Friday, October 30, 2009

Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

21 Pentecost B 09
October 25, 2009

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
1 Then Job answered the LORD: 2 "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 'Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.' 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
10 And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job's daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children's children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
1 I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. 2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. 3 O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together. 4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. 5 Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. 6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble. 7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. 8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all. 20 He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. 21 Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. 22 The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Hebrews 7:23-28
23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

Mark 10:46-52
46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" 49 Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." 52 Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

What Do You Want Jesus to Do for You?

I was reviewing some of my sermons from the last time, three years ago, that these lessons from our lectionary came around and I was remembering that sometime early in my ministry here in Deltaville, I said to you all that I was here for one reason. It’s right there in the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, in chapter 2. I am here to know Jesus among you.

Jesus, like every other ordinary human being, relates to each person and group that approaches him differently. This is one of the wonderful things about living people. You never really know a living person is going to do. It keeps things interesting. I never really know how Jesus is going to respond to people, what he’s going to say to them, what he will give them or won’t give them or can’t give them, or what he asks of them. We are unique among the religions of the world, because we believe we have a living God. A living God relates to living people, and that can be very unpredictable.

Jesus promised his disciples that whenever they gathered to remember him, he would be with them. I believe the resurrection is just that simple. It’s important to remember that Jesus never said that he would come to any individual who remembered him, but exclusively when more than one was gathered in his name.

We’re not here to remember Jesus’ laws. We’re not here to remember Jesus’ teaching. We’re not here to remember Jesus’ healing. We’re not here to remember Jesus’ death. We’re here to remember him. We do that by remembering the stories that shaped him and the stories about him and the stories about other people who saw him after he rose from the dead.

A word like interpretation doesn’t do justice really to what we do on Sunday morning. And it may be people are staying away from churches because so many churches reduce Sunday morning to something smaller, more bite-size. We get together to figure out the law of God, or we get together to celebrate how we all think alike, or we get together to enjoy getting together, or we get together to get castigated or affirmed or to get a little fuel for the coming week, or we get together to cope with the difficulties and challenges of our lives.

But what we’re really doing is participating in a miracle. On the first day of every week, Jesus comes out of the tomb and comes among his people and relates to them. On every Sunday morning, we get together and even though Jesus was crucified and died, we find that he is alive and accessible to us, and all we have to do to experience his living presence is to remember him.
And when we remember him he comes among us and he does all the unpredictable things real living people do. I never know really what he’s going to do.

The risen Jesus is in the process of saving me. I have a pretty good idea of what that salvation looks like and I even have a fairly good idea of how he is doing it. Of course, I’m only one person. I happen to be called by Jesus to fill a certain role in the midst of the church, and as I attempt to fulfill that role, Jesus saves me. I am aware also that through me, as I serve him, he seems to be saving others as well, not only here in Deltaville, but all over the world.

Just look at the stories we’ve heard this month from the tenth chapter of Mark. All of the stories are about Jesus meeting people and relating to people. But Jesus dealt with each group or person differently. He was on his way to Jerusalem, to confront people like the temple priests and the Roman governor. He clearly had an overall mission, a strategy he was following, a purpose. He even tried to let his disciples know what that purpose was, but they never seemed to get it.
Along the way, some people actually came looking for Jesus. Other people just happen to be there as he was passing through. We know from Mark’s overall story that Jesus was being talked about widely. News was spreading about him all over Israel. We know though that different people came to different conclusions about who he was and what he was doing. Some came looking for him, some just waited, hoping he might show up. Some hated him and were plotting to kill him.

If we remember Jesus when we come together, and he comes out of the tomb and encounters us, we can be pretty sure that the same kind of news will spread around the community here. We can be pretty sure that different people will come to different conclusions about who he is and what he’s doing. Some will come looking, some will hope he’s come to them, some will want him back in the tomb.

One of the things we remember by reading Mark’s chapter 10 is that Jesus did not give everyone who came to him what they asked him for, nor was he always successful in changing them. The Pharisees didn’t get the answer they were looking for. The rich man didn’t accept his offer. He told James and John that he didn’t have what they wanted from him. The people that were following Jesus often did the opposite of what he was trying to get them to do. They tried to keep the children from him, for example. So we can be sure that if Jesus comes out of the tomb and encounters us, some will not get the answers they’re looking for, some will not accept Jesus’ offer, some will ask for something Jesus doesn’t have to give, some who are his disciples will do exactly the opposite of what he’s asking of them.

In reading Mark’s chapter 10 this month, we remembered Jesus encountering theologians, religious experts, and we remember how he dealt with them. There are theologians and religious experts here in Deltaville, maybe even here in the congregation. If he comes out of the tomb, we can be pretty sure they’ll have some questions for him. His answer to them might not satisfy them, and they might even end up wanting him dead again.

We remembered Jesus encountering a rich but very ethical man, who asked Jesus about his offer of eternal life. Jesus loved him and told him what he needed to do, but the rich man was unable to accept what Jesus said. If Jesus comes out of the tomb here in Deltaville, he might very well encounter some rich, very ethical people. We remember he said that while it may be humanly impossible for a rich person to accept him, that nothing is impossible with God. Some might turn away, shocked and grieved. But anything is possible.

We remembered Jesus encountering people bringing children to him for blessing. We remember his disciples keeping them away from him, and Jesus correcting them, and using the opportunity to teach them about God’s kingdom. There are certainly people in Deltaville that might like to bring children to be blessed by Jesus, and there might very well be disciples who’d like to keep them away. They are, after all, a lot of trouble, children.

We remembered this month that two of Jesus’ followers came to Jesus looking for status and power over the other disciples, and we remembered that Jesus told them they didn’t really know what they were asking, and it seems obvious that they didn’t. His answer to them we ultimately no, basically because what they were asking wasn’t his to grant them. We can be pretty sure if Jesus comes out of the tomb here on Sunday mornings and encounters us, there might be those who are looking for status and recognition and power over the rest, that they might not even understand what they’re asking, and that they’ll find out such power and status and recognition is not in his possession to offer. Of course, they might also find that he has a way and a path to offer, whether they really understand it or not.

And today we remember a blind beggar who just happened to be sitting along the way Jesus was going. He had heard about Jesus and was apparently hoping Jesus might come by. He had come to a conclusion about Jesus, one that seems to have been different than the conclusions drawn by the Pharisees or the rich man or even the disciples themselves, who seem to think he should leave Jesus alone.

He calls Jesus “Son of David.” He is the only person in Mark’s gospel that called Jesus by this title. This simple title tells us many things. It tells us that he remembers Israel’s story. It tells us he knew that the Messiah was to be the son of David. It tells he knew that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s plan for Israel. And what he asked of the Messiah, the Son of David, is very simple. He asked for mercy.

Bartimaeus, and it is significant that we are told his name, asked for mercy. He saw himself as someone afflicted by God. Moreover, he saw himself as deserving to be afflicted by God. Once he had been able to see, and we don’t know what the nature of his wrongdoing was, or how his faith had failed, and maybe even he doesn’t know what he’d done or failed to do, but because he asks for mercy, we know that he understood his blindness as his rightful due.

We’re accustomed to thinking of sin as personal. But Bartimaeus, we don’t know for sure of course, might have thought of sin as something that affects groups, and he might have seen himself as a Jew, part of a group who had become unfaithful to their Judaism. Because part of the group had become unfaithful, other parts of the group became tainted or stained. It’s the nature of corruption, isn’t it? The disease spreads. Good cells go bad because they are infected by the bad cells next to them. But as I say, we don’t really know why Bartimaeus accepts his blindness as his due.

This is a very different approach from the approach of the Pharisees or the rich man or James and John.

And today we remember that Jesus called Bartimaeus. He called him and asked him the same question he asked of James and John. “What is it you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus doesn’t ask for power and he doesn’t ask to inherit eternal life and he doesn’t ask Jesus to solve a question of the law of Moses. He asked to be able to see again, without any sense of entitlement.

Jesus comes out of the tomb this morning. And we can be pretty sure there are people who once were able to see but now can’t, who simply aren’t able to go looking for Jesus, but are just waiting for him to come by. And we can be pretty sure there might even be disciples among us who want to keep Jesus from such people.

And we remember together this morning that Jesus granted Bartimaeus his request. And we can be pretty sure that as he comes among us this morning, he will grant the same request. He will answer the cry of a sinner with God’s mercy, and make that sinner whole.

And we remember this morning also that Bartimaeus threw off his beggar’s cloak, and followed Jesus on the way. And if he is coming out of his tomb among us this morning, there might just be someone who will do the same thing.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

20 Pentecost B 09
October 18, 2009

Job 38:1-7, 34-41
1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements--surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
34 "Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? 35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, 'Here we are'? 36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? 37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, 38 when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? 39 "Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 40 when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? 41 Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c
1 Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, 2 wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, 3 you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, 4 you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. 5 You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. 6 You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. 7 At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight. 8 They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys to the place that you appointed for them. 9 You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.
24 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Praise the LORD!

Hebrews 5:1-10
1 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you"; 6 as he says also in another place, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek." 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Mark 10:35-45
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." 36 And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" 37 And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." 38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" 39 They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

God’s Question

If you want to read one of the great sermons on this text from Mark this morning, I invite you to check out Martin Luther King’s sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” Just look it up on line if you’ve got the internet, and if you don’t I’d be happy to give you a copy.

You know, I was praying the other day, and I was lifting up my problems to Jesus and telling him all about them. I was lifting up other people’s problems and the church’s problems and the problems of the world. I lift up all these problems because I know that Jesus is our great high priest, and that’s the high priest’s job of course, to listen to our problems and relay them to God.
I was asking Jesus some of the big questions, as I sometimes do. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked prosper? Why, Jesus, are there so many different ideas of who you are and what you want? Why is there war and poverty? Why do our loved ones leave us? Why do people do such awful things in your name?

So anyway, there I am blabbing away to Jesus, and all of a sudden, Jesus said, “Excuse me?”

I was taken aback. I’m generally unused to be addressed by the high priest. I thought I’d misheard, so I just resumed reciting my list of difficulties.

And the voice came again, “Excuse me.”

Well, this time I heard it and shut up. “Yes?” I said.

“I’m glad you’re sharing all these problems with me,” Jesus said.

“Well, thanks,” I said.

“I’m happy to share your problems with God,” he said.

“Well, thank you, Jesus,” I said. “That’s very good of you.”

I thought I heard an exasperated sigh, but I might have imagined it.

And Jesus said, “I hear all these questions you have for God and I pass them on to God, but did you know that God also passes questions to me for you?”

And I said, “God has questions?”

And Jesus said, “God has lots of questions.”

And I said, “Well, I’m not sure I can answer questions coming from God.”

And Jesus said, “Well, that’s okay. That’s what I’m for. Part of my job is to ask you God’s questions in terms you can understand.”

And I said, “Well, go ahead. Shoot. I’ll do the best I can.”

And Jesus said, “Well, it seems you’d like God to do something about the situations and people you’re asking about. What God is wondering is, would you like to have his power to fix the things you think need fixing?”

And I said, “Oh, I don’t think so. I think I’d probably misuse power like that.”

And Jesus said, “Well, what if we threw in God’s wisdom along with God’s power, so that you’d have a good idea of how to use it?”

“Well,” I said, “that sounds better. That sounds pretty good in fact.”

To tell you the truth, I was already scheming and plotting, but I didn’t tell Jesus this. I thought about how important I’d become. I was thinking how many people would fear and respect me. I was thinking how many people would gather around and hear what I had to say. I was thinking how many people would love me.

And Jesus said, “Well, I can hook you up. I can fill you with the Spirit of God. You will be able to do miracles. You will be able to transform the world. You will have all the answers. How does that sound?”

And I said, “Well, Jesus, it sounds like a great burden, but if you think I’m worthy of it, I guess I can take it on.”

And I was thinking, woo-hoo, I’m going to be the boss of everybody!

And Jesus said, “But before I do, God has a few more questions for you.”

And I said, “I’m here and I’m ready.”

Jesus said, “You asked me to ask God why bad things happen to good people, and God asked me to ask you a question of his own.”

I said, “I’m your humble servant and I will do my best.”

And Jesus said, “Why do good people crucify God?”

I wasn’t sure what to say, and so Jesus went on.

He said, “Why do good people all over the world rob and murder and oppress the image of God? Why do good people distrust God when all around them creation sings in glorious harmony and perfection? Why do good people hate God and reject his rule, when our lives, our food, the sunlight and the rain are all his free gift? Why do people fear death, when life clearly goes on and on, when it is so obvious that nothing is ever lost or wasted? Why do people steal other people’s resources when there’s more than enough provided by God for everyone? Why do people feel covetous when they see someone else who appears to have more than they, even though they have all they need? Why do good people neglect the grieving, abandon the imprisoned, ignore the poor? Why do good people who are strong take advantage of good people who are weak?”

And I said, “I don’t know, Jesus.”

And I was thinking, who knew? Who knew that while we are asking God to have compassion for us, that he might also be asking us to have compassion for him.

And Jesus asked me, “Are you able to receive God’s Spirit? Are you able to receive God’s perspective and see with his eyes? Are you ready to receive God’s heart and feel what he feels? Are you able to receive God’s ears and hear what he hears? Are you able to receive God’s word and say what God wants said? Are you able to receive God’s responsibility and carry out what God wants to be done?

Are you ready to accept the whole of creation as your care?”

“Are you able,” he asked me, “to be baptized with the baptism I was baptized with, and to drink the cup I drank?”

It was quite a question.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

19 Pentecost B 09
October 11, 2009

Job 23: 1-9, 16-17
1 Then Job answered: 2 "Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. 3 Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! 4 I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. 6 Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. 7 There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. 8 "If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; 9 on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; 17 If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!

Psalm 22:1-16
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. 6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; 8 "Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver-- let him rescue the one in whom he delights!" 9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast. 10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. 11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. 12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

Hebrews 4:12-16
12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Mark 10:17-31
17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" 20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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." 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." 28 Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." 29 Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

How Far?

How long is your journey to your greatness?

What do you think?

How long is our journey to eternal life? How long is our journey to being able to do great deeds of divine power? How long is our journey to becoming children of the light? How far is it between where we are now and the kingdom of God? Who will be the first to get there? Who will be the last?

Don’t ask me. I’m just a human being like you. My opinion doesn’t amount to much. So how do we get this question answered?

One way would be for me to express my opinion and find out how many people agree with me. If you have different opinion, you can express yours and see how many people agree with you. Then we can vote. Whoever gets the most votes wins. But somehow this doesn’t seem to work for such a question.

Some say that the distance is the length of your life, whatever that is. Homer Simpson had a conversation with God on one of the episodes of the Simpsons. It was about a whole lot of things but at the end of the conversation, Homer said, “By the way God, you know how long I’m going to live, don’t you?” And God said, “Sure.” And Homer said, “Well, can you tell me how long I’m going to live?” And God said, “You’ll find that out when you die.” And Homer said, “I can’t wait that long.” And God said, “You can’t wait two weeks?”

So some have the opinion that the kingdom of God is not here in the world, it’s inaccessible to the living. The only gate into the kingdom of God is death. So we don’t really know the distance, we just have to wait. And while we’re waiting, these folks believe, we keep our noses clean morality-wise, so that when we die and we ascend to heaven’s gate we can present our record. If that record passes muster, we get in. And that’s when we find our greatness at the throne of God. Then and only then will we finally meet Jesus and get all our questions answered.

Others think that the kingdom is here on earth, that while you are living, you can decide to receive it, to enter it, to become a part of it. You can turn away from the world you live in and you can leave it, and you can make a journey during your lifetime, and while you are still living in the world, you can receive the eternal life of God, become a citizen of his kingdom, his holy nation, his royal priesthood. You can become like Jesus himself, filled with the Holy Spirit, doing great deeds of power, healing, teaching, prophecying. You can become the living presence of God himself in the world. You can become great while you are in the world.

So, we can take a vote. We can schedule a time when we all get together and the person with the one opinion can go out and campaign and get a bunch of people that agree with him, and the person who has the different opinion can go out and campaign and get a bunch of people that agree with him, and then we’ll get back together and whoever has the most votes is right.

But we do have a great high priest who has ascended above the angels to sit at the right hand of God. If you’d like, we can go to see him, and we can ask him. Each one of us can go before his throne and ask him the question. How far, Jesus? How far do I have to go to inherit eternal life? How far do I have to go to my greatness?

How do we do this? Well, Jesus himself, while he was running around on the planet, told us how. He used the word “remembrance.” By getting together and remembering what Jesus did and said two thousand years ago, and by remembering the scriptures he used as his authority, we can come into his presence, come before his throne, ask him whatever we want. And because we have all already agreed that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God and the Savior of the world, we have already agreed that his way is the right way, we have already agreed that whatever his answer is, that’s the right answer.

So we can go to Jesus right now. We don’t have to listen to the preacher’s opinions. We don’t have to have a vote. We can go by remembering together a story of Jesus’ life and teaching. We can bypass human opinion, and we can go to our agreed-upon authority figure.

Would you like to do that? Okay, well, before we go before the throne of glory, I have a warning I want to give to all of us, including myself. The thing about Jesus that makes him worthy of sitting on that throne is that he loves everyone who comes to him just the way they are.
I’m going to say that again, Jesus, when you meet him, will love you just the way you are.
Do you still want to go? Are you a little nervous? Well, that’s okay, because we’re all going together.

17 As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up
and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit
eternal life?" 18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is
good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder;
You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false
witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" 20 He said
to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 21 Jesus, looking
at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give
the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow
me." 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he
had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the
kingdom of God! 25 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." 26 They
were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?"
27 Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not
for God; for God all things are possible."

28 Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed
you." 29 Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house
or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake
and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold
now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields,
with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are
first will be last, and the last will be first."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. You see, I told you, I warned you, didn’t I? I told you that Jesus would love you just the way you are. He alone of all authorities in heaven and earth knows you just the way you are, and loves you just the way you are.

He loved the rich man because it was obvious that the rich man loved God and wanted to enter the kingdom, and had indeed made a start by coming to Jesus to meet him, just as we are doing right now by remembering this story. And Jesus looked at him and loved him, just the way he was. He loved the rich man as a person longing to enter the kingdom of God who was also quite obviously selfish and greedy.

Did you hear Jesus’ grief as he watched the rich man staggering away in shock and grief? He saw in the greatness in the rich man, he saw his amazing potential, he saw what that rich man could be in the household of God. Jesus had a room already for him, and he could see that rich man living in that room, rejoicing in eternal life, full of the Spirit and the power of salvation. And Jesus knew exactly how far that rich man would have to travel to get there, and because Jesus loved him, he told him the truth.

And the rich man couldn’t accept it.

The word of God is living and active, a double-edged sword. Jesus loves me just the way I really am, behind my idea of myself, behind all my pretences, beyond all my rationalizations and self-justifications, with all the weakness I don’t think I have, with all the bad motives I deny are in me. He loves me where I am, far from his kingdom, and he loves me enough to tell me to my face just how far I have to go.

Jesus loves me just the way I really am, and meeting him means facing the way I really am.

We have come before Jesus, right before his throne, and we have asked him, “How far are we from the kingdom? How far are we from our greatness?” And he is looking at us, and he is loving us just the way we really are. Look into his eyes and ask him, “How far do I really have to go?” I can’t tell you. No one else in this church can tell you. But he can tell you. He is looking in your eyes and he can see the saint you are meant to be, and he is willing to tell you how far you must go to become that saint. Do you really want to know? Can you accept the truth?

The disciples standing around watching this exchange and observing Jesus’ frustration and grief seem to want to comfort him. “Well, Jesus, we’ve done what you asked the rich man to do, haven’t we?” And Jesus doesn’t dispute it. Of course, we need to remember that those men were all of them caught up in miserable and unhappy lives when Jesus met them. The world they were living in was for them a difficult and hopeless existence. They were like Job or the psalmist today, they were already crying out to God, desperate for his appearance, desperate for his return. The distance between where they started and the kingdom of God was therefore rather short. For this reason, Jesus says, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

How far to my greatness, Jesus? How far to my sainthood? We ask and Jesus looks at us and loves us just the way we really are. Listen. You can hear his answer.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

18 Pentecost B 09
October 4, 2009

Job 1:1, 2:1-10
1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
1 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. 2 The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." 3 The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason." 4 Then Satan answered the LORD, "Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face." 6 The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life." 7 So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9 Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die." 10 But he said to her, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Psalm 26
1 Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. 2 Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind. 3 For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you. 4 I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; 5 I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. 6 I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O LORD, 7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds. 8 O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides. 9 Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the bloodthirsty, 10 those in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes. 11 But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. 12 My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the LORD.

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. 6 But someone has testified somewhere, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? 7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, 8 subjecting all things under their feet." Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, 9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."

Mark 10:2-16
2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." 5 But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.


I hate tests.

I spent 20 years in school and every test I took was harder than the last one.

During my childhood, I remember the anxiety of bringing home my report card. In my home, a “C” was not acceptable, and I would be punished for getting one. “B’s” were worthy of no particular praise or admonishment; they were the least that was expected. Only” A’s” yielded parental approval and possible reward. For a “D” or lower, execution was the only option.

And so tests were the bane of my existence. Tests and papers and exams. I was always sure I wasn’t ready, always sure that I would fail, always thinking about the death sentence on the other side of my failure. I would often get physically sick in anticipation of a test.

It didn’t seem to matter that I usually did fine. I could never remember that yes, I’d been terrified the last time, sure of the end of my life, and not only had I gotten through it, but I usually got a passable grade. I graduated seminary at the top of my class, with honors. But I have never gotten over my horror of tests.

A number of us who are doing Discovering the Bible found a quiz on line that was given to evangelical freshmen at an evangelical college on basic bible facts. These kids had all been raised going to Sunday School every Sunday in so-called “Bible-teaching” churches. The professor reports that the average grade was 50. In my home, that grade would have resulted in my swift execution. I’m glad to say the average grade for those of our Discovering the Bible class who took the quiz was about 75, not including my own grade.

God’s tests, in any event, have a different focus, aim at different objectives, than the tests of our parents or teachers. God periodically chooses to test individuals, congregations, and even the whole church on earth. These tests are not the usual suffering that comes to everyone sooner or later. These tests seem particularly aimed at our willingness to keep to our faithfulness to God when a challenge to that faithfulness appears, when good reasons are presented as to why such faithfulness is undeserved. However, like the tests we get as children, the more we pass, the better we do, the farther down the road we go, the harder those tests get.

The Pharisees test Jesus on the subject of divorce. I’m not sure why. It doesn’t say. Much earlier in the gospel Jesus challenges notions of family when he redefines it as “those who do the will of my Father,” so perhaps they thought he could be tricked into undermining Jewish notions of family. Perhaps the reason was actually more in the spirit of a friendly competitive game. Maybe the Pharisees were simply challenging Jesus to grow, by laying a complex question before him.

But Jesus, as he so often does, changes the playing field. The Pharisees are talking about the world as it is. Jesus talks about the world as it should be, as he is in fact about the business of making it. Jesus is laying the pathway to the salvation of the world, the restoration of paradise, and so it is paradise that he talks about and not the world as it is.

The Pharisees were masters of the law. They knew the law of God inside out. Ask them anything. What is permitted? They know. What is not permitted? They know. In this case the law permitted a man to divorce his wife. It did not permit a wife to divorce her husband. Furthermore, a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all. She burned the eggs. Bad hair. Anything. It didn’t matter what he did to his wife, though. No matter how badly he treated her, she had no way to get out. This was all permitted by the law. You can look it up.

The Pharisees knew exactly how to get along in the world. Follow the law and things go well. Don’t follow it and things will go badly. It follows that if things go well, you must be following the law, and if you are doing poorly, well, you must not be following the law.

Job knew exactly how to get along in the world, too. He followed God’s law, pretty much perfectly. But the prosecuting attorney, in Hebrew, hasatan, or “the satan,” thinks he can expose Job’s motives. Everyone who reads Job it seems wants to say that the question of the book is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But behind that question, and the real reason such a question even matters, is “Why is God worthy of our faithfulness?” The satan proposes a test. What if Job, who had followed the law perfectly, underwent great suffering? This would expose his heart’s true feelings about God. The satan is betting Job really doesn’t love God or even want to do God’s will, but only fulfills the law for the sake of his own success. God is betting Job’s motives are pure.

It seems capricious of God to make such a wager, to put this poor man through such terrible things. We need to remember that this scene is a cosmic image, a way of talking about something that is really nearly impossible to talk about.

There’s a show on TV called "Supernanny." Anybody seen it? It’s about parents that have lost control of their children and call on this British woman, the Supernanny, to come to their rescue. Supernanny comes into the situation and almost always the problem is not enough rules, not enough bad consequences for bad behavior. She gets the chore list up on the refrigerator, finds a place for the time-out chair, cunningly figures out what the children really value so as to threaten its removal if they’re naughty. She then lays out the law and puts the whole family to the test. Will the parents stick to the plan? Will the plan work? Of course, it always does. The show always ends with the well-behaved children happily gathered with their parents, shouting, “Thank you, Supernanny!”

The law of God is like Supernanny. It’s necessary because the children are out of control, because they are in complete rebellion, because they have no real interest in pleasing or obeying their parents. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is that Moses wrote the law because of their hardness of heart. The law is only necessary because we don’t want to do it. As long as we don’t want to do it, we need that Supernanny, the law.

But in the world that Jesus is preparing us for, there will be no further need of Supernanny or for the old satan, because the world he is preparing us for is paradise restored. In such a world, laws about divorce will not be necessary. This is the amazing and wonderful and magnificent power of our high priest, Jesus, the pioneer of salvation.

Anyone who has divorced has been to hell and has suffered there in agony, along with their whole family. There are plenty of jokes about this. “Why get married? I’ll just find a woman I don’t like and give her a house.” I have a friend who’s about 30 and hasn’t gotten married yet. When people ask him why, he says, “I think I’ll sit the first one out.”

But the reality of divorce is truly horrible. It’s horrible because in the midst of it, we are most keenly aware of how far from paradise we are. It’s in the midst of such failure that we deeply understand God’s vision of two becoming one flesh, because we feel like we are being ripped apart.

Jesus is not condemning us to hell. He is simply describing the reality of the world as it is, a world under the rule of law, a world requiring a Supernanny to punish our transgressions.
In contrast to this, Jesus admonishes his disciples to allow the children to come to him, because, he says, “to such as these the kingdom of God belongs. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What does he mean by this?

My father was gone before I can remember. Some of you know that I was adopted twice; the father I’m referring to is my legal father, the second father (or perhaps the third if you include my biological dad). I haven’t seen him in years. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. When I was a kid I thought he was my biological father. I don’t know why. I think my mother explained adoption to me, but I don’t think I got it.

Anyway he was gone from before I can remember. All through the years I was growing up, he rarely visited. He would sometimes promise a visit, like during Christmas or something, and Mom would get the house ready for him, and we’d buy presents for him. The day he was supposed to arrive, we’d be waiting with excitement and anticipation, and he wouldn’t show up. We’d talk about it. We’d go back and forth talking about how his job was so demanding or about how his car might have broken down.

We might get a call, maybe that night or the next day, with the story about why he couldn’t make it. And I’d accept the reason pretty much without question. He’d feel bad about not being there, and I’d do my best to make him feel better.

He’d send checks to help out and they’d bounce.

My father was a charming man. He had a beautiful smile and sparkling blue eyes. Whenever he did manage to visit, my whole world lit up. If he called, my mom would put me on the phone with him and I’d talk with him sometimes for hours. He had a slow West Virginia drawl that I could listen to forever. One of our favorite things to do was to play chess. He was a very capable chess player and I almost never won. Somehow, though, that seemed just fine to me.

He had two daughters by a previous marriage with whom I lost touch long ago when the marriage had fallen apart. After college, while I was working as an actor in Pittsburgh, by a strange sequence of events, I connected with them. We got together and caught up with everything that had happened in our lives. At one point we all fell silent and sat together a moment, and then my younger step-sister said, “What do you think about having such a jerk for a father?” Of course, she didn’t use the word “jerk.”

The question utterly shocked me. Such a thought had never once entered my head. I had spent a large part of my life deeply considering the many reasons he had done the things he did, all based on the assumption, which I never once doubted, that my father truly loved me, and that I loved him.

To this day, if he called, I would do anything for him.

My love for him has passed every test. Of course, today I know that he was, and continues to be, unworthy of the love I have for him. My father is a human being and not God, and God certainly doesn't expect us to tolerate those who mistreat us. My point is that love is always a gift, both in the heart of the one who loves and to the one who is beloved. If love must be earned, it is not love. Children know this, perhaps better than we.

“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

17 Pentecost B 09
September 27, 2009

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
1 So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." 3 Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me--that is my petition--and the lives of my people--that is my request. 4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" 6 Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
9 Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." 10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.
20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.

Psalm 124
1 If it had not been the LORD who was on our side --let Israel now say-- 2 if it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, 3 then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; 4 then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; 5 then over us would have gone the raging waters. 6 Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth. 7 We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. 8 Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

James 5:13-20
13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. 19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Mark 9:38-50
38 John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." 39 But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 "For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."

Remember Who You Are

There’s a large Russian family that came to our area some ten or fifteen years ago as refugees from the Bosnian situation, a big family of brothers and their wives and children. The children were small then, and off they went to American public schools. Now, fifteen years later, those children are grown-ups. I serve with some of them on the fire department, young men with names like Sergei and Igor and Vasily who now wear jeans, chew tobacco, drive pick-ups, say “y’all” and hunt. These boys eagerly assimilated and have embraced pretty much everything about U.S. culture.

Of course, they still speak Russian with their parents, whom I haven’t met yet. The parents, having grown up overseas, have perhaps a more difficult time assimilating.

Southern culture is slow-paced, Helen Ray was telling me yesterday, so that when she went north to live with her Yankee husband and his mother, she found that her mother-in-law was always very impatient with her, because Yankee culture is fast-paced. Her mother-in-law was in effect telling her, “Assimilate. Give up being Southern and become a Yankee.”

How you talk, what you say, how fast or slow you do things, what is a priority and what isn’t, who’s important and who isn’t, what’s beautiful and what’s ugly, what kinds of things we do and what kinds of things we don’t do, these are the things of culture.

Lewis McPherren tells a lovely story about his mother. When Lewis was a little boy, every time he left the house, his mother’s parting words were “Remember who you are.” A culture, any culture, seeks to define for you who you are, and it is tremendously powerful.

Lewis’ mother was doing the very important work of training her child to be alert to the many ways the culture he lived in would try to distort him. She was well aware that every time he went out the door of her home, the world would be telling him, “Assimilate. Stop being who you are and be what we are.”

The Book of Esther begins by telling the horrifying story of the Esther’s predecessor being executed for standing up to the king. So, later in the story, when Esther’s people are in danger of being liquidated because of their refusal to stop being Jews and start being Persians, there is the very real danger that if Esther remembered who she was and stood up for her people by trying to defend them, she would meet her predecessor’s fate. But Esther, amazingly and courageously, nevertheless remembered who she was.

In our American culture, how do Christians remember who they are?

Some have simply merged the two identities. For them, to be American is to be Christian. American politics, American business, and American culture is the defining identity of the word “Christian.” To be Christian is to be for democracy, baseball and apple pie. For them, they have not stopped being Christian to start being Americans; they see no difference between the two. Quite the contrary, this group regards non-Christians as fundamentally un-American.

On the other side of the question, we find the Amish, who take the biblical injunction “Be ye separate” very, very seriously. For them, consumerism, modernism, capitalism and all the trappings thereof, including the English language, are to be wholly rejected. They live in communal groups, sharing everything, and order their daily lives through their understanding of scripture. They are in essence a monastic community that happens to affirm family life.

In between the Christian-as-Americans and the Christians-as-monks, we have all kinds of permutations.

Some would say the difference is between public and private. Christian culture has no bearing, they say, on public matters: politics or business. It has only to do with personal choices and family life. Thus, the board of a Christian church is not to be concerned with spiritual matters, but only the business of budgets and bricks and mortar, and the business of budgets and bricks and mortar don’t come under the heading “spiritual.” In this view, Jesus has nothing to say about the affairs of the nation nor about the conduct of business.

Still others would eject Jesus from public affairs, but would advocate God’s involvement in them. The distinction made here is that God’s law should be in effect in public life, while the gospel of Jesus, the message of forgiveness and mercy, only pertains in private life. These Christians lobby the Supreme Court to bring the justice system in line with God’s law, but would never dream of bringing Jesus’ gospel of mercy and grace there.

Others would say there is a greater difference. They would say that the community of the church is governed and led by the Holy Spirit of God, calling, justifying, and sanctifying a community for the purpose of healing the world. Anyone who comes within the body of Christ with some other agenda stains it.

Jesus uses the concept of “salt.”

Don Leyden, a professor of chemistry, knows that salt has some very peculiar properties that make it essential to life. What’s unique about salt is that, used in high quantities to preserve foods, it actually keeps life from developing, the life of sickness-making bacteria. In small quantities, when added to food, it brings out the flavor of the food, along with a hint of the saltiness, and we call this flavor sensation “savor.”

In Jesus’ time, salt was very, very expensive first of all because it was so useful and in demand and secondly because harvesting it was very, very difficult. Roman soldiers were often paid in salt, which could be used like money in trading.

When Jesus speaks about the relation of God’s people to the various cultures in which they find themselves, he describes the people, the community, as “salt.” On the one hand, salt is of no use if it isn’t pure, and ancient peoples understood that the making of pure salt was a very difficult and labor-intensive effort. It seems that Jesus is saying that the purity of God’s people is essential, and that this purity is not an easy thing to attain or to maintain. It involves serious discipline and the hardest kind of work.

On the other hand, the thing that makes pure salt so useful is the way is the healing power that disperses in any medium to which it is added, the way it enhances flavor, preserves what is good, and restrains what is bad.

Esther and her people maintain their purity, though it requires great effort. They work very hard to remember who they are even as they are dispersed into a different culture. From a position of weakness, Esther manages to bring about great justice and simultaneously to resist great evil. She and her people both bring out the goodness in the Persians and at the same time resists the evil growing within them. While God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, it is understood that he is there, precisely in the purity of his people. Esther and her people are a great example of the community as “salt.”

When the disciples want to exclude exorcists using Jesus’ name without Jesus’ permission, Jesus turns the table on them. Those who are “outside” the group, if they are not against Jesus, are to be considered with him. Purity is not defined as it is in the world around, by the authority of a particular man or any other human idea or system. It’s defined by the obvious presence of the Holy Spirit, doing real deeds of healing, sanity-giving power.

It is not easy to receive the Holy Spirit. It requires quite a process, quite a lot of serious effort, very much like the ancient process of making or mining salt. It’s no surprise that the metaphor for the hardest kind of labor was “going to the salt mines.”

The effect God is seeking to have in the world is the kind of effect salt has: humbly dispersing throughout with healing power, preserving the good and restraining the bad. Jesus is saying anyone who is achieving such things is with us, and anyone who is among us who seeks to undermine that mission, to make the body of Christ stumble, is the member who should be cut off, no matter what the cost to the community, no matter how powerful or important the member might be. If your eye causes your body to stumble, tear it out. Better to enter the kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into the burn-pile whole.

Did you ever think that Jesus might not simply judge individuals, but whole congregations, whole denominations? It is of course, not up to us to make those kinds of decisions. Ours is only to preach the word as purely and as truthfully as we can and allow him to make the call.

Church, remember who you are.