Friday, October 30, 2015


Sermon preached  October 25, 2015

Texts: Mark 10:46-52

            U2, “Desire”
            Just so you know, the second choice for a song this morning was Tame Impala, “Desire Be Desire Go.”  I want you to know that I listen to music made in this century, even if my Halloween costume is from the middle of the last century.
            So this is supposed to be a beatnik outfit.  The entire “beatnik” phenomenon of the 1950s was, in many ways, a media creation, highlighting very shallow aspects of what was a deeper literary movement of writers seeking spiritual connection and meaning.  One of the central writers of the Beat Generation was novelist Jack Kerouac, whose novel On the Road, published in 1957 was an important book for this group of writers.  Just over twenty years after its publication, I discovered the book in my early college years.
            The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!”(On the Road, 9)  Kerouac describes something of the human condition, filled with desire.
            The story of Aladdin and the magic lamp, a story familiar to us from movies or fairy tales is a story of desire.  Aladdin is sent into a cave by his uncle Mustafa and there discovers an old lamp, but a special lamp.  The genie of the lamp has the power to grant three wishes.  Aladdin wishes to be sent home.  He wished for riches and happiness.  He marries well, there is trouble, but the ending is a happy one.  The whole genie and the lamp idea gets spoofed often.  An insurance company ad asks, “Well, did you know genies can be really literal?”  A man asks for one million bucks, and what does he get but antlered animals.  Desire gone wrong, but who of us would turn away a large sum of money, or a magic lamp?  Among our qualities as humans is that we desire, and our desires are multiple.
            Our desires are multiple and trying to follow them pulls us in different directions.  We wish for a million bucks, get a million antlered animals and then have to wish them away, and with our one wish left some trivial idea makes its way to our lips and we have lost the power of the lamp.  Yes, this is a folk tale, and a folk tale gone wrong, but it is also a glimpse into who we are.  What do we do with our multiple desires pulling us in different directions – desires for love, for intimacy, for security, for meaningful work, for companionship, for a good meal, for a bit of notoriety, desire for some quiet time, but desire not to be lonely, for something nice to wear?  What do we do?
            Much of our Christian tradition is suspicious of human desire.  Pleasure and distress, desire and fear, and what follows from them, were not originally created as elements of human nature….  These things were introduced as a result of our fall from perfection.  St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia, II: 178).  One cannot drive away impassioned thoughts unless he watches over his desire and incensive power.  Evagrios the Solitary (Philokalia, I: 39)
            Yet listen to the question Jesus asks Bartimaeus.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus and his disciples are making their way toward Jerusalem.  They are leaving Jericho amid a large crowd.  Along the side of the road is a blind man, Bartimaeus, a beggar.  He shouts out to Jesus, but many only wanted him to be quiet. He has caught Jesus’ attention.  “Call him here.”  The crowd changes its tune.  “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”  “What do you want me to do for you?”  It seems a silly question, doesn’t it?  If you are blind, wouldn’t you want your sight returned?  Why even ask?  Indeed, this is what Bartimaeus asks, but the pause and phrasing make us feel that something more is going on here.  “My teacher, let me see again.”  He is asking for sight, but also for deeper insight.  “Go; your faith has made you well.”  Bartimaues regains sight, but also gains insight -  a deeper desire hidden within is met.  He is a person of faith, discovers that, and as such, he follows Jesus on the way.
            What do you want?  If we ask that question deeply and profoundly enough, can we make some sense of our multitudinous desires?
            Let me hit the pause button here for just a moment.  Let’s acknowledge that we are fortunate to be able to be here in this place asking such questions.  Mari Ruti is a professor at the University of Toronto whose writings on love and a meaningful life are wonderfully thought-provoking.  In one of her books, though, she acknowledges that she can ask such questions while some suffer from “structural inequalities that make it difficult for many… to think beyond our daily survival” (Reinventing the Soul, xii)  If we are starving, or realistically afraid that we will find ourselves on the verge of homelessness, or starvation, or violence against our person, what we want is a modicum of security, enough to eat, a warm place to sleep.  It is a little like the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s work where he argues that “for the [person] who is extremely and dangerously hungry, no other interests exist but food” (Motivation and Personality, 37)  Asking the question of what we want assumes some measure of security in having our basic needs met.  That’s what drives my passion for seeking a world where everyone has enough, where no one starves, where all have adequate shelter.  It is then that deeper questions might be asked, deeper desires felt.
Interestingly, Bartimaeus, a beggar, does not ask for food, he asks to see.  If we ask ourselves “What do you want?” deeply and profoundly enough, I think we find a desire to be whole.  I think we find a desire to live life fully.  I think we find a desire to develop.  I think we find a desire to connect with God and grow in that connection.  I think we desire a deep connection with others.  I think we desire to contribute.  I would wrap all these together into a deep desire to live fully and to be whole.
The testimonies to such a profound desire in us to live fully and be whole run deep.  St. Augustine, in famous words from his work The Confessions, writes: For you [O God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until is rests in you (Book I, Chapter 1).  The nineteenth-century Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote a book, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, and what was that one thing?  Genuinely to will the Good, as an individual (206).  Death camp survivor and therapist Victor Frankl movingly wrote about Man’s Search for MeaningMan’s search for meaning is a primary force in his life….  Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.  In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to live he can only respond by being responsible. (154, 172)  One final testimony, Joseph Campbell, interviewed by Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth): People say what we’re all seeking is meaning for life.  I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking.  It think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our own life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our inner most being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. (4-5)
All these voices speak a little differently, but they point in a single direction.  There is a profound and deep desire in us for life, for living well, for developing our capacities, for relating to God, for joy, for relationship – to live fully and be whole.  To touch that deep yearning, that profound desire, helps us order our other desires.  Following Jesus on the way isn’t to get rid of our human desires, it is to order them in light of this deepest desire.  Such ordering is very important in our noisy culture that would often use our desires against us.  Ads blare at us all day long, pulling at this desire or that desire, elevating it to the most important thing, while perhaps drowning out that deepest desire to be whole, to live fully and feel alive, to know God, to grow, to connect.  Wendy Farley: Surging underneath our ordinary desires is a brilliant desire that makes us glisten like stars (The Wounding and Healing of Desire, 3).  We want to glisten like stars.
The beat writer Jack Kerouac was not about berets or other shallow expressions that came to be associated with beatniks.  He really wanted to live fully and be whole.  He wanted to make that deep and profound desire of the human heart more plain in his writings.  Unfortunately, he, himself got caught up in the whirlwind of human desires.  He lost track of that deep desire for wholeness.  Fame overcame him.  Alcohol got the best of him, and he died before reaching age 50.
An eighty-five-year-old woman was being interviewed on her birthday.  “What advice would you give to people who want to be as vibrant as you are when they are eighty-five?” the reporter asked.  “Well, at our age it is very important to keep using all our potential or it dries up.  It is important to be with people and, if at all possible, to earn one’s living through service.  That’s what keep us alive and well.”  “May I ask exactly what it is you do for service at your age?”  “Why yes, I look after an old woman in my neighborhood.”  (Anthony DeMillo, The Heart of the Enlightened, 146)

What do you want?  We follow Jesus on the way to sharpen the question and to have it answered, to have our deepest desire, our most profound yearning for wholeness met, and to have our other desires affirmed and ordered.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Nothing From Nothing

Sermon preached October 18, 2015

Texts: Mark 10:35-45

Billy Preston, “Nothing From Nothing”
At an Ash Wednesday service, the pastor of a church suddenly interrupts the flow of the service and kneels at the altar, crying out, “O God, before you I am nothing!”  So moved by this demonstration of piety, the lay leader of the church, a prominent community member immediately comes forward, kneels next to the pastor and cries out, “O God, before you I am nothing!”  Then another member of the congregation, a person of much more modest means, comes forward, kneels and says, “O God, before you I am nothing!”  The lay leader nudges the pastor and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
Who is something in the Jesus scheme of things?  Do you have to be nothing to be something?  Jesus and his disciples are on the road going to Jerusalem.  Jesus keeps telling them that in Jerusalem he faces arrest and execution.  So naturally, two of the disciples, brothers James and John, ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  And what do they want?  “Grant us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.”  Have they not been listening?  Jesus has not been talking about glory but about trouble – arrest and death.  The disciples often seem one French fry short of a Happy Meal in the Gospel of Mark.
Jesus asks them if they are able to follow his way, to which they say “yes.”  The other disciples pick up on the conversation.  They are not pleased with James and John.  Jesus uses it as a teachable moment.  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; 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.  I appreciate the newer translation, The Common English Bible, in its rendering of that last sentence.  For the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.
In the end, Jesus is not harsh with James and John.  He does not criticize them for wanting to be important or significant or to matter.  What he does do is redefine what it means to be important, to be significant, to matter.  Jesus redefines greatness.  Greatness, importance are found in service, not in wielding unchecked power over others.
If you have ever heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” it is difficult to read this text from Mark and not think about that sermon.  It was the final sermon King preached before his assassination, and it was adapted from an earlier sermon of J. Wallace Hamilton, a well-known, liberal, white Methodist preacher.  We used part of it in the “Invitation to Worship” earlier.  I want to share just a bit more of it.
[Jesus] said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love.  I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."  And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness….  If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.  And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve….  You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. (
But here is where it can still get messy.  We humans can warp even this, and we are good at that kind of thing.  Good ideas can also be misused.  Look who thinks he’s nothing!  We can even turn servanthood into a competition.  We may want to get noticed for our servanthood, for our giving.  Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) amassed one of the greatest fortunes of the nineteenth century.  When he retired in 1901 he was the richest man in the world.  Then he spent the rest of his life giving his money away.  By the time of his death, he had donated over $350 million to charity, an astounding sum at the time.  He wrote a book entitled The Gospel of Wealth in which he argued that the rich should give their wealth away to those less fortunate.  In all this, Carnegie, I think, deserves praise.
What is also interesting to me is that Carnegie’s name was attached to many of his donations.  When you go by a library building he built, you see etched in stone “Carnegie Library.”  The famous music hall he built in New York is “Carnegie Hall.”  Here in Duluth we have “Amsoil Arena.”  Now that’s o.k.  It is good that people of means donate to help others.  If any of you are wanting to donate to pay for the windows up here and would like you name attached, I am all ears.  What I simply want to note is that even in giving and service there is something of that sense of self-importance.  Most of the time that is a good thing.  Sometimes it is not, as perhaps when a generous donor puts too many stipulations on the gift.  To my knowledge Andrew Carnegie gave for libraries, but did not demand that they each had multiple copies of his book – but some would do just that.
Even Dr. King had this interesting internal struggle in his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.”  King eerily reflects on his own death, and what he would like said about his life.  If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.  I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody….  I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.   Nicely put, yet he also mentions his Noble Prize and his education even as he says they are not what matter most.  And it is o.k.
The bottom line is this.  Greatness is about giving – about giving oneself.  Greatness is about service – about doing justice, fostering reconciliation, creating beauty, loving.  Even just a bit more deeply it is about creating the kind of heart that can love and give and serve without being too self-conscious about it.  There is nothing wrong about naming rights, or mentioning academic achievement.  I’d like my obituary to mention that I have a Ph.D.  In following Jesus, though, it is about developing a heart that can hold that kind of thing lightly.
In the Jesus scheme of things, it is not about being nothing, but about having such a strong sense of self, rooted in knowing that we are loved by God, that we don’t have to keep reminding others that we are somebody.  We already know that.  It is having such a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love that giving flows out of us greatly, without us being too worried about others thinking we are great.  Theologian Walter Wink puts it well.  You serve out of joy, not obligation….  Ambition can be positive or negative.  In his vision of the new order of God, Jesus offers us a way to pour ourselves into an ambition worthy of our lives. (The Human Being, 95)
You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be.  If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful.  Remember that greatness is about a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.
So be great in the ways only you can be great, knowing that you are loved deeply by God in Jesus Christ.  Grow your heart and soul.  Develop your capacities for loving and serving and giving.  Share yourself with others and with the world.  Know God’s love in Jesus.  Show God’s love in the world.  We can each do that just where we are and out of who we are.
About a month ago, I wrote a column in The Duluth Budgeteer about my high school homeroom teacher, Nancy Collyard.  I had gone on-line and discovered that she had died in Hibbing in 2009 at the age of 69.  It was a time of holding grief and gratitude together.  I wrote about how she had been helpful to me during those challenging years of adolescence.  I post my stories on my Facebook page.  I am not above some self-promotion!  The response was pretty amazing.  I heard from a number of high school classmates who had also been touched by Mrs. Collyard.  Here was a woman from Hibbing who died there quietly, who had touched a lot of lives.  That’s greatness.
This week, on Facebook, the birthdate of a friend of mine popped up.  Only this friend died in January 2014.  Facebook can be a little bit creepy that way.  Jim Perry was a United Methodist clergy person who was a Minnesota Conference staff person who worked a lot with other clergy.  He was a friend and I miss him.  I posted a couple of items about Jim on my Facebook page offering gratitude for who he was, the work he did, and the friendship he gave.  Again, the response was pretty amazing.  Others testified to how Jim touched their lives, or at least hit the “Like” button.  Jim was from Vermont.  That’s where he died, quietly.  Yet his life touched other lives.  That’s greatness.

Be great in the ways only you can be great, knowing that you are loved deeply by God in Jesus Christ.  Grow your heart and soul.  Develop your capacities for loving and serving and giving.  Share yourself with others and with the world.  Know God’s love in Jesus.  Show God’s love in the world.  We can each do that just where we are and out of who we are.  We can all be great because we can all develop hearts filled with grace, and souls generated by love.  Amen.

It Ain't Easy

Sermon preached October 11, 2015

Texts: Mark 10:17-31

Ringo Starr, “It Don’t Come Easy”
We are rightly focused on the upside of being followers of Jesus, people of Christian faith.  As the late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “discipleship is joy” (The Cost of Discipleship, 41).  In a time when so much weighs so heavily upon us, we need to hear words about joy.  Yet the book in which Bonhoeffer penned these words is a book entitled “The Cost of Discipleship,” and just prior to the proclamation that discipleship is joy, Bonhoeffer wrote: And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us?  What decisions and partings will it demand?  Decisions and partings, perhaps discipleship don’t come easy.
A man approaches Jesus and kneels before him.  The kneeling gesture may have meant he was seeking some kind of healing.  At the very least, it was a gesture of deep respect offered by someone who apparently was well off.  We are told later in the story that he had many possessions.  He asks Jesus a question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This man seems to be sensing a certain emptiness in his life.  Something is amiss.  Jesus reminds him of the commandments, and the man replies that he has been keeping them since his youth.  They were not enough.  The sense of emptiness remained.  Jesus senses the depth of the man’s questioning and seeking.  In love Jesus offers something else.  “Go, and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  The man’s despair is deepened.  When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
It ain’t easy – following Jesus.  It don’t come easy – needed change in our lives.  Let’s not kid ourselves about this.  Discipleship, it ain’t easy.
Think with me about our individual lives.  Sometimes we may experience a certain emptiness, a sense of something important missing, a sense of lost connection with the vital springs of life, a feeling of being distant from God.  The man in the story wanted more.  There must be more to life than being well-off and doing what’s expected.  It was quite self-sufficient, but it was not enough.  The therapist Michael Eigen describes this kind of situation well in his book FaithCompulsive success in making and controlling wealth spirals to a point of destructiveness of the welfare of many, even destructive of the psychological-spiritual well-being of “winners.” (4)  Perhaps that was what the man was experiencing and change was needed, a kind of spiritual therapeutics.  But change can be difficult, can be experienced like a camel going through the eye of a needle.
Here is what Eigen writes later in his book about change and our resistance to it.  To avoid psychic pain, one may attempt to destroy capabilities that experience it, including the possibility of destroying one’s own mind in order to avoid contact with intolerable perceptions, intolerable emotional realities.  Instead of facing and modulating – destruction. (56)  The answer, the spiritual therapy required is to face the difficult emotions, face our own fears, face how we have been working against our own well-being even when it is difficult and painful.
Jesus uses a remarkable image in Mark, “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.”  By the way, that story about a gate in Jerusalem that was called the “Eye of the Needle” through which a camel could go if it kneeled down lowly enough, that story is not true.  Jesus image is as stark as it seems.  It is an image about the difficulty of change, I think.  About the image, C. S. Lewis wrote this brief poem:
All things (e.g. a camel's journey through
A needle's eye) are possible, it's true.
But picture how the camel feels, squeezed out
In one long bloody thread, from tail to snout.

That’s how change can feel in our lives, even when we need to change to be connected to life again.  It ain’t easy.
            Following Jesus has something to do with giving of ourselves, and that can be difficult.  Jesus asks the man to give away all that he has and give the money to the poor.  Jesus does not ask that of everyone, but he does ask us to give, to give of ourselves, to give of our time, our talent, our energy, our resources.  We are in the early stages of a capital campaign to work on this building, a facility that will be fifty years old next year.  There are just some things that need doing, just like around our houses there are things that need to be cared for – roofs and floors and bathrooms and windows.  We are doing this so we can continue the work to which Jesus calls us as a congregation.  It can feel risky.  Will we be here in another fifty years?  Aren’t we tired of investing in a building?  We give because we have been touched by God’s love and grace here.  We give to extend our work here.  There are no guarantees about the future, only the promise that comes with doing our best in following Jesus as this church. 
            There are no guarantees when we give of our time, energy and talents.  Will the work we do really make a difference?  Sometimes we get to see that it does, and sometimes we have to give of ourselves and trust God will use our efforts in ways we will not see.  That kind of giving is difficult, and it is part of following Jesus.  It don’t come easy.
            The last challenge I want to explore with you this morning as we seek to think about the meaning of following Jesus is the challenge of the open heart.  I recently read an interview with a guy named Francis Weller.  I had never heard of him before, but in the interview he said something that has stayed with me.  The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched by them.  How much sorrow can I hold?  That’s how much gratitude I can give.  If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair.  If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering.  Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.
(Francis Weller, The Sun, October 2015)
            Part of what is happening in Jesus encounter with the rich man in Mark is that Jesus invites this man to openness of heart, and to open his heart to the grief and pain of the world.  “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”  Had this man, in his self-sufficiency closed himself off from the poor, from seeing the pain and hurt in his world and feeling some grief about it?
            I think of the words of Parker Palmer.  There are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken.  One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about – a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid.  The other is to imagine the heart broken open into new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.  As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. (A Hidden Wholeness, 178)
            Following Jesus has something to do with being able to have our hearts broken in that way – to have hearts that can hold grief and gratitude, that have greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.
            Earlier this week I was listening to National Public Radio.  It is running a new series, #15Girls, exploring the lives of 15-year-old girls who are seeking to take control and change their fate.  The story for the day was about fifteen year-old girls in El Salvador.  Gangs in El Salvador control much of the country and the violence there is so endemic that someone dies there, on average, every hour. []
            In the story I heard about Marcella, age 15.  Marcella’s boyfriend was a bus driver in a gang-controlled neighborhood.  First, he started getting threats – “Help the gang or we will kill you.”  He disappeared.  Then Marcella began getting threats, and one day, walking in San Salvador with her sister, Marcella was executed by a gang member.  She may have been targeted for not wanting to become a gang member’s girlfriend, or for refusing to help the gang in some other way.
            In the story I heard about a fifteen year old named Jessica.  Jessica began being bullied at school by another girl.  The girl would ask for things, and threaten her with being beaten up after school.  The bullying girl had a brother who was a gang member.  One day the girl asked Jessica for a pencil, Jessica had only one, so she refused.  Jessica has now disappeared.
            In the story I heard about a girl who may not make it to fifteen.  The girl got caught in Tampico, Mexico trying to make her way to the United States. She had traveled more than 1,000 miles and was only a few hours from the U.S.  The smuggler her family paid for left her alone on a bus. She fell asleep, got caught by Mexican immigration and was sent back to El Salvador.  Why was she leaving El Salvador?  The girl said her father is in one of El Salvador's two main gangs. He's in prison for murder. And now he says if his ex-wife, the girl's mother, doesn't give him $50,000 when he gets out, he'll have the girl raped and killed.
            Heartbreaking stories.  I know that I cannot do much about these situations.  I can pray.  I can think a little bit differently about some of those trying to come into the United States from Central America.  Here’s what I don’t think I can do if I am to follow Jesus.  I cannot turn away.  I cannot not care.  I need to hold this grief.  I need to let my heart be broken, but broken open.

            What must we do to be part of God’s work in the world, God’s dream for the world, have a part in eternal life?  And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us?  What decisions and partings will it demand?  Be open to change, to giving, to holding grief.  Let your heart be broken so it can grow bigger, be broken open.  It ain’t easy.  But as Bonhoeffer reminds us, Jesus never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen and heal it and the way of Jesus is a road of boundless mercy and discipleship is joy (The Cost of Discipleship, 40, 41).  As Jesus tells Peter, Truly I tell you there is no one who has left house or brothers or sister 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 troubles – and in the age to come eternal life.  It is another way of saying while it don’t come easy, discipleship is joy.  Amen.

Friday, October 9, 2015

We Are Family

Sermon preached on World Communion Sunday                         October 4, 2015
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Mark 10:2-16  “We Are Family” Sister Sledge
We are family.  In Jesus we are family.  I have returned to these words of theologian Robert Neville rather frequently in recent months.  Christianity is first and foremost about being kind….  Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists….  But some obvious and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases.  These include being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent. (Symbols of Jesus, xviii)
Family images are prominent in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, but they are frankly difficult images and words, very difficult.  This was an odd choice of texts for World Communion Sunday, but they are the lectionary readings for today.  I kind of appreciate the challenge.  When you are given theological lemons, make some theological lemonade.  But did the lemons have to be this sour?
So let’s dive in.
The words of Jesus here are quite difficult and harsh in our contemporary context, where divorce is not uncommon.  Many take these words quite literally.  No divorce, period.  No matter how grim, how painful a marriage, the obligation is to stay together.
I recall a situation in another pastorate.  A woman, a member of a church where I was pastor, was considering divorcing her husband.  Her husband had seemingly given up on the relationship.  There was no closeness, no intimacy, and he had no desire to change that.  He belonged to another church, a more fundamental church, and his pastor had wanted to see the woman from my church.  She asked if I would go with her.  We went, and that pastor, a man, basically told the woman that from his view of Scripture, unless her husband was having a sexual affair, there was no Scriptural warrant for her seeking a divorce.  I told him that I thought there were different kinds of unfaithfulness and that if a person was unwilling to work on a relationship when it wasn’t working that was a kind of unfaithfulness.  He was not convinced.
I think the words of Jesus here about divorce need to be put in two contexts.  The historical context reminds us that in Jesus time divorce was the pure prerogative of the male in a relationship, and the man needed no real reason to divorce his wife.  When that happened, women were often left destitute, for there were few economic opportunities for women in that day.  Even today, divorce tends to have a more negative economic impact on women.  Jesus may have been looking out for the more vulnerable when he spoke words against divorce.  That he cares deeply about the vulnerable is clear from his words about children in today’s text.
The other context we need to consider these words in is the context of the entire Bible.  Read as a whole, the Bible is about God’s deep love, about God’s desire for abundant life and for a better world.  When marriage is deeply painful, when neither partner is growing and developing, or even worse when there is abuse, would Jesus really say, “Here’s the bottom line – whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”?  I have a difficult time imagining that.
However, from another angle, there is something special that happens when people in relationships, including marriage, work through issues and difficulties together.  We learn, we grow, we develop as we live together.  The therapist Michael Eigen shares the story of his own therapist telling him, “Marriage isn’t what you think.  It’s two people telling truth to each other, helping to mitigate the severity to yourself.” (Eigen, Faith, 55)  Overtime, we learn how to be more truthful with our partners, helping them learn and grow.  When relationships end, we lose some opportunities for growth, change, development.  We need others who know us, encourage our growth, and support us when the truth about ourselves is difficult.  That’s the possibility of marriage, all kinds of marriage.  Jesus wants those kind of marriages for us, hence his the strong words about divorce, I think.  Please hear me, there are times when divorce is the best of a difficult set of choices – the healthiest decision.  The sad part is that every marriage begins in the hope that it will become the kind of relationship that grows over time, the kind of relationship where each person grows over time.  Jesus wants those kind of relationships for us.
That kind of truth-telling, supportive relationship is also true for our relationship together as the family of faith.  You were probably wondering when I was going to get back to that.  I love how Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts this.  When she holds classes for new members, she speaks last and says: This community will disappoint them.  It’s a matter of when, not if.  We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings.  I think invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens.  If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come it and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and real to miss.  (Pastrix, 54-55)
We are family.  We are there for each other on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration.  There is something special and important about staying together, even if there may also be times when separation needs to happen.  We are family, caring for each other, caring for children, helping each other grow.
But if we are family for each other, one of the things about this family is that our circle of care is never limited to this family.  It is always reaching more widely.  On Wednesday evening we are studying the Gospel of Luke, and this past week we read the birth story of Jesus.  It is filled with words about “good news of great joy for all people.”  God’s love for us is also God’s love for the world.  “We Are the World” U.S.A. for Africa
We are the world.  Our fates are inextricably intertwined with the lives of others.  Our hearts ache and break when a child washes up on a Turkish shore.  Our hearts ache and break when young people are killed in their college classroom.  Young people should be able to go to school and expect to come back from class.  In a way, all children are our children, and all children deserve to be blessed by Jesus and through the people who call upon Jesus.  Yes, we have a special connection with each other in Jesus, but we are also connected to all God’s people.
On this World Communion Sunday, remember we are family in Christ.  In Christ, we are the world.
Sending cards – you are invited to find a note card and take an address and send a note to another church.  If you wish to you can write, “Our pastor told us we should write you a word of greeting on this World Communion Sunday.  Here it is.  Hope you enjoy it!”  I would rather you say something like: “We are thinking of you and praying for you on this World Communion Sunday.” 

We are family in Christ.  In Christ, we are the world.  Amen.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Please Pass the Salt

Sermon preached September 27, 2015

Texts: Mark 9:38-50

Jesus said, “Salt is good….  Have salt in yourselves.”  This is a little puzzling.  The American Heart Association: In some people, sodium increases blood pressure because it holds excess fluid in the body, placing an added burden on the heart. If your blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg or above, your doctor may recommend a low-salt diet or advise you to avoid salt altogether.  Apparently having salt in ourselves is not an unambiguous good.
But before we can even think about salt, we may need to address other parts of this troublesome passage.  We need to remember that the Gospels are creative works.  Stories about Jesus and the sayings of Jesus circulated orally for many years before being written down.  The Gospel writers made use of these traditions in putting together their Gospels.  This is not a contradiction to the idea that God’s Spirit was part of this process.  It is both/and.  The biblical writers were creative and God’s Spirit was part of that creativity, and God’s Spirit continues to use these words to speak to our lives.
This passage from Mark is a collection of sayings of Jesus which may not have been spoken together by Jesus.  This is a compilation of sayings of Jesus which seem to have something to do with how followers of Jesus ought to live together.  We need to be open to the idea that God’s work happens in all kinds of ways, and celebrate when demons are exorcised –when healing and wholeness happen, no matter the source.  We need to care for all, watch how it is we may be putting stumbling blocks in the way of others.
In this section, though, Jesus uses some pretty dramatic language – cutting off hands, cutting off feet, tearing out your eye.  Better that than hell.  So here’s one way to makes sense of this troubling, but metaphoric language.  “Hell” translates the Greek word “Gehenna,” which refers to the Valley of Hinonom.  The Valley of Hinonom was south of Jerusalem.  It had once been the site of pagan sacrifices, but later became the city garbage dump where fires burned and maggots lived and where there was overpowering stench.  When we are not living in ways that are loving and caring, we are perhaps, in our lives, creating garbage and that garbage needs to be thrown away.  Better to be rid of the garbage now than to have a life that seems to accumulate it over time.
With this warning in mind, Mark moves to a different image for the Jesus-inspired life, salt.  Salt had many positive connotations in the time of Jesus.  Numbers refers to the covenant of God with God’s people as a “covenant of salt” (16:19).  That phrase is repeated in II Chronicles 13:5, here referring to God’s covenant with David.  In Leviticus (2:13) sacrifices are to be seasoned with salt.  Here is a verse from one of the books that was written in the time between the testaments, a book that finds its way into the Deutero-cannonical/Apocrypha books that are in many Bibles, Sirach.  The basic necessities of human life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and oil and clothing (39:26).  So what might it mean to have salt in ourselves, to be salty?
Well, if we are to be salty as followers of Jesus we need to know how to measure.  As noted, salt in the time of Jesus was often viewed very positively.  In his book Salt: A World History Mark Kurlansky writes, From the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in world history (6).  Salt was an enormously valuable commodity in the Roman Empire in which Jesus lived.  Many of the cities of the empire were built near saltworks (Kurlansky, 63-64).  Yet salt was not an unambiguous good.  Too much salt resulted in a Dead Sea.  Salt could poison crop lands, and was used as an instrument of war.  Judges 9:45, after Abimelech won a battle “he razed the city and sowed it with salt.”
If we are to be salty people, we need to know how to measure, that is, we are to be wise and discerning.  In the passage we read just last week from James we encountered these words: Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. (3:13)  Wisdom is more than knowing things, though seeking accurate knowledge matters.  In our day when false information and half-truths can go viral on the internet, it is good to ask questions about information.  But wisdom is about paying attention to what is most important.  It is learning and growing and forming a life that is filled with goodness and gentleness.  Worship slows our lives to let more wisdom form.  Prayer slows our lives, to give wisdom more opportunities to grow.  Conversations together, what John Wesley called “holy conferencing,” help us develop wisdom as we listen well to others.  To be salty is to know how to measure, to be wise and discerning.
To be salty is to be about the work of preserving.  Until modern times the advent of refrigeration, salt was the principle way to preserve food (Kurlansky, 6).  I think here of the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.  “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order” (Process and Reality, 515).  Whitehead argues that God’s very nature was, in part, “a tender care that nothing be lost… a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved” (Process and Reality, 525).  We are to see the good and beautiful in the world and do our best to create more and to build upon what is there.  That is true in our lives – see the good and beautiful in you, build on that and create more.  See the good and beautiful in others, build on that and help them create more – avoid putting stumbling blocks in their way.  It is true for our church – let’s see the good and beautiful in our midst, some of which we have inherited from those who have gone before us (and having been here for over ten years, I can look out and remember so many who have gone before who are no longer here), see the good and beautiful, build on it and work together to create more. For our church, we always leave room for others to be part of the enterprise here of working with God to create more goodness and beauty in the world.  And this idea applies to the world, too.  We are good at seeing the hurt and horror, the brutality and the bruising in our world.  It blares at us from our radios, our televisions, from the internet.  We are also to see the good and beautiful in the world, to build on it, and to create more – together – “be at peace with one another.”
To be salty is also about adding flavor to the world.  Christians have often had the reputation of being bland people.  At least this is often true in popular culture, either bland or mean hypocrites.  Jesus invites us to be salty, to add some flavor to the world.  As we grow in wisdom, we can share new ideas with others.  Christians should be among the most thoughtful people around, though we are often seen as narrow-minded.  We see the world in all its wonder and beauty and mystery, and in all its agony, horror and brutality, trusting that God continues to work in the world.  One last Whitehead quote.  “The task of reason is to fathom the deeper depths of the many-sidedness of things” (Process and Reality, 519).  That’s wisdom, to fathom the deeper depths of the many-sidedness of things, and then to discern how best to live, to love, to create beauty and goodness, and to let God’s grace flow. When we do that we add flavor to the world – a joyful wisdom that exudes gentleness and strength.
Salt is good, valuable.  Throughout history it has been one of the most treasured and valued commodities.  You are valuable.  You are part of God’s on-going work in the world.  Stay salty.  Let’s stay salty together.
Jesus said, “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lost the reward.”  Small act.  Mother Teresa is purported to have said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”  She probably did not say this, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Salt is pretty small.  Small acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, goodness and beauty are part of staying salty.  I think of the time that our lay pastors take to visit members of our congregation.  Small things done with great love that make a difference – staying salty.  I think of all the small acts that go into worship every week - small things done with great love that make a difference – staying salty.  I think of all the small acts that make things like Ruby’s Pantry work, and of all the small tasks that make up our Roast Beef dinner - - - small things done with great love that makes a difference – staying salty.  I think of Linda Wiig this week going to Omaha to help her sister because there is no one else – a small thing done with great love that is making a difference – staying salty.  I think of the time we take to greet and welcome each other.  We never know what has been going on in each other’s lives, or the lives of someone who is here for the first time.  We never know what a small kindness might mean to someone – small things done with great love that make a difference – staying salty.  I think of all the small ways we can break down barriers in our society, touching those who are different, eroding years of hate and fear and prejudice – small things done with great love that make a difference – staying salty.

Salt is good, valuable.  You are valuable.  You are part of God’s on-going work in the world.  Be wise.  Preserve.  Add flavor.  Pay attention to the small acts.  Stay salty.  Let’s stay salty together, be at peace with one another.  In Jesus.  Amen.