October 7, 2018

Pentecost 20   October 7, 2018  Psalm 8, Isaiah 8:16-18, Hebrews 1:1-4,2:5-13, Mark 10:13-16          As a little child ************************************************************* “Let the children come to me,” Jesus says. “For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these…. (and…) Unless you receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives, you’ll never get in.” And as Hebrews tells us – Jesus, Son of God, is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters – since we share the same Father in heaven… And as Hebrews also reminds us – Christ is the very image of God – and through our relationship with Christ and God the Father we too carry the image of God… So we know intuitively, at least kind of sort of… what Jesus is talking about here… Which is probably why… even at a very early age… I was able to figure out… Peter Pan got it right. It’s a good thing to never grow up. As a little child I knew… I certainly did not want to grow up. It wasn’t hard to figure out – kids have all the advantage over grown ups, with all their worries and hurries… Why go there? And by the time I hit adolescence I was all the more convinced adults were doing life all wrong. I wanted nothing to do with grown up lifestyles. Adults “know” too much. Reason too reasonably… Or think they’re being so very reasonable… even when we’re obviously sometimes not…. not that my adolescent self wasn’t all the while starting down that same grown up road… As, I suppose, with most children, by the end of adolescence and into my early twenties, all my best-laid-plans to stay forever young went off the track… And I began to think it was time to be an adult and grow up. Hey, I even thought I was a grown up, already… I wish I could say this was just a phase I was going through… I wish I could say I’ve always managed to keep my inner child alive, alert, attentive to the ways of God and God’s kingdom. I wish… but that’s not the way it’s actually been… Still, thanks God, there are times when I do feel like I’m not far from the kingdom – like when I’m fishing, singing or just feeling good in God’s good creation… Or – when I’m here in church worshiping and singing to God with you… Or – when I’m passing pumpkins, along with 105 other people – unloading our annual truckload of pumpkins, making a sea of bright orange with nice contrasting tints of green and white… Doing for others, in the company of others doing the same… Young and old, laughing, smiling, sharing stories… strangers and friends… Crossing over that invisible border… into the kingdom of God… No one to stop us at the border… Because we’re doing it all as little children… The way Jesus said to do… *** Psalm 8, our psalm this morning, reminds us – out of the mouths of babes and infants God has established a defense against God’s foes – a sure defense that causes God’s enemies to hush and keep quiet… The voices of children can, when we pause to listen for God’s Spirit, cause us to hush from bickering,...

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September 30, 2018

Pentecost 19 September 30, 2018   (Psalm 124, Numbers 11:24-29, James 5:10-11, 13-20)   Mark 9:38-40 ************************************************************ Disciples report back to Jesus, saying ‘we ran into this guy casting out demons who we didn’t know – and we told him to cease and desist, because he’s not following us.’ But Jesus says ‘nobody who does what I’m doing in my name will be able soon to speak a word against me’ and – ‘anyone who’s not against us is for us.’ Disciples want exclusive rights to the Messiah… But Jesus is inclusive. Like Moses, who we’ve heard today, when assistants try to get him to shut down a pair of unauthorized prophets, saying to Moses, ‘Make them stop” – thinking the gift of prophesy ought to be restricted just to Moses and elders closest to him. But Moses says ‘I wish all God’s people would prophesy… and be filled with God’s Spirit…’ And so, also – Jesus hopes his disciples remember Moses… But disciples, once again, don’t seem to remember the scriptures of old, or understand Jesus in the present day. As John, son of Zebedee, implicitly speaking for all the disciples, says, ‘Teacher, we saw a non-franchise exorcist casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he’s not following us.’ Not following us, notice, John says – rather than ‘not following you – Jesus.’ But Jesus doubles down on grace again, saying “whoever gives you even a cup of water because you carry my name won’t lose their reward…” Which sounds like setting the bar mighty low. You mean – all we need to do to receive a blessing is to give a cup of water to a follower of Jesus? Shucks, I’ve even done that… more than once… But of course this is not the only thing Jesus says today… And whenever Jesus seems to be setting the blessings-bar low… Wait a minute. Like a good track and field coach, when we make a good entry-level grade school high-jump – bar set three or four feet off the ground… Expect coach Jesus to raise the bar of blessing… a little higher… *** We don’t know how much time if any has gone by between our first paragraph in Mark’s gospel today and the second… But – as we read on we’re reminded –  when Jesus says “whoever isn’t against us is for us” – he says this in a particular context. He’s talking about someone casting out demons in his name. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus says “Whoever’s not with me is against me, and whoever doesn’t gather with me scatters.” The context then (in Matthew ch 12 and Luke ch 11) is religious leaders accusing him of being demon-possessed… Scattering flocks Jesus is trying to gather to God. In that context – whoever isn’t for Jesus – is against him… In yet another context (near the end of the sermon on the mount in Mathew ch 7) Jesus says ‘many will come to me saying ‘Lord, didn’t we prophesy and cast out demons and do deeds of power in your name?’ And I’ll have to say ‘I never knew you, get away from me, you evil doers…’ In end-of-the-age-judgement context, Jesus says, what we say will be measured against what we’ve done, and...

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September 23, 2018

Pentecost 18   September 23, 2018     Psalm 1, Proverbs 3:27-35, James 4:1-10, Mark 9:30-37          Afraid to ask? ************************************************************ The disciples are walking with Jesus in their home province of Galilee. Jesus is trying to avoid all public appearances now, as he’s teaching disciples in private how he’s going to be betrayed and killed and then rise from the dead. And as usual, his disciples don’t understand what he’s saying. (They didn’t understand last week. They won’t understand next week.) Not understanding is the pattern we see repeating again and again in the gospel… A pattern that appears all the more troubling now, though – as we hear they not only don’t understand, but – are afraid to ask. Maybe these disciples have grown so discouraged and dismayed by their failure to understand – and by Jesus’ frequent correcting of them – that now they’re afraid to ask questions… Except – if this was actually the case – why do we hear now that they are arguing with each other – about which of them is the greatest? As Israelites brought up and trained in the scriptures from birth, these disciples have got to be familiar with the word we’re hearing in Proverbs today, about God showing favor to the humble. They must remember how scripture calls Moses, our national hero and greatest of human leaders up to now, “the humblest of men.” They must remember how often the bible returns again and again in the psalms, the proverbs, the prophets – to the theme of the humble being exalted while the proud are brought low. A theme the apostle James recycles from Proverbs and underscores in his letter today. The disciples have got to know – promoting themselves as the greatest is completely contrary to all biblical teaching… The disciples know they’re doing the wrong thing. They’re clearly embarrassed when Jesus calls them out and asks what they were arguing about. But – maybe they actually do understand, at least subliminally– just enough of what Jesus is teaching – and where he’s going – so that they are actually being pretty deliberate now – in their not understanding… Maybe their boasting to each other about their relative spiritual greatness is their indirect backdoor way of trying to change the subject and avoid anything related to what Jesus was talking about last week, and again, today –  about crucifixion – and taking up our cross  – and following….The bible does tell us – there’s often an element of deliberate hardness of hearing when we humans choose to not understand… And looking in the rearview mirror at my own life – and looking around at the wider culture – it’s pretty clear not all of us humans have entirely kicked the habit… of arguing about who is the greatest… Many still engage in who among us is the greatest competitions – in sports – politics – the arts – religion. Now when this all happens with mutual respect and civility – and it’s not about who is the greatest, but about who can best serve the common good in a particular situation – a certain amount of competition is probably healthy; even a good thing… But too often competition turns into “conflicts and disputes among us” due to “cravings at war within...

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September 16, 2018

Pentecost 17   September 16, 2018   Psalm 19, Isaiah 50:4-8a, James 3:1-18, Mark 8:27-35 ************************************************************ Jesus asks his followers “who do people say I am?” Disciples tell him what they’re hearing on the street. So – what would we say today – if Jesus were to ask us?  I’m guessing none of us know anyone who’s still saying Jesus might be John the Baptist or Elijah back from the dead. But I’m guessing we probably do know someone (or at least know of some people) who say “Jesus is a great religious teacher and leader, but – ” And we may know also of others who say “He’s a great prophet, but… ” And still others who think “He is a great manifestation of the divine…” (Like Krishna or Buddha.) And when Jesus asks “But who do you say I am?” probably we can go with Peter, and say“You are the Messiah – The Christ.” (Messiah – Christ, same word in Hebrew and Greek, meaning anointed, as in anointed King.) And now we can also say what his first disciples didn’t know yet – You’re the Son of God, our Savior. Though, even if we’re pretty familiar with the Jesus Story, we may still be wondering why Jesus tells disciples to keep quiet now – and not say anything about who he is – just as they’re finally starting to actually get who he is… And yes, he is the Messiah, the Christ. And… If we remember the story, we know where Jesus is taking the conversation…As he tells us now he must go through suffering and rejection and be put to death, before rising from the dead. We anticipate Peter trying to talk Jesus out of this…And Jesus rebuking Peter, saying “get behind me Satan, you’re thinking like the world not like God.” We may also remember the gospel story makes a sharp turn here, toward the cross – as Jesus tells us where he’s heading, and tells us we also need to take up our cross and follow him… Here’s where I sometimes wish, along with Peter – that Jesus had given us an easier path to walk… Like Peter, I too have raised objections to the cross and tried to reason with Jesus: Lord, do you really have to submit to torture and death? Isn’t there a better way? Meaning, also, I suppose – isn’t there an easier route to heaven for me and mine… than taking up our cross and following you? *** But…No… There really isn’t any easier route, Jesus says. If there was, don’t you think I’d tell you and take it myself? (Don’t you remember how I prayed in the garden, “Father, if possible take this cup from me?”) If there was any easier, better road, don’t we think Jesus – who loves us better than we can imagine – would take us on it? But there is no other better way, Jesus says…(And I’ve tried looking at second opinions… But on closer inspection all the second opinions still look worse than second best…) So I’m still practicing learning the truth of our Thought for the Week from Philip Yancey – still learning how faith often means trusting in advance – what only makes sense… seen in reverse. And with the advantage of...

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September 9, 2018

Pentecost 16  September 9, 2018  Psalm 146, Isaiah 35:4-7, James 2:1-10, Mark 7:31-37   Faith at work ************************************************************* Jesus comes into town and people bring a man to him who can neither hear nor speak, begging for some hands-on-help. Jesus takes him aside – puts his fingers in the man’s ears – spits and touches his tongue – says Eph-phatha – be opened – (the word sounds maybe like ears coming un-plugged). Now the man hears – speaks – and can be understood.  All in a day’s work for Jesus – who does this everyday. At least – up to now in Mark’s gospel that’s how it seems. Crowds follow Jesus everywhere, seeking healing. Jesus teaches them about the kingdom of God, and demonstrates God’s power at work in the healing he does. Yet again and again people really don’t hear Jesus. The prophet Isaiah foretold long ago – the ears of the deaf shall be opened, the speechless will sing for joy. Now Jesus makes it happen. Yet more than once we hear Jesus say “let anyone with ears to hear listen!” He also asks rhetorically “Do you have ears, yet fail to hear?” Half a dozen times we’re told his followers hear but don’t understand. Even his closest disciples don’t really hear Jesus. And as in John’s gospel, where every miracle is called a sign, and the sign always points to something more than the immediate miracle, so too here, Jesus is doing work that goes a lot deeper than ear and tongue surgery today. And I can relate. Too often I only kind-of-sort-of-hear what Jesus says… I may be able to repeat back some of what he says… But until I’m hearing well enough to be doing what he says, Jesus and James both say – I’m really not hearing well at all. As James says – hearing the word of God without doing what God’s word says to do – isn’t really believing at all. **** Last week we were reading from the Song of Songs, a book that almost didn’t make it into the Old Testament part of the bible, mostly because it makes no direct mention of God, prayer, worship, or faith. The letter of James that we’re reading this week was one of the last books to be accepted into the New Testament – even though James, the brother of Jesus and the main leader of the Jerusalem church after Jesus is crucified does mention God, Christ, prayer, and faith, straightforwardly – and even though James restates much of the content of his brother Jesus’ sermon on the mount and sermon on the plain in language very close to what Jesus used. James has been controversial from early days mostly because of what James says today about “faith without works is dead.” Which can sound almost like a no-brainer – except it also sounds like a pretty different theological emphasis from what we hear in some of the apostle Paul’s letters, Romans and Galatians, especially – where salvation is said to be by faith and grace alone, not by works. This apparently different theology in James troubled Martin Luther, the reformer of the 1500s, so much that he called James a (quote) “straw epistle” and put this letter in an appendix at the...

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September 2, 2018

Pentecost 15   September 2, 2018(Ps. 148, James 1:17-27) Song of Songs 8:6-7, 2:8-13    Sing the Song ************************************************************** [After Song of Songs 8:6-7] The Song of Songs has been called the least biblical book of the bible. Mostly because God, Israel, and prayer are never mentioned, at least not directly – while human romantic love is celebrated exuberantly in poetic, suggestive language that can still make for a little blushing… When the Writings, the last section of the Hebrew bible, were being edited into their present final form almost two thousand years ago, the Rabbis debated whether the Song of Songs should even be included… Till Rabbi Akiva declared: “All the world is not worth the day when the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies!” The voice of  revered and highly respected Rabbi Akiva prevailed. Ever since, Jewish teachers, building on the words of the prophets (especially Isaiah and Hosea) who referred to Israel as God’s beloved bride, have interpreted Song of Songs as a sanctified duet sung by God and Israel. Christians, building on Jewish tradition as well as New Testament writings, especially Ephesians and Revelation, where the church is called “the bride of Christ” – interpreted the Song of Songs as a hymn of love between Christ and the church. Our spiritual ancestors valued the Song of Songs – so highly that more bible commentaries were written about the Song than any other book of the bible except for Genesis and the Psalms. Christian monastics especially loved it – Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order, wrote 86 sermons based on just the first two chapters of the Song… Today, however, many contemporary bible scholars interpret the Song of Solomon as primarily love poetry describing an ideal human marriage….(Long story short–)  My favorite commentary, by Ellen Davis, interprets the Song as both/and – beautiful love poetry celebrating the joys and pleasures of human love, modeling faithfulness in marriage – and – most of all, a love song between God and God’s people. (The teachers and saints of old were right about that…So… ) Listen! – for the voice of the Beloved. [Read Song of Songs 2:8-13] Way back in the beginning, in our primal falling away from God and in the resulting exile from the garden, a three-way tragedy unfolds. First, men and women created equal in the image and likeness of God in the beginning, fall into a pattern of blaming and hurting each other – man now dominating woman, though created to be equal partners. Secondly, now the earth – created as a beautiful garden where people live in harmony with nature… is now infested with weeds and thorns… And pleasant gardening becomes sweat-of-the-brow painful labor. Third, most seriously – people who have been speaking face-to-face on a regular basis with God are now estranged from God – banished from the garden, our relationship badly broken… terribly bent and damaged… Yet – now, in the Song of Songs, without explanation – deep, loving equality between woman and man is restored. The woman’s voice actually sings lead a little more often than the man, as if to make up for being silenced too long…(The whole Song is sung in...

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