Sunday, June 7th, 2015 – Sermon on Mark 3:20-35

Mark 3:20-35

Then (Jesus) went home; 20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. 28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” 31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

This past week, I saw for the first time a car commercial for the new Nissan Rogue. And like most car commercials these days, it was highlighting the new features of the car. Primarily, the new advanced safety features of the car, that notify you whenever there is something behind you or beside you or in front of you that you might pose a threat to you or your vehicle.

But what was most startling about the commercial was not that we could have this kind of technology in our cars, but rather the way they highlighted those features.

So, the ad begins with a couple climbing into their car, and they turn lovingly to glance at their child strapped into the back seat. But then, the slow ominous music starts playing. The car begins to back up and then a little alarm goes off alerting the driver that there is a tree right behind them. But then child glances back to see this snarling tree come to life and reaches out to grab the car but the car speeds away. And then they are on the highway, and it is dark and stormy (of course), and another car begins to pass them. Another warning alarm goes off to alert the driver. But then child looks over to see a mean looking man with long hair and a beard, and suddenly it turns into a grizzly bear chasing the car. But then the car speeds away. And finally, their car approaches another car pulling boat, and it’s thundering and lightning, and a little alarm goes off to alert the driver. But then the child glances through the windshield and the boat turns in to a scary pirate ship firing of cannons in the middle of the sea. And then the car zooms past the boat and arrives safely at home and the parents carry their young child into the house, and the child waves to the car in gratitude.

And the message of the commercial becomes clear – be afraid. Be very afraid. And if you don’t want to be afraid anymore, but our car. Because the world is a scary and threatening place to both you and your child. Which really grabs at the heartstrings, when you see a child who is afraid. But if you buy our car, we will keep you safe.

Fear. It is one of the greatest motivators. Advertisers and politicians push on our fears all the time. Because if they can just get us to be afraid, then they’ve got us. And we’ll do just about anything to not be afraid anymore.

And I can’t help but wonder if the church has taken this gospel text that we’ve just heard and has used it to do the exact same thing as that commercial – to make people afraid.

Because there is that part about the unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit. Which is just the perfect tool for creating fear and getting people to buy into the church’s product of salvation. You see, many of us throughout our church going life have been told that God forgives all sin, but then along comes this text where Jesus says, “Yeah, but there is this one sin…” And suddenly, we are all afraid and we all want to know what it is and how do we make sure that we don’t commit it. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Because all these sins over here can be forgive, but there is just this one…And that’s all you have to do – just instill a tiny bit of fear and that’s enough.

And suddenly, fear is alive and well among us. And then our image of God becomes one of fear. You know, here is this long list of all these sins that God will lovingly and graciously forgive, but then there is just this one sin over here, that if you commit it, well…that one God will hold against you. What kind of God would that be? A God that holds a grudge? A God who sets a trap that we are all afraid of stepping on?

And as a preacher, the commentaries weren’t much help on this front either this week. One theologian said that this is “One of the most problematic and misused texts in the Gospels.”[1] One of the most problematic and misused.

And suddenly not only am I afraid of this text, I’m afraid to preach on this text. Because I don’t want to be the next one to misuse the text in a sermon.

But then I remembered that one of the most common phrases in Scripture is “Do not be afraid.” So would Jesus really want to instill fear in us? I don’t think so.

So, I tried something. I did everything I could to stop being afraid of the text. And when I did and with the help of others, I could see that maybe, unlike so many other things in our life, maybe this text wasn’t meant to make us afraid. In fact, maybe it’s meant to cast out our fear through love.

Now, to get there we have to go back a bit. Because we don’t even know what Jesus has done that everyone is so upset about. Up until this point in chapter three, Jesus has proclaimed that the kingdom of God is near. That it’s coming to this place and to demonstrate what it looks like when the kingdom of God shows up, he had a meal with some people, he cast out a demon or two and he healed a bunch of sick people, and he forgave a guy’s sins. So, you know, what’s the big deal? I mean, it seems like something everyone could get behind. Oh, except for the fact that meal he ate…was with sinners and tax collectors – which meant he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. The kind of people your parents wouldn’t want you hanging around with. And that demon he cast out and the healing he did? That was all done on the Sabbath, which was against religious law. And those sins he forgave? He had no authority to do so. You can’t just go around forgiving sins, Jesus. We have a whole process in place and temple for that sort of thing. It’s not allowed to just go forgiving someone’s sins.

What we learn is that when Jesus shows up, bringing about the kingdom of God, he does so by breaking all the rules. By stripping away at the social and religious barriers that divides us into insiders and outsiders. Good people and bad people. When Jesus brings about the kingdom of God, he breaks the rules in order to extend God’s love in the world. If you walk around St. John’s a bit, you’ll see that same phrase. St. John’s – Extending God’s Love. Looks like we are in the same business as Jesus. Are we going to be willing to break so rules in order to do that?

All of Jesus’ work to this point has been about extending God’s love, even if it means breaking some rules. So, no wonder people tried to stop him. He was threatening their whole way of life. And their religious institution – which they thought was on the side of God. But Jesus’ actions call that all into question. That God’s love and healing and forgiveness and welcome can be given out so freely and broadly then they have been. So, no wonder people are mad at Jesus. He is redrawing the boundaries of who we think is right and wrong, in and out, good and bad.

So Jesus is at work extending God’s love and these people – his family and the religious authorities – are saying, “Okay, okay, that’s enough, Jesus.” His family said he was out of his mind. Even worse, the religious authorities say he’s possessed by Satan.

And then Jesus does what he does best. He uses their logic against them in the form of a parable. You think I’m possessed by Satan? But I cast out demons. How can Satan cast out Satan? I’m not possessed by Satan, he says.  I’m Satan’s worst enemy.  In fact, I am an intruder in Satan’s house.  I’m the one who ties up Satan and steals back all the things Satan has held hostage. You see, Jesus is the one who sneaks into Satan’s house, like a thief in the night, and sets free all that Satan has possessed. And he does it by forgiving the sin of those held captive by sin, even though they maybe don’t deserve it.  By healing the sick on the Sabbath day, even though religious law condemns it. By eating a meal with those no one would dare to sit by. And with each of these, pillars in Satan’s house begin to crumble.

Now, I love this, he says, there will be forgiveness, whether you like it or not. Which is like Jesus’ way of saying you can’t stop this. You can’t stop God’s love from being extended to more and more people in the world. But if you can’t see the work I’m doing as being from God, as extending God’s love in the world, then….well that’s like the worst sin of all. A sin against the very Spirit of God, who is Love. Because how will you ever know God’s grace and forgiveness if you can’t even recognize it in the work I am doing.

To be clear, I think the sin against the Holy Spirit is to believe that Jesus’ work is evil. But to be even more clear, I don’t think Jesus is trying to scare them, or us, by threatening them with eternal damnation. I think he’s trying to shake them awake with it, saying, “Can’t you see? Can’t you see how important this is? That what I am doing is extending God’s love in the world?” He’s trying to open their eyes to the fact that the work of God can go beyond their religious rules.

And so he gives them another chance to see it. Next, Jesus takes the most intimate and close relationship we can have, what is meant to be one of the greatest sources of love in the world – family – he makes it very, very big.

Jesus’ family shows up at the door to take him home, and the crowd around him tells him that his family is outside waiting. And Jesus looks around and he says, “You are my family. I don’t think he is rejecting his family outside! But rather he is redrawing the boundaries of what it means to be family. And he makes this great source of love in the world much, much bigger, in order to extend God’s love to more and more people.

So, the question we are invited to ask this morning is – do we live like a family? Do we see each other as family? And not just the people we like, but even the ones we’re pretty sure we wouldn’t like. Or to whom we’ve never spoken a word?

Let’s not let today’s gospel send us away afraid. We’ve got enough fear in the other parts of our life. And Jesus isn’t instilling fear, he’s casting it out. Today, Jesus is extending our love for one another, so that we might see each other not just as fellow Christians or human beings, but as family. And with that kind of Divine Love among us, what’s to fear?

Amen.

[1] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_june_7_2015

Sunday, May 17th, 2015 – Sermon on John 17:6-19

John 17:6-19

6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Let me begin by saying how good it is to be here with all of you. And thank you for your very warm and kind welcome. As we’ve moved in and added another child to our family in the past two weeks, our fridge has been stocked with food and beverages that have made life much easier for our family. Lauren, Elliot, Henry, and I are so delighted to be here with you all.

Well, it’s graduation season. High school. College. Seminary. Today, we honor and recognize and pray over our own high school seniors as they step out into a new phase of life. And with graduations come graduation speeches. The ones I’ve heard have been more disappointing than memorable, but I don’t blame the speakers for that. It’s a hard thing to do – to give one final speech, one last chance to impart words of wisdom and guidance upon a group of people before sending them out.

As I think about graduation speeches, I’ve come to realize that really all I want to hear is for someone to tell me the truth. Tell me the truth about the world that lies ahead.

Few people have done this as well as the late great writer David Foster Wallace. In arguably one of the greatest commencement speeches ever given, David Foster Wallace tells a group of graduating students the truth. But first, he tells them a story. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and says, “What the (heck) is water?”[1]

As Wallace says it, the point of this story is “that sometimes the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see.”[2] Some times we are oblivious to that which is most obvious like fish clueless about the water they are swimming in.

Now here comes the truth. He goes on to tell the student body what so often goes unspoken in graduation speeches. He tells them the truth about the water that all of us are swimming in. That most of our lives end up in the exact same place. That we will spend much of our life sitting in traffic, going to the grocery store, waiting in long lines, being sick of our jobs, and worried about finances. All of us.

Which isn’t the most uplifting graduation speech. “Happy graduation. Welcome to life. It gets kind of old after awhile.”

But this is when Wallace says we all have a choice to make. “Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give (us) time to think, and if (we) don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, (we will) be (angry) and miserable (most of our life). Because (our) default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about (us). About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way.” And then my only goal will be to figure out how to get them out of my way.

So we can think like that, Wallace says. Or we can think differently. We can remember that this is water. And we can remember that all of us are swimming in this water. We can choose to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as (we are), and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than (we) do.

And then, Wallace says, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred.”[3]

This world is sacred. If you are willing to see it, Wallace says.

Which isn’t far off from what I think Jesus is trying to say to his disciples in the gospel for today. In fact, in some ways, today’s gospel is kind of like Jesus’ graduation speech for his disciples. It’s Jesus’ one last chance to speak to this group of people, before he sends them out into the world.

Here’s the scene: it is the night before Jesus’ death – Maundy Thursday – and he’s been saying his goodbyes to all of the disciples. And then with everyone still gathered around and listening in, he starts to pray. Now, I don’t know if you actually heard or remember any of what Jesus said, because, as one person I know put it, Jesus in the gospel of John can often sounds like the teacher in a Charlie Brown cartoon – waaa wa waa waa, wa wa waa wa.

Jesus prays with such high and lofty words, that twist and turn, and curve in on themselves, it’s hard to keep track of what he is trying to say. But if we listen closely, just like the disciples did, we can hear that not only is Jesus praying for them…he’s praying to them. So that they might also hear some final words of guidance before being sent back out into the world. Listen.

9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.

Can you hear it? Jesus is praying to God, but he is also speaking to the disciples. Jesus wants his disciples to hear this final message and it is a message that says, God gave you to me, which makes you a gift from God. And I may no longer be in the world but you are. Not only are you in the world, but I have sent you to be here. And now my works are in your hands. Through this prayer,“Jesus is counting on us to be his presence in the wake of his absence.”[4]

So there you go. How about that for a graduation speech, during this graduation season? Jesus telling his disciples that he is counting on them – on us – to be his presence in this world. And that makes this world – this place –sacred ground. IF we are willing to see it. Why? Because the presence of God is constantly cropping up all around us in the work of ordinary people whom Jesus has sent. And because this is the very place that God has sent you to be. To go and be the hands and feet of Christ in the ordinariness of your own life.

Friends, Jesus is pointing out the water to the disciples. The most obvious thing that we, like those fish, can be so oblivious to – that every place, every moment is sacred, if we are willing to see it.

As preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has said, people are so willing to look all over the place to find God and the sacred. “They will spend hours launching prayers into the heavens. They will travel halfway around the world to visit a monastery in India or to take part in a mission trip to Belize. The last place most people look is right under their feet (in Northfield, MN)…in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives. What possible spiritual significance could a trip to the grocery store have?” Barbara Brown Taylor asks.[5]

A lot, David Foster Wallace, says. If we are willing to see it.

I am no longer in the world, but (you) are,” Jesus says. And therefore, what happens here matters. A lot. No matter how ordinary it is.

And Jesus prays that we will remain awake to this reality. That we would know that we are the ones in the world. The world God loves so much. And that in seeing that and knowing that, we would then be the very presence of Jesus in the world.

And here’s the thing: you already are. You already are the presence of Jesus in the world.

You know, when a six year old stops over to visit his 81-year-old friend from church, because she’s been in the hospital, Jesus is present in the world and you see how sacred it can be. When the seasons of life shift, and you find yourself caring for your aging parents, and it’s hard, hard work, because it’s backwards – I mean, they’re supposed to take care of you, right? -but it’s also good work, because how else can you give back to them all the care they’ve given to you? In that moment, Jesus is present and you see how sacred this life can be. When someone lingers after worship to spend an extra moment with a friend having a hard time, Jesus is present and you see how sacred this life can be.

Friends, that’s some of the stories that I’ve heard about and witnessed here at St. John’s in just the past week alone. That’s the water that we are swimming in. And it’s pretty ordinary. But it’s also what sustains us and gives us life. Because without that kind of water all around us, we would just be gasping for air.

It’s late. It’s after supper. And the time has come. And there is no doubt about it. Jesus is praying for his disciples. But he is also praying to them. He wants them to hear what he has to say to God: All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.

Which makes this a very sacred place with all of you in it.

So, to our graduating seniors, wherever you are going is a sacred space filled with God and in need of the love of Christ that you have to offer. To the McCarthy family, know that where you are headed is a sacred space filled with God and in need of the love of Christ that you have to offer. To all of you, wherever this week leads you is a sacred space filled with God and in need of the love of Christ that you have to offer. This is our world, folks. And it is filled with such divine and sacred things that are so ordinary that we can become so oblivious to them. Divine and sacred things that we do. Divine and sacred things that others do – all of which is the work of God in us. And it is everywhere. We’re swimming in it. May we have the eyes to see. Amen.

[1] David Foster Wallace, http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Foster Wallace, http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

[4] Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1996

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, pg. 12.