Sunday, September 16, 2012 – Sermon on Mark 8(27-38)

Mark 8: 27-38

I don’t remember where I got it.  I don’t remember when I got it. But I wore it every day.  To school.  To soccer practice.  In the shower and in the pool during gym. It became a part of me – an extension of my body.  Twice it fell off when I wasn’t looking, but both times, it landed in my hand.  I thought that was a sign.  A sign that it wasn’t meant to be lost.  A sign that someone somewhere wanted me to keep wearing it.

Another time, it fell off while I was playing Frisbee in the street.  It didn’t land in my hand, but on the pavement.  I didn’t notice until my friend threw the Frisbee so poorly that the Frisbee rolled on the ground, coming to rest right beside it.  Another sign, I thought.

But then, one day, the strands of rugged rope gave way, and it fell to the ground, never to be seen again by me.  I loved that cross necklace.

Crosses. If you keep an eye out for them, you’ll see them everywhere.  We hang them in our homes, we wear them around our necks.  We tattoo them on our arms, and we give them as Confirmation gifts. We stick them to the back windows of our cars and we pound them into the earth to mark a grave.   They come in all shapes and sizes – some are made out of gold, others out of splintered wood.  Some are shiny and detailed, others simple and plain.

All these crosses are a good thing, I think.  Because as Jesus says in our gospel lesson, we are to be cross-carrying people. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  But the question that comes to mind is – what does it all mean? What does it mean to take up your cross?

Does it mean what I have so often heard? That is, our crosses are the sufferings each of us bear?  You know the phrase: “I guess this is just my cross to bear.” It is a phrase we throw around for both inconveniences and catastrophes in our life. That annoying person at work – just my cross to bear.  That mass in my lung – just my cross to bear. A leaky roof – just my cross to bear.  A child born with Down’s Syndrome – my cross to bear. We say it as if these are assignments handed down from God that either teach us a lesson, test our faith, or punish us for bad behavior. And the guidance given is usually – just endure it. Jesus had to suffer and so must you. It is your cross to bear.  Just hang in there. If that is how the text is understood than I fear that it has become rotten to the core and hollowed out of any meaning and depth, justifying suffering and denigrating God.

The problem is, you see, we have lifted this verse out of the gospel of Mark. Out of its context and disconnected it from what has been said just before it.

Jesus has just told his disciples that the road on which he is headed leads straight into suffering and betrayal and rejection, and ultimately, to death. Peter wants nothing to do with this road. No king of Israel, no savior of God’s people can suffer, be rejected and die.  The savior of the world must come in power and might. So Peter pulls Jesus aside and tries to straighten him out and show him that he can’t go down a path of suffering and death.  To which Jesus barks back, “Get behind me, Satan. Do not tempt me with any easier way. You’ve put your mind on human things, not on divine things.”

And there it is.  Human things verses divine things. Jesus says Peter is focusing on human things by wanting to avoid suffering. But divine things, Jesus says, include the realities of this life, like suffering and pain, disappointment and despair, fear and isolation. These are divine things. But these are not divine things because God has handed them out to poor unsuspecting people. They are divine because God has walked straight into these places of suffering and pain, so as to be with God’s people. Jesus said he must undergo suffering, rejection, and be killed. Jesus marks and claims the suffering of the world as the very place where he will be found. These are the divine things.

A couple of a years ago, I was a chaplain at a hospital. I would receive requests from patients or their families to visit a patient.  Many times I would come to a room where the patient was sleeping or unconscious, with tubes and machines hooked up all over them.  And I was terrified. When they weren’t awake or no family was around, I breathed a sigh of relief and slowing back out of the room, unnoticed.  But you know, I never felt good about that. Like Peter, I wanted to avoided any suffering and pain I must encounter with this person.  One time, I was called to the room of a 22-year old who had had a major stroke and was in a coma.  When I got to his room, no family was around.  But by the grace of God, I found the courage to stick around and stay with this young man.  His parents came around eventually.  We prayed together. We cried together.  And God was there. You could feel it.

The human thing is to avoid suffering, like Peter.  But Jesus won’t do that.

And then Jesus says, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” If we put this verse back into its context we can see that it isn’t about God handing out assignments of suffering, but it is about God entering into the very suffering of the world.

Let me be clear: your suffering is not the cross Jesus is talking about.  Jesus isn’t talking about tolerating a bothersome boss, Jesus isn’t talking about enduring cancer.  Jesus is not calling us to passive acceptance of painful suffering.  The cross Jesus is talking about is not the one on your back, but the one on your forehead.  The cross that has marked you long ago as a beloved and chosen child of God. A mark that says, “With you is where God chooses to be.” Never separate from and never beyond the presence of God.

You have been marked with the cross of Christ. In baptism and in blessing, you, each and every one of you, have been claimed by God. God has stamped you with a cross that will not wash off or wear out. So take up your cross – that cross – and follow me, Jesus says, into a desperate and dangerous world, filled with suffering and pain. That’s where I’ll be, God says, and I need you there too. Bringing about peace, mercy, and justice.  Take up your cross and follow me.

You’ve been mark with a cross, meaning you’ve been claimed by God. Therefore, to place a cross somewhere is to also proclaim it as claimed by God.

I’ve told you this story before, but perhaps it is worth telling again. A well-known preacher, Tom Long, tells a story about a congregation in Kentucky.  The congregation is in a town that has become littered with violence. In fact, the town has become the murder capital of the United States.  It is all over the news, it is worried about among the residents, and joked about by the morning DJ’s.  It has become an infection for this town.  The pastor of this congregation decided that another word needed to be spoken by the church.  One Saturday, on an impulse, he took the processional cross from the church and he went to all of the places where violence had occurred in the past week.  He placed the cross in that spot, and he prayed for the victims of violence and for the ones who brought about the violence.  Eventually, word trickled out into the community about what this pastor was doing and now every Saturday, a group of community members goes to the places of violence and puts a cross there as if to say, “Even here. Even this place of deep and dark destructive violence is not outside of the reach of God. God has entered into this very place and claimed it. God has taken it into God’s own being. God will not avoid it. God will enter into it.

To place a cross somewhere – in a ditch on the side of the road, around your neck, on your arm, in your living room, or into the hands of your granddaughter at her confirmation – is to mark that place as a divine thing. A sacred thing. A holy thing. To say this is where God will be present. And you, my dear friends, have been marked with this cross.

When we baptize Presley and Zeah in a little bit, we don’t pour over their heads a promise of safety and security. We pour over their heads the promise of unconditional value and love in the midst of a world that can sometimes tell us otherwise.  We mark them with a cross that says your life is no longer your own, but it has been claimed by God. That God will be with them all the days of their life.

And when we gather together at this table in fellowship and forgiveness today, each of you will receive not only bread and wine, but also a cross placed on your forehead as a reminder that you have been marked. Mark with the cross of Christ which you carry with you into your life.  It is a cross that claims you and blesses you and sends you out into this tattered world to hand out grace, mercy, and peace. And Jesus said, “Take up that cross and follow me.”

May this be so. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2012 – Sermon on Mark 7:24-37

Mark 7:24-37

The Oscar winning film Good Will Hunting is  not only one of my favorite movies, but it alsohas one of the most powerful and moving scenes in all of cinema.   Sean Maguire, a counselor played by Robin Williams, has been working with Will Hunting, a young math genius, played by Matt Damon. Will has been sentenced to court-required therapy.  Over the course of the movie, the two develop a close friendship where both are able to push and challenge one another.  In one of their final scenes together, standing in Sean’s office, both reveal that they were victims of child abuse. Both had drunken fathers stumble up the stairs at night and use them as a punching bag. Sean said the interesting nights were when Dad wore his rings. But then standing there, in this vulnerable and quiet moment, with the audience wondering what’s going to happen… Sean takes a step toward Will and says, “Hey Will. It’s not your fault.”  To which Will replies, “Yeah, I know.”  Sean takes another step and says “Look in my eyes, it’s not your fault.”  Will looks at him a little strangely and says, “Yeah, I know.”  Stepping a little closer, Sean says, “No you don’t.  It’s not your fault.”  They do this back and forth until the tenth time when Sean is right in front of Will’s face. “It’s not your fault,” he says and Will finally collapses into Sean’s arms with tears and cries of a broken soul.

Will Hunting, an abused child, could not hear. He couldn’t hear the words of his friend, Sean.  His life history had plugged his ears with messages of guilt, shame, and worthlessness.  It’s like he was deaf. And it took ten times of hearing this same message before it broke through and sunk deep into his soul and began to bring forth healing and new life.

And the men standing around Jesus were astounded and said, “He has done everything well.  He even makes the deaf to hear.”

In our reading today from the Gospel of Mark, we have two stories.  The first is the big and familiar story of Jesus and the woman from Syrophoenicia. It is an important story because Jesus isn’t very nice in it and many of us aren’t too comfortable with that.  But too often this story over shadows the second one.

The second story is a relatively simple one: A group of men bring a man to Jesus and beg him to lay his hands upon him, because the man could not hear and he could not speak.  So Jesus pulls the man aside, in private.  He sticks his fingers into the man’s ear; he spits and touches the man’s tongue. Finally, he gazes heavenward breathes out, “Be opened.”  Immediately, this man’s ears become unplugged and his new life begins.  And the people standing around Jesus were astounded and said, “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf to hear.”

Now, by itself, this story – while strange – is a relatively tame and ordinary healing story from Jesus. It is only seven verses. But this is not a story that stands by itself.  It is a story that is tacked on to the end of that first familiar story. The two cannot be taken separately. They are companion stories and when held up together, one just might by the key that unlocks the other.

In the first story, Jesus has just arrived into Gentile territory. It is like he has gone on vacation and has entered a house in order to escape the crowds and to hide out.  He does not want to preach, he does not want to teach, he does not want to heal. But even Jesus can’t keep his presence a secret and he is discovered.  A Syropheonician woman, a Gentile, immediately goes after Jesus and falls at his feet.  By entering the house where Jesus is, this woman violates many boundaries. Gender boundaries, religious boundaries.  Men and women were not allowed to talk in this way; Jews and Gentiles were not allowed to talk this way. Yet, here rests a woman at the feet of Jesus, risking the consequences of breaking these boundaries, so she can beg this man, Jesus, to remove the demon from her daughter’s body.

And then, out of Jesus’ mouth, we hear the nasty response that makes us cringe. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.  Not only does Jesus say “no” to this woman and her daughter, but he calls her a dog. He belittles her.  He says his ministry belongs to the children of Israel and that it would not be fair to give it to the Gentiles, the dogs.

What happened to Jesus? Where is the Jesus we thought we knew?  The caring and gentle Jesus that removed evil spirits, stilled storms, and fed five thousand people.  What happened to him? Jesus is so rude to her, it is almost as if he doesn’t care that her daughter is sick. It is almost as if he isn’t even listening to what she is saying.  It is almost as if he is deaf to her words.

But then weary woman will not budge.  She says, “Yes, but even the dogs under the table get some crumbs,” and suddenly the whole world shifts. Suddenly, Jesus’ ear were unplugged and even his understanding of who was worthy of the kingdom of God was challenged and changed.

Can you see it? Jesus heals a deaf man because Jesus was deaf man.  Deaf to the cries a desperate mother because she was different from him. He unplugs the man’s ear because he knew the healing that can come from having your ears opened to the voices you’ve shut out. The woman’s daughter wasn’t the only one healed that day.  Jesus was healed.  Healed of his own prejudice and preference.  All because someone unplugged his ears.  And so he then goes around unplugging the ears of others.

And that was just the beginning. Like a little snowball rolled down the side of the hill, this thing just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Those boundaries all but evaporate for Jesus. Jesus heals the Gentile woman’s daughter, than he cures the gentile deaf and mute man, and then he feeds 4,000 gentile people- the people he had previously seen as dogs. Jesus ears were opened and the kingdom of God was stretched wider.

When hearing is restored, when ears are opened to the voices that have been shut out, healing happens. Will Hunting couldn’t hear. But then along comes someone who will not be dismissed. Sean persists until Will’s ears are unplugged and opened and he finally hear those words of pure gospel – it’s not your fault. When hearing is restored, when ears are opened to the voices that have been shut out, healing happens.

Last week, a group of us began a book study called Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. With the help of Adam Hamilton, we are trying to have our ears opened to one another. We are trying to hear the words and concerns of those who believe differently than ourselves. Because, let’s be honest, if Jesus can get it wrong, Lord knows we can too.  Some congregations in the area have heard about this book study, and they have said, “We could never do that. It would be too risky.  It might tear us apart.”  And they are right, it is risky. But the risk isn’t the possibility of being in conflict; the risk is the possibility of being changed. The risk is the possibility of walking away some how different than when you walked in – perhaps with bigger ears and a bigger heart.

Too often we are told messages about ourselves and others that seek to limit God’s love for the people of the world. Sometimes, we’re told that God’s love is too specialized and too specific that it could never include someone like us – because of the things we’ve done in our life or the way we treat people.  But other times, we view ourselves as the worthy ones who have everything together, and thus like to point fingers at those who need to watch out.

These messages plug up our ears. But the good news is that God is at work, unplugging our ears to hear the voices we’ve stopped listening, or never tried listening to, or or never had that chance to listen to.  For some, like Will Hunting, it will be voices of long awaited affirmation and love.  Other, like for Jesus, will be voices of disruption, challenging what you’ve always thought to be true.  Which ever it is, what we can be sure of is when hearing is restored, healing is not far behind.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, God’s loves is very, very big. And very, very wide.  Big enough for you, big enough for me, big enough for the world.  The question is: can you hear it?

And the men standing around Jesus were astounded and said, “He has done everything well.  He even makes the deaf to hear.”  AMEN

Sunday, September 2, 2012 – Sermon on Mark 7:1-23

Mark 7(1-23) 

Traditions.  They are beautiful and they’re rhythmic.  They help us to keep time in this life.  I love traditions.  My family has them for Thanksgiving and Christmas and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.  But at the same time, traditions are curious and complicated things.  Because not all traditions are created equal. Not all of them behave the same.

Some traditions last only as long as the person who created them.  Take for example Gladys Thurnau.  For years and years, Gladys made homemade bread for Communion here.  I don’t know how it started.  Perhaps it was something passed on to her, or perhaps one Sunday she just showed up with it, and suddenly a tradition was born.  But now that Gladys isn’t able to make Communion bread any more, the tradition has faded away behind boxes of little white wafers.  And that’s okay.  That just how it goes for some traditions.

Other traditions last for years and years and years, long after the person or group who came up with it.  It is traditions like these that really become sacred.  These traditions become the oil to a well-crafted machine.  Without it, the thing just won’t move.

There is old story, out there in the world somewhere, about a monk and his cat.  As the story goes, a head monk was teaching other monks how to pray and meditate when, one day, in walks a cat.  The cat begins to disturb their time of prayer and meditation and the head monk found it really annoying. So he asks the others to catch the cat and tie it up to the banyan tree outside until the session was over.  So they did.  In anticipation that this would continue to be a problem, the monk asked that every day before prayer and meditation, the cat be caught and tied to the tree outside.  And so it was.  Day after day, this continued.  For a long time, it continued.  In fact, it became tradition. To chase the cat among the halls of the monastery just minutes before prayer and mediation was to start.  Well, one day, the head monk died.  Despite the fact that the cat really only annoyed the head monk, the new head monk asked that the cat be tied to the banyan tree before mediation began.  Well, then the cat dies.  And what do they do?  They go out and buy a new cat, so that they can catch it and tie it up to banyan tree before meditation. So it is with traditions.

A friend of mine was once filling in as pastor at a church on a communion Sunday.  When it came time for the words of institution, he stood behind the altar, spoke the words, raised up a big white wafer for the bread and a big silver chalice for the wine, and then he invited everyone to the table.  But then, no one moved.  Nothing.  Nada.  They all just sat there.  Finally, an usher came forward and whispered in his ear.  Immediately, he went back to the altar, lifted high the white wafer, only this time…he broke it in two pieces, symbolizing Jesus’ broken body.  The congregation gave an audible sigh of relief and Communion went on smoothly.  They couldn’t commune until the bread was broken.  This is God’s meal… God offers a promise that it is ‘given for you’ but this congregation couldn’t hear it… couldn’t taste it… was paralyzed until then saw someone break a wafer in two.

You can see how traditions can be the lifeblood of a monastery or congregation.  But there is trouble here, because often times, people forget you don’t need a cat tied to a tree to meditate nor a broken wafer to receive God’s grace and mercy.  They lose sight of the original intent and overtime, the tradition becomes more sacred than what it surrounds.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples have entered into a foreign land, they’ve gone to the other side, and we know what that means.  They are in a place where they don’t belong; a place their mothers would not want them to be.  You see, their breaking the rules.  But it is in this very place, this foreign land, that Jesus is healing the sick and the broken.

But then the police show up.  It is the Pharisees and the scribes, making sure everyone is following the laws of the land, or as they call it “the tradition of elders.” Now, as you may recall, the Pharisees and scribes don’t like Jesus very much.  And they’re not fond of his groupies either.  As I said, they were troublemakers, rule-breakers; they were a threat to the way things went and were supposed to go.  They loved the unlovely and that just didn’t fit in the Pharisees’ world.  And so they come rushing in and what do you know –  immediately, conveniently, they catch the disciples breaking a long held tradition of the Jewish community  – they were eating without first washing their hands.  Ha! They think.  Something for their smear campaign against Jesus and his friends.

Now this tradition is very important and it still is to this day.  Washing hands before eating prevents people from getting sick.  If you became sick, you were considered unclean, and thus could not enter the temple of God.  Therefore to wash one’s hands helped people keep their friends, by not getting them sick, and it helped people keep their God, by being able to enter the temple.  It was a rule and a tradition for the sake of human health and well-being.  It was a very important.

But, you see, the Pharisees and scribes had forgotten all of this. The original intent of this tradition. Or, they just didn’t care.  Truth be told, they weren’t concerned about the health and well-being of the disciples.  If they were, they would have rushed over to the disciples like a concerned grandfather, saying, “Now, hold on Peter, let’s wash your hands first before you eat that. Don’t want you gettin’ sick.”  But that’s not what happened.  They weren’t looking out for the disciples, they were looking to catch the disciples.  To catch these hoodlums breaking the rules so they could use it against them.

As we’ve seen, sometimes, you can follow the rules and traditions so well that you can completely forget why they are there in the first place.  Or in the case of the Pharisees, as a friend of mine says, “You can follow the rules so well, that you’ve completely forgotten about God.” They were so concerned about making sure Jesus and his disciples were following the rules that they had forgotten about God and the work of God that was happening right in front of them in the healing of the sick.

A couple of years ago, I worked at a church in Minneapolis, and there was a member of the church named Michelle.  Michelle was a person born with physical and mental disabilities, but she was one of the most faithful members of the church.  Every Sunday, she would come up to me ask, “Pastor, will you pray with me today.  Will you pray for my legs, so that they don’t hurt so much and that I might walk better tomorrow?”  And every Sunday, we prayed together.  Now, in this particular church, it had become tradition that the area between the altar and the Communion rail was viewed as a sacred space. I couldn’t tell you when or why – it was just sacred.  Well, one Sunday, we had a brass quintet visiting and performing in worship, and the way every thing was situated the musician blocked on of the entrances to the sanctuary.  This just so happened to be the entrance Michelle had chosen to walk through 5 minutes late into worship.  You could see the panic in her face as soon as she realized that she was stuck with the quintet between her and her pew, between her and her place of worship.  The quickest way through was a path that went right through that sacred space in front of the altar.  She looked around in a panic, wondering what to do, until finally, she just went for it.  And the very moment she labored her heavy foot into that space, a woman from the choir stood up in her holy and maroon robe, snapped her finders and shouted, “No! You go around.”  Right the middle of worshipping a God who claims all of us God’s own holy, and precious, and sacred children.  Sometimes, you can follow the rules, you can keep tradition so well, that you’ve completely forgotten about God.

On the outside it seemed the Pharisees and scribes simply wanted tradition upheld, but on the inside, their disdain and hatred for these disciples spreading the love of God around the land poked through.  So Jesus calls them out.  And he does it by quoting their Scripture to them, “You worship God with your lips but not with your hearts.  You follow all of the rules but you do it for yourself and not for the glory of God or the sanctity of creation.  You have abandoned the commandment of God and instead hold tight to human tradition.”

The commandment of God. That great and greatest of all – love God and love your neighbor.  And then, Jesus turns the tables on them and says, “It is not what goes into your body that can make you sick.  It is what comes out of your body, it is the evil that comes out of your heart, that makes you sick.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus is calling us out.  He is pulling back the curtain, revealing what we already know to be true. Those good works, those traditions, those well-mannered children can’t over shadow the darkness that hides in our heart.  The enemy we’ve been fighting has been discovered and it is us. Jesus is talking about that nasty three-letter word: sin.  We don’t like the word, but the truth is we all carry it. None of us is exempt; none of us immune.   Within it is the ability to take the laws and traditions meant to bring life to this world, and we choke the life right out of them, making them the enemy of God.  Sin resides in us all.  Which means, those who seem evil to us must just have thinner skin – the sin is easier to point out.  And those who seem free of the burden of evil simply have better camouflage.

That’s the bad news.  That none of us is exempt.   But it’s also the good news.  Because it means none of us is exempt. None of us stand alone.  Together, we crowd into the court room and stand before the judge who exposes our deepest and dark sin: we’ve forgotten God.  But being that God is God and we are not, the story doesn’t end there.  At the very heart of the story of God is one who does not hide from darkness but actually seeks it out.  Crosses over into it, reaches out and touches it, feeds its, exposes it, bears it, and finally, heals it.  Just as Jesus calls out the dark hearts of the Pharisees and scribes, so God does for us.  And to call out darkness is to bring it into the light, to expose it.  And it is this exposing light that does not destroy darkness, but overcomes it.  What else do our darkest places need except a little light shined on them.

We can follow traditions and rules so well that we forget about God.  But traditions and rules really aren’t the problem.  They are just the vehicles through which darkness can leak out of our hearts.  May God expose us to our own darkness and sin and in so doing, shine into it…light. AMEN