Any Questions?

When we don’t talk about the important things–the things we need to talk about–we end up fighting about silly things. This is true of the disciples and it remains true today. (See the Gospel for yesterday, Mark 9:30-37.) So…do you have any questions?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Any questions?” the teaching assistant of my astronomy lab asked, after she’d explained our first lab. I had so many questions. I’d taken this class my first semester in college to fulfill my physical science requirement. Science, and physics in particular, had never been my strong suit, so I thought astronomy might be a good fit. It was intro level, and I already knew most of my constellations, so this would be perfect. Turns out it was much more about physics than constellations.

But as I looked around the lab in confusion, everyone else was just getting to work. No one had any questions. So I never raised my hand. I pretended that I knew what was going on and let my lab partner carry me through the practical portions of class.

Have you ever been there? Being desperately confused and unsure of what’s happening, but you feel like you can’t ask questions? We’re always told that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but still we don’t like to ask sometimes. We don’t like to reveal our ignorance, our lack of understanding. We assume that we’re the only ones who don’t get it, when that might not be true. Maybe others are just as scared as we are to ask.

It’s even harder when our questions are about things we think we should already know. Or things we think we shouldn’t have questions about in the first place. Often religion falls into this category. We think it’s somehow unfaithful to ask questions. That doing so reveals our doubts or lack of belief.

Maybe that’s why the disciples didn’t ask Jesus their questions. Jesus has just said for the second time that he would be handed over to the authorities, and be killed, and be resurrected. The scripture tells us that the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Maybe they thought they should understand. After all, this is the second time he’s told them. Maybe they were afraid of looking stupid. Maybe they didn’t want to be thought unfaithful. Maybe, they were afraid of what the answers might be.

I wonder what would have happened had they asked their questions. What might they have been? How do you know that this is going to happen, Jesus? Why do you have to die? Who is going to hand you over? What is going to happen to us?

But instead of talking about these important things, big questions, they start debating who is the greatest. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. What criteria were they using to measure great discipleship? From Jesus’ response, we get the sense that they weren’t the right ones.

But it’s important for us to notice that this conversation about greatness, this posturing and debate, it only comes about because the disciples ignore their real questions. They refuse to ask Jesus what they really need to. And they’re left to their silly debate.

When we are not willing to engage what’s really important, we end up engaging in petty squabbles instead. The author of James would call it setting our minds on human things, instead of divine things. “Such wisdom does not come from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” he writes, going on to say “for where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

The disciples are living this out. Because they are too scared or too embarrassed to focus on what matters, they instead focus on their own envy and ambitions. How often do we do the same? How often would we be silent and embarrassed if Jesus asked us what we we’ve been talking about?

Have we been talking about how our company treats its employees, or are we instead focused on profit margins and bonuses? Have we been talking about how school board decisions affect the most vulnerable students, or are we instead focused on test scores? Have we been talking about how the church can be a safe space for the most vulnerable, can be a leading voice in working for justice, or are we instead focused on attendance and giving numbers?

The important conversations are often the hard conversations to have. Maybe that’s why we sometimes avoid them. These conversations—about what we value, what we stand for, what we’re willing to sacrifice—they ruffle feathers. But we can’t avoid them. To avoid these difficult questions and conversations leaves us like the disciples, missing the point and arguing about trivia.

Lest we turn these conversations into just one more competition, trying to prove who is right and who is wrong, Jesus has a word of caution: start with serving. Start with putting yourself last. As James says, “be peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Listen to one another, seek understanding.

Jesus brings it concretely home to the disciples: if you want to be the greatest, the first, the most important, you have to make yourself last and a servant of all. Jesus is redefining greatness for us. He takes a little child in his arms and announces: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

We are welcoming a child today, when Hope Iverson will be baptized. We welcome Hope as a valued and beloved member of our community, even though she’s not old enough to walk or talk. We value her because God values her. We love her because God loves her. What Jesus has to say about welcoming children is even more radical than we think. Children in his time were not as precious and coveted as Hope is to her parents. Children in Jesus’ time were expendable, seen as burdens on society. Greatness is welcoming, loving, caring for those most vulnerable. Those most unable to repay the favor. Greatness is seeing Jesus in them and serving Jesus in them. What the disciples were arguing about doesn’t really matter, because to be the first, you must put yourself last.

Any questions? Let’s do our best not to avoid the real questions. They can be scary, there’s no doubt about that. But in asking them, we find ourselves in conversation with Jesus, on the road together. God does not abandon us to our questions and doubts, instead they are welcomed as signs of what they are: faith seeking understanding.

Let us be a place where all are welcomed; let us be open to the most vulnerable, those who are not considered great by any worldly standard. Let us be a place where our whole self is welcomed too: our questions and doubts, our worries and our fears. They are welcome here. In asking them, we will always find the God who became the last and the least by our side. Amen.

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What do you say?

Here is my sermon from Sunday, September 16, 2018. It is the first of three weeks that we’re going to be hearing Jesus predict his death and resurrection. Every time he does so, the disciples (in this case Peter) don’t really understand what this means. This first time that Jesus predicts his death, it’s preceded by him asking the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, a question we would do well to answer as well. So, who do you say that Jesus is?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A few years ago, I was at an event called “First Call Theological Education,” which those who were required to attend affectionately termed “Baby Pastor School,” for those in their first three years of ministry. Anyway, at this weeklong program, today’s Gospel text was assigned for one of our worship services.

I was sitting with two of my friends, and their three-year-old, Eve. Pastor Jenn Ollikainen, whom many of you know from women’s retreats, was preaching. She had memorized this passage from Mark, and was really enthusiastically telling the story. After she said Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”, she gave a big dramatic pause.

And in the silence of that moment, little Eve responded so convincingly, “I say Cookie Monster.” Poor Pastor Jenn never quite got the room back after that. I couldn’t tell you what she preached about, but I’ll never forget Eve’s four words.

Eve’s parents were embarrassed, although they didn’t need to be. She was clearly paying more attention than anyone gave her credit for. And, although we laughed, she had done something really special. She had heard the words of the Bible story directed towards her. She had heard Jesus’ question to the disciples, and answered it, assumed it was a question directed toward herself. We could all learn a thing or two from Eve.

So…who do you say that Jesus is? Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say a prophet. Much like Eve, the people around Jesus were using the influences from their culture to answer the question. We sometimes do it too. We sometimes form our expectations of Jesus, we sometimes answer that question “who is Jesus,” based on the culture around us.

What types of things, what types of people, does our culture idolize? Superheroes. Money. Fame. Success. And it’s all too easy to lay those characteristics on God. Who is God? A superhero. Powerful. Strong. Able to do anything. To fix anything. A savior.

Who do you say that Jesus is? Peter had the right answer, when he boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. He’s absolutely right in his answer, but absolutely wrong in his understanding of what that means.

Peter’s understanding of the Messiah was influenced by his own culture, too. At the point in history that this takes place, the Jewish people have been waiting and watching for a Messiah for a long time. Since the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple and scattered the people. They’ve lived through Greek occupation. And now the Romans. The people were waiting for a Messiah, another King David, who could lead them to overthrow their oppressors. To help them be prosperous and powerful.

And so when Jesus tells his disciples what it means that he is the Messiah, this hoped-for one, that it means he must suffer at the hands of their oppressors. That he must die, and not just die but that he must be killed, be executed. That’s too much for Peter.

Jesus isn’t here to make him powerful or prosperous. Jesus isn’t here to fix his problems. In fact, it’s starting to sound very much like the opposite is true. And Peter’s not really onboard with that. He tells Jesus, “Hey, you really need to cool it on this suffering and dying stuff, ok? No one wants to hear that. Why don’t you tell the people what they want to hear?”

He’s right, though. It’s not what we want to hear. Wouldn’t we rather have a God who is here to fix our problems? When we get the diagnosis that we feared, or when a loved one relapses. When we see hurricanes and wildfires destroying whole towns. When we see immigrant children still separated from their parents. Don’t we, too, want a God who fixes everything? I sure do.

Wouldn’t we rather have a Jesus who doesn’t talk about suffering and dying? Wouldn’t we rather have a Jesus that doesn’t challenge us? Or call on us to pick up our own crosses and deny ourselves?

And what does it mean to take up our cross, anyway? This passage has often been misused to tell people to stay in bad situations. In abusive situations. That it was simply their cross to bear. That’s not what this means and we are not meant to condone suffering or abuse. Taking up our cross means that we’re going to follow in the way of Jesus, and that way has consequences. Taking up our cross means putting Jesus’ goals and priorities ahead of our own. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others—using our time, resources, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.

Is that what we want. Or would we rather want a Jesus who blends in nicely with our current political and economic and social norms, instead of calling them into question? Would we rather want a Jesus who is gentle and meek and mild, instead of challenging and disruptive? Would we rather have a Jesus who promises us good things if we follow him, instead of the radical call to give up our very selves, and the promise that the first will be last?

Yes, if I’m being honest, I think we often would rather have the easier Jesus. The one who’s here to make us feel good about ourselves, to take away our problems, and to offer blessings beyond belief if we believe in him. I want the God that cures cancer, that stops hurricanes, that keeps children from dying of hunger. I want the God that promises me good things, not a cross. Not self-sacrifice. I think that’s the God we all want sometimes.

It’s the God that Peter wanted. It’s the God that the crowds expected Jesus to be. But it is not the God that we find in Jesus the Messiah. But while we may not get the God we want, in Jesus we discover the God that we need. The God who doesn’t overwhelm us with power, but who meets us in our brokenness. In our pain. In our questions and doubts.

The God who may not fix these problems, but the God who says, “you will never go through this without me. I am here with you and I will never leave you.” The God who is invested in us, whether we’re experiencing blessing right now or whether we’re in the midst of suffering. The God we get is the one who meets us in our brokenness and death, who experiences our pain and hurts, in order to heal, to restore, and to redeem us.

Who do you say that Jesus is? We can call Jesus so many things: friend, teacher, companion, shepherd, Messiah. Any of these are right. I say that Jesus is who we need, when our lives aren’t easy. Jesus is who we need to be with us in times of uncertainty and times of joy, moments of doubt and moments of peace. I say that Jesus might not answer all my questions or fears, but Jesus is who I want with me on the road. Who do you say that Jesus is?

Wash your hands…

Below is my sermon from September 2, 2018, focusing on selected verses from Mark 7. We’re back in Mark finally after five weeks of reading from the Bread of Life discourse. There’s a lot going on this reading from Mark, some historical and societal issues playing out that help it make sense. I try in my sermon to cover some of this background, without it devolving into a lecture.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friends of ours have a cute sign in their bathroom that says, “Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” In our reading though, it seems that Jesus isn’t too interested in hand-washing, or indeed in cleanliness at all.

The Pharisees are upset because they have caught Jesus’ disciples eating without washing their hands. The author of Mark tells us that the Pharisees not only wash their hands before eating, they also wash their food and their plates and pots and cups. To us, this sounds like basic hygiene. Of course the Pharisees should be concerned that the disciples aren’t washing their hands. It’s gross. And so, when Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, you have to wonder why he reacts so strongly.

So, let’s take a look at what Jesus is and isn’t saying here. First of all, he’s not saying don’t wash your hands. Especially for all the kids out there, Jesus isn’t saying that washing your hands is bad. He’s not even opposed to the tradition of the Pharisees and elders to wash before eating.

Though it is just that, a tradition. Nowhere in the law will you find it said that you must wash your hands before eating. You will find that priests are supposed to wash their hands before entering the temple or before offering a sacrifice. The Pharisees were a group that took the calling of Israel to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. So, they believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law.

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. The Pharisees were not bad people—they were the religious leaders of their community. And they wanted all people, not just the priests in Jerusalem, to worship God in their daily life. This is a very good thing.

But what Jesus takes issue with is just how these efforts to live faithfully are being used. Something that is meant to draw them closer to God is in fact being used to alienate others who do not do exactly what they do. Something that is meant as a sign of faithfulness is being used to create hierarchies and distinctions.

This is not a problem that is unique to the Pharisees. Sometimes these passages get read in a very anti-Jewish way, that the Pharisees were following this rules-centric religion and Jesus came to free us from all of that. That’s not what’s going on at all. Jesus has some criticisms for the Pharisees that’s true. But it’s not because of what their religion is, but because of how they’re using it. Which is a problem that happens in all religions, not just Judaism.

It’s what the author of James is railing against in his letter, which was sent to Christian churches in the first century. “Be doers of the word,” he writes, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In other words, don’t pretend to be faithful on the outside, without actually taking that faith to heart.

When Jesus talks to the Pharisees, when he criticizes the Pharisees, he’s talking to us. To you and me. The Pharisees are the church-goers of the first century. The people who take their faith seriously and are trying to do the right thing. These confrontations with Jesus show just how easy it is for people trying to be faithful to fall into hypocrisy. To start idolizing their traditions instead of God. To start serving their own interests and social standing instead of serving their neighbors.

And it happens to us, too. I’ve been at churches before where if you didn’t wear “church clothes” you felt unwelcome. You felt judged as somehow not as worthy as all those who dressed more nicely than you. Churches draw lines of distinction between each other, too. If you don’t worship the way we do, you don’t belong in our church. If you don’t interpret the Bible the way we do, you’re not as forward thinking. If you wear full vestments you’re “too catholic,” but if you wear jeans and a polo to lead worship you’re too hipster. We use human traditions to create and further divisions between us.

And it’s not just churches. We have codes as a society—usually unwritten—that we use to categorize people. As kids are returning to school this week, especially if it’s a new school, the middle school or high school for the first time, they are going to be navigating so many unwritten codes. What clothes to wear, who to talk to, wear to sit. Whether it will help or hurt their social standing if they answer questions in class.

As adults, our ways of doing this become more subtle, but that doesn’t make them any less damaging. We build our reputations, our identities around these codes that only scratch the surface: a nice house, in the right neighborhood. A spotless house that doesn’t look like anyone lives there. The right car. Clothes that always look put together. Manicures that are never chipped. A degree from the right university.

Much like the Pharisees handwashing, these things aren’t bad in and of themselves. They become harmful when we use them to distinguish between who’s in and who’s out. Between who knows the right things to say and do and who doesn’t. That’s what Jesus has a problem with. When we draw unnecessary distinctions based on superficial things.

There was an Orkin commercial a few years ago for exterminating services that I remember. The Orkin man pulled up to a perfect house with a pristine lawn. He was greeted by the home’s owner and a squirt of hand sanitizer. Everything in this house was white and sparkling. “We don’t need an exterminator,” the woman said, “my house is perfectly clean and we don’t have bugs.” The Orkin man simply pulled back a piece of the wall and there, just beneath the surface of this beautiful house, this clean house, were thousands of bugs.

No matter what the outside looks like, it’s the inside that truly shows what’s there. As Jesus said, there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. Not eating the right foods, or having the right clothes, or living the right way isn’t going to separate you from God. The evil intentions that come from our hearts separate us from God. And then we use these differences we create to separate ourselves from one another.

No matter how polished the outside is, no matter how good we are at following the rules, it is what is within us that shows who we truly are. And sometimes for all of us, as Jesus points out, those are evil intentions. Things that hurt other people. Things that judge other people. Things that hurt and judge ourselves.

But it is also from within that good comes. It is from within that love, which God has instilled in each of our hearts, can spring forth to be shared. To be talked about. To be lived. It is from within that we find the “true religion” that James talked about: caring for one another. Loving God and our neighbors. Being humble. Always taking care of the most vulnerable among us. These are also things that come from within, that come from our hearts.

Inside each of us is a mixed bag. I think we know that to be true just from experience. When you peel back the layers, you do not find only good things, only good intentions. We often make mistakes that hurt ourselves and others. But neither do we find within us only evil and hurtful things. The Holy Spirit of God dwells within each of us, guiding and directing us, giving us the capacity for love and for care. As James writes: “Every generous act, every perfect gift, is from above.”

May we be vessels of God’s love, of God’s generosity, of God’s grace, worshipping God in word and in deed. May we let it be God’s vision that springs forth from our hearts, and may we always find God in the hearts of our neighbors. Amen.