Not-so-blind Bartimeus

(sermon 10/25/15 – Reformation Sunday)


They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, 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. – Mark 10:46-52


There are few things that are more inherently human than wanting to be part of some “in” group or another. It must go back to our very origins. I can imagine bands of cavemen splitting up into gangs. Of course, it probably started out for security, but it probably didn’t take long for it to evolve into something more. Maybe this group formed because it wore saber-toothed tiger skins, which was way cooler than the regular old grizzly bear skins that gang in the next valley over wore. I’m sure it started that long ago, and we’re obviously still doing it today. The thing about being part of an “in” group, though, is that it can only work by defining someone as “out” of it. By definition, it has to be exclusive; it has to tightly control who’s excluded. And this is never more obvious than when it comes to religion. I mean sure, it’s a big thing in the business world or in social settings to be part of the in crowd, but with religion, when you’re out of the club, it’s God who’s excluding you, or so the reasoning goes, anyway.

I think this is an important part of what we can see in today’s gospel reading. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and as he’s on his way people are thronging all around him – he’s a celebrity. No doubt, some of them are wanting some favor from him, and some of them are following along to see what’s really going to happen once he reaches Jerusalem. A lot of them, no doubt, are just gathered around him to be part of his “in” group, and soak up a little bit of fame-by-association. Jesus groupies. Others maybe wanting to say “Well, I was following Jesus before it was popular,” kind of Jesus-hipsters. Whatever the reason, they all want to be part of Jesus’ “in” group.

And then, as they’re walking along, Bartimaeus has the audacity, the social inappropriateness, to challenge that. He’s blind, which surely, the conventional religious wisdom of the day would say, meant that God was punishing him for some terrible sin in his life, and obviously had no business being around this obviously holy man of God. And he didn’t do the decent thing and be quiet; he just kept on yelling for Jesus’ attention. It probably came as a bit of a surprise to the crowd when Jesus stopped and told them to call him over. So the crowd parts and probably with a bit of condescension they told Bartimaeus, this must be your lucky day, Jesus says he want to see you. So Mark tells us that Bartmaeus threw off his cloak, jumped up, and apparently with the help of some of the people in the crowd, made his way to Jesus.

By the way, what’s up with the cloak? I mean, here’s a blind beggar, and he throws off his cloak in the middle of a big crowd. How’s he ever going to find it again? Couldn’t he have just held onto it when he went over to Jesus? It’s an odd detail, but Mark, who never seems to have been overly wordy in his whole gospel, thinks it’s an important detail to tell. I don’t know.

In any case, Jesus tells Bartimaeus that his faith has made him well. But what faith is that? Jesus didn’t grill Bartimaeus on his theology. He didn’t ask him about Covenant Theology versus Arminianism; he never once asked Bartimaeus what he thought about predestination. He didn’t ask him for a written statement of faith about the Trinity or the Incarnation. As far as that goes, Bartimaeus probably never would have considered Jesus as God in the flesh; he kept calling him Son of David – the term Jews used to refer to the coming messiah that they understood was just a human and only a human, instead of the more divine Son of God or Son of Man.

It seems that the only faith that Bartimaeus expressed was a faith that Jesus actually *could* help him, and that Jesus would actually *want* to do so. Him, an apparent sinner. And that he’d want to help him despite the conventional religious wisdom of all the people who had attached themselves to him and identified with him, who considered Bartimaeus an outsider.

Bartimaeus was a Reformer. He challenged the established religious assumptions of the crowd.

On Reformation Sunday, we tend to focus on the history of the 16th-century European church – the one strand of global Christianity that we happen to be part of. But the Reformation didn’t start with Martin Luther sticking his tongue out at the Pope. It’s really an ongoing process that goes back at least as far back as the ancient Hebrew prophets, and going through Jesus himself, and Bartimaeus. Each step of the way, it involved a calling of the religious establishment to a greater understanding of God’s ways than they’d held to date. This reformed and reforming way of understand God, and us, and the relationship between us, wound its way through those stuffy 16th– century men and it’s kept on going. We see it in Reverend Henry Fowler and the other abolitionists. We see it in Harry Emerson Fosdick and the professors of Auburn Seminary and the other champions of the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy. We see it in Margaret Towner, the first female ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church; we see it in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Eugene Carson Blake and the other Christian voices of the Civil Rights movement; we see it in Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak, the primary author of the Belhar Confession, who fought against apartheid in South Africa in society and the church, and who are both now working for the further broadening of the church’s acceptance. And we see it in Pope Francis, who excoriated his own synod of bishops this past week for their “cold hearts” and “sticking [their] heads in the sand,” refusing to see the new directions that Christ is calling the church. And that ongoing reforming spirit will continue on, long after us. In fact, the only time the church is in danger is when people want to try to preserve it, unchanged, as if it were in a glass case, and it’s just as dangerous whether the case was built in 1660 or 1960.

So much of the church’s energy has been spent in trying to draw lines and build fences, trying to define who was in, and who was out, based on all sorts of tests. A key battleground of the Reformation was where the ultimate authority in the faith could be found – in the Pope and other human leaders of the earthly church, or in the scriptures rightly interpreted. In either case, that authority would be used in order to tightly define who was an insider and who was an outsider in the church. As we see in today’s gospel lesson, Bartimaeus wouldn’t have put up with any of it. He had a simple faith that Jesus could and would accept him and help him. And Jesus did just that, probably to the consternation of those gathered around him.

I’ve talked about how it can help us to draw meaning out of a passage of scripture by putting ourselves in various places in the story; seeing it through the eyes of various characters, and this is a great story to do that exercise with. I suppose it could be unsettling to us, challenging news, if we imagine this story, if we place ourselves within it, as one of the people gathered around Jesus, and walking along the road with him – as if we’re one of the Jesus-groupies. And there really is an important message for us there, to always be alert to the voice of God, and the spirit of reformation, and Christ’s calling those of us gathered around him to clear a path and to welcome the others, the outsiders, into the circle of his embrace. That’s an important point, but if we aren’t careful, that can turn into just another sermon that beats people over the shoulders for something that maybe we’re doing wrong, or we need to do better. There isn’t a lot of grace in a message like that. It becomes just another thing on our to-do list. That’s just more bad news.

Maybe that has to be. The great preacher and writer Frederick Buechner once wrote that the gospel has to be bad news before it can be good news, and that’s our bad news in this text. But the story doesn’t end there; there is good news, very good news for us, too – and we see when we experience this story from where Bartimaeus is sitting. And we should be able to do that easily because in reality, we are, you know; or at least, at some point in the whole history of the church, we have been there. Realize that every single one of us here today has at least one, and maybe more, inherent characteristics that the established church has at one time or another used to exclude us from Christ’s Church, and that it used to marginalize us into lesser, incomplete members, even after it grudgingly opened its membership to us. Every single one of us.

That’s really something to think about. Every one of us is here today as a result of the church having to go through a difficult adjustment of hearing Jesus’ command to allow us to draw near to him against their original instincts. Each of us is here as a result of the continual, ongoing reformation of the church, evolving to be more and more an illustration of the wideness of God’s love and acceptance of us. Even while today we recognize our traditions and history, *that’s* what this day is really a celebration of. It isn’t just about Zwingli and Hus and Luther and Calvin and Knox and a bunch of other dead white guys. It’s about the Church Universal, reformed and always being reformed consistent with the truths of scripture that are revealed more and more deeply to us over time. This is a day to be happy and thankful that in Christ’s eyes, as long as we have the kind of faith seen in Bartimaeus, there really is no “in” and “out,” there’s only “in,” no matter what anyone else says. That seems to be Jesus’ message in this story. And that was something that Bartimaeus saw perfectly well.

Thanks be to God.

Service, Please (sermon 10/18/15)


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.”   – Mark 10:35-45


The Gospel according to Mark might just as easily be titled “Apostles Behaving Badly.” It seems like all through this gospel, the Apostles are doing something wrong, or stupid, or they’re missing the point of what Jesus is talking about, and through it all, you can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes or giving them a face palm, ad getting really frustrated with them. Sometimes in Jesus’ words, you get the feeling that he’d like to clunk the Apostles’ heads together like something out of an old Three Stooges comedy.

Today’s gospel text is another example of this. Here are the Apostles James and John, brothers, asking Jesus if they can be at Jesus’ right and left hand in the Kingdom of God, making them the most powerful people in the whole Kingdom, short of Jesus himself.

Of course, Jesus tells them no, that he isn’t in charge of the seating arrangements in the Kingdom, and of course, the other Apostles get upset at the cheekiness of the brothers’ request. But Jesus calms them all down, he calls them together, and he starts to teach them. Maybe telling them not to be too upset with James and John, maybe reminding them of another time when they were all arguing about who was the greatest in the Kingdom, he tells them very simply and directly who God is going to consider the greatest. In God’s eyes, serving others is what makes a person great. It’s what shows that the person truly gets God’s whole message, the message that Christ teaches us. Greatness in God’s eyes doesn’t come from getting a big promotion, or a book deal, or wining an election. It doesn’t come from being a celebrity, or from having everyone seeing your name in print or plastered on a building. Maybe all those things are nice, but more often than not, those kinds of things are actually distractions, obstacles to real greatness as God defines it.

Our prime objective as God’s people is to care for others, to look out for others, to serve others humbly, because of God’s love for us. Helping with the Salvation Army Miracle Kitchen is a part of this. So is providing the chapel for lunchtime visitors, and organizing a reception for a family after a funeral service. But it isn’t just caring for other people – it’s caring for all of God’s creation.  The blessing of the animals? Donating a day’s worth of work at the Permaculture Park? That’s all a part of it, too.

If we want to be considered great in the Kingdom of God, we need to find ways to serve God’s creatures and creation all around us.

That’s very true. But there’s another angle that should be mentioned here, too. There have been a lot of times where Jesus’ message here has been used exploitatively, by people in power to keep people with less power in their place, serving the more powerful. To keep them in a place of powerlessness or victimhood, who are told by the powerful that it’s just their lot in life – in fact, it’s even their sacred responsibility and their Christian duty to serve their supposed superiors, enduring all kinds of personal deprivation. They’re told to accept this situation gladly, without complaining, even that it’s through their serving and suffering that God will redeem them.

You can find this argument being made, directly or indirectly, on a large scale, in socioeconomic arguments in any number of countries. And you can also see it on a micro level, at a family level, in asymmetrical or even abusive personal relationships.

This is clearly not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is not telling someone who’s so consumed by serving other people that they’ve lost their own self-identity and sense of self-worth, that what they really need is to just double down and serve others in an even more self-destructive way.

Remember that Jesus is speaking in this passage to a group of people who have been involved in a fight over who among them is the greatest – people who needed a big serving of humble pie, who need to be more servantlike.

I imagine that at various times, we all need to hear that lesson Jesus was offering to the Apostles. But I also suspect that some of us also need to be reminded of the flip side of this argument, too. Maybe we’re in some unhealthy, unbalanced, codependent or even abusive personal relationship that’s gradually destroying us, inside and out, and we feel guilty if we try to stand up for ourselves. If you’re in a situation like that, you need to know that Jesus isn’t telling us that we need to stay in that kind of harmful situation. That is not today’s message.

I think Jesus’ message here really just boils down to this: realize that in all the things we do, God wants us to uphold and honor and serve all those around us, and all of creation as well. God wants us to do that humbly and out of love for God and the ones we’re serving, and without expecting a pat on the back or a plaque on our wall. And to do that without losing ourselves in the process. If we do that, then we aren’t likely to get any eye rolls or face palms from Jesus.

Thanks be to God.

The Eye of a Needle (sermon 10/11/15)


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

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

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  – Mark 10:17-35


It happened all the time as they went from town to town. He’d make an appearance in the synagogue, or the town square, and the people he encountered were amazed at him, some for the better and some for the worse. And eventually, he’d end up catching the eye of someone in the upper class, someone in the power structure, who would need to meet him in person. It seemed to play out like this in every town. Sometimes it was a religious leader, who wanted to test him for his religious orthodoxy. Other times, it was some toady of the Romans, who wanted to trick him into saying something treasonous against the government. Sometimes they just wanted to get up close to him because he was famous, because of the youTube video of him sending a Legion of demons into a herd of pigs that had gone viral. And other times, it was someone from an important family who’d gone to an Ivy League school who wanted to have some fun putting this uneducated hillbilly in his place. Every once in a while, though, they came to see him honestly, sincerely, wanting to hear him and learn from him. As he looked at this one, kneeling in front of him in this moment, he could see that this one was coming to him with questions from the heart. This one was for real.

“What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” “What do I have to do to be saved?” There it was, the same thing that so many people asked, and each time they did, he’d turn their question upside down – making the point that a person’s salvation is like something that’s only visible out of the corner of your eye, but you can’t see if you try to focus directly on it. Rather than thinking about your own personal salvation, you need to concern yourself with extending gracious behavior to others.

That’s what he’d said in the past, and that was what he’d do here, too. So he told the man, you know what’s important; listing off half of the Ten Commandments – interestingly, all the ones that dealt with treating others with compassion and justice, and none of the ones dealing with honoring God. But even the man himself knew that wasn’t the whole story; there had to be more than just that. And of course, there was. Sell all your stuff. Give the money to the poor. Come follow me.

If the man were like so many of the others that had come to see him he’d have just left at that point and written Jesus off as an imbecile, a lunatic. So much for this one being the messiah; he’s just a garden-variety kook. But this man wasn’t like them. These words sunk in; they hit home. He left, dejected, upset, grieving over the thought of giving up all the perks, the comfort, the security, the power and prestige that came along with all of his possessions.

This story shows up in three of the four gospels in different variations, but none of them really tell us what the man did – did he reject Jesus’ words as being too hard to live up to, or did he actually follow through with it and become one of the nameless, faceless crowd of people following him wherever he went? We’ll never know, but either way, it’s clear that stepping into a new future, a way of living life more deeply shaped by faith can be painful. The emotional letting go that’s necessary to use whatever God has entrusted to us in ways that benefit others more, and ourselves less – that’s very hard.

Of course, it isn’t any accident that we get a Lectionary text like this now, in the time of year when many churches, including ours, are about to kick off their annual stewardship campaigns. It’s a time when we all have to wrestle with Jesus’ words. Surely, he didn’t mean that everyone who followed him had to sell all their possessions, did he? Surely, Jesus doesn’t want us all to be poor; he isn’t saying there’s anything inherently great or noble about living in poverty. So how is this supposed to work?

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t have any insights into how we’re supposed to understand this story in our own lives. I’m sure that there’s some line, and up to that line God wants us to benefit from the financial blessings we have; and beyond that line, we’re supposed to use those resources for the benefit of others. I don’t know where that line is exactly, not for you and not for me – but I admit that the whole question gives me a knot in the stomach, because in a world where half the world’s population – 3.5 billion people – live on less than $1,200 per year, and where an income of $32,000 per year puts you in the wealthiest 1% of the world – richer than 6.3 billion of the world’s seven billion people – wherever that line is, I suspect God has drawn it in a very different place from where I have. This time of year, as we’re about to enter our stewardship campaign, we all need to deal with this admittedly unsettling question of whether we’re using our finances in the way God intended us to when we were given them. Are we using our financial resources in a way that pleases God?

Jesus’ words are unsettling for us when we try to apply them to our lives as individuals. Could another child be fed if the next time you buy a car, you go for the cloth seats instead of the heated leather ones, and gave the savings to the church? I know I could adopt a child at Montana de Luz through their “God’s Gift” program if I’d just go to Moondog’s Cafe one time fewer per month. Where’s the right balance? It’s the same when we ask this question together as the church. As an architect, I always admired the wonder and beauty of the world’s great cathedrals. I marveled at the work of the minds and hands of these artists, who were dedicating the very best of their talents to the honor and glory of God. But when I’d stand in those cathedrals, I could never totally shake the nagging question, how many children went to bed hungry, or even worse, how many people starved to death, that the church could have saved if it hadn’t diverted the money to the building of the beautiful cathedral? Was it a trade-off worthy of the Kingdom of God? We can feel the rich young man’s pain when we put ourselves in his place in the story.

Let’s look at things from that level for a moment. How would we respond if Jesus walked in here today, this morning – I’m up here blathering on and on, just like every Sunday, and Jesus comes walking through the back door and strides up here to the front. It’s amazing, a miracle. And everyone forgets they’re Presbyterians and crowds up to the front of the church to get close to Jesus, and the love and the compassion are incredible; it’s a big love-fest among us all. And Jesus smiles and he sits there and and speaks with us, and he says: “You’re a great congregation. You do so many wonderful things, reaching out to people in need. You provide a voice for social justice in the community in ways that most congregations don’t. But you lack one thing. This building is holding you back. It’s way too big for you, and it’s costing you a fortune to maintain. Sell it. Sell the Tiffany window, sell the Skinner organ, sell the real estate. Then take the money, and buy the vacant bank building over on Genesee Street as your home. It’s plenty big enough for more than all your needs, the main banking hall would seat more than twice your typical Sunday attendance, it’s energy efficient, much cheaper to maintain, handicapped accessible, has its own parking lot and a great central location. Then, take the rest of the proceeds from selling this place and use it for targeted mission outreach to the community downtown – serving the needs of the elderly in the apartment towers, the students at Lattimore Hall, the homeless and the poor living around downtown – be a real “downtown church.” Do all that, in order to serve others around you, and do it gladly, and then – then, you will have eternal life.”

What would we do if Jesus said that to us? Would Jesus ever say something like that? I don’t know. One thing for certain, even if he did say it, and even if we did it, there would be a whole lot of grief to process, just like with the rich young man. On the other hand, what if Jesus just said to increase our annual pledge by five or ten percent? Would we do that?

Is God calling us to give more of our individual finances to the kingdom of God? Collectively, are we being called in this generation to use the church’s resources with a different understanding of being missional than we’ve had in past generations? Do past mindsets and practices still hold true today? Those are questions that you and I both have to consider, and pray about as we try to be faithful to Christ – who can make us uncomfortable just as often as we’re comforted.

Thanks be to God.



I just saw yet another blog post, written by yet another Millennial – the demographic Holy Grail du jour of aging, declining church congregations. It was the latest of a seemingly endless supply of lists titled “___ [Some Magical Number of] Things the Church Must Do to Attract Millennials”. Just do these things, these essays always say, and Millennials will flock through your doors.

Allow me to just say – bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, Millennials. I agree with virtually every criticism you lodge against the institutional church. Overall, the church absolutely has to be more of all the things you want more of, and less of all the things you hate about it. It must be more committed to issues of social justice. It must be more authentically spiritual. It must do more to be truly missional – working to directly, positively bring real betterment in people’s lives. It must be far less inward-focused and self-serving.

But here’s a little secret: there are already, even in your absence from the pews, a lot of people who think the exact same way you do (mind you, I’m speaking particularly of Mainline, progressive denominations here in the U.S., such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I find myself). And these people who agree with you aren’t all running around in large-print gingham shirts and sporting lumberjack beards or man buns. That man with the thinning grey hair, the little pot belly, and the out-of-fashion sweater vest? He was a Freedom Rider in the 60s. That grandmotherly looking woman laughing and chatting with the person sitting next to her? The original organizer of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. The guy sitting over there who looks like an insurance salesman? He leads a Spiritual Formation and Meditation group, after an extended residence at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. The couple sitting beside you? They met while spending a year working together at an orphanage in Honduras and got married when they returned. The man sitting alone up front? He was arrested after he dumped his partner’s ashes on the White House lawn as part of an ACT UP protest.

I’m not exaggerating here. Scratch the surface of virtually any Mainline congregation and you’ll likely find people who have walked the walk in countless ways before you appeared on the scene. There are a lot more of them here than you probably think. And pretty much all of them share your attitudes about the institutional church and how it needs to change.

The difference between them and you is that they’re actually here, trying to make the changes needed, and you aren’t. If you’d just join forces with us, you’d find a lot of willing allies in seeing the church become what it needs to become.

I’m sorry Millennials, as a progressive, recent “Missional Church”/”Emerging Church”/”Altermative Church”-savvy seminary graduate (despite my grey hair) who really is on your side, I have to say that the continual barrage of these kinds of essays just starts to come across as a self-absorbed whinefest – a list of demands for some imaginary, pristine version of church that you insist has to be in place before you’ll grace us all with your presence. Remember, I say this as an ally, someone who’s working in the trenches, within the system, trying to accomplish precisely the things you point out – but really, grow up a bit.

*I need to be very clear: I’m not talking about all Millennials here. We’ve all heard the old cliche, “Some of my best friends are (fill in the blank).” In this case, more than half of my friends and colleagues in ministry are themselves Millennials. I am genuinely blessed and humbled to know them, to minister with them, and to call them my friends, and I’m a better person and minister because they’re such an important part of my life. As a group, they are perhaps the greatest strength in the institutional church today. But that’s just the point – they’re in the church, actively a part of what the church needs to be and do. My thoughts here are directed toward those Millennials who won’t be part of the church just because it doesn’t perfectly fit their idea of what it should be like – to which, I say, join the club.

The reality is that the church is never going to be perfect – it wasn’t for anyone who came before you, and it won’t be for anyone coming along afterward – and it’s unrealistic to expect it to be so. So you have a choice: you can follow the lead of those people sitting in the pews, many of whom worked to set the stage for all the progressive aspects of this society that you currently enjoy and who even now are trying to affect change in the church from within; or you can come up with another list of five, or seven, or ten things that the church has to do in order to be worthy of your being part of it. Perhaps the answer is to blog less, and actually get off your asses and be part of the solution instead of just bitching and moaning. We don’t need another list telling us what needs to be done. Many of us already know that; what we need is the strength in numbers to actually accomplish it.

There’s a lot that the church needs to do in order to reform itself – to correct its past abuses and problems, and to make it more truly an institution reflective of the Kingdom of God that Jesus both taught about and personified. As a pastor, I try to work within the system as it is, in order to help steer it, and its members, in that direction – the direction that so many of your lists describe. Frankly, it would be a hell of a lot easier if you’d show up and help. But I’m going to continue trying to do it, with your help or without it.

*This paragraph was added to the original post, after a few readers pointed out – correctly – that, as originally written, it negatively painted all Millennials with the same broad brush. This was definitely never my intention, as I hope that the added paragraph makes clear.


(Sermon 10/4/15 – World Communion Sunday)

Screenshot-Oregon Shooting CNN 2015-10-01-at-11.10.18-PM

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.  – Isaiah 25:6-8


I was sitting in a local restaurant the other day, working on today’s sermon – or at least, where I thought it was headed at the time. The television on the wall was full of news about the school shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, where, once again, a mentally deranged young man killed and wounded a number of people in order to redress grievances that we don’t even fully understand yet.

These gun-related mass murders happen so often now that they all start to blend together. We can’t even remember the names of all their locations; we confuse the details about the shooter in Sandy Hook with the one in Aurora with the one in Charleston, and soon enough, this one will blend into that mix, too.

While I was sitting in the restaurant, two women and a man were sitting in the booth next to mine. The man blurted out, “Oh great, I see ‘Comrade Obama’ is already using this shooting to call for more gun laws! I’m telling you, what really needs to happen is for someone to take a gun and take *him* out!” At that point, one of his friends shushed him, but he asked, “Why? You worry too much about what other people think.”

As followers of Jesus, we’re called to live in his way of peace. That includes speaking out against the insane amount of gun violence that plagues our society. I believe that as Christians, we have a moral obligation to work to tighten the ridiculously easy access to firearms in this country that make these tragedies all too possible, and all too common. We need tougher laws, and they need to be toughly enforced. People of good will can certainly debate the details of that, but no one can deny that the current situation clearly isn’t working.

But people who say that changing the laws won’t solve the whole problem are right, too. Our society exhibits a terrible devaluation of human life married to a glorification of violence, and as long as that continues, so will tragedies like Oregon. Gun ownership and gun violence are so widespread in our society because we’ve been brainwashed practically from infancy to believe that nothing is ever fully settled as long as there’s still an unused violent option available.

When tragedies like this shooting occur, we wring our hands and wonder where these unstable people would ever get the idea that such actions could ever be justified. We need look no further than the mindset of that gentleman in the restaurant. When our culture produces supposedly normal, sane, people who can, without a hint of shame, publicly advocate the murder of another human being, President or otherwise, that’s evidence of a deep societal sickness.

So there I was, sitting there writing a sermon for World Communion Sunday, a day emphasizing the unity that we have in Christ, and with one another through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. A day emphasizing global Christian unity and a commitment to living together peacefully despite individual differences. The day that we receive our annual Peacemaking Offering. The dissonance between the theme of today’s service and the words coming from the television and the next booth couldn’t have been any sharper.

As Christians, we believe that God’s nature and will is so intensely infused in the life and words of Jesus Christ that we can say that in him, we see and know God in the flesh. If we’re serious about that, we have to take him seriously when he points us to ways of peace and nonviolence. That becomes an inseparable part of our proclaiming the gospel – God’s good news of hope and love for all people. As a matter of faith, and regardless of political affiliation, we have to take a stand against violence in our society – against both the proliferation of the tools that carry it out, and the moral sickness that glorifies or justifies it to begin with.

We’ll never teach the unstable members of our society that gun violence is a terrible option if we don’t first successfully teach it to the supposedly normal people like that bonehead in the restaurant. If his mindset passes for acceptable, supposedly “normal” discourse, why should we ever expect unstable people to think differently?

Working for peace and nonviolence might seem like wishful thinking to some. For anyone professing the Christian faith, however, we don’t have an option. We can’t reject Jesus’ teachings as being unrealistic or unworkable in the “real world,” a world that we profess he created and that he rules over. To the contrary, it’s exactly what we’ve been called to do.

So today, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and World Communion Sunday, let’s all understand that. Let’s all recommit ourselves to do whatever we can to work for peace and nonviolence. Let’s recommit ourselves to do whatever we can to make these kinds of shootings a thing of the past – because I’ve grown hoarse, and sick and tired, of offering up yet more prayers, month after month, for the victims of yet another senseless, avoidable mass murder – and I’ll bet you have, too.