Sunday, February 28, 2016


Mark 12:13-17        New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.


Part of my sermon preparation each week is finding an image that fits what I am hoping to say.  Often I don’t come up with the right image until Saturday or even Sunday morning.  This week Leah asked if I could possibly think about it a bit earlier as she was going to be on a retreat with our high school youth and would like not to have to worry about it while she is gone.  So I began my image search on Monday.  I found a very cool hound dog with ears outspread and some word clouds and scrabble boards with the word listening on them.  And then I saw this . . . it’s nothing at all like any of the other images.  It doesn’t just say “listening” - it defines all the parts of listening.  Jesus frequently said things like, “Let those who have ears to hear, hear what I have said.”    But I think what he really meant is, “Let those who want to make the effort, listen to me.”

Not hearing.  Listening.  And according to this pictograph listening includes a number of things. 

Ears to hear (big orange symbol)
Actually hearing what someone has to say.  Most of us take that for granted, but there are some who no longer have the ability to hear the way they used to.  Hearing aids and the listening devices we have in the sanctuary are very helpful, but they aren’t perfect.  Even people with really good hearing might have what parents often call “selective hearing” in their children.  They really only hear what they want to hear.   “Clean your room” is somehow completely inaudible, but “Who wants pizza?” comes across loud and clear.  

Eyes to see (turquoise symbol)
Eyes are not absolutely necessary to hearing.  After all, blind people can hear just fine unless, like Helen Keller they are blind and deaf.  But we’re talking about listening, and I don’t know about you, but I can really hear what you are saying much better if I am looking at you.  I not only hear your words, but I see your facial expressions and body language, so I have a deeper understanding not just of the things you are saying but how you feel about what you are saying.   

Undivided attention (blue line)
It isn’t easy to give anything my undivided attention for very long.  Squirrel!   Even if I want to pay close attention, I can easily be . . . oooh … shiny!   . . . where was I?   We are surrounded by all sorts of distractions, even when we are sitting in the audience of an intensely dramatic play performance  . . .What a lovely dress that lady in the front row is wearing . . .  OK, I’ll stop.  But seriously, giving someone our undivided attention means we are really paying attention to what they have to say.  As difficult as that may be, especially in a time when cell phones and wearables like my watch are constantly demanding our attention, and when live-tweeting what’s going on at an event is becoming more and more accepted as way of including everyone we know in important events.  I was one of the people live-tweeting from General Assembly in Indianapolis some years back, but what that meant is that I wasn’t always looking at the stage and I missed some very cool stuff.   I was only hearing what was going on, not really listening, not really engaging with it - not giving it my undivided attention.  

Heart to feel (yellow symbol)
A heart to feel what is being said.  Listening is about more than using our physical senses. It includes allowing the other person’s emotions in.  It means having a bit of empathy for the speaker. It means responding from the heart, from the very seat of our being.  An odd thing about empathy - science has shown that when someone is listening to another very closely and with empathy, it is not uncommon for the listener to yawn.  I know - we always think that yawning means the other guy is bored or sleepy.  But in fact, yawning is also a sign of empathy at work.   So someone starts stifling yawns while talking to you, take it as a compliment. It means she is listening very closely, with ears and eyes and heart.   

Mind to think  (grey symbol)
Mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote about a Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who solved crimes by using his “little grey cells.”  He was often criticized by those who didn’t know his methods because he didn’t seem to be doing much on the cases he was investigating.  But he always caught the evil doers, through careful consideration of both facts and all sorts of apparently random information.  He never took things at face value, you see.  He always looked for the underlying motives and deeper meanings in whatever people told him.  I love that this symbol is grey, because listening clearly includes the use of the “little grey cells”.  

So listening is an activity that includes all of these things - ears to hear, eyes to see, undivided attention, a heart to feel and a mind to think.  Jesus expected, or perhaps hoped is more accurate, that people hearing what he had to say would focus, not just on his words but where those words pointed.

When the Pharisees came to him with that test question - “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?  Should we pay them, or should we not?” - they were trying to trick him into saying something treasonous, something that would allow them to go to the Romans and say, this man is preaching against the Emperor.  Jesus was much too smart for them, and said, “Give to the Emperor what is his.”  Clearly, the coins were the Emperor’s - they had his face on them, after all.  He managed to say “Pay your taxes!” without upsetting the folks listening who were actively working against Rome.  That was a good trick.  It was like saying something today that all the Democrats and Republicans would agree about.   

So, great. Pay your taxes!  Keep church stuff and government stuff separated.  Excellent. I am a strong proponent of the separation of Church and State.  I believe that the government needs to stay out of the church’s business and the church needs to stay out of the government’s business.  I keep my views on specific candidates out of the pulpit and off my lawn, my car bumper and my Facebook page.   And just so you know, I am registered to vote with no party preference and, if asked, I won’t say who I plan to vote for.  I will, however, use my understanding of the Gospel in forming my decision about who and what to cast my vote for, as should we all.

How many of you got the opportunity to see the play “12 Angry Men” here in town?  I saw it last night and I have to tell you it was a great performance.  So powerful.  So timely.  Issues of race and prejudice and preconceived notions that had to be peeled away like the layers of an onion in order for the jury to clearly see possibilities.  One of the characters - Juror 3 - upon hearing Juror 8’s concern that the other eleven men were willing to take a life without thinking about it, scoffed at that man for “preaching.”  Several times, when he wanted to put someone’s opinion down, he would refer to what they said as sermonizing.  Notions of compassion and grace, as far as he was concerned, had no place in a jury room.  Mind you, none of the other jurors mentioned anything even vaguely religious - certainly nothing overtly Christian.  But somehow the notion that the young man in question might have some worth as a human being escaped a few of the Jurors entirely for the majority of the play. 

And yet, that is what Christians are taught to believe.  That God created all of us, and loves all of us and that therefore, we all have worth in God’s eyes.  That Jesus came to save the entire world, not just certain races or ethnicities or gender identities or sexual orientations.   Jesus said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Those who truly listened - with ears, eyes, undivided attention, heart and mind - knew that he was saying a lot more than “pay your taxes and go to the Temple on the Sabbath”.  The money belongs to the Emperor - to the world.  To the corporations and the IRS.  God doesn’t care about money.  But God does care about your soul, your heart, your happiness and your well being - and the Emperor doesn’t.  The Emperor - the world - says spend your money here, spend your power there, love this, hate that.  God says, use your heart and mind and soul sharing the love that I have poured out upon you.  Don’t judge - leave that to me.  Don’t hate.  It is beneath you.  The Emperor - the world - says reject this person and that one because they are different from you.  Jesus says do as I did - reject no one.  Welcome everyone.  Help those in need.  Jesus said,  “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”   
(Matthew  7:12) If anyone asks you to do otherwise - to treat others badly, to reject anyone, to think of others as in any way less than - it seems to me that they have not really listened to the Word of the Lord with eyes, ears, undivided attention, heart, and mind. 

These are not things that we do just when we are doing our churchy things.  These are things that God requires of us in all of our affairs.  These are the things we must consider when we make decisions about where and how to spend our money and our energy - and about who we choose to spend our money for us.   

Love your neighbor as you are loved. 
Love God with all your heart, your strength, and your mind.  
Serve God with all your will and your life. 
Give back to God all that you have received from God, 
whose love knows no conditions, 
whose forgiveness knows no limits, 
whose giving knows no ending. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Mark 10:32-52 (NRSV) 

32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

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


“. . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”   Jesus said this to the disciples after two of them, James and John, had asked to sit at his right and left hand when he came into power.  You see, they still didn’t quite understand the whole “my kingdom isn’t of this world” thing, yet.  They still thought that Jesus was destined to be some sort of king or other powerful ruler, with a throne and armies of people serving him. They wanted to be his 1st and 2nd officers.  They also didn’t quite get what he meant when he asked if they would be willing to drink from the same cup he did.  “Of course!” they said, not realizing that it was a cup of pain and death he was talking about, not fine wine.   Jesus knew that it was going to be really hard for his disciples to wrap their minds around this entirely different model of leadership than they were used to.  He kept trying to help them understand, but it will take more than a few stories. He will literally spend the rest of his life teaching this concept - that the leaders must serve their people, not the other way around.  We’re still trying to get it right.  

Don’t get me wrong. We do service pretty well.  Churches and schools engage in  service projects and programs to help their communities.  Students who are considering college will start doing community service as early as junior high so their resume will impress admissions officers, because colleges and universities want “servant leaders”.  Most clubs and other organizations have adopted particular projects or causes.  We walk, run, bake, pick up trash, buy stuff, participate in phonathons, volunteer for dunk tanks or to be “arrested” so our friends can bail us out by donating to something or other . . .  we, each of us, do what we can to help those who need our help.

Today is the first of two Sundays when we Disciples take up the Week of Compassion Special Offering.  For those who may not know what Week of Compassion is, it is the disaster relief and humanitarian assistance program fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US and Canada.  When there is any kind of disaster and people need help, the Week of Compassion is ready and willing to jump into action.   When there is an earthquake or wildfire in California, WoC is there with funds to help congregations and church members.  When tornados hit Kanas, WoC is there.  WoC was in Haiti, New Orleans, the Philippines and Japan.  Right now, WoC is monitoring the situation in Fiji, where one of the strongest storms in recorded history made landfall last night.  Week of Compassion works in conjunction with other faith based agencies, like Church World Service, to provide blankets, hygiene kits, school supplies, water . . . whatever is needed in any disaster.  They even help organize volunteers when “boots on the ground” type assistance needed.  Talk about serving!  We can help serve those in need by giving generously to Week of Compassion.  

It might have seemed a bit strange, when this passage was being read, that a healing story was tacked on to the end of this very well known story about the first being last.  In fact, in this story, even blind Bartmaeus serves in his own way - as an example.  He believed his sight could be restored by Jesus, and his faith did, indeed, restore him to wholeness.  He didn’t cry out “Heal me!”   Rather, he said, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”  It wasn’t so much the plea as the address that proved his faith.  It was prophesied that a son of the house of David would restore the kingdom.  By calling Jesus the Son of David, he was proclaiming his belief that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah.  Further, Bartimaeus calls Jesus “my teacher.” Not Lord or King or any honorific connoting royalty or might. Teacher.  Bartimaeus served as a voice proclaiming to those with ears to hear that Jesus was the one anointed by God to lead Israel into wholeness - not through military prowess but through the Word.  Jesus healed Bartimaeus’ blindness thus restoring one man to wholeness, but his teachings, if heard and acted upon, would restore the entire world.   Jesus wasn’t telling us to do service. He was telling us to live a life of serving.  

Yesterday I heard two stories that have been running around my head ever since.  It seems that when Pat Adams was teaching 3rd grade she asked her students to write something about different work people did.  One of her students wrote that Mrs. Adams didn’t work.  She was his teacher.    And Chief Garner said that he had spent part of the morning with the department’s newest patrol officer and told him, “When you are doing a job that you love, you will never work a day in your life.”   So, I’m thinking that child wrote more truly than he knew — that Pat Adams didn’t work, because she surely loved teaching.  

Actually, I heard a lot of good stuff yesterday.  I attended the Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life First Annual Vendor Appreciation Luncheon.  We got a certificate!   Pastor Nelson Schwamb introduced Police Chief Garner by telling the story of their first meeting.  He was impressed that the Chief spoke of being called by God to serve in Selma.  And the Chief re-asserted that statement in his remarks.  He believes that he is here because God wants him to be here, to help Selma become whole.  He further, and fervently, believes that if all the churches and help agencies and police work together serving God, we can heal our community, rendering jails obsolete and police unnecessary.  That is the work that we do in Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life - that attempt to make our community healed and whole.  I turned to my neighbor at one point and said, “That’s the Kingdom he’s talking about.”   What the Chief was describing is what Jesus is pointing us to, what God desires for us.  To heal the world so that all persons have enough, no one is oppressed, justice is tempered with mercy, need is met with compassion, anger is turned aside by love.   

Jesus didn’t ask his disciples — us — to do service.  He directed us — his disciples —  to live a life of serving.  There is a difference.  Now, that doesn’t mean giving up your job and going to work as a volunteer missionary in Appalachia or Kenya or someplace - although you could if that’s what you feel called to do.  Serving is simply a matter of doing whatever you do for God.   If you teach, you do that with love, the best you can, for God.  If you care for children or aging relatives or both, you do that with love, the best that you can, for God.   If you fix cars, if you work in an office, if you dig ditches, if you train horses, if you make music — whatever it is that you do, do it the best you can, with love, for God. 

Perhaps you don’t feel called to the work you do.  Perhaps you don’t know yet how it is your life is supposed to serve God. Perhaps you think you could be doing more, or better, or more important things.  The poet John Milton expressed his concern that he wasn’t serving God well enough in the poem, “In His Blindness.”  In it he asks himself if he is doing enough to serve God, and the answer he received was this:

“. . . God doth not need 
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best 
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state 
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed, 
And post o'er land and ocean without rest; 
They also serve who only stand and wait.

It may be a while before you discover what you are truly called to do.  I loved being a secretary, truly.  But in my early 40s I heard the call to the ordained ministry and now I know that this is what I am intended to do.  As Martin Luther once said, “I can do no other.”   Whether you are working at what God calls you to, or you are waiting to learn what that is . .  Treat all your fellow humans with kindness. Do all the small things that you wish people would do for you.   Let that car go on ahead of you.  Hold the door for the person behind you.  Smile at the very slow cashier.   

Jesus did not say it would be easy.  None of this is easy. One of the hardest things we have to do is treat everyone else with love - the way we want to be treated.  None of us is really very good at it, although some are better than others.  The Good News is we don’t have to be perfect. We only have to do our best. 

When we go from this place today, then, let us keep in our minds the words of the hymn we are about to sing, 
Called by worship to your service, forth in Your dear name we go,
To the child, the youth, the aged, love in living deeds to show;
Hope and health, goodwill and comfort, counsel, aid, and peace we give,
That your servants, Lord, in freedom may your mercy know and live. 


Sunday, February 14, 2016


Mark 10:17-31 (NRSV)  

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

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

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


Spoiler alert - there will be no camels in this message.  I know it’s fun to talk about camels, and how Jesus probably wasn’t really talking about a sewing needle but rather a man-sized gate into Jerusalem that camels couldn’t fit through, and how some rich lady is said to have boiled a camel down into broth in order to prove that a camel could, indeed, go through the eye of a needle (yuck!), but even still . . . there will be no camels in this message.  The camel tends to be as distracting to the message as that whole Giant Fish thing is in the story of Jonah.  

I always feel a little sorry for the rich man in this story.  He seems to be a genuinely good man.  He does everything he has always been taught is right and Jesus praises him for that.  Then Jesus throws him a curve ball and says, “There is just one more little thing you need to do . . .  give away everything you have to the poor and follow me.”  And the rich man went away sorrowing, knowing he couldn’t do as Jesus asked.

Peter said, “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” all the while thinking, “Yay us!  We rock!  We’re disciples!  We’re awesome! We are so very much better than that rich guy.”  Yeah, well, maybe.  But they simply walked away from whatever they had - fishing boats, farms, homes, wives, children, mothers-in-law . . .  They said goodbye to their old lives and walked away, and surely their families would experience some hardship, but whatever they had left behind was still there so their sons and brothers and even their wives, could continue supporting the families.  That’s an entirely different proposition than Jesus made to the rich young man. 

We think of the rich man as probably a hedonist - someone who just uses his money to enjoy himself.  You know, the kind who had chests full of treasure and rich clothing, jewel encrusted plates and wine cups, a stable of racing camels, several homes, a private caravan to travel around with, concubines . . . all the of the glitz and glamour we associate with great wealth.  It is possible he did have and love all of those things.  But it is also possible that those weren’t the things that made giving it all to the poor so difficult.  In the first century, a wealthy man would be responsible not only for his own welfare and that of his wife and children, but also most of his family members as well.  He would have a houseful of servants, who also had families depending upon him.  A large number of tradespeople, scholars, farmers, artisans and neighbors would look to him to keep them and their families employed, even settle any disputes that arise among them.  The rich man went away grieved. . . maybe because he really loved his lifestyle, but maybe because he knew that doing what Jesus asked meant casting his loved ones and all the others who depended upon him into the streets, with no one to turn to.  Except the Temple, of course, which would make sure they had some food to eat but couldn’t do much about homes or employment for them.   Kind of like now.  If Bill Gates sold off everything he owned and gave every cent to the poor, a lot of people who depend on him and his wife would have a hard time of it.  They might not become homeless - although Bill and Melinda would - but many would be hard put to replace that income.  Of course, Bill Gates has actually decided to give the vast majority of his wealth away, but in such a way that it doesn’t negatively impact those who depend upon him.  

Jesus wasn’t telling the rich man, “Hey, go make a bunch of people homeless.”  He wasn’t even saying that all rich people are bad and unredeemable, although we often look at passages like this one that way.  What he was saying is that the more stuff we have, the more we have to focus on stuff and the administration of that stuff, the less we tend to turn our attention where it belongs - to God.  He was saying walk away from all your distractions and follow me.    Give to others those things that you treasure, for my sake.

People ask us to give all the time. Mostly money.  I get urgent pleas to help this or that cause every day, and there are so many of them that if I gave just $10 every time I received a request I would probably have nothing to live on.  I give a bit to the causes that mean the most to me - Week of Compassion and the Reconciliation offering, for example.  But there are other pleas made that we may not even hear as real requests, because of the way they are asked.

“Give me a break!” Sometimes muttered under our breath and sometimes addressed to God or even a person, this is usually said in frustration, when whatever is going on is just a bit more than we can take.  What we are really saying is, “Please, have compassion.  Allow me to get through this thing before adding more on top.”  It might be a waitress who just got hit with 5 tables at once, or a friend whose car broke down the day before they have a job interview after being unemployed for a while.  Hear their plea, and respond.  Assure the waitress you understand.  Help your friend find a ride.   Or listen and find out what the problem is.  Sometimes just being listened to is all the break we really need.  Give the gift of your heart.  Give compassion.

“Give me a minute.”  We’ve all heard this, and probably said it.  It means, “Please, be patient.  Just let me finish this thing I am doing and I will be able to pay attention to whatever you need.”  I find that whatever I am doing usually takes longer than anticipated, probably because I am trying to rush to finish so I can give you my attention.  That’s usually not a good thing.   Like, when I am well aware that there is a long line behind me and I’m trying to stuff my change in my wallet, grab my bags of purchases and get out of the way.   I probably don’t need to tell you that those are the times when I am most likely to drop my change or  grab just one bag handle and spill everything onto the floor.  I end up apologizing profusely to the person behind me and feeling terrible.  It’s always better when she says, don’t worry.  No rush.  Or even just smiles.  Give the gift of your time -  give patience.

“Give me a hand.”  This is not a request for applause, although that really never gets old, right? *eye roll*  And this is one request that we actually hear as a plea for help.  It might be grabbing a package that’s falling, or helping design something new and cool for the church, or opening a door for someone whose hands are full.  The thing is, people often don’t ask for a hand when they need one. I tend to stubbornly try to do everything on my own, like carry all my groceries in from the car in one trip and try to hold them all with one hand while unlocking the door with the other.  I will, actually, accept help when offered. I just really hate to ask.  Offer your help when you see someone who might need it.  Do not be like that Boy Scout who insisted on helping the old lady across the street even though she didn’t want to cross.   But do watch for opportunities to reach out a helping hand when someone needs one.  Give the gift of observation and effort - reach out in loving care to friend and stranger.

The thing about giving, especially giving of ourselves, is that we usually get back so much more than we gave.  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields.”  This does not mean that if we give money, we will get lots of money back.  You will not find a $100 bill on the ground if you re-post that Facebook meme saying that if repost it you will be blessed with money.  You will not win the lottery if you give the last of your savings to that televangelist who needs a new house.  Jesus was not suggesting that leaving everything behind in order to follow him would result in great earthly wealth.  But when you focus on living as Jesus lived, when you give of yourself as he did, you will find that you have received gifts greater than any earthly wealth.  The teachers among us know - seeing a student’s face light up with understanding is a far greater reward than the salary you receive.   Anyone who has ever gone on a mission trip, or helped to build a Habitat for Humanity house, or served dinner to the hungry, knows that you leave that work having received far more than you had hoped to give. 

The wealthy man of Mark’s gospel left Jesus’ presence grieving, for he did, indeed, have many possessions.  He might or might not have be able to comply with Jesus’ request - but probably not.  Imagine how you would feel if someone told you to sell everything, pick up an actual cross, and hit the road with nothing.  But Mark tells us that Jesus loved him.  He didn’t condemn him or say that the rich man was evil.  Only that it would be hard for anyone possessing wealth to live in God’s kingdom.  Only that because we focus so much on our wealth (or lack thereof) and the preserving and growing of what we do have, instead of focusing on what we have to give, it is very hard to remember that what we are supposed to be doing is loving one another, giving of ourselves to those who need what we have, whatever it may be.  

Today is the first Sunday in Lent - the season of repentance and preparation.  As part of our walk to Easter with Jesus let us repent, today, of our selfishness.  Let us examine our hearts this week, seeking out those occasions and situations where we withhold love from our neighbors.  Let us replace those selfish withholdings with giving - reaching out to with patience, compassion, mercy and care to all whom we encounter in our daily lives.   Let us commit ourselves, this day, to our Lord, Jesus the Christ, offering our lives - our hands, our feet, our hearts and our minds - as gifts consecrated to our God.  Let us commit ourselves to giving the treasures of our hearts to whomever may need what we have to give, in the name of Jesus, for the glory of God.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Mark 9:2-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany.  The season of Carnival - Mardi Gras - has begun.  On Wednesday, Lent begins.  From today until Easter we will be walking with Jesus to Easter through the words of Mark’s Gospel.  

Previously, in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus fed thousands of people - twice! - then told the Pharisees he wouldn’t be performing any signs or wonders for them.  He restored sight to a blind man and told him not to tell anyone who it was that healed him.  He was named “Messiah” by Peter, and later rebuked him when Peter said he shouldn’t talk about his death and resurrection in front of people.  Naturally, all of this confused the disciples.  

Six days later Peter, James, and John witnessed something amazing, more amazing than all of the healings and casting out of demons and feedings of thousands.  Right before their eyes Jesus was transfigured, so changed that even his clothes became whiter than humanly possible.  Moses and Elijah were there with him.  Peter, ever a practical man, wanted to build them all houses to stay in.  He really didn’t know what else to say.  I mean, what do you say when the man you had been wandering around the countryside with suddenly begins glowing like the moon with gleaming white clothes, and standing with him are the two greatest people from your history?   Before Jesus had a chance to say anything, a voice from above cried out, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”   When they looked around they saw Jesus looking just as he always did.  Moses and Elijah are gone.  He said not to tell anyone what they had seen, not until after the resurrection of the Son of Man.  And again, the disciples are confused.

Frankly, I don’t blame them.  All of that would have confused me too, I think.  Among other things, there was the whole question of the resurrection.  The belief of the Jews is that resurrection will happen for everyone at the same time, on the last day.  So what’s all this Jesus was saying about resurrection after three days?   The only people who would not be resurrected on that day are Moses and Elijah, who had both, it was believed, been taken directly into God’s presence at the end of their lives - the very same two who appeared on the mountain with Jesus.  So you can see there was a lot to talk about and to wonder about. 

It seems that no matter how much time the disciples spend with Jesus, they just don’t seem to change.  They don’t learn from their exposure to him. They don’t learn from his example.  They don’t even learn from his preaching.   And now they have seen him change, right in front of them . . . and still, nothing changes. 

Of course, the change in Jesus wasn’t a real change. It was more cosmetic than anything.  As he stood on that mountaintop alongside Moses and Elijah we, with the benefit of hindsight, can imagine that Jesus took on the appearance he would have later, after his ascension into heaven.   He was still the same person he had been before, the same person he would be after.  The ones I really would expect to change are Peter, James and John.  They are the ones who experienced this event.  They are the ones who heard that voice coming out of heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the beloved.  Listen to him!”   They are the ones who had a God moment - an experience of God actually breaking into their lives and speaking to them.  They are the ones who were standing on holy ground without even knowing it.

We all have God moments.  We lift them up here on Sunday mornings.  They aren’t ordinary celebrations.  Rather they are moments when we can see God’s hand acting in our lives, when we can hear God’s voice speaking to us, directing our way, opening our eyes to possibilities. 

At the beginning of my time as a student chaplain at the Indiana State Mental Hospital we had a conversation with the chief of psychiatric services.  As we went through our directions for the use of the DSM IV - the most important of which was, do NOT use the book to self-diagnose, as everyone has some quirks that can be symptomatic of some disorder or other - he described some of the more common disorders we would be encountering.  When we got to schizophrenics and how they heard voices that they often thought came from God, we all looked at each other.  One of my braver classmates pointed out that each one of us in the group believed God had spoken to us at one time or another, and the doctor said, “IF the voice you hear tells you to do good, it is most likely God.  If it tells you to hurt someone, you need medication.”   

Change is a really difficult thing for most people.  Much of the change that we do is more exterior than anything deep and significant, sort of like the way the coloring of the Valspar chameleon pictured here changes to match the paint chip closest to her.   For example, over the years I have lost lots of weight, but it won’t stay lost until I change my lifestyle - until healthy eating and exercise are not just something I do for a result, but become a way of living that I embrace whole-heartedly.  Simplifying and de-cluttering our lives won’t make any real difference unless we do more than just get rid of stuff.  We also have to get rid of the desire to acquire stuff.  That’s not to say that those things aren’t good for us, because they are.  They simply won’t have a lasting result until we embrace them with our hearts as well as our intellect. 

There has been a saying circulating on Facebook lately:  Religion says God will love us if we change.  The Gospel says God’s love changes us.  And I have to say that’s true.  I grew up with the idea that I had to become perfect or awfully dang close before God would love me.  I was pretty sure I could never live up to God’s standards, so I gave up.  For a long time I lived with the belief that God would never love me, and that it didn’t matter what I did because I would never ever be good enough.  After 25 years of drug and alcohol use I knew I had to change or die - when I woke up one morning knowing that I had to do something different because I felt dead inside - I embarked on a journey that would lead me to a different understanding of God.  I remember clearly the first time I started to believe that God would love me - even me!  That God would forgive me for everything I had done . . that God had already, in fact, forgiven me for everything I had done.  I remember crying tears of joy when I really began to grasp the idea that God loved me just the way I am - that no changes were necessary for God to love me.  That is the day I began wanting to change - to really change.  Not just quit using drugs and alcohol and food and money and people and work to make me feel better - but really, actually change the way I approach life.  

I would challenge the wording of that Facebook post though.  Because you see, God loves us all, all the time.  But I didn’t know that, and so even after I stopped using, nothing really changed in my life.  It wasn’t until I began to understand that God is a God of love and compassion that I began to make significant changes in my life.  I think it is the knowledge of God’s love that really changes us - that opens our hearts to deep, spiritual transformation.  

The Elders here at First Christian make a practice of studying a book each year.  This year they have chosen If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland.  At the very beginning the authors make it clear that grace is not “an attitude that ignores differences and tolerates every idea. . . [rather] grace is a commitment to the most difficult and demanding of human acts—engaging and loving those who think and behave in ways we find unacceptable.”  (pg. 7)   

Sadly, we see the lack of grace every time we turn on the TV or open Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.  If this one disagrees with that one, there is no polite discourse.  There is only name calling, accusation and recrimination.  If this person won then obviously they cheated.  If that one succeeded they must have done something underhanded in order to get there.  There is very little respect or courtesy extended by our leaders to one another, and because of that there is less and less courtesy and kindness apparent in the way all the rest of us treat one another.  Even the most popular TV programs tend to be about how to cheat, manipulate others, and lie in order to Survive and win a gazillion dollars.  Grace doesn’t seem to be a very popular commodity these days. 

And all I can think is, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Without knowledge of God’s love, I would most likely be there among them.  Even with that knowledge, it’s hard not to judge others. It’s hard to engage those with whom I disagree without feeling like I’m going into battle in order to convince someone to change.  And yet, if I am to take God’s love seriously, and try my best to live out that love in all my dealings with others, then surely I will continue to change.  I will find it easier to deal lovingly with those I find most difficult to accept.  

“This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!”   Jesus told us to love one another - that the world would know we are his followers because of our love.  That love he calls us to, that true transformation into people who truly love one another, is possible only inasmuch as we understand God’s love for us, for each one of us individually, and for all of us collectively.   The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that God loves us - God’s grace enfolds us - God’s forgiveness lifts us out of the mire into the light.  May we come to truly believe in God’s love for us, so that we may be changed, transformed by it and enabled to truly love one another, even as Jesus was transfigured on that mountain.  May we come to resemble the Christ, whose love for us is our salvation.