I thought I would start off today talking with you some about my daughter’s wedding in Brunello, Italy, and the church Joy and Claudio were married in—second time around. Just so you know, she and Claudio were married in Baltimore, they live in Bethesda, so they were married in Baltimore on June 30th. Claudio’s folks flew in from Italy to be there, of course, along with Claudio’s brother, Marco, a few cousins, aunts and uncles. But a lot of Claudio’s friends and extended family, just couldn’t make the trip. So, it made sense to have a second wedding—in the small town that Claudio grew up in and where his brother and parents still live. This second wedding was presided over by the only priest Claudio has ever known, Don Giamo.Read More
I’m still mulling over some conversations I have had in the last few weeks. I thought I would share them with you and then maybe together we can try to make some sense out of them. If you are looking for a neatly sewed up end to this sermon, I am warning you up front, you are going to be disappointed.
The first conversation I want to tell you about, was with Matt Lawless. He’s the new town administrator. He’s an alum of the College of William and Mary, my own Alma Mater and my daughter Joy’s Alma Mater, too. Right there we had something in common to talk about. During our conversation, which happened in the town office, you know, situated over Victory Hall, I mentioned Scottsville Presbyterian. In fact, I didn’t just mention our church, I bragged about it. I told him how the exterior is an historic, gleaming jewel, in this town—now that we have the fresh paint job, and the window-pane replacements.
As I said last week, from this pulpit, I have been astounded by the love you have demonstrated for Arlene. I’ll say more than astounded by your love and concern, though. I’ll say proud. This week, as people crossed the threshold to Arlene’s hospital room, a virtual army of well-wishers, I just knew Arlene’s doctors and nurses must have been thinking, “Who IS this woman? Surely she must be a very important person to get so much attention.” And she IS a VIP—to those who know and love her. And of course, so many people extending their love to Arlene with visits and phone calls—they have provided healing in a way that a whole pharmacy of medicines and a whole gaggle of doctors and nurses can not. We may have tired out Arlene with our love, but it has been a good, satisfying tired—like when you return home from a week at the beach with family, or after a dinner out with good friends.Read More
I did my internship at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Enormous sanctuary. My daughters said that on the inside, it looked like a huge brick barn. I can’t deny that. It DID look like the inside of a huge brick barn, in a sleek, contemporary sort of way. The pews weren’t so much that, but benches-with-backs. There was very little else in that space in the way of furniture or Christian symbolism. Really, the only give-aways that it was a church sanctuary, was the smallish baptismal font and a ginormous wooden cross which hung from the ceiling.
One of the really novel things about Bradley Hills, besides it’s architecture and it’s interior design, is that it shares space with Bethesda Jewish Congregation. On Friday afternoons, the Jewish contingency would take over the sanctuary to prepare for its Friday night worship. There was a switch on the sanctuary wall. Someone would flip that switch and behold! A cloth rendition of a Torah would descend from the ceiling, and sheath the cross. Cool, huh? Then, Sunday morning, the church custodian would flip that same switch. The Torah would ascend, and behold the cross!
The two congregations would hold joint services several times a year, too. These were a testament to the close relationship between the two congregations, but also, I think, a recognition of the close relationship between two different faith traditions—Judaism and Christianity.
And now I would like to introduce you to one particular member of Bradley Hills Presbyterian. Her name is Elizabeth. The year I worked there, she was assigned to look after me. She introduced me to church members, gave me some background into that church’s programs—that kind of thing.
Elizabeth was a great help, however Elizabeth was one nervous Nellie. Her introduction said it all: “Hi, my name is Elizabeth. I am a recovering perfectionist.” And she was that, although it didn’t seem to me her recovery was going all that well. In conversations, she would often stop mid-sentence, to correct herself. I can’t know for sure, but I think she did that because she was in constant self-analysis mode. She was wanting to perfect her every spoken word. She was extremely cautious in what she said on any given topic--religion, politics, child rearing, the weather, even. It was as if she walked through life on tentative tiptoe. So for instance, she might say, “It’s such a beautiful sunny day. No, no, well, there are a few clouds in the sky, and forecasters ARE calling for rain, so maybe it’s not THAT beautiful a day….” Our conversations confused and exhausted me.
To be perfect. That is what Elizabeth was trying NOT to be, but Jesus says we are to BE perfect, just like our heavenly father is perfect. How can that be? You know and I know that perfection is an impossible goal to achieve. You might be this close to achieving it, but there is always some itsy-bitsy thing you could do better. And even if it were possible to reach perfection, where would that get you? Wouldn’t you just spend your days trying to hold on to that perfect state? And wouldn’t you still just end up like nervous Nellie Elizabeth? And, think about this, would anyone actually LIKE you if you WERE perfect? Honestly, would YOU ever want to be married to a perfect person? Would YOU really want to be best friends with a perfect person? It’s our imperfections that make us endearing. It’s our imperfections that make our friends and loved ones endearing to us..
Why, then, would Jesus say, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect?” That is exactly what some of you asked each other in a Bible study several months ago—and if you recall, I didn’t say a word. I just listened. I filed that question away up here. I promised myself that I would preach on perfection some Sunday during the summer. And this is that Sunday!
So, here we go. This is what I know. The New Testament including the gospel of Matthew was written in ancient Greek. The Greek word for perfect is teleos. Teleos is the root of our English word, teleological. According to Webster’s dictionary, teleological, is “a doctrine explaining phenomena by final causes,” which is more than any of us will ever need to know. Teleos, though? Well, in Greek, it just means end goal, as in an acorn’s teleos is to become an oak tree. Other English equivalents might be fulfillment and of course, that stumbling block, for us, perfection.
Although WE might not want to pursue perfection, the Ancient Greeks loved, loved, loved the concept. You might even say that they invented it. Think about the great thinkers of that time—Pythagorus, Plato, are two that come immediately to mind. With no concept of perfection, would they have worked so hard to achieve all that they did? And really, aren’t our sciences, as created and promoted by those ancient Greeks--math, astronomy-- aren’t they all about perfection? So definitely there is a place for perfection in our thinking. But maybe perfection is best left to scientists in their laboratories. Maybe it is best not to apply perfection to our relationships, and, in the way we comport ourselves in our day-to-day living.
I said that the ancient Greeks might have invented perfection. I wasn’t kidding. As you may know by now, my favorite theologian, who died, sadly, in 2012, is Walter Wink. What a fine scholar he was! I went to a week-long Walter Wink-lead-conference when I lived in the DC area. We actually talked about this passage in Matthew, “Be Perfect just as your father in heaven is perfect.”
So, I introduced you to Elizabeth earlier in this sermon, now I will introduce you to Walter Wink. He was from Texas, so he had a Texas drawl. For our conference breakouts, we sat in a large circle, and Walter sat among us—his chair on two legs, so that he could rock back in forth. It was like he was sitting on his front porch rocker, “back home” on the ranch, just chewing the fat with his circle of friends. He himself used a Greek translation of the Bible. He read that as easily as we might read English. He had an excellent command of Hebrew, too, and probably other ancient languages, but I don’t know that for sure. Anyway, he would read to us from his Greek Bible and then we would discuss the passage together.
What I liked about Walter Wink is that he was one of us. He struggled with the same stuff we struggle with. Like us, when he was just beginning his career as a religious professor, he was flummoxed by “Be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.”
Here is what he knew. Aramaic was Jesus’ first language. He could also read Hebrew, a close cousin of Aramaic. Jesus might have known Greek, enough to speak it anyway, but we don’t know that for sure. We DO know that when he spoke with his fellow Judeans, and when we taught, he spoke in Aramaic.
You following me here? Jesus communicated and taught in Aramaic. Now comes the kicker. You ready for this? Jesus could not have said “Be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect,” for the simple reason that the word perfect did not exist in the Aramaic language. Let me say that again, the word perfect, did not exist in the Aramaic language.
Now think about this—something that is sure to give you a headache: If the word perfect did not exist in Aramaic, did the concept of perfection exist in Jesus’ Jewish world?
It’s like the tree falling in the forest, isn’t it? If no one is around to hear it fall, did it actually make a sound? And, if the concept of perfection did NOT exist in Jewish culture, what would life have been like? You could do well at your studies, but you could never be a perfect, A+ student. Say you were a potter. You could produce a good piece of pottery, say, but never a perfect piece of pottery. Would that matter to you? For me, anyway, a weight is lifted. How freeing that would be!
But here’s another question for you: if Jesus never said, could not have said, “Be perfect just as your father in heaven is perfect,” what did he say that was later mistranslated and written down by those ancient Greeks?”
Glad you asked! The gospel of Luke has a lot of the same passages as in Matthew—almost word for word, in some places. In our scripture passage for today, in Matthew, Jesus talks about loving our enemies. He ends his teaching with “be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect,” In Luke, the sixth chapter, Jesus instructs his listeners to “love your enemies,” just like in Matthew. In Luke, though, Jesus continues with, “Be merciful, just as your father in heaven is merciful.”
Be merciful. That makes more sense than “be perfect,” in the context in which it is used, right? Love your enemies, AND consequently be merciful to them. Should you come face to face with your enemy with your sword drawn, remember, God has told you to love that enemy. Maybe don’t run him through with your sword.
Being merciful—well that is almost as impossible a goal to achieve as being perfect, isn’t it? What am I saying? It is every bit as impossible to achieve as being perfect! We have this side of our nature, an ugly side—We want to get even, take revenge. We want to blame and punish the other--for their life circumstances, being poor, being born in the wrong country, having the wrong religion. Yet, our teleos, says Jesus, is to love the other. The proof of that love will be the mercy we practice. Be merciful just as your father in heaven is merciful.
So, in our time together, we’ve talked about the close connection between Judaism and Christianity—remember the descending and ascending Torah? And we’ve talked some about the ancient Jewish worldview, which perhaps did not include a concept of perfection. In light of what I have shared with you, maybe you’ve decided as I have decided, that the ancient Jews were on to something. Maybe, like me, you’ve decided NOT to strive for perfection in your relationships; in your day-to-day living.
Like Nervous Nellie Elizabeth, let us become recovering perfectionists. Let us strive instead to be merciful, but NOT perfectly merciful. Amen
In just a minute, I am going to read you the story of Jesus performing a healing at the Bethesda pool. Rather than reading along with me, or just listening, I want you to do something else. As I read, with your eyes closed, I want you to imagine that you yourself are at the Bethesda pool in Jerusalem. You are there to be healed by the waters. You’ll want to have a disease or disability of some kind. Let’s say your right side is paralyzed. Let your right arm go limp. Let your right leg go limp. You are not in pain, but you can’t move much. You can’t perform day-to-day chores—like washing clothes or dishes. You drag your leg when you walk. That is why you yourself are at the Bethesda pool. You are lying under a portico. The sun’s rays are blocked, but it’s hot as an oven. You are desperate for healing, though. You watch and wait for the pool’s water to stir. When it does, it means that angels are present and a miracle can happen. Your plan is that when you see the moving water, you will crawl to the water and using your left hand and arm as a lever, you will throw yourself in.Read More
I know a fellow pastor who swears that nothing happens by coincidence. I’m not THAT much of a purist. Although God does work wonders and is very much a part of our lives, I think that there is room for a coincidence now and then. HOWEVER, I will say that this week, what happened to me was more than coincidence.
And to think it happened at a Presbytery meeting! Yes, apparently God even attends Presbytery meetings. I am going to tell you what happened, but everything right now is still kind of a jumble for me, so you will have to bear with me if the pieces of this jigsaw saga do not fit snuggly together. I am still processing.
To begin, I would like us to put ourselves at that Presbytery meeting. We are at Westminster/Cantebury, a retirement community in Richmond. We are sitting in a large meeting room. Two lecterns flank the center stage. There are also several chairs on stage, and a table on which stands a large brass, Celtic cross. After a time of worship, and after hearing reports from various committees, two women, one black the other white, climb the stairs to the stage. They situate two of the chairs next to each other, center stage, and they sit down. So begins their mini-drama, which is really a conversation. Here is the gist of the conversation:Read More
On the front cover of your bulletin today is a picture of a decorated Akkadian cylinder seal. Say that three times fast! An Akkadian cylinder seal is just what you might think—it is a cylinder. It comes from Akkad, a city in the ancient Babylonian Empire. This Akkadian cylinder seal is small. It has a hole in the middle so that you can run a string through and wear it as an amulet around your neck or wrist. Since this and other similar cylinder seals are in relief, it is thought that the Akkadians may have also used them to make imprints—hence the name seal—They dipped the cylinder in ink and rolled it on something flat, parchment maybe—or if not ink, maybe they rolled it on soft clay--creating a reverse image.
We don’t know if that is what they did, though. We only have the cylinders. The one you are looking at dates from the 22nd century, BCE. That makes it around 4200 years old. Isn’t that something?Read More
I have read that it takes 10 years to learn most crafts. That’s about right in the case of preaching. There may be some child prodigies out there--gifted souls, for whom it comes more easily, but most preachers have to put in their time and practice, practice, practice.
When I was new to ministry, and I had a preaching assignment, I asked our church secretary to read my draft. Bless her soul, she was happy to do that. Faye, her name is Faye, had a keen sense of what works. By the time she became my go-to-source for sermon editing, she had been the church secretary for 15 years. The head pastor wrote all his sermon-drafts long-hand on yellow legal pads. She transcribed them. That meant she had read a lot of sermons— a lot of GOOD sermons, actually. Our head pastor was an able preacher.
Faye was always gentle with me. That was the other reason she was my go-to person, for editing. So for example, one time she handed back a sermon and said: This is great, Gay Lee,,but you’ve put what should be your ending paragraph at the beginning of your sermon.” She was right. I had given away the punch line in the very first paragraph.Read More
I went back and forth this week, with whether to admit this to you. Then I remembered that Randy Haycock, admitted this to you last year, so I guess I can join his club. I hereby confess that like Randy, when I first came to the Central Virginia area, not knowing a soul in this area, I decided to try my luck with Match.com. Well, actually, it is more complicated than that. One of my daughters, Paige, signed me up for Match.com, but I played along, so I am partly responsible. I read from at least one religious leader that Match.com is the devil’s plaything. I hope that you don’t think that I was engaging in immorality. I simply wanted to get to know people outside the church, and, if I’m honest, I also wanted to see if I might still be attractive to people of the opposite sex, old girl that I am. I’m not fishing for compliments, mind you, but if, after the service, you want to tell me how very young and attractive I am, I can tell you, I promise to be all ears!
Dale Matthews. He’s a doctor, probably retired now, but I’m not sure about that. He lived in McLean, where I used to live. Maybe he still DOES live in McLean, with his wife, Karen. His daughter was good friends with my daughter, and so we were acquaintances. I found out during our usually harried discussions, either dropping off or picking up our girls after playdates, that Dale had written a book. That’s cool in itself. But the topic of his book was especially interesting to me. It was about faith. I bought the book, read it. It was surprisingly good! It was about this believing doctor’s take on faith as a prescription for healing— If you’re interested, I found out this week, it’s still in print. The book is titled, The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer.
I thought the church I served would enjoy hearing from him. I invited him to speak, at an after-worship get-together. Dale graciously accepted my invitation.
I love this story, that’s because it’s a very human story. If you are a parent, then you have, at some point, lost a child at the grocery maybe—or in a parking lot. Maybe even at a church. You can identify.
My own lost-child story happened many moons ago, when my girls were small—two, four and six. It was Fall. I had bought each of the girls a little rake, and with those they were helping me rake leaves. We had a big oak tree out front of our house. Leaf raking was fun! We were raking the leaves into a big pile at the street-curb. The town had these big leaf-sucker trucks—that’s their technical name. Leaf-sucker trucks. Those trucks would suck up what we raked up.
I promised the girls that after we had a decent leaf pile, I would swing them around and then throw them in. That is what we were up to on that glorious fall day. We were busy, raking and giggling, and having fun.
But things were about to go seriously south. It must have been around five in the afternoon. It was time to put the dinner casserole in the oven. I put down my rake and yelled to my oldest daughter Emily, who I am sad to report, too often served as Mommy’s little helper—I yelled, “Emily, watch Paige for a minute, I’m going into the house to start dinner.” It was a short distance from front door to kitchen. I had just stepped into that kitchen, with Emily following behind. “Mom, Paige is running down the sidewalk toward the end of the street.”
Back outside I looked down the street where Emily was pointing. That’s where the sidewalk ended at a street intersection. No Paige. No Paige anywhere. I hadn’t been gone long enough for her to just disappear like that. It made no sense. How could she just be gone?
So I do what you do. I start screaming, “Paige!” as I run down the sidewalk toward the end of the street. Once I arrive I look in both directions. Still no Paige. I run back up toward our house. What to do? By this time, a couple of neighbors have heard my frantic calls. They come out of their houses to help me look, but look where?
I waste no time. I phone the police. “Description please?” “Oh, my goodness! A description?” In my mind I can see Paige’s body flat out on the street, hit by a car—she’s still dressed in her navy blue jumper with the little yellow bumble bee appliqué sewn onto the bottom skirt part. Red tights. Red Turtle neck sweater. Blue tennis shoes. Oh heavens, no!”
My mind is a jumble, but then a smidge of sanity kicks in. Paige is obsessed with a little girl—eight-year-old Katherine, who lives in a house toward that intersection. Had Paige run to Katherine’s house? With the police on their way, neighbors standing around in their yards, and a kindly soul watching after the other two girls, I run down the sidewalk again, this time stopping at Katherine’s house. Katherine’s mom’s car is not in the driveway, but I ring the doorbell anyway. No answer.
Just as I am turning to leave, Katherine’s mom, Karen, does indeed drive up. She is back from wherever it is she had been. I explain what’s up. “I thought maybe she had come to see Katherine?” Karen unlocks the front door. We step inside. “Maybe Paige has wandered into your backyard?” I suggest hopefully. As we walk through the house toward the backdoor and the backyard, get this--Paige peeks out from behind Karen’s living room drapes and shouts, “Boo.” Like this had all been a fun game of hide and seek.
Happy day! Of course, I swoop Paige up in a firm embrace and probably cried, although I don’t remember if there were tears.
Best I have been able to figure, when I went into the house to tend to the casserole, Paige saw her opportunity. She ran down the sidewalk toward her beloved Katherine’s FENCED-IN backyard. She opened the gate, which for the sake of argument we will assume was slightly ajar. Finding no Katherine there, she let herself into the house via the backdoor. Karen had left the backdoor closed but unlocked. Paige must have stretched on tippy toe, turned that back door’s doorknob, and let herself in.
Karen, Paige and I return to the sidewalk where we are greeted by Emily, Joy a few neighbors and a kindly police officer. I explain to the officer that the toddler in my arms is indeed, the lost child. And, that’s the end of my own personal lost child saga.
All to say, like many of you I am sure, I identify with Mary in today’s story. Ok. I know Jesus was twelve, not two, but I don’t care what age a son or daughter is, he or she is still your child. Jesus was alone in Jerusalem, which I imagine, was NOT a so very holy city. I mean it may have been the seat of the temple, but I suspect it had its share of low lives—thieves, prostitutes, murderers even—people hoping to take advantage of unsuspecting, naïve, festival goers.
Sadly, scripture doesn’t give us a whole lot to go on regarding the boy Jesus. I imagine him as smart beyond his years—maybe even a child prodigy. But Jesus doesn’t have street smarts. He has spent his growing up years in Nazareth, after all, a small, backwater village— That fact would have added to his parents’ worries.
His parents. How could they have lost their son, for heaven’s sake? We can imagine, can’t we? They were traveling with extended family members. In all the commotion of packing up, and grabbing a quick bite to eat before heading out of Jerusalem, they had skipped the head count. You know the head count. “Ok, do we have everyone? José, Miriam, Joshua, Nathan, Judith, Jesus?” They hadn’t done that.
Their mistake. It wasn’t all on them, though. Jesus was partly to blame, don’t you think? In the commotion of that morning, Jesus had seen an opportunity—an opportunity to talk with the learned men at temple. “I’ll just slip out--won’t be gone long. Be back before we leave for home.” But then, of course, the time got away from him.
He’s sitting with the elders, asking questions, debating—at some point, he looks past them to the door of the temple. Jesus sees that it is dusk. “Already? How could that be? Better to stay put than to try to catch up with my family on the road.”
Actually that probably WAS a wise move. No telling who or what he would have encountered out beyond Jerusalem’s gates—Jesus, a lone traveler.
Where did Jesus stay for three days? I’m thinking a kindly priest, maybe awed by Jesus’ love of scripture, his sense of purpose, and of course, that special something that set him apart already as a spokesperson for God. Yes, a kindly priest offered his home to Jesus for sleeping and eating. Days he spent at the temple learning the finer points of scripture. It must have been glorious, for him.
Like my trauma of losing Paige, it also ended well for Jesus’ parents. When they discover that Jesus is missing, they return to Jerusalem, as Jesus expected them to. They enter the temple. They see their son sitting among the bearded elders—AS IF HE BELONGS THERE. They are too overcome with relief to be shocked by the incongruity of that image--their young son in deep conversation with men three, four times his age.
Mary says what we would expect her to say, when she is finally face-to-face with her son-- something to the effect, “Jesus, how could you do this to your father and me????! We were worried sick!”
Tell me, wouldn’t that be exactly what YOU would say? Maybe Mary wagged a finger, too. I would have wagged a finger at Paige, if she had been old enough to understand such a thing. As I said, this is a very human story. That’s why I love it. How true to motherhood, to parenthood.
But now we come to the sticky part to this story. After Mary scolds Jesus, Jesus scolds her right back. Scolds. That’s one way of putting it. Some of the commentators I read this week, use the word reproach—Jesus reproaches his mother. Really? Did she deserve reproaching?
I mean, forget for a moment that the boy is Jesus. Imagine you are a mother, having just been through what Mary has gone through. Your adolescent son is standing before you. You say, “We were worried sick about you!” Your adolescent son just might roll his eyes, and think if not actually say, “Gee Mom, just chill. I’m fine. And by the way, the Temple is where you and Dad should have looked for me first.” Slightly, maybe even very rude, but typical, right?
But of course, we are not talking about any adolescent, we are talking about Jesus.
It is true though that Jesus is both human and God. Human adolescent boys, do roll their eyes. Human adolescent boys do say words like “chill.” It all boils down to how you conceive of Jesus—is he more God than human, or more human than God. Tough to wrap our minds around Jesus as both human and God. My thinking though, is that this very human story reveals the very human side of Jesus’ nature, just as it does the very human side of Mary’s nature. So Jesus reproaches his mother, maybe even rolling his eyes, and asking her to “Chill.” Adolescents!
But we are not done with our scripture passage yet. I want to return to Mary, one more time, since this is after all, Mother’s Day.
It sounds trite, but it’s true. There are moments when parents are confronted with the fact of their child’s impending independence—their adulthood. Those moments are happy and sad both. “Gee, I really like what I am learning in computers, in math; and I’m good at it. One day I’m going to be a computer technician, a mathematician. Or. “I really enjoy cooking, and you know what? People like what I cook! I think I’ll be a chef, or a dietician. Mom, I really, really like this guy I’m dating. Can’t wait for you to meet him.” That’s you, Paul.
So, Mary and Joseph enter the temple. They see their son, THEIR TWELVE YEAR OLD son, seated among the elders like he belongs there. Mary scolds Jesus for staying behind in Jerusalem, but she is not just angry with him. Her feelings are more complicated than that. She feels relief that her son is safe, yes; she feels pride that Jesus seems to be holding his own among the temple elders in Jerusalem—“Yes; that’s my boy! “ But I suspect she also feels sad. Jesus has managed just fine all by himself, in a metropolis, away from family and away from HER. He has discovered his calling. Yes, Mary feels a tinge of sadness, bordering on, dare I say it, grief.
Mary treasured all those complicated, competing feelings –in her heart. As all parents do. Yes, this IS a very human story. Amen
David Brooks. You probably know the name and the person attached to it. I guess you could call him a pundit—but he is also a journalist. Some of his articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, for example, and currently he is a columnist at the New York Times. He has written a few books, including his 2015, The Road to Character. In that book, he focuses on the values that should inform our lives--not values that lead to success, a big house, maybe, a fast car, but values that shape us so that we live good and wholesome and virtuous lives—in other words, values that shape our character. It’s a good read. Anyway, somewhere in the book, David Brooks writes something to the effect, “Find a cause to give yourself to, something that can’t, as in CAN NOT-- something that can’t be accomplished in your lifetime.”
That has really stuck with me—and not in a good way. It’s the gnat buzzing in my ear. It’s the splinter in my finger. I mean, doesn’t what he says, go against what we were raised to believe, and how we have been programmed to live—you know--to engage and conquer? To see, whatever it may be, through to the very end? To persevere until the job is accomplished so that one day, when you reach those pearly gates, God will say, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant, well done?’”Read More
Before we get into today’s text, we need to consider the frame of mind of the disciples before and immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion. So let us do a quick recap. In the early days of Jesus’ ministry, and up until the time of his death, the disciples had believed that Jesus had a special role to play in history. They entertained the notion that Jesus would assume political power at least equal to that of King David. Some of them though, even dared to consider that Jesus might be the long-hoped-for messiah.
But then, horror of horrors, Jesus was crucified?! The disciples were stunned, but that is too mild a word I think. Better, shocked and stupefied-- their dreams had been shattered, their worldview like paper, torn up into little pieces, and then stomped on.Read More
Joy. Today is all about joy!
Ages ago, I was sitting in a congregation listening to a pastor preach about joy. His message that Sunday was, “YOU should all be happy!” but his tone, said, “Bad, bad, people—God wants you to be happy and you’re not!” wagging a finger at us as it were—berating us for not being joyful. I won’t speak for the other listeners, but I slinked out of worship, head low.
On the other hand, I have a pastor friend, who reserves cannonball Sunday— this Sunday after Easter, a day when historically you can shoot a cannon ball through church walls and not hit one darn soul—he reserves THIS Sunday for joke telling.
How does he do that? Well, it’s a congregational effort. Talk about unity!—which is, if you were listening closely, you know, is the subject of today’s scripture passages. People in the congregation submit their best jokes to my pastor friend over the course of the entire year. On cannonball Sunday, he reads them out loud. A good time is had by all! Good way to raise attendance, I’d say.Read More
Triumph. That’s what Easter is supposed to be about. It’s trumpets, and hallelujahs, maybe even drums—at least at one church I served, we had drums, big kettle drums. This passage in Mark, though? Well, it doesn’t come close to eliciting feelings of joy and exultation. The story here relates how three fearful women flee the empty tomb, disobeying the angel’s explicit instructions. What instructions? To tell the disciples that Jesus has risen. We’re on the edge of our (cushioned?) pew seats expecting resolution, and it doesn’t come. And that creates in us a dis-ease. Instead of a sounding trumpet, we hear sucked-in breath, instead of loud hallelujahs, it’s whispers, and instead of the boom, boom, boom of kettle drums it’s the sound of light, fleeing footsteps on gravel.
For that reason, preachers, often eschew Mark 16:1-8 at Easter—even though every third year in the lectionary cycle, we are supposed to follow the gospel of Mark to its end. If we DO stick with the gospel of Mark for our Easter scripture reading, we rely on those helpful add-ons. You saw the add-ons at the end of the gospel of Mark if you were reading the scripture along with me a few minutes ago. You saw the short, 5 -line add-on. It was not written by the author of Mark. We know that. The writing style is just too different. Someone other than that author wrote a second ending. It’s way more emotionally satisfying. The author relates that the women do as they are told. They run tell the disciples about the empty tomb. After that, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and then delivers his message to the ends of the earth. TA DA! That’s triumph.Read More
Owen Gray is a young man I have worked with in our Presbytery. We both served on the Public Policy and Witness Purpose Group. When I worked with him, 3 or 4 years ago, he was a student at Union Seminary. Now he’s graduated. He’s an associate pastor at a Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. He and his wife have a new baby girl.
Owen shot me an e-mail a few months back. He filled me in on his life, and then he added a BTW, “By the way, would you be willing to speak at a NEXT Church conference in Baltimore about your work on gun violence prevention? The topic of the workshop I am leading is grassroots organizing.”
So what is NEXT? It’s “A network of church leaders—members, ruling elders, youth leaders, pastors, seminarians and professors across the PCUSA who have a vision for the church as more diverse, more collaborative, and more hopeful.” (I’m taking that off NEXT’s web page). These dedicated Presbyterians meet annually. The NEXT meeting this year was to be in Baltimore. Owen wanted me to speak at that.Read More
In today’s passage from chapter 1 of Mark, we are right at the beginning of Jesus’ healing ministry. He has spent time in the wilderness, wrestling with the devil; he has called his first disciples, and now, beginning with Mark 1:29, we read that Jesus is preaching in the synagogue, maybe his first time ever preaching. During the service, a man with a demon interrupts him, and Jesus reveals that he has this extraordinary power—the power to heal.
My, people must have been surprised! And hopeful. If Jesus could cast out this one man’s demons, could he do it for others? And if he could cast out other peoples’ demons, too, could he also heal a person doubled over with back pain? Could he cure leprosy? Could he mend a withered hand? Maybe. Hope quickly diffuses throughout the gathering of worshipers and then beyond. We read that, “The news traveled fast all over Galilee.” After that first healing, when Jesus visits Peter’s house, hoards of people follow him. They line up at Peter’s front door—wanting, begging to be healed.Read More
In today’s sermon, I am going to be throwing at you a lot of Bible trivia. To get our brains thinking along those lines, I thought I’d start us off with some Bible trivia questions. You ready?
Trivia question number 1. What is the name of the disciple Jesus loved, as he is referred to in the gospel of John? Wink, wink.
Ok. Trivia question number 2. Who fit the battle of Jericho? (Ethan)
Trivia question number 3. Who is Melchizedek, whose name is mentioned in today’s scripture reading from Hebrews? I didn’t think so.
I didn’t know either until this week, Hey, do you expect me to know EVERYHING? Actually, after a week of research, I STILL don’t know much about this mysterious person. I am, though, a little further along in my understanding. At the beginning of this week, Melchizedek was a shadow, now he has an outline and there’s the suggestion, at least, of his flesh and bones.Read More
I had to reach, deep down into my heart to retrieve this true story. It’s from a time long, long ago, thirty years long ago, in a place far, far away—McLean, Virginia.
My youngest daughter, Paige, who married last year, was maybe four and a half years old. Christina, her friend, also four and half, lived just around the block. She was at our house for a playdate. Paige and Christina were sitting on the family room sofa. So have in your mind now, two little people. Their legs are outstretched in front of them, because, you know, their legs aren’t long enough to sit as grown ups do, with feet to the floor. Their legs are even too short to dangle.Read More
Covenant. That’s one of the themes of today’s passage. And actually it was the theme of last week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, if you have been following that. In last week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, God covenants to never again send a flood of the dimensions of that first flood, which as you know, wiped out almost everything on the planet. In this week’s Old Testament lectionary passage, God covenants with Abraham and Sarah that they will be fruitful and multiply and be forbearers of entire nations.
I use the word covenant a lot—since I officiate at a lot of weddings. When I officiate at a wedding, I ask the groom, “Knowing that God has created, ordered and blessed the covenant of marriage, is it your desire and intention to enter this covenant?“ After the groom says yes, and no one yet has said no, thank goodness! I ask the same of the bride, “is it YOUR desire and intention to enter this covenant?”Read More