Sunday, October 14, 2012 – Sermon on Mark 10:17-31

Mark 10:17-31

Jesus looking at him, love him and said to him, “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.” “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”

Well, none of us are naked.  Our parking lot is filled with cars. Which just goes to show…none of us takes Jesus’ words here very seriously, do we? A couple of weeks ago, Jesus wanted your hands and your feet. Last week, he wanted your marriages.  This week, he wants your money. So grab onto your wallets and your purses, everybody. They aren’t safe here.

Now, when I first arrived a little over a year ago, one of the first things someone said to me was, “Whatever you do, don’t preach about money. If you do, we won’t want to give any.” Being that money is one of the things Jesus talks about the most in his ministry, my hands are a little tied, aren’t they?  If we are to be Jesus-people, then it seems we need to talk about money. But I will make you a promise: I will not ask for any of your money today.

Growing up as the son of a doctor, my family was in need of nothing. And yet, I can remember being made fun of and teased at school for being the rich kid. Oh woe is me. I know, I know. It’s a small price to pay for having everything you want. But then along comes Jesus and this story, and it seems like being rich is actually a bad thing. I can remember wondering – did having money make us bad people? 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, Jesus said. So, were we going to hell?

It was a hard text to hear back then. And it is still hard to hear today. Even though Lauren and I are in a vastly different financial situation, we are still quite rich. Because I once heard the statistic that if there is one tv in your neighborhood, you are among the top 5% richest people in the world. Which means you might be considered rich too.

Because of this, over the years, we’ve made this story softer on the ears. I have heard it said that Jesus doesn’t really want you to go and sell all of your stuff, he just wants you to appreciate it more. Just show your parents a little more gratitude when they buy you that Xbox 360 game. Just say a longer prayer before dinner. Jesus doesn’t really mean what he says.

There is a story about a well-know preacher, Will Willimon, who received a panicky phone call on Monday morning from a parishioner.  The man said that his daughter Anne had just decided to drop out of pharmacy school. She had just come home for the weekend and, in fact, she had been to church just that Sunday. Everyone was shocked by her decision and so they ask the preacher to give her a call and “talk some sense into her.”

So he did. He called up Anne and reminded her about how hard she had worked to get to where she was and that she couldn’t just throw it all away. “What inspired this decision anyways?” he asked. “Well, it was your sermon,” she said.

She talked about how she realized she was only in school to meet her own selfish needs and his sermon on God calling all of us to do something important in this life shook something loose in her. She remembered how much joy she had in teaching migrant workers how to read one summer through a church program. She felt close to God then, and now she is leaving school because she wants to spend her life helping those people. “Now look, Anne,” the preacher said, “It was just a sermon…”[1]

“Go and sell all of your things and give them to the poor,” Jesus said. Does Jesus really mean this…or is it just a sermon?

Others have said that this text isn’t about how much money you have. Not really. Instead, it is simply about how there is nothing you can do to earn your way into heaven. That we are all dependent on God’s mercy to save us and bring us into eternal life. Rich or not, we are all sinners and in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. We just need to remember that. Maybe that is what this text is all about.

When I was at seminary, everyday, parked in the parking lot was a big, bright, shiny white SUV. On the back was a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t let the car fool you. My treasure is in heaven.” Ahh yes, as long as you know your true treasure is in heaven, as long as you know that you are saved by God’s grace, what’s wrong with having a couple of treasures here on earth?

I like these understandings of this text – that I just need to appreciate my stuff more and that I just need to remember that I am saved by grace, because when I think about the text in these ways, my money never enters the picture at all. But what if this story actually is about money. Our money.  And it’s ability to make us sick.

This rich man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him and ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In the gospel of Mark, just about everyone who kneels before Jesus is sick and in need of healing. The Leper kneels before Jesus asking to be healed. Jairus, whose daughter is dying, kneels before Jesus. The woman who is hemorrhaging, kneels before Jesus.  And now this rich man, who has followed all the laws and wants for nothing, kneels before Jesus. Which means, this rich man is sick. Heart sick.[2]  And in need of healing.  He, along with every lottery winner, has learned that having all the money in the world doesn’t solve your problems. Maybe he has learned that you can lose yourself in making sure you are the smartest, or the most beautiful, or the one with the most toys. This man is lost and desperate – he realizes something is missing – he is not well in his soul and so this man comes to Jesus in order to be healed.

And Jesus looked at the man and loved him. But maybe this man couldn’t receive this love because he was already carrying so much. All of his stuff. And sometimes, you can’t accept what’s being given to you unless you let go of what you already have. People who are recovering from addiction often say that they have to let go of the friends they already have, in order to find the friends that they need.

So Jesus asked this man to open up his hands and give everything he has to the poor. Jesus must have known the same thing that recent studies are showing. The only way money makes any of us happy is when we give it away. But the man walks away shocked and grieving, because he had many possessions.  Was the man healed of his sickness? Did he do what Jesus said to do? I guess we will never know.

I don’t know if your money has the ability to make you sick. I don’t know if you are longing for something more. And maybe to most of you, this doesn’t sound like good news. This idea that Jesus has his eye on our wallets and pocketbooks, looking at and watching what we do with them. But maybe, just maybe, the sheer fact that Jesus is looking at us at all is the good news. Maybe what it says it that God actually cares about this life. Your life.  And God actually cares about what you do with it. Which means what you do matters. And what you do with your money matters. It matters to God and it matters to the world. Remember that this week each time you hand over cash or credit card to buy something. Not because God looks upon you as a judge, but because God looks at you, and loves you. Wishing for you not good behavior and a hefty bank account.  But a whole heart.  And a full life.

I promised that I would not ask for your money today. And it’s true, I won’t. In fact, I want to give you money.  Well, two of you at least. I need two brave volunteers who can be at church next week. Each of you get a $20 bill.  And now, you have an assignment.  Go and use this money to gift something, anything, to a stranger who just might need it. Maybe you pay for a stranger’s meal at a restaurant or maybe you leave it in an anonymous note to your neighbor, telling them how much someone cares about them. Maybe you buy a pop at Perkins and you leave it as a tip. But it must be given to a person (not a campaign or a fundraiser) and it must be a stranger. Why? Because it reminds us that it doesn’t matter who they are, or what they have done in their life to either deserve this or not deserve this…no matter what, they are worth something to God. And so are you.  Amen.

[1] William H. Willimon, What’s Right With the Church, pg. 112-3.

[2] Based on a sermon by David Lose.


Sunday, October 7, 2012 – Sermon on Mark 10:2-16

Mark 10:2-16

With nearly 50% of marriages ending in divorce these days, I am wondering how you heard our gospel text for today. It is not an easy one, that’s for sure.  I don’t know if it was painful to hear Jesus say what he does about divorce and remarriage, or if it had no effect on you at all. I imagine there are many reactions to this text within the room. Sometimes we hear things in the Bible and I imagine many of us think, “Ahhh, well, that was a long time ago. Nobody thinks that way today.” And perhaps that is true, but what I know for sure, is that over the years, Jesus’ words about divorce have kept people in bad marriages they should have left. But they didn’t because of this passage. God doesn’t allow for it, they thought. I also know that in the past people have not been allowed in the church because they were divorced, and as a result many left not only the church, but the faith as well. So no matter what you think about this passage, there is no doubt that it has caused a lot of pain for people. And that it has been used as a sword to condemn certain people. And so we can’t skip over this text, or else we run the risk of it continuing to inflict pain. I am willing to bet that everyone in this room has been impacted by divorce in one way or another. Whether you yourself have been divorced, or your parents, or a sibling, a friend’s parents. It has impacted us all.

We’ve got our work cut out for us and our hands full today, don’t we? So what are we to do with this text? At first glance, it seems pretty clear. That if a man divorces his wife and marries another, he has committed adultery. He has broken the 6th commandment. So what are we going to do with this Holy Scripture? I don’t believe that it is that cut and dry or that simple. I think something else is going on here.

Let me begin by saying that I speak cautiously this morning, because of how sensitive the subject matter of divorce can be. I don’t assume that I have the correct answers, but I seek to explore the text with you in love and so I mean no harm.

A place for us to start is to talk about marriage and divorce in the bible.  Marriage and divorce are not the same in the Bible as they are today. Do any of you know how women were viewed in Biblical times? They were viewed as property. So to marry is to acquire property. For a man to marry a woman was for there to be an exchange of property between the woman’s father, who owned her, and the man who was going to marry her. Do you remember the story of Jacob? When he first saw Rachel, he loved her. But in order to marry her, he had to work for 7 years for her father Laban. Why? Because it was an exchange of property. And then when those 7 years were up, Laban gives Jacob his other daughter Leah, instead. And Jacob had to work another 7 years in order to marry Rachel. Jacob got to marry two women, sisters, after buying them for 7 years of work each. Does that sound anything like marriage today?

We can still see remnants of this today in our traditional wedding ceremony. A father walks the bride down the aisle, correct? Why? To give her away.  And what side does he stand on? He stands on the right, so that he can keep his right hand free – his weapon hand.  Just incase he need to protect his property.

So marriage was very different in the bible because women didn’t have any rights. They were property. And because they were property, the man is the one who had the power to divorce.  Notice the Pharisees questions, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Back then some said that a man could divorce his wife if she displeased him in any way. If she burnt the man’s toast, that could be grounds for divorce. And divorce was devastating. Which it still is today, but it was particularly devastating for the woman because it meant public disgrace, grave financial struggles, and a severely limited future for her and her children. She was an outcast and her survival was much more difficult.

So all of this is background around about marriage and divorce back then. Now watch what Jesus does with it. Watch how he turns it on its head.

The Pharisees ask him a simple yes-or-no question – Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? And the simple answer is yes. It is legal. Moses said so.  But you see, Jesus doesn’t want this question to be a legal question. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is right. I mean it is legal for CEOs to be paid millions and millions of dollars in bonuses at the end of the year, but is it a good idea? I don’t think so. Is it legal for Joe Mauer to get paid $60,000 dollars a day? Yes. But is it a good idea, is it ethical when people are starving on the streets? No.

Jesus doesn’t simply want divorce to be a cold, legal question. He wants it to be a relational question. What impact does it have on the people involved? Is it good for everyone or does it leave someone out on the streets and hungry?  Notice what Jesus says to his disciples. He says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” If a woman was just property back then, when a man committed adultery, he didn’t commit it against his wife.  He committed it against his wife’s father. But Jesus says it is committed against her. It is about the impact on the relationship, not about whether it is legal or not, or it being an exchange of property. Jesus is lifting the woman out of the status of property to the status of person. And then Jesus says, “If a woman divorces her husband…” Could women divorce their husbands? No, they were just property! But Jesus says, “Oh yes they can. They are a person too.”

Jesus wants to take divorce out of the legal realm, outside of a property transaction, and make it relational. He wants to convey the seriousness of it. That it is something that impacts two persons. Two families. And any time a marriage ends in divorce, it isn’t simply breaking a legal contract. It breaks the very heart of God, because of the damage it does to hearts of God’s beloved children.

Now, let me be very clear. I think it is okay for someone to get a divorce and remarry. Now, I am not so narcissistic as to think that you need to hear that from me. But I don’t want to take the chance of this text causing more pain than anyone has already been through. I believe that there are times when divorce is necessary and best for everyone involved. Especially in cases of abuse. It is just that…no one likes divorce. It is no one wish for a relationship. Especially not God’s because of how painful it is. But sometimes it is necessary. Yes, divorce breaks God’s heart because it shatters community – but this does not mean God that God doesn’t have compassion and care for those going through it.  God redeems, God heals, God puts families back together, God creates new ones.

At the same time, we don’t just laugh off this Scripture, we contextualize it. I do not think Jesus is giving a law to live by, in which people cannot get divorced and they cannot get remarried. I don’t think that is what he is saying. I think Jesus is once again turning our focus away from following the rules and towards being concerned for the most vulnerable among us. Jesus is always on the side of those who are most vulnerable, seeking to give them back their humanity. In this text, Jesus raises up women as human beings, not property to be passed around. And we can see this in the story that follows this one.  People were bringing their children to Jesus, but the disciples didn’t let them. Because back then children weren’t viewed as cute, innocent and angelic. They were viewed as animals that were not fully human. They were often unwanted and viewed as useless. But then Jesus takes these children and puts his arms around them, blesses them, and says that the kingdom of God belongs to them.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus is not concerned with following the rules or what is legal. He is always concerned for the most vulnerable. Which means we need to be careful with how we use Scripture. Because for too long this text has been used as a rule and as a sword against those who have ended their marriages and that is not its intent. It is never the intent of Scripture to be used as a weapon. Instead, I think it calls us to a much greater and more difficult task of lifting up those who have been pushed down and empowering those who have had their power taken away. So who are they? Who are the ones who are stepped on in our community? Who are the powerless? And are we lifting them up? Are we giving power back to them? And if we aren’t, then maybe now is a good time to start. AMEN

Sunday, September 23rd – Sermon on James 3:13-4:8

James 3:13-4:8

If writing Holy Scripture were a competition, where authors duked it out to see who could get the most writings into the Bible and whose writings would be the most popular, James, brother of Jesus, would most certainly be among the losers at the bottom.

Seriously, when was the last time someone quoted James to you.  And if they did, wouldn’t your first thought be, “James who?” People are more fond of the Bible’s most valuable players like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  We love Paul and his promise that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. We quote Psalm 23 at the bedside of a loved one because it soothes us like a soft song.  But James? No.  James is one of the unknowns.

James’ short little letter is tucked in the back of the New Testament among other no-name letters that rarely see the light of day, like 1 and 2 Peter or Jude.  Every year, I hear about people committed to reading the Bible cover to cover, and never once have any of them actually done it.  They barely make it into the New Testament, let alone all the way to the back where James hangs out. Go home and open your bible to the Letter of James and I guarantee that it will crackle a bit, having never been opened there.  I know mine did.

And did you notice that it is the letter of James.  It is not the gospel of James or the book of James.  It is the letter of James.  Which means it is personal. It was written to a specific person or group of people at a specific time and place.  Does anyone write letters anymore?  Do you sit down at a desk for 30 minutes or so with the patience to reflect on what you want to tell this person and the confidence to put it down in ink?  Lauren and I have an old neighbor who is in her 70s and she writes us letters. Every time we receive one of those envelopes stuffed to the gills with five or six pages of stories and news from the neighborhood, I always feel like I am encountering a lost art that is dying out. Her letters are always personal and steeped in love.  And it is a shame that it usually takes two or three of them to arrive before we find the time to respond.  If only she had Facebook…

So that’s what James is.  A personal letter, written from one beating heart to another that more often than not goes unread.   Which is too bad, because I don’t know about you, but as we have listened to the passages of James pass us by these last couple of weeks, there have been brief moments where I thought to myself, “That sounds like it was written yesterday.” So timely, so applicable to life.  We’ve heard phrases like, “Every generous act comes from God,” “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” James has told us not to favor one type of person over another and to not judge people. James warns us in chapter three that our tongue is the body part that most often gets us into trouble.  That it is the words we speak to one another, or type, or tweet, or text, that can be a small spark that starts a whole forest on fire. And isn’t that true about our world today.  The way we use our tongues to speak can be like cancer. It can squeeze the life right out of the person who is on the receiving end. The trouble is we know it is true.  Many of us know the feeling of speaking and then wishing you could reach out and grab those words back again before they reach the other person’s ears.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was caught in an argument with his partner and on a whim, he said to her, “Fine. Just go be like your mother then.” He knew it the moment he said it. He knew how those words would slam her right in the heart but he couldn’t reach out quick enough to take them back.

What we are learning is that the letter of James is not a bunch of old words.  While it was personal and timely back then, it is personal and timely today. It is present day wisdom from which we all could benefit.  Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find a way to use Jesus’ “The Son of Man must suffer and die…” as guidance for your life when out on a lunch break with your co-workers. But James’ “Be quick to listen and slow to speak…” echoes of wisdom for today when most of us are slow to listen and quick to speak.

Or take today’s portion of James: For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. Isn’t that still true today? Don’t envy and selfish ambition still lead us into disorder and wickedness?

So why don’t we read the letter of James any more? I think much of it is because of a little quote from Martin Luther hundreds of years ago that, like a bad rumor passed around school, just has not faded away yet. Luther says that letter of James is a letter of straw.  It is flimsy and hollow.  Makes for good kindling for a fire and good bedding for the cattle. Which Luther would rather we tore the letter of James out of our Bibles than actually read it.  You see, Martin Luther was so convinced by the Apostle Paul that the grace of God is not something you earn but something that is given to you freely that James simply sounded too much like earning God’s love.  There are over 100 commands in the 5 short chapters of James. Do this. Don’t do that.

Now Martin Luther is right – we are not saved and awarded grace because of the things we do or don’t do.  Grac is a free gift given.  But I don’t think that James disagrees with that. Instead, I think James is the one who encourages us, or more truthfully, outright demands that we not just think about this gift but actually do something with it. There is a story about the young boy who wanted nothing else but a new pair of rollerblades for his birthday.  When the day finally arrived, there in the middle of a pile of presents was a big square and heavy box (he knows, because he lifted it up the day before to try to guess what was in it).  Inside was exactly what he asked for.  But terrified to ruin this new gift, he placed them in his closet to keep them safe and clean and 8 months later, unused and unopened, his rollerblades were too small. A gift is meant to be used, not hidden.

At the heart of the letter of James is the desire we actually use our faith to impact the world. The first chapter of James says that the very word of God has been planted inside you. Think about that. Buried inside each of you is a seed.  Just a little bead of the word of God, planted there by God the farmer.  Many of you are farmers and gardeners and so you know that one never plants something and hopes that it will just stay there buried.  One plants so that something will grow. Grow out of it and bring forth fruit. The word of God has been planted in you, James says. Now go and do something with it.

Which means this wisdom from James is not wisdom for Sunday morning.  Notice this letter isn’t about how to pray better or how to receive communion with a more intentional and faithful heart.  It isn’t about confessing your sin more truthfully or honestly.  All of these things are great, but the letter of James carries within it Monday-through-Saturday kind of wisdom.  He says that we are called to use our faith in the ordinary parts of our life.  For James, how you speak with co-workers is an act of faith.  For James, the amount of care and effort you put into your work is an act of faith.  For James, how you treat your opponents on the soccer or baseball field is an act of faith.  That is God is at work with and through you in this world.

A professor of mine was once working with a group of congregation members, trying to help them see God not as a distant judge watching everything they do, but as a co-pilot in this life. One who comes alongside us and uses us to bring about a better world.  So this professor asked the group what they and God are doing on Monday morning at 9am. One man raised his hand and said, “Well I am balancing the books for the business I work at. But I have not a clue what God is doing.”  My professor asked him, “What type of business do you work for?” The man said, “A grain mill.”  “And where does your grain go?” “To bread companies.” “And where does their bread go?” “Mostly Southern Chicago.” My professor paused and thought for a moment.  “So if you don’t balance the books correctly, you might end up selling grain at too high of a price.  Which means the bread makers would need to raise the cost of their bread. Which means the stores on the South side of Chicago would have to increase the price of the bread. Which means the bread might become too expensive for the single mother with two children who needs it.  But if you do your job well, the cost of bread will be accurate and more affordable.  It sounds like to me, on Monday morning at 9am, you and God are feeding families on the South side of Chicago.”

All of this is to say that wherever you are tomorrow morning at 9am is a sacred space where you and God are working side by side for the health of the world.  So wherever you are at 9am, stop and think – this is sacred space.  The life of God is being played out right here.  And when you do that, you may look around your cubicle or your office or your cluttered barn or your classroom and wonder, ”This ordinary and boring place is sacred?” To which James would say, “Yep.”  And that is the best news, that God would actually choose to be known and discovered in those ordinary, routine, sometimes boring parts of our life.

We are saved not by our own works, but simply by the grace of God, but the gift that James gives us is the push, or the kick, out the door to go and do something with it.  It is harvest time, people of God, not just for the fields but for your faith… So let your faith bear fruit.  Go and do something with it.  And may you find the presence of God in your midst.  AMEN.