bones as fellow children of suffering in the universe. We all hear and understand and connect with Job in our own particular ways.

One of those ways is particularly significant today. With National Coming Out Day being tomorrow, I think it can be helpful to consider how Job’s words might be heard by a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer person in our society today. Centuries of anti-gay bigotry and hatred, and most of it being directly and indirectly instilled in people’s minds through the teachings of the Church, have caused damage, suffering, and death to literally millions of people over the last two thousand years, on an overall scale that makes Job’s suffering look like hardly more than a hangnail by comparison.

In 1960, the year that I was born, gay men were considered sinful by the church, criminals by the courts, and mentally ill by the medical profession. We were thrown out of our jobs, out of our homes, out of our churches. We were thrown into jails and mental institutions. We were subjected to high-strength electroshock torture that was euphemistically called therapy, we were lobotomized, and chemically and physically castrated for being gay. A person could murder a gay man and be judged not guilty based on the “gay panic” defense that the gay man had asked his killer out on a date, and it so enraged the man that it made him temporarily insane and not accountable for his actions. Now, in 2021, we know that things are better than they were in 1960, but we also know that there’s still a lot of anti-gay hatred and violence in our society, in our churches, in our neighborhoods and in our families.

That’s why coming out as LGBTQ is still possibly the scariest, and riskiest, of things a person may ever have to do in their lives. Coming out can still cost someone their job, their family, their church; virtually every aspect of their life is suddenly, unpredictably at risk as a result of coming out. And in the midst of it, because of harmful anti-gay teachings from the church, the person often feels as rejected and punished and abandoned by God as Job did in this passage as they wrestle with the emotions surrounding their sexuality and coming out. Make no mistake: even now, with all of our social advances, coming out is still white-knuckle terrifying for most people. And in analyzing the potential losses that could happen, many LGBTQ+ people wait until a later, safer date to come out. Some never do. While that in itself is a tragedy, it’s also sometimes a necessity, and as part of recognizing National Coming Out Day, we need to respect and honor, and commit to protect any person who decides that coming out just isn’t possible for them, at least not right now.

Obviously though, many LGBTQ+ people do still come out, despite the risks, in order to live their true, authentic lives as God created them. And the more that happens, the better it will be for them, and for our society, too. Every year, more and more people discover that they know and love someone who is LGBTQ+, and who has had to go through the agonizing, terrifying process of coming out. It’s a fear that’s been faced by two of your pastors in recent years. At least one of your pastor’s children, and children of staffers. Several of your seminary interns. In fact, let’s have another show of hands: who here today has an LGBTQ+ friend? A child or other family member of a friend?… A member of your own extended family?…. A member of your own immediate family?…. Is there anyone else here today who has come out themselves? Yes, virtually all of us here today are connected, in relationship with, someone who has come out as LGBTQ+.

This morning, as the Church – as one of the primary sources that helped make coming out so difficult and so dangerous, we need to do two things:

First, we need to acknowledge our own role, our complicity in causing harm, often irreparable harm, to so many people, even people close to us. We need to acknowledge that our own past actions have driven people away from God, away from Christ, away from the Church, away from the faith. We’ve acted as the obstacle, the stumbling block that Jesus spoke so harshly about. We need to acknowledge this reality, and apologize for it, and truly repent for it.

That repentance is the second thing that we, the Church, need to do. Repentance means turning away from one thing, and turning toward something else. We need to commit ourselves to work for full LGBTQ+ equality and for equal protection under the law in our society; and to create a church that honors and celebrates sexual and gender diversity as a blessed and good and beautiful part of God’s creation. We need to continually affirm theologies, and doctrines, and scriptural interpretations that affirm that reality, and to strongly, unambiguously reject the ones that don’t.

We need to hear the good news – the gospel – found in today’s reading from Hebrews. That to God, no one is hidden. No one is in the closet. That through Christ, we have someone who understands our fears, our suffering, our temptations, our weaknesses – and who understands that our sexuality isn’t one of those weaknesses, but rather, is one of our greatest gifts.

So to anyone who is LGBTQ+ who might not be out and who might be considering coming out; and who might be struggling with where God, and the Church, and faith, is in the midst of all that, and who may even be feeling abandoned by God, I just say this:

Dear child of God, even in the midst of all that you’re going through – all your fears, all your questions, all the risks and all the possible feelings that God has abandoned you, I promise you – God has never abandoned you, and God never will. God has never left your side. You are known by name and are precious in God’s sight. God does not condemn you or judge you based on your sexuality or gender, and neither will we. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made by God, created in love, to love who you choose, and to be loved by one who chooses you. You have been created in God’s very image, and that includes your sexuality.

And so if it’s time for you, beloved, to come out, then come out. God loves you, we love you, I love you. You have a place in the reign of God, a place in this church, a place at this font and a place at this Table. And if you decide that this isn’t the time to come out, then don’t come out. Stay in the closet. God will be with you there in the closet and will even guard the door. God loves you, we love you, I love you. Because really, truly, all of this – the faith, the church, the universe, humanity, life, God – what it all boils down to is that it’s all about love. And if anyone tells you differently, they’re as wrong as Eliphaz the Temanite.

Thanks be to God.

The Queen’s Gambit

(sermon 9/12/21)

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

Mark 8:27-38  

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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There was an excellent miniseries on Netflix this past year called “The Queen’s Gambit.” It was the fictional story of a Cold-War era girl in Lexington Kentucky named Beth Harmon, and the miniseries followed her through her quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. I hope you got a chance to see it, or that you’ll see it sometime in the future; it’s really very good. Beyond having a Kentucky connection, and it being a compelling story, it reminded me of learning to play chess back in the 1970s when I was young. I was fascinated by the game – I studied it, read books about it, subscribed to a chess magazine, hung out with some good chess players, and even participated in a rated tournament once, and it all taught me a lot. Mostly what it taught me was that I wasn’t very good at it. I think that was because an essential part of chess strategy is understanding the relative worth of the pieces, each of which represents a type of person, and being willing to risk and often to actually sacrifice them in the pursuit of an overall strategy to win the game. In fact, the name of the miniseries, “The Queen’s Gambit,” is the name of a particular series of opening moves, a game-opening strategy where the player risks the loss of a particular piece, one of their low-value pawns, in order to achieve getting the game to proceed a certain direction.  

And even though I knew it was just a game, I had difficulty with that kind of sacrificing pieces, people, whatever. That was partly because I had some difficulty with the idea of valuing people differently and exploiting and sacrificing them. But I don’t want to sound to altruistic or idealistic; mostly it was because of fear, the unknown risk to myself in the game: would the strategy of sacrificing certain pieces really work? Was it going to leave me in danger? Was it worth the risk to give up the security that having those pieces provided me?

In today’s gospel text, Peter exhibits a similar sort of fear. When Jesus tries to explain to his disciples that he, the messiah – the “Son of Man,” as he put it – would have to undergo rejection and suffering even death, Peter rebukes him: “Don’t talk like this, Jesus; it’s counterproductive. We’re trying to build a movement, we’re trying to put butts in pews. That kind of talk is going to hurt our brand. It’s going to keep people from joining with us, and will probably drive away some people who are here now.”

Peter is just following the very natural logic of the world here. He’s afraid of accepting the sacrificial way of discipleship that Jesus is laying out for them; he thinks it’s contrary to the ways and logic of the world, and in all fairness to Peter, in this respect, he’s right.

Of course, we all know that Jesus rebukes Peter, even calling him Satan. But then, he pulls back from that rebuke a bit, and he explains to the disciples that anyone who would follow him will need to “take up their cross” and follow him. And that by worrying about ourselves, about saving our own lives, we’ll end up losing them; and only when we surrender ourselves, when we live according to the ways of the Kin-dom of God, in loving service and compassion toward others – *that’s* where we really find, and save, our lives. That’s where we end up experiencing the true wonder, the blessing, the glory, of life, and living as a child in the Kin-dom of God.

It isn’t just wonder and glory that we find, either. When we set down our own concerns and fears – which breeds worry about opening ourselves to risk and vulnerability – when we lay that aside, that’s also when, and where we find our real security, our real power, our real strength, through Christ.

Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to worry about our own security at all. When Jesus talks about not worrying about saving our own lives, he isn’t talking about being willing to tolerate abuse or oppression or injustice. Some have actually used this text to advise people in abusive relationships to stay in them; or counseling the poor to just accept their poverty and the unjust way they’re being treated as simply their ordained lot in life – that’s just “the cross they have to bear.” That is not what Jesus is saying here. He’s talking about giving of ourselves in a spirit of love, to one another. Loving others equally as we love ourselves. Having the courage, the faith, to set aside our fears and excessive self-interest, and to focus on the humanity, and to see the divine, the face of Christ, in others; and coming together in a spirit of love and community. That’s when we most experience the joy of life, and the love of God, and the security found by dwelling in that love.

In our heads, we know that’s true. We do, and I invite you to think about your own lives, and times when you’ve personally experienced times where you felt the love, the togetherness, and the security that came from setting aside your own self-interest, and you served others in a spirit of compassion and love and respect. I’ll bet you can think of multiple times when you experienced that.

We know this reality in our heads. It’s just hard to follow through on it as the norm in our lives. It’s hard because it does really require some sacrifice on our part. It’s hard for our hearts and our hands to make that quantum leap from following the logic of the world to the logic of the Kin-dom, no matter how much we know it in our heads. It’s hard, because so much of what we experience – in the news, in advertising, in social media, in personal interactions with other people, almost all of them are polarizing in some way, set up to emphasize binary opposition, telling us that whatever we have isn’t enough, and even what we have is at risk of being destroyed or taken away by “others” who we’re supposed to fear and hate and fight; and that we’ve got to worry about Us First. This weekend, as we mark the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, and we think about all that’s happened since then, and we look at the current social and political climate in this country, we’ve seen the horrors of living life through that lens.

But the reality is that it’s all a lie. A tempting one, one that offers a comforting sense of security, but still a lie, and fake security.

Worrying about ourselves in this way won’t bring the security, the peace, the satisfaction, that we’re seeking. The only thing that will make us more human, more accepted, more loved – and in the process, more secure – is connecting with others in a spirit of love and service in community.

That will require sacrifice. It will require giving up some of the chess pieces of our lives in order to achieve this greater, much greater, real good. It turns out that the Queen’s Gambit, sacrificing something small to get something far greater, is actually Christ’s Gambit, too. That’s the cross Jesus wants us to bear, and in the end, it’s actually a pretty light one, since when we do make that sacrifice, we end up receiving so much more in return. In the Kin-dom of God, and really here on earth, too, it’s true that the more we give, the more we get; the more we love, and more we’re loved. That’s what Christ has promised us, that’s what his life illustrates, and that’s what his resurrection validates. As far as we’re concerned, we should consider that check and checkmate.

Thanks be to God.

“We Have Met the Enemy…”

(sermon 8/29/21)

Mark 7:1-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

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Being born with a name like Mike Pentecost, what else could you do but grow up to become a minister? And in fact he did, and he was a very good one, and I wish he still were, the church would be better for it, but as it turned out, life took him in a different direction. But for some of the years that he was, he served as an Associate Pastor of the Columbus-area church that our family attended, and he had a major influence in my discerning my own call to the ministry. Mike was a bit younger than me, and had an extremely outgoing personality that enabled him to be able to talk and joke with anyone at any time; a skill that I only wish I had. Most importantly though, Mike, along with Phil, the Senior Pastor, helped me to understand that the strict expression of the faith that I’d had the most contact with before we’d come to this church wasn’t the only way to understand things. That whether you were an ordained minister or not, you didn’t have to check your brain at the door when you entered the church, and you didn’t have to check your humanity there, either. You could still enjoy a cold beer, or maybe a good cigar, or any number of other things that my earlier pietistic, quasi-Holiness, near Fundamentalist associates in the faith would have definitely frowned upon as violations of their rigid moralistic code, and that would defile anyone, especially a minister.

Despite these things that my former Fundie-friends would have turned their noses up at, and that they most assuredly would have thought would condemn him to hell, Mike also had one of the most authentic understandings of the true gospel, he real gospel of God’s good news for all people proclaimed by Christ, and how to live that truth out in the world in a concrete way, that I’d ever seen. Based just on the work that he did with the orphanage in Honduras for children with HIV and AIDS that we both eventually ended up being affiliated with, I can say without any exaggeration that there are a number of people alive in this world today who wouldn’t be if it weren’t for Mike’s “Matthew 25” way of understanding and living the gospel.  

In today’s gospel text, Jesus talks a bit about people who also would probably have taken a dim view of Mike. People who confused form and symbol for substance; people who got overly concerned with traditions and rigid rules as being more important than being concerned with the Rule of Love, a key point in our Reformed tradition in interpreting scripture: is the interpretation the most loving thing; because God’s way is always the most loving thing.

In this case, people were criticizing Jesus’ disciples because some of them hadn’t engaged in ritual handwashing before eating, and Jesus scolds the critics for being more concerned with the symbolism than about living in ways that are truly compassionate, and therefore, are truly pleasing to God.

I have to say that in recent times, I’ve heard some Christians appeal to this text to justify not needing to take physical precautions for their health and safety, and the health and safety of others. According to them, Jesus is saying here that they don’t need to worry about washing their hands, or, say, wearing a mask, or distancing, or doing any other thing designed to prevent the Covid-19 virus from entering their body; and that if it did, they wouldn’t be defiled, but God would take care of them.

It only takes a little consideration to realize that’s a misinterpretation of what’s going on here, and an ignorant, dangerous, and self-centered one at that. Jesus’ critics weren’t criticizing Jesus’ hygiene practices; they were specifically concerned with the ritualistic cleaning that would keep them from being ritually, religiously, defiled – not physically defiled or compromised. And so Jesus’ reply to them is similarly referring to the issue of ritual, religious, spiritual defilement. His words here have absolutely nothing to do with washing hands, or cups and bowls, or food, in order to maintain health and avoid food poisoning and other illnesses.

As Jesus goes on, he explains that what truly “defiles” us, in this spiritual or moral sense, isn’t, for example, that sublime glass of Elijah Craig 18 bourbon that you managed to get your hands on, or maybe that insanely decadent, high calorie dessert – those things may very definitely be physically unhealthy for you, but they aren’t going to spiritually defile you or put you at risk of the gates of hell. Rather, what truly defiles us is what comes out of our mouths, or more accurately, what comes out of our hearts. So often, the words that we speak – even when we preface it with “Bless their heart” – show an ugly side of us that hurts others, and in the process defiles us in God’s eyes. We’ll speak ill of others, insulting and demeaning them as equally valued and loved by God. The truth is, we don’t need any help from outside sources to harm us; we’re perfectly capable of defiling ourselves from within; all by ourselves. To borrow the phrase from the old comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

In the past handful of years especially, when we’ve been as politically and socially fractured as maybe we’ve ever been at any time in our nation’s history, it’s been all but impossible to avoid falling into the trap of saying things that have hurt others, even others we care a great deal for. I actually think that our society is at a dangerous tipping point, one where we’ve simply got to find a way, where we’ve got to create space – and what better space than here, as the church, to model that to the rest of the country? —  for us to be able to be civil, and respectful, and more than just that, to actually be compassionate and caring toward one another, even those we disagree with. We have to find a way to do this if we’re going to survive, and I believe that through Christ, through God’s Wisdom, we can do that.

Jesus mentioned some specific things that can come out of our mouths that defile us. It was a pretty long list, actually. Sometimes though, one of the defiling things that can come out of our mouths is silence. Saying nothing when we should be shouting to the rooftops about some injustice, about the suffering being inflicted on others. There are certainly times when we can speak too much and say the wrong things, but other times, we can cause terrible harm to others and end up defiling ourselves by speaking too little, and in the process, we end up becoming complicit in the harm done.

However our mouth defiles us, though, through speaking or through silence, Jesus says throughout the totality of his teaching in the gospels that while none of us will ever fully avoid that kind of defilement of our relationship with God, the real good news for us is the wisdom, not of our own words, but of the eternal Word – God’s Wisdom, the Word, that has existed eternally; the Wisdom, the Word, that spoke the cosmos into being; the Wisdom, the Word, that dwells in the flesh in Jesus. That Wisdom that tells us that God is always with us, caring for us, supporting us, strengthening us, will never leave us – will always be with us – and that tells us that to be truly, fully human; and to truly give glory to God; and to truly live the kind of eternal life that God designed us for; we need to love one another as God loves us. We need to be compassionate, and merciful, and just, and equitable, to others, especially the ones who are different from us.

The good news for us is that as good and important as rituals and traditions can be at times, our place in the eyes of God, our spiritual well-being, has never depended on rigidity and rituals, not really. And that we’ve never really risked or harmed our eternal souls by laughing at an occasional off-color joke or yelling “Dammit!” when we smacked our thumb with a hammer. Christ teaches us that what God really cares about is whether we’re being the face, the heart, hands, and feet, of Christ in the world to one another; whether we’re offering Christ’s compassion and acceptance to them, and just as importantly, graciously receiving it back from them. That’s real life. That’s real holiness. That’s real Wisdom, the kind of Wisdom for which we can all say

Thanks be to God.

As Much As They Wanted

(sermon 7/25/21)

2 Kings 4:42-44  

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

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John 6:1-14

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

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Presbyterian. Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic; it doesn’t matter the tradition; it doesn’t matter how similar or different their theologies might be; there’s one thing that virtually every single one of them and all the others say: “If there’s anything that this church does well, it’s cook. Or sometimes, they’ll say “eat,” but ultimately it makes the same point – that they enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of preparing and sharing a common meal. There’s something wonderful, something magical, something genuinely miraculous, that happens in the coming together, the sharing of the work of your hands and hearts, of temporarily setting aside any diets, and indulging in the feast and the festivities. It doesn’t matter when someone says that Presbyterian Mrs. McNeil’s ambrosia is the best in the world, that the truth is it tastes exactly the same as Methodist Mrs. Hudson’s down the street; the added aspect of knowing and caring for the people who made all the food, and the people you’re sitting together eating it with, just makes it taste better, and everyone can say that their church makes the best food, and has the best meals, and for them, every one of them is right.

The whole idea of the goodness of food and table fellowship is an important aspect of life in general, but religious expression in particular. And arguably, nowhere is that more true than in the Christian faith. Of course, that’s rooted in the Jewish faith but we take it yet a step further than our Jewish siblings in faith. Both of our traditions start with the first shared, common meal in the Garden of Eden, and while admittedly, that got things off to a rough start, things definitely got better after that. We both have a shared tradition of God providing manna and quail for the common good and sustenance of the Hebrews as they wandered in the Wilderness, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise of being led into a land flowing with milk and honey. We share instructions from God to always share food and drink and hospitality with others, both those we know and those we don’t, sharing whatever we have whether it’s a little or a lot. We share sacred texts that describe the coming fulfilment of the kingdom of God as being like an eternal, unending banquet of the richest foods and finest of drink. In the Passover meal, Jews remember and give thanks for God’s loving faithfulness, while remembering the blessings, and tragedies, within their faith history, as well as remembering the suffering endured by others who were also caught up in that history. And of course, we Christians similarly give thanks for God’s faithfulness and our own faith history, when we participate in the Lord’s Supper; and we believe that in some inexplicable, even miraculous, way we’re united with the Spirit of Christ in the sharing of the bread and cup; in this meal as actual sacrament.

The symbolism, and the reality, of the table-sharing of food and drink – the sharing of hospitality, with God and with each other – is powerful.

We can hear both of today’s Lectionary texts, and we can savor the richness of the details provided in them while our imaginations can be inspired as we fill in the details the authors left out. One thing that we can do that’ probably counterproductive is to get too wrapped up in trying to understand or explain the miraculous multiplication of food that takes place in both of them. Neither author is concerned with explaining the mechanics, the physics, of how it worked, both of them probably considering it unknowable and in any case unimportant as they both focused on the same actual point: in the midst of human need, the resources available are shared generously, even though it seems completely inadequate to meet the need, and the result is that God will make something happen that is wonderful, beyond any human ability, or expectation, or explanation.

This is the point – the good news – that we can hear in both of these accounts: that the miracle isn’t in the mechanics, but rather, in the reality that God blesses and multiplies our faithful and loving acts of generosity and hospitality, often in ways we may never even see.

This point – this good news – doesn’t deny or sugar-coat the reality that despite our actions, some people will still go hungry or otherwise suffer. We can’t understand why sometimes, we see God at work in the world in some places, but not in other places that need help at least as much as the others. I wish that weren’t the case, but we all know that it is. These stories point out, and the fact remains, though, that God’s abundance is capable of appearing in the midst of human need. So we’re all challenged, then, to be present in the midst of that need and to extend generosity, in the same way as Elisha and his servant, and Jesus and the young boy who gave up his lunch and changed the world. Through our actions, and our resources, no matter how seemingly small, God may very well work a miracle in the life of another.

It’s in that spirit of generosity and hospitality that, in addition to our ongoing commitment to our food ministry with Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church in West Louisville and La Casita Center in downtown and South Louisville, we’re also applying to partner with Dare to Care to create a food pantry here in the east of the city, where hunger and food scarcity is also real, even if often hidden. We’re moving forward, confident of the good news embedded in these two texts, of God’s truly miraculous multiplying abundance.

He’d been out of work for many months now. He’d had a decent job, but that was one of the non-human casualties of the pandemic. Since then, he’d burned through his life’s savings just to survive, and now he’d found some work but it only paid a fraction of his old job, making it just barely possible to keep his head above water most days, and too many days, not. Often skipping meals just to cut corners to the bare minimum, while the calls from the collection agencies made his life a round-the-clock, nonstop living hell. His life had been turned upside-down, going backwards in what was supposed to be the prime earning years of his life, filled with fear and stress and no small amount of embarrassment and shame, as he tried to put on a good face around his friends, and not let anyone see his deep suffering and need.

But one of his neighbors did see it, though. And one day on a whim, the neighbor invited him to a dinner they were having at the neighbor’s church, figuring that at least that night, he’d be able to enjoy a decent hot meal. And on a whim, and with the same thought in his mind, he accepted the invitation. When they arrived at the church, the neighbor said to him, “Oh, let me give you the nickel tour of the place before we go in to eat,” and they walked around the building, peeking into the sanctuary and the various rooms and spaces.

“And this,” the neighbor said as they stepped into one room, “is what we call Leo’s Little Store. It’s a food pantry that we run, getting free and healthy food into the hands of individuals and families who need a little help getting through rough patches in their lives.” The two stood there for a moment, until the neighbor broke the silence by asking, “Hey, didn’t you tell me once that you had a family member who was having trouble making ends meet? I’d bet they could use a bag of two of free groceries; we could pack some up and you could put them in your car for them. Do you think they’d like that?” It was an obvious lie, they both knew; a plausible fiction that might enable him to accept some help while saving face and without hurting his pride.

He felt his face getting red, fully aware of what his neighbor was asking without asking. He felt simultaneously embarrassed and grateful, as he heard himself saying, “You know, yes, I think they’d really appreciate something like that.”

Once the groceries were stowed away in his car, he and the neighbor went into the dinner, where there was more food than that number of people were ever going to be able to finish; there was going to be plenty left over afterward. He filled his plate to overflowing with all the standard dishes common to pretty much all church potlucks; nothing elaborate but everything warm and delicious, prepared and shared with love. He sat there enjoying the friendship of his neighbor and the conversation and warmth of those sitting at the table along with him. It truly was something miraculous, he thought, how this made him feel so much better to know that people cared for him and were there to help. He momentarily excused himself from the table and went back through the line to get a small second slice of Mrs. Klinger’s cherry pie, and as he did, he thought to himself that this was the best meal ever. And he was right.

Thanks be to God.  

One Thing

(sermon 7/18/21)

2 Samuel 7-14a

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.

Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”

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I’m going to guess that at some point or another, most of us have seen the 1991 movie “City Slickers.” If you have, you’ll likely remember that in the movie, Billy Crystal plays Mitch Robbins, a stressed out, angst-ridden guy who’s going through a mid-life crisis who ends up going on vacation with a couple of his equally angst-ridden buddies to a dude ranch out west, to work as cowpokes on the ranch’s annual cattle drive. Pretty quickly, Mitch gets on the wrong side of Curly, the head cowboy, played by Jack Palance. And if you’ve seen the movie, you also probably remember the scene where the two of them are riding along on their horses and having a heart-to-heart conversation, where Curly tells Mitch that the whole secret to life, the whole secret to having a good, fulfilling, contended life, is for a person to just stay focused on one thing, and that, even though he used more flowery language, nothing else mattered. When Mitch asks him what the one thing is, Curly answers “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

That’s more or less the same message that God is reminding David of through the prophet Nathan in today’s first Lectionary text from the Second Book of Samuel. We heard that once David had gotten settled in as the ruler of the united kingdom of Israel, he then turns his attention to making a permanent, sacred space – a temple – to house the Ark of the Covenant and to be a dwelling for God, of sorts, on earth. Maybe David’s motivation was a matter of faith, of devotion and a desire to please God; or maybe it was a concern out of bad optics – that people might take a dim view of his concentrating on his own physical comfort, building a palace for himself without making a space for God and the Ark. In all likelihood his motivation was a bit of both, but ultimately, whatever his motivations, God reminds David that God had never actually asked him to build a temple – that since the time of the Hebrews wandering through the Wilderness with Moses, God had been getting along just fine without any permanent structure, thank you very much, and in essence, God tells David to just stay in his lane – to keep focused on, if not literally one thing, at least, the particular one group of things, that God actually had entrusted to him.

While in this particular story, I don’t think David felt as conflicted or angst-ridden as Mitch in the movie, but what about you? Have you ever felt overstressed because you’ve spread yourself too thin, chasing too many commitments in too many directions, not able to see your real priorities? Henry David Thoreau famously encouraged us all to simplify our lives in order to find peace, contentment, happiness. He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to do so. This text brings home to us that this act of simplification, staying focused, staying in our own lane, isn’t just common sense, or just a good idea, or a bit of Dr. Phil pop psychology, but it’s an important aspect of our faith; it’s an important spiritual discipline – to try to discern where God wants us to focus – either for ourselves, in our own personal lives, or as the church – and then to stay focused, to stick with it, and not get distracted by other directions, no matter how good those other directions might seem. Finding our “one thing,” or probably more accurately, our “one path” of particular things.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll never need to adjust our focus, or, to use the earlier analogy, that from time to time God won’t want us to change from one lane into another. Times change; situations change; God’s will for us will change. So we can’t confuse discernment of focus with just sticking with tradition or “that’s just what we’ve always done.”

Practically every individual, every pastor, and every congregation, is recognizing that we’re currently living in a special time; one where it seems that God may be calling on us to change lanes. For us here, a part of that is discernment about how our focus might change after the closing of our preschool; what new avenues of mission and community connection God may be leading us into. Even as we’re planning for the official recognition and celebration next month of the preschool and the immense impact it’s had in the lives of people for decades, there are other really intriguing and exciting potential new ways for us to engage our faith with the community, and to be even more strongly a Matthew 25 congregation – ways that have seemed almost to arise out of the blue, but I believe it isn’t at all coincidental.

And all that leads to a critical question: how do you know if, or when, or how, God is calling us toward a particular different focus; to a new “one thing” or one path? How can we weigh potential options to determine whether they’re God’s will, or our own? How do we do that in the life of the congregation? How do we do that in our own personal lives?

Well, in the movie, Curly didn’t offer Mitch any specific answers, and in today’s text God leaves it a bit ambiguous with David too, not explaining specifically what he should be focusing on, but only what he shouldn’t. Still, the text points toward a principle that I think can be helpful.

By referring to all the years that the Ark had no permanent home, God was emphasizing that God’s primary presence, and primary focus, was within human lives, human bodies, human concerns. *That* was God’s focus, and God’s home.

So as we go through our discernment process of what our ministry and outreach should look like, maybe our yardstick should be to ask: Is this thing being considered consistent with our goal – as people of the kingdom of God – to glorify God by showing God’s love to others, and making that love real in their lives in clear, concrete ways? Does this thing we’re considering make effective and proper use of the resources God has made available to us? And at the same time, are we avoiding trying to bite off more than we can chew? Are we not trying to take on a job God has in mind for some other person, some other day?

As we think about those questions, it’s possible that we might occasionally get something wrong – I mean, even Nathan originally told David that building the temple was the right thing to do, before having to backtrack after his vision. But the totality of David’s story in the scriptures shows us that even when he got things wrong – and he got a lot wrong; a lot worse than what he got wrong in this particular part of his life’s story – God never abandoned him. God’s love for David remained, his entire life. God made good on the promise to make David a “house”, an eternal dynasty, through Christ. A big part of the good news we can take home from this story, and a big part of what we give thanks for as we share in the Lord’s Supper this morning, is that even when David got things wrong, even in his imperfections, God never abandoned him. And as we continue our process of discernment, as we get some things right and some things wrong, God will never abandon you, or me, or us in our life together. In fact, maybe that promise, that assurance, as far as we’re concerned is God’s own “one thing.”

Thanks be to God.

Two Cousins

(sermon 7/11/21)

Mark 6:7-30  

Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

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I had a cousin named John. Actually, he was my mother’s cousin, which I guess technically made him my first cousin once removed, even though we always just called each other cousins. But whatever ancestry.com might consider us, it didn’t really matter because John was only about a year and a half older than me, and we grew up together, went to school together, played on the same Little League team together, and lived in the same small town never more than a mile or so apart, and actually just two doors away on the same street for a while when we were really small; so for all practical purposes we grew up together as if we were brothers.

As adults, we both settled down in central Ohio, built careers, raised families. We stayed pretty close, even though we lived almost an hour apart, but still, family and work obligations and all the other realities of adulthood kept us from seeing as much of each other as I’d have wanted.

At way too young an age, John died from the affects of cancer, diabetes, and ultimately, kidney failure, while I ached to have been able to be an organ donor and wishing I could have spent more time with him in his last days. Still, while had been different than when we were kids, there was, and always will be, a special bond between the two of us.

The gospels tell us that Jesus and John the Baptizer were relatives; traditionally, they’ve been called cousins of some kind. I’ve always been intrigued by the details of their relationship that the gospels don’t give us. Were they close? Or were they cousins like the ones you like, or maybe not, but you only see once or twice a year at weddings and funerals?  We’ll really just never know, but it’s interesting to think about.

The lives of these two cousins intersect in this section of Mark’s gospel. Mark starts to tell a story about Jesus sending out the disciples, two by two, out into the towns and villages to proclaim the gospel, the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God and of God’s goodwill and favor for humankind. Then, right in the middle of the story, while the disciples are out in those towns that we never hear any details of, and before they return to tell Jesus about their experiences, Mark pauses the main action to drop in a secondary story. In this case, as you heard, it’s a story detailing hos John met his end. It’s an open question why Mark did this here. Was it to make a connection in the minds of his readers between John’s proclamation about the coming kingdom, and that of the disciples? That in John’s absence, the disciples now have the primary charge from God to take the message of the gospel outward, even further than John could have himself, and in an enhanced manner? Maybe it was some of that, and maybe even all of that, but maybe it was something else, too.

The whole sordid story of how John was killed is told as a kind of a flashback-within-a-flashback, starting with King Herod and his buddies talking about Jesus, wondering where his authority and power came from, and Herod remembering back to John the Baptizer. The Herod in this story is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. Now that Jesus is an adult, that Herod is long gone. But before he died, he realized that none of his sons were competent enough to handle the entire kingdom after him, so he divided it into three smaller kingdoms, each of them still under the authority of Rome. In this story, Herod Antipas was trying to be a big shot, impressing his friends with a big, lavish party, and he tries to impress them even further after Salome, his wife’s daughter, dances for him and his drunken buddies, which is actually pretty creepy if you give even a moment’s thought to it, by promising her whatever she asks for, even up to half of the kingdom, which actually wasn’t even his to give away. In the story, Herod gets manipulated by Herodias, his wife, and he doesn’t have the strength to avoid going along with John’s execution. He doesn’t want to lose face with his guests. It’s a story of a very weak ruler, in both power and character. What makes it even worse is Herod’s own apparent love-hate relationship with John – his conscience being pricked by John’s preaching, but still being intrigued and drawn to it. All in all, the flashback paints a picture of a sometimes evil, but always weak and pathetic person.

As I mentioned, Mark starts this inserted story with Herod thinking back to this memory. Now, he and his cronies were talking about Jesus, when Herod offers his opinion that Jesus is the return of John, whom he’d killed. Herod is being haunted, if not literally, at least figuratively – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, by what he’d done in his past.

Maybe that’s why Mark drops this story right here. The disciples are out proclaiming the good news of God’s favor to all people. Proclaiming liberation, redemption, a release from captivity and suffering and sorrow and guilt, a soothing of regrets, because of God’s proactive, unilateral choice to pursue humanity and bring us into covenant and relationship. By putting the Herod story here, is Mark making the case that the gospel could be good news even for someone as tormented and selfish and sniveling and conflicted as Herod Antipas?

In our own way, I believe that each one of us is being haunted by something in our past. It might be something relatively small that’s stuck with us, or it might be something really serious. You uttered a poorly chosen word or offered a careless, hurtful comment. You weren’t attentive enough to your children, your parents, grandparents, siblings, your dying cousin. You exploited someone who trusted you, causing them harm for your own personal benefit, maybe they never even knew it, and then again, maybe they did. You cheated on your taxes; you cheated on your business partner; you cheated on your spouse. You were too afraid to do the courageous thing that you could have done to help someone, but you were more concerned for your own skin or your own image, your standing in other people’s eye, not wanting to upset the status quo your other relationships. Whatever the actual details, all of us – all of us – carry something that haunts us.

And it isn’t just you and me as individuals, either. Our society is haunted by all of its past wrongs, too. Our abuses of power, our concern for our image over integrity. Our cowardly turning our backs on people in order to save face or retain power or preserve economic interests. Our wrongful treatment of so many different minority groups of people here and abroad, and all of these having a very real and negative affect on our present. Many voices haunt us, and sometimes, it can be exhausting.

But eventually, Mark does tell us in his gospel, just after this flashback scene, that the disciples who had been sent out by Jesus returned, and they reported back about what had happened as they proclaimed that good news.

Hear that same good news today. The news that despite whatever you’ve done in your past, or left undone, small, medium, or large, there is nothing you could have done to place yourself out of reach of God’s love and embrace. There’s nothing in our life that’s too much for God to forgive, to remove from your shoulders and your mind. Nothing.

It’s true that God’s love and acceptance doesn’t take away the harm that we’ve caused. It doesn’t remove the hurt, the scars. You can’t fix everything; you can’t bring John back from the dead. And this love and acceptance definitely comes with the expectation that we’ll do everything in our abilities to right the wrongs we’ve caused, to mend the tears, to restore and make reparation for our wrongs. But even with that, remember, dear precious child of God, you are considered forgiven, and precious, and beloved, and worthy by God. Today and always, you are held in the loving, protective, eternal hand of God, and there’s nothing that can snatch you out of that hand, and there’s nothing that will cause God to let go of your hand.

I did let go of John’s hand the last time I saw him, after a long, silent final hug. Yes, the silence spoke the regret for allowing petty busyness to keep us apart, and for lost opportunities to be together as much as we’ wanted. But it also silently spoke of a lifetime of joy, and gratitude, and love. As much sadness as there was in our goodbye, there was peace in it, too, knowing that some day, we’d be reunited again as cousins, or brothers, or whatever we really were, without any nonsense getting in between. And that peace comes out of the assurance, the good news, that those disciples proclaimed in those towns and villages, and by extension to Herodias, and to Salome, and Herod, and to you, and to me.

Thanks be to God.

Three Times

(sermon 7/4/21)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10  

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

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Last Sunday I mentioned a few television shows and movies. Not to get in a rut, but as I was studying this particular text from 2 Corinthians, considering its backstory and trying to understand what Paul is getting at, another movie came to mind. The movie “Office Space” is a goofy comedy movie from 1999 about a poor guy with no real ambition, going nowhere, stuck in a dead-end job in the mind-numbing bureaucracy of some big corporation. Part of the overall plot of the movie is that the big corporation has brought in a couple of outside consultants to study their operations and come up with ways to make the corporation more efficient, and ultimately improve the corporate bottom line. It just so happened that both of the consultants were named Robert, so in the movie they just get referred to as “The Bobs.” Now anyone who’s ever worked in the business world knows the dread that comes when you hear the company has hired consultants to come in and streamline things and tell the company how it should really be operating, because this process almost always ends up eliminating some jobs, and adding workload and causing other difficulties for the employees who remain, and while they might get some things right, they can also get a number of things wrong – sometimes really wrong – and in fact, that’s what happens in the movie.

Consultants in the business world are an interesting bunch, and having been an architect, I was generally considered a kind of a consultant, so I feel I can talk about them. They usually have some kind of specialized competence, and they try to apply that competence to benefit their clients. But as outsiders, the fist thing they have to do is to learn their client’s actual business model, their operations, their corporate culture, and then, after they’ve got a handle on things, they’ll make recommendations to the client regarding the way they should really be doing things. Many years ago, a business associate of mine said that “A consultant is someone who asks to borrow your watch, and then charges you to tell you what time it is;” and while he meant it to be funny, there’s at least a bit of truth to that. But before they can charge you for anything, they need to get hired, and they do that like any other business – by gaining a client’s confidence thro8ugh touting their qualifications, their expertise, their past successes, and making a case for why they’re the best one for the job.

There’s something very similar to that going on as the backstory to this text we heard today, to what Paul is saying in this passage. Paul takes pride in the fact that he’s the one who got the church in Corinth started. He went to the city, proclaimed the gospel there, made some converts, and got them organized and structured as a church; and then, consistent with the way he understood his call, he moved on to do the same thing in other cities.

But apparently sometime after he left, some others showed up on the scene in Corinth; people who claimed to be able to help them even more than Paul. But these were people who Paul said were in some way, we’re not sure the details, skewing the real message of the gospel. They were apparently touting their credentials to the small church; earlier in this letter he sarcastically refers to them as so-called “super apostles”. Based on what Paul writes in this passage, these newcomers were trying to sell themselves, similar to the Bobs, as having more credibility, more qualifications, more authority than Paul, so the Corinthians should listen to them. You could imagine their arguments: Paul wasn’t one of the Twelve; he wasn’t directly taught by them; he actually used to persecute Christians. What’s so special about Paul? Why should anyone listen to him? It seems that these would-be super apostles were trying to build themselves up by tearing Paul down.  

In response to this, to reestablish his own qualifications and credentials, Paul writes what we heard this morning. He wants to reassert his own authority, but he doesn’t want to sound arrogant or boastful himself, so he engages in this little bit of wordplay where he talks about himself in the third person – “I know someone who was taken up into the third heaven, into the very dwelling place of God, and who heard deep, divine revelations that mortals are forbidden to hear or repeat…” It’s an age-old tactic of saying something without actually saying it or taking ownership of it, while still making the point, and in this case, the point is made. Paul has credibility due to the amazing revelations that he’s received directly from God, he tells them – in fact, it’s enough to make him want to boast about it. IN the English translation, Paul says he needs to be cautious so he doesn’t get “too elated” about the fact that he’s has these special visions or experiences. That translation, “too elated,” is probably a little too polite; the Greek here actually means to be conceited, arrogant, cocky. So Paul tells the people in Corinth that in fact, his credentials are such that he *could* be boastful, but he’d never want to do that; it just wouldn’t be right.

At the same time, we hear Paul say that it’s what he describes as a “thorn in the flesh” –  we don’t really know what that means, exactly, but it’s some kind of problem or distraction – that keeps him preoccupied and unable to be boastful. In fact, he says, it was such a problem that “three times” he prayed to God that this “thorn” would be taken away from him, but to no avail – it’s kind of a parallel, whether he intended it or not, to the three times that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would remove this cup from him, that he wouldn’t be crucified. Paul says that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Don’t struggle and strive for glory or greatness, or to assert your authority, which doesn’t come from you anyway. There’s no need to be boastful or arrogant; there’s no need to feel cocky or lord it over others because of your standing and place of authority in the kingdom of God.

Arrogance, conceit; they always cloud a person’s vision and ultimately lead to self-righteousness instead of God’s righteousness. Don’t get too full of yourself, Paul, Christ tells him. My grace is sufficient for you.

It’s a good reminder for all of us. We can all, at one time or another, get a little full of ourselves. From time to time, we can all feel like people aren’t respecting our authority or our dignity, and we deserve a bit more deference than we’re getting in the moment. But the message Paul got is the same message Christ gives us, too. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t get too boastful; that just ends up leading you in the wrong direction. Instead, try to remember all the goodness and blessings that God has given you, and remember that it wasn’t through any of your own doing; it was a gift, so rather than boasting, be humble and grateful.

Paul offers a good reminder for us as individuals and as people of the kingdom of God, and given that it’s also Independence Day, it’s a good reminder for us as a nation, too. There are so many great and wonderful things about our country that we can and should be rightly proud of. From our seemingly endless natural beauty, to the beautiful concepts in our founding documents. To the spirit of opportunity, progress, and advancement. To our scientific, cultural, educational, and social advances that have led the world. To the overarching goodwill and good-naturedness of the people.

But it’s no big secret that just as we have greatness, we also have great failures. And if you really think about those failures, almost every single one of them arises out of having slid into an attitude of self-righteousness, conceit, arrogance; forcing our own attitudes, trying to assert our strength and power over others. Other countries, other people, even other people within our own country. Our global successes have been great, but those successes have often planted those seeds of boastfulness, exceptionalism, and have led us into paths very different than the ways of the kingdom of God.

We do fail in this regard sometimes. Honestly, it’s inescapable. But that’s why what Paul says here is so important, such good news – that even when we do slide down that wrong path, God is still with us, reminding us that it isn’t all about us. That God has bestowed grace upon us in sufficient measure for all that we need – maybe not all that we want, but all that we need, and as a gift, not through our earning any of it through our actions. So our mindset can be one of gratitude and not boastfulness, and our actions toward others can be actions of grace.

So this weekend, let’s all give thanks to God for all the good that God has blessed us with. Let’s be proud of the real good in this country. Let’s be aware of and repentant for the bad; for the harm that we’ve caused. Let’s recognize that the harm almost always comes out of a boastful attitude that leads us to think that we’re somehow more special, more right, more beloved in God’s eyes than others. Let’s always be thankful for the wonderful news that first and foremost, we’re citizens of the kingdom of God, and that Christ tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Now, if the Bobs offered advice as good as that, they’d be worth their weight in gold.

Thanks be to God.

Four Lives

(sermon 6/27/21)

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels . Used with permission

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!”

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Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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At some point this past month, George and I got hooked on the television series Sense 8, and we ended up binge-watching its entire run in just a few weeks. The details of the show often deal with mature themes, but its basic premise is that there are some people living among us who have this sensate connection with one another, in small groups or clusters – it’s telepathic, but more than that; they can not only feel one another’s joy and sorrow and fear, but they can actually also appear to each other at various times – usually times of personal crisis – they can even live through each other, each one of the very different people from all around the world using their own talents, skills, knowledge base, to help one another get through these crisis times. It’s really a fascinating concept, to imagine people having that kind of a bond. Almost immediately after we watched all of this show, we stumbled across another one called Manifest, which is a much more family-friendly series, with a very different plot, but with a similar premise of a group of very diverse people whose lives, thoughts, feelings, were somehow mysteriously interconnected. As I thought about the draw that these shows have for me, I guess I’ve been attracted to shows like that for some time now. One of my favorite all-time movies is the film “Crash,” which examines the complex ways that a group of random people’s’ lives weave together, in ways not at all as telepathically or mysteriously as those two television shows, but just through very real, everyday events; how the lives of very different people, at their best and their worst, are still connected into some larger whole.

Today’s two Lectionary texts tell us about four people directly, and a few others who are standing just offstage, I suppose. In the first reading, we’re looking through a window, observing the anguish, the grief being suffered by David at the precise moment he learns about the death of King Saul, and especially Saul’s son Jonathan. The scriptures tell us here and elsewhere that David and Jonathan had a very deep, abiding love for one another, and even while David ended up marrying Saul’s daughter Michal, it seems that David had a deeper bond with Jonathan, Michal’s older brother; it was a relationship that David says in this particular passage what “wonderful, passing the love of women.” But now, in this moment, he’s learned that Jonathan is dead. As he eulogizes Jonathan and Saul, there doesn’t appear to be any bottom to his grief.

A thousand years after David, Jairus was beginning to feel similarly overwhelmed with grief as he’s dealing with the reality that his daughter is about to die. Mark tells us that Jairus is a leader in the synagogue – we aren’t sure exactly what kind of leader, or if he’s an official leader or one based on his prominence in the community or the length of time he’d been part of the synagogue, but what is clear is that whatever kind of authority he had, no leader of a synagogue, no leader of a church, not even a future king, can escape the pain and grief of the death of a loved one.

Jairus, beside himself in grief and panic, reaches out in every way he can to maybe save his daughter. He’s heard about Jesus and hopes that the stories about him are true, that he can heal people. Mark doesn’t tell us that Jairus is a secret follower of Jesus, like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea in other stories. Jairus doesn’t ever offer any kind of profession of faith about Jesus being the Son of God, or the Messiah. Honestly, with his daughter in such a precarious position, Jairus would have probably been willing to profess that Jesus was a ham sandwich, if that’s what it would have taken to get him to come heal his daughter, and frankly, in the same situation we’d likely be willing to do the same thing.

At very least, history has given both David and Jairus the respect of telling us their names. Sadly, the men who wrote these stories for us didn’t offer the same degree of respect to the other two people , the women, who we focus on today. We’ve looked through a window observing David’s grief by way of our first reading, and Mark has given us a framed view of Jairus pleading with Jesus to help his little daughter; now he frames another view for us.

As Jesus is on his way to see Jairus’ daughter, we see this woman who had been suffering and in ill health for twelve years. She’d seen a whole hospital’s worth of doctors and bankrupted herself in the process, getting lots of advice and lots of treatments but not any actual improvement; in fact, we’re told she’d only gotten worse. This woman, this one whose name is lost to us, takes control of her own well-being now, working her way through the crowd and somehow pushing through all the others thronging around Jesus at least enough to get a momentary brush of Jesus’ clothing, and after confronting her, Jesus tells her that the faith she exhibited in trusting that Jesus could help her, and doing something about it, has made her whole again, after all those years of suffering.

The fourth person who receives attention the second nameless one – is Jairus’ daughter. A completely innocent player in this whole drama, the one we never hear a single word from, the one with the least power or control over anything. Here, Mark directs our view through one final window, framing one final scene – Jesus and the girl, and her parents, and a small handful of others – Mark isn’t clear whether it was a few of Jesus’ disciples, or some other family members, I suppose it was probably some of both – gathered around her bed as Jesus gently, lovingly holds her hand and said the simple words, “Talitha cum;” “little girl, get up;” the words not in the Greek of Mark’s writing but the Aramaic that was Jesus’ first language, suggesting that whatever else Jesus may or may not have said, he most likely said these exact words, written for posterity, but first recorded to memory, in all probability by someone who had actually been in that room and heard it.

And outrageously enough, she does get up, and while she starts coming to terms with the fact that she’s back in the room and no longer wherever she was just moments earlier, Jesus tells someone to go get her some soup, or maybe some peanut butter and jelly toast, because she must be famished.

People have debated this story since probably it was first told, whether the little girl was really dead or not; whether Jesus actually raised her from the dead or whether she just appeared to be dead. It seems at least that everyone involved in the story believed she was, and no doubt Mark did too as he documented it. But the point remains that whatever a person believes about that, what Jesus did in that room was every bit as much a miracle, because he gave the girl, and Jairus, and all who loved her, new life, new hope, and a new recognition of their interconnectedness. Their sorrow was connected to each other’s sorrow; their joy was connected to each other’s joy. What Jesus said, and did, in that room didn’t just change the little girl’s life, but everyone’s in the room. It seems that Jesus was speaking to the little girl, but not only to her.

Mark frames this view for us, but if we step closer to the window, we can see more of the room within the frame, and maybe we can see that it isn’t only that small group gathered around the bed at all. David is there too, and so is the formerly hemorrhaging woman, and for that matter, Saul and Jonathan are there, too – all of them connected, sharing in this most intimate of human moments, overlaid with this most miraculous of gifts that Jesus gives to all of them. In a very real way, when Jesus told the little girl to get up, and to come into this new realization, this new life, he might just as well have sad *all of you* get up. And we step a bit closer still to the window, and we see even more of the room, and we see still more people are there – and somehow, maybe as if in a dream where time and space bends and twists, it isn’t just the girl’s little room but now it actually goes on forever, and everyone ever born is right there with the little girl and her parents, connected in this moment, gathered around the little girl and her family. All of you, get up, Jesus seems to be saying. All of you. You who are like the little girl, powerless and whose life is being shaped by forces outside of your control. You who are like Jairus, emotionally empty and spent, feeling like you just don’t know how you can keep going as you deal with the illness and suffering of a family member. You who are like David, suffering the deflating, all-consuming gut-punch of having lost the love of your life, regardless of whether they’re the same or opposite sex. All of you – you who are on the top of the world, and you who feel like the whole world is on top of you; you who have deep faith, and you who wonder in your most honest of moments whether religion is all just a con game or a racket. Get up, Jesus says, recognize this life, and this hope that you were designed for, this connectedness that you have with everyone else, great and small. In truth, all of our lives are intertwined, even more intricately and mysteriously than the lives of the people in Crash; and while the premise of shows like Sense 8 and Manifest certainly aren’t the gospel, in one way they aren’t too far from it, either, because we are, in fact, fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalmist says. We are more magically, mysteriously, gloriously, intentionally connected to one another by our common Creator as the whole family of God. Get up, Jesus says, and recognize this life that you were really meant to know. Life is uncertain, yes, and it will often be hard, and sometimes even scary, but it is also beautiful, and wonderful, and in all of those things, you aren’t going through them alone. God is with you, and when we’re lucky enough to recognize it, so is everyone else. That’s the good news of the gospel. That’s what Jesus was saying in that room. That’s what the church is, at least on its best of days. Get up, he says – there’s a place in the room, at the Table, in the family of God, for all of you.

Thanks be to God.