Coming | 1st of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

14 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The LORD Is Our Righteousness.

Coming

Advent seems like a strange season to many Christians. Not only is it strange, it’s maybe not-so-strangely misunderstood. It casts an unfamiliar vibe. Part of the reason for our misunderstanding of the Advent season is undoubtedly due to Advent’s conflict our cultural mindset which occupies the same time. After all, most of us are getting ready for Christmas before the dishes from our Thanksgiving meals are put away. I admit that I did my Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, albeit from the comfort of my chair in front of my computer.

Another oddity with Advent is that it messes with time. During the weeks of December, most of us are paradoxically looking forward to the birth of a baby that has already been born—and is yet still being born in us. And, we’re looking forward to the New Year when, for Christians, the first Sunday of Advent is the New Year.

The reality of Advent, however, is that it has no star in the east to guide magi toward the child born in Bethlehem. It has no choir of angels singing refrains of God’s glory, and no shepherds watching their flocks by night. Advent has no birth in a cattle stall, no swaddled baby in a manger, and no Blessed Virgin Mary who ponders in her heart the words of the angel as reported by those shepherds.

The Scripture verses we read during the season of Advent are sometimes strange and difficult to hear. The Gospel readings are all focused on adults who speak about the coming of God’s dominion in apocalyptic overtones. The readings from the New Testament letters all point to the nearness of the Lord’s return. The Old Testament readings speak of a future time of restoration and peace with the coming Day of the Lord which are spoken to a people who are facing the terrors of exile with their crushed hopes, dashed dreams, with a trail of blood, tears, and burned livelihoods either before or behind them.

Advent is not filled with the feel-good stories that we love. These are not the childhood favorites that draw the waters of bubbly nostalgia up from deep within our hearts. Even the songs we sing in Advent, with their minor keys and tempered tempos, fail to gratify our desire to sing the carols of Christmas joy and gladness. Advent can be frustrating to us. It can be confounding to those who simply want to get on to the joy of Christmas with its gift exchanges and family gatherings and well-prepared feasts.

For me, Advent is one of my favorite seasons—it always has been—probably because the theme of the season matches most closely to how I feel all the time. I may not always feel joyful during Christmas. I may not always feel a sense of wonder during the season after Epiphany. I may not always feel remorseful or repentant during Lent. I may not always feel like I’m living out the glories or the victory of Easter, or feel alive and empowered by the Spirit in the season after Pentecost.

You see, I’m the type of person who sees how messed up the world is and I long for something better, something more, something to heal the hurts of the world. I’m the type of person who grieves deeply with each injustice I hear about on the news: every life cut short with all the hopes, dreams, and potential that’s destroyed with them; every injustice against women, minorities, refugees. My heart hurts for every person living in the midst of war or poverty or violence, who suffers at the hands of nations and powers, and the inhumanity they inflict all for the sake of the illusion of control. I grieve for the trauma that each person with these experiences and in these situations will have to deal with for the rest of their lives, and for all they lost and won’t ever get back.

I know that all sounds rather bleak. Maybe even pessimistic. Maybe my words sound like those of someone on the brink of despair. Despair would certainly fit with those who heard Jeremiah’s words. They were facing exile. They were living in the midst of war and death and destruction.

What keeps me from the brink of despair is my faith in God’s promises. When I hear about the horrors people have endured or are enduring, these things fill my prayers. And my prayers for justice, for peace, for righteousness, for restoration, for renewal: they shape my despair into hope and hopeful imagination. Instead of the paralyzation of despair, my soul cries out in longing and hope, Maranatha! The cool thing is, that word from Aramaic either means Come, Lord, or The Lord has come. One points to the source of our longing for God. The other points to the source of our hope in God.

I long for the day when the poor have everything they need, when no more children cry because they’re hungry, when cancer and other illnesses don’t cut lives short, when death is no more, when mourning and crying and pain are no more. I long for the day when refugees no longer have a reason to flee, and all are welcomed as friends no matter what insignificant border they happen to cross. I long for the day when every tear is wiped dry. I long for God’s dominion on earth.

It’s a sense of longing that runs through the season of Advent. The name of the season, itself, means coming. And that’s what we’re longing for in the season of Advent: that the Lord will come and set all things aright. We sing the mournful-sounding hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel in a minor key because only a minor-key fits when our unfulfilled longing for God’s righteousness can no longer be contained.

“The time is coming,” the Lord declares, when God’s gracious promise to Israel and Judah will be fulfilled. Jeremiah spoke this word of God’s promise to the People of Jerusalem when their world was crumbling around them. Jeremiah shouts to us that, even when things look bleak, we can trust in God’s promise that a new day is coming, when righteousness is the norm.

Jeremiah foresaw a future king of David’s line who would be righteous, who would do what is just and right. You see, Jeremiah blamed the unrighteousness of the Davidic monarchy for the exile that the people faced in his day. The Davidic kings exploited their own people, and they were unfaithful to God. They let justice and righteousness fall to the ground when they were supposed to be its defenders.

The righteous branch was also foreseen by Isaiah, who said, “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. The LORD’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD. He will delight in fearing the LORD. He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land. He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked. Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.” (Isaiah 11:1-5 CEB).

God promised to raise up a branch from the stump of a kingly line that had been cut off. Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were the last kings of David’s line. In the middle of hopelessness, Jeremiah offers the people hope. Jeremiah promises them days for which they might long: days when everything that the people have lost will be restored, and the coming-one of David’s line will govern the people with righteousness and justice so that they live in safety.

But, what does the word righteousness even mean? It’s a churchy word that we’re sometimes afraid of because we usually hear it used when we think someone is being self-righteous. Righteousness isn’t an attitude. It’s not an absolute standard. It simply means acting in accordance with God’s purposes. It’s doing the Godly thing. Righteousness is doing good instead of doing bad. It’s also doing as opposed to being. Righteousness is humility, and the ethics of living with and for others in relationships that are loving and just. Self-righteousness is the opposite of righteousness. It’s inflated ego and self-approval. Advent is an invitation for God’s people to remember that we are called to practice righteousness, now, even as we yearn for the future of God’s dominion.

Speaking of our longing: Holy Communion, this meal we’re about to share together, it’s a foretaste of our longings fulfilled. But we need to remember that this meal doesn’t point to magi, or a star, or the things of tender nostalgia. Instead, it points to a world gone mad: a world that desperately needs and longs for the salvation of our God. This meal is of the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ whose body was beaten, broken, and bled out by people and powers also for the sake of the illusion of control. This table is set with food paid for at a costly price. Yet, we’re invited to partake, to share in this meal with each other so that we are reminded that our longing for God is not in vain.

God declares that “The time is coming.” Maybe Advent isn’t so strange or unfamiliar after all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

 

(c.f. Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1, pg. 2-7).

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Reign of Christ | Proper 29

John 18:33-37

33 Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”

35 Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

37 “So you are a king?” Pilate said.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

Reign of Christ

A world-famous archaeologist who once said, “Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Ok, so, that was actually Dr. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Harrison Ford was right. Even for a movie-archaeologist. There is a difference between fact and truth, and there are differences between kinds of truth.

We talk about facts as those empirically verifiable objective things. Facts exist in reality. They can be observed and proved by the senses. If I have two apples and add two more, I have four apples. If I mix hydrogen with oxygen and then light it with a match, I’m going to get a really big explosion…and water.

Truth is, seemingly, a little more difficult to nail down. Truth can have the quality of being more subjective than objective, it can be relative or universal. Truth is sometimes defined as what an individual person has come to believe about the state of something or someone. That’s relative truth, and it’s not the same for everyone. My wife and I still disagree about the temperature. In summer, she’s fine with scorching heat in the house so long as it’s not too humid, so I roast. But, in winter, she’s like an arctic fox who needs to feel the cold, so I freeze.

On the other hand, logic requires us to admit that universal and absolute truths exist. After all, if anyone who believes that all truth is relative and thus states, All truth is relative, there is no such thing as absolute truth, then that person has already contradicted themselves by stating the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.

John’s theme of truth is a central point in this text. When Jesus encounters Pontius Pilate, it’s an encounter between an intellectual understanding of truth, which we find in Pilate, and truth as divine revelation, which we find in Jesus. Years after this encounter, one of the early Christian Fathers named Tertullian would ask one of the most enduring questions in Christianity: “What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Prescription Against Heretics, 7). Athens represented philosophy and empirical truth. Jerusalem represented the truth of divine revelation. John tells us that Jesus is identified with God’s truth (c.f. 1:9, 14), and is, himself, the truth (c.f. 14:6).

God’s truth speaks of God’s reign and rule over all creation. It points to an authority that is above all earthly authorities, powers, and political entities. For those who belong to this truth, it speaks to a way of life that is different from the way the rest of the world lives, and values that are different from what the human world values. This truth requires us to look beyond what we believe so that we can hear what God has declared.

This truth is absolutely transforming if we seek it through discerning obedience. But discerning obedience is difficult because it means we must try to live—beyond our individual selves—into something that isn’t necessarily comfortable for us. This truth asks us to look deeply into ourselves: who we are and what we have become, in order that we might live into what we can and ought to be as citizens of God’s dominion. If Jesus Christ is our king, if the reign of God is a truth above all truths, then Christians bow only to Christ. We give our allegiance to Christ above and before any other person, nation, party, power, politic, or authority. And, we seek to understand what God values and requires even as these earthly persons, nations, parties, powers, politics, and authorities are clamoring for our attention and our allegiance.

 

One of the difficulties for American Christians who read this text is that our very mindset is so different from the people of the Ancient Near East. American culture values the idea of individualism. And not just individualism, but rugged individualism. We tend to think of ourselves wholly as individuals, apart and distinct from other individuals to the point that the idea of community, itself, is almost thought of as a weakness or, at best, an appendage that’s nice to have on occasion, but we like that it’s something that we can easily cut off—at least temporarily—so we can be our true individual selves. Especially if things get too deep or too real for our rugged individual comfort.

We United Methodists have largely forgotten that the glue that held Methodism together from the earliest days was Christian community. Methodists were organized into small groups which met weekly where the members encountered each other in community that was authentic and life-giving. In those small community-groups, they shared their lives with each other: their faith, their struggles, their hopes, their prayers. That kind of thing scares the snot out of most Americans because we’re so deeply trapped in the cultural value of rugged individualism that we can’t allow ourselves to experience the vulnerability of community. We don’t want other people to see our true selves because they might see that we’re not so rugged or so individualistic after all. They might see that we need them, and that’s terrifying for an American.

Maybe that’s the challenge for us, because another theme that’s central to this text is that of belonging. Jesus told Pilate, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b CEB).

The reign of God is larger than any individual. The reign of God creates a new community. John the Seer wrote of Jesus, “…by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will rule on earth” (Revelation 5:9-10 CEB).

When Jesus uses the word king and kingdom, here, he gives them new definitions. Belonging to the community of God’s dominion, a community over which Jesus Christ reigns, means we belong to a truth that is not bound to earth. Yet, this kingdom-community is not some esoteric, imaginary thing, either. Jesus came from and belongs to a different kind of kingdom: the dominion of God.

There are times when we test our belonging to community. Children test their belonging to family. I vaguely remember when I got mad at my parents and decided to run away. I climbed a tree behind our house and sat there until I got cold and hungry enough to decide that, whether I liked my family or not, whether I wanted to belong with my family or not, I really did need them.

Communities of faith are no different. Members and non-member constituents test their belonging to our congregation. Sometimes they deliver ultimatums. Sometimes they drift away quietly to see if anyone will notice. Others talk it out with church leadership or other persons and decide whether to stay or leave based on the response they get. All these tests of belonging are based on each individual’s own decision-making. Yet, in the Ancient Near Eastern sense, belonging isn’t really up to each one of us alone. We belong because we belong. We belong because the community knows us, loves us, and claims us. When Jesus tells Pilate, “Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b CEB), Jesus is offering Pilate an invitation to be a part of this community that transcends the individual self.

 

But, how do we listen to the voice of Jesus? It requires a relationship with Jesus in which we constantly look beyond ourselves. When I do premarital counseling with couples, I use a tool called a Marriage Covenant which has all kinds of questions that are designed to force communication to happen. I remind couples that sometimes marriage is work—hard work—precisely because it’s a relationship. And relationships transcend individualism. Relationships require constant communication about everything. So, working through the Marriage Covenant is practice for the kind of constant communication that will foster growth and depth in their relationship as a couple.

When Joy and I were in our first ministry appointment in Terre Haute, we met this couple named Herb and Jerri Redman. They were the sweetest, kindest people you could ever know. Each of them, in their own way, was just a hoot. When you settled yourself on the couch or glider across the living room from Herb and Jerri and started chatting with them, you quickly found out that Jerri did all the talking. Those two loved each other so deeply, knew each other so intimately, that only one of them ever needed to talk.

Now, Herb usually got one or two words in on the edges of the conversation, but Jerri would even answer questions that you asked to Herb. And if you looked over at Herb when Jerry was answering for him, he would just get this big knowing grin on his face and nod his head. And Jerri knew full-well she was talking for Herb. She would even occasionally preface her comments by saying, “Now, I’m going to answer for him.”

Jerri was like the main character carrying on the dialogue of a story. Herb was like the narrator, occasionally throwing in little tidbits of background or corrective information. That’s how I hope my relationship with Joy is when I’m 80. When we have visitors I’ll just sit back and let her go, confident that she’ll say what I would have said anyway because she knows me that well.

Building up that kind of relationship doesn’t happen overnight. Like the couples I counsel before their marriage, like Herb and Jerri Redman practiced for 65 years, all of our relationships require commitment, work, constant attention, and accepting the possibility that there’s still room to grow, that we don’t yet know it all. The way we listen to the voice of Jesus is by getting to know him so well that you could almost say he lives in you. In fact, when we enter into that kind of loving relationship with Jesus Second John, reminds us that the truth “abides in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 1:2, my trans.). When we accept the truth and listen to the voice of Jesus, we cannot help but follow the truth that takes up residence inside of us.

There’s another aspect to being in relationship with Jesus that we might overlook. You see, having a relationship with Jesus is not a one-on-one, individual thing. It requires community. Jesus had disciples, and Jesus founded this thing called the church. The church isn’t a building, though that’s often how we think of it. The church is a community of people who are in a relationship with Jesus and with each other. Look around you. We who belong to Jesus belong to one another.

In this new community of God’s dominion, we don’t so much follow in the footsteps of Jesus as we live a life infused with his presence, in sync with the Holy Spirit, and governed by the truth Jesus reveals to us. I think that’s what it means for followers to follow truth. We follow by living Jesus-infused lives, by living in such communion with Jesus—and each other—that he lives in us and we in him.

We have the invitation. But we must be willing to listen to the voice of Jesus and look deeply into ourselves. Followers follow truth, even with the truth tells us we need to change our hearts and minds in order to live more fully into the dominion of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

A Penny | Proper 27

Mark 12:38-44

38 As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39 They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40 They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44 All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

A Penny

Our Gospel reading for today includes two parts of a larger story. After entering Jerusalem, Jesus hung out near the Temple, teaching people and his Disciples, arguing and discussing issues with religious leaders such as the Scribes. In verses 38-40, Jesus speaks harshly against the Scribes, or legal experts as the Common English Bible translates the word. But he didn’t suggest that all legal experts were bad. In fact, just a few verses earlier, Jesus commended a Scribe, saying, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom” (Mark 12:34 CEB).

Yet, there are always those in every profession and walk of life who think they’re honest even as they act dishonestly, who think they’re righteous even as they act in ways that are unrighteous, and who think they’re ethical, moral, and just even as they act in ways that are unethical, immoral, and unjust. Self-delusion is possible in every profession, even amongst religious and legal professionals. In fact, I read once that the two kinds of academic libraries that have the most books stolen are seminary and law school libraries. Apparently, we religious and legal leaders-in-training can rationalize why we need a certain book, so we delude ourselves into thinking that it’s not really stealing.

It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in pastors and lawyers.

It’s important for us to note that the local language spoken in Judea and Galilee when Jesus lived was not Hebrew, but Aramaic. Most people spoke Greek, too, but Aramaic would have been the language used in people’s homes. Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have sung her baby to sleep in Aramaic lullabies. Greek was the language of commerce. Hebrew was the original language of the Holy Scriptures, though there was a Greek translation called the Septuagint, and there were Aramaic paraphrases and explanations of the Hebrew text called the Targumim. But few, if any, spoke Hebrew in conversational language.

It’s also important for us to note that the literacy rate in the ancient world was dismally low. Scribes, or legal experts, were the people in Ancient Israel who could read and write. That made Scribes both the legal and religious experts. Why? Because they read it and wrote it by making copies. When there was a question about a religious or legal matter, it was the Scribes who searched the Scriptures for the answer. They knew the Hebrew Scriptures because they handled them on a daily basis.

Because they could read and write, the Scribes were also the ones who kept the ledgers in the Temple and other areas of life. They recorded financial transactions, kept inventories, documented legal agreements and suits, and logged political policy. The work of Scribes was important and necessary.

Another thing we should note is that, in Ancient Israel, there was little—if any—separation between religious and legal or political matters. In the United States, we insist on keeping religion separate from law and politics—even to the point that some people think their religious leaders shouldn’t comment on legal or political matters. That kind of separation was unknown in Ancient Israel where the law was religion because the law was God’s Law. Scribes were the interpreters and teachers of God’s Law. Because of that, Scribes were respected members of society. But, as with any profession, not all Scribes were faithful in the ways that mattered most to God.

Jesus warned the people to watch out for the legal experts—the Scribes—because some of them weren’t living faithfully. Those who liked to walk around in their long robes, who dressed to impress, liked to do so to gain attention from others. Their fine clothes left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were important people. They liked to be greeted with honor in the marketplace. They longed for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. The marketplaces were public, secular areas. The synagogues were places of worship. And banquets often took place in people’s homes. So, Jesus suggested that, for some Scribes, the desire for honor covered all arenas of Jewish life: public, religious, and private.

Honor and shame shaped Jewish culture in ways that our broader modern American culture can’t really understand. Honor and shame still shape many Near, Middle, and Far Eastern cultures. So, for Jesus to accuse them of cheating and showing off would have shamed any Scribe. Not only were they accused of cheating, but they cheated widows out of their homes. They cheated the most vulnerable among them so they could continue to wear their long robes.

God’s Law consistently speaks about widows in ways that demand empathy and care from others (c.f. Deuteronomy 10:18-19; 14:29). Widows, along with immigrants and orphans, are constantly listed together as people for whom God is especially concerned. The Scriptures also consistently declare God’s immense displeasure with anyone who harms, neglects, or oppresses widows, immigrants, or orphans. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God indicted Jerusalem for failing to care for widows, immigrants, and orphans (c.f. Ezekiel 22:6-8, 25, 29). There is no exception to this rule.

Psalm 94 even speaks of God as an avenger and, regarding those who fail to follow God’s Law on this matter, the Psalmist says, “They kill widows and immigrants; they murder orphans, saying all the while, ‘The LORD can’t see it; Jacob’s God doesn’t know what’s going on!’ You ignorant people better learn quickly. You fools—when will you get some sense?” (Ps. 94:6-8 CEB). To defraud, cheat, oppress, or neglect widows, immigrants, or orphans is the same as murdering them because such a person makes already dire circumstances impossible worse.

To cheat widows out of their homes in order to maintain a system that provides wealth and privilege is the height of hypocrisy. It doesn’t matter how many long prayers we can say, what finery we’re wearing, or what honor we receive in public, religious, or private settings; those who cheat the vulnerable instead of providing care for them—as the Law requires—will be judged with exceeding harshness.

Then, Jesus sat across from the collection box for the Temple treasury and did some people watching. He observed how the crowd gave their money. He noticed that many rich people were giving lots of money. But he also noticed how a poor widow gave two half-pennies. So, he called his disciples together and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on” (Mk. 12:43-44 CEB).

Now, some interpreters have lifted this widow up as someone to emulate as an example of truly faithful and sacrificial giving. Such an interpretation suggests that we should give until it hurts, no matter how poor we are. However, there are a few clues in the text which suggest that Jesus’ message is more complicated than that.

Firstly, Jesus had just criticized people in positions of power who, under the guise of religion, cheat widows by taking their homes. In light of that criticism, it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus would commend a widow for giving her last penny to a Temple system that supported those Scribes and provided them with enough income that they could strut about in their long robes while she remained poor.

Secondly, even if all the widow had was a penny, there wasn’t much she could have bought for herself with those two coppers anyway. I have a jar of pennies at home that I haven’t bothered counting or depositing in the bank because it takes a LOT of pennies to count for anything, and it would almost be more work that it’s worth to bother with them.

While we can’t know the widow’s intention in giving, there are a few ways to look at it. One way of looking at her gift is one of true faithfulness in which she entrusted herself wholly to God. Another viewpoint might be that she was trying to buy a little divine favor, as if such favor could be purchased. Afterall, desperate circumstances can lead people to try desperate schemes and hold fast to desperate hope. A third way of looking at her gift is one of indictment. The Temple system should have been helping her, but all she had were two mostly-worthless coppers that wouldn’t buy her a crumb of bread. Maybe her gift was the widow’s way of saying, Thanks for nothing. Here. You can have your coppers back.

The second view of the widow’s giving probably would not have earned a commendation from Jesus. The third one, maybe, since it would have been a very prophetic thing to do. And, while the first one might have earned a commendation, the scenario—as a whole—still highlights that the Temple utterly failed this woman.

Perhaps that’s aiming nearer to the point. Maybe this widow and her small-yet-mighty gift point out the nature of integrity in the face of hypocrisy. While we can’t know the intentions of the wealthy givers: whether they gave for the sake of notoriety or out of a sense of true devotion, we do have Jesus’ words warning the people about the hypocrisy of the Scribes who should have known the Law better than anyone, yet they cheated widows out of their houses and showed off with long prayers.

A system that would allow a widow to give her last penny; a system that would allow her to walk away hopelessly poor; a system that would fail to take care of someone so desperately in need: that’s not merely a system that has failed, but a community of faith that has failed.

Far from keeping its nose out of law and politics, the church must come to understand that the ministry we do and the care we provide for others—especially ministry with the poor: these are spiritual disciplines that flow out of our worship of the God who loves the vulnerable and marginalized, and who consistently sides with widows, immigrants, and orphans over the well-to-do. Through our ministry and service alongside the marginalized and vulnerable, the church emphasizes a different kind of politic and a different kind of law: a politic that is, itself, righteousness, and a law that is love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Home | All Saints’ Sunday

Revelation 21:1-6a

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

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The book of Revelation can unnerve even the most mature of Christians. The wild and frightful imagery has inspired much doom and gloom among some interpreters of its words. Many have approached Revelation as a roadmap of the future, a foretelling of horrors to come, especially for those who are “left behind” in the rapture and are subjected to the scheming of the antichrist.

So let me clarify a few misguided assumptions and misinterpretations about Revelation.

There is no antichrist in this book.

There is no rapture in this book.

These are things that certain sects of Christianity, including Darbyism, Dispensationalism, and Christian Fundamentalism, have wrongly imported into Revelation through bad Biblical interpretation.

They are not in Revelation.

Antichrist is only found five times in the Bible, and they’re all in First and Second John (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). And antichrist is not just one person who is coming, but many persons who have already come (c.f. 1 John 2:18). And what John means by antichrist is clearly defined in three ways: Firstly, as someone who denies that Jesus is the Christ; Secondly, as someone who denies the Father and the Son; or Thirdly, as someone who denies that Jesus came in human flesh.

Rapture is a whole other kind of misinterpretation of something Paul mentions in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is definitely NOT rapture as the sects I mentioned describe it.

The powerful imagery of Revelation is actually a common feature the genre of apocalyptic literature. All apocalyptic works contain strange and wild imagery and symbolic numbers and colors. But when we understand how to properly interpret apocalyptic literature, it’s really not so scary. In fact, Revelation was written as a book of consolation to Christians who were under persecution by the Roman state. Revelation is meant to console and reassure us, not cause us to be afraid or worried. It’s meant to strengthen our faith in the present so we can live into God’s future, not to make us afraid of our faith nor afraid of the future.

When Emperor Diocletian tried to enforce worship of the state cult, it was a matter of state control over the populace. John the Seer wrote Revelation to remind his flock that, what was at stake for Christians was their inmost identity. He encouraged Christian not to bow to the Roman state, despite the brutality that state inflicted upon its own people for control of their loyalties: even their souls. Revelation reminded persecuted Christians who and whose they are: where they came from and where they would finally end up whether they died a natural death or were killed in the persecution.

Yet, Revelation has been coopted and misused by some so-called “Christians” to support their hatred of Jews and Catholics, among other groups (as have many other Scripture texts). This misuse of Scripture to support hate is nothing new to Christianity. In light of recent events, including the mass-murder at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I think it’s important that we pay attention to these undercurrents in in our national culture, within the broader church, and do some self-examination within ourselves.

Hateful thoughts lead to hateful speech, which leads to hateful action. Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21-22 CEB). Why would Jesus say something that sounds so harsh for mere spoken words? Because angry thoughts lead to angry speech, and angry speech quickly leads to angry action. Another wise sage once said, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” (Yoda, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace).

When we’re told in Revelation that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, that death will be no more. That mourning and crying and pain will be no more, we need to decide what values we want to live into: those of God’s dominion or those of our culture? We need to decide what we’ll allow our thoughts, our speech, and our actions to be. Will we think, speak, and act in ways that cause tears, or will we think, speak, and act in ways that dry them? Will we think, speak, and act in ways that cause death and mourning and pain, or will we think, speak, and act in ways that show our love—Christ’s love; God’s love—for the whole of humanity, and our hope for a future that includes everyone?

Because God’s Dominion will include everyone. Revelation describes this more than once by saying, “by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (5:9 CEB) and “there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (7:9 CEB). The gathered host of God’s saints includes people that our culture—and even our government leadership—tells us to fear enough to hate.

Today is All Saints’ Day. In one sense, this is our day of remembrance: our Memorial Day. On this day we remember God’s holy people who have gone before us: those whose names we know and those whose names are known only to God. We remember the saints—the holy ones—because of their noble deeds, their faithful witness, and their martyrdom. These people, fellow members of the body of Christ, have influenced us in many ways whether we know it or not.

It has been said that if we forget the past we’re doomed to repeat it. We know that our world is full of painful and terrible atrocities that we desperately need to remember so that we don’t repeat them. We need to remember them so that we can permanently change our hearts and minds, which is the definition of repentance.

When Joy and I lived in Terre Haute, there was a Holocaust museum called CANDLES. It’s an acronym that stands for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. The museum was dedicated to remembering what happened to the children at Auschwitz who were tortured in the experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele. In December of 2003, arsonists burned the museum in an attempt to destroy the memory of the Nazi atrocities that the museum existed to preserve, and to silence the stories of both those who were murdered and those who survived Auschwitz.

The burning of the museum outraged many people in Terre Haute, me included. A protest rally was formed, and we marched in silence, holding lighted candles, from the local synagogue to the burned-out museum where we all prayed for an end to violence and hatred.

I remember that, on the way, a little boy ran out of the front door of his house and asked what we were doing. A Jewish man I was walking behind stopped to say, “We are marching because some people have decided to act out in hatred toward others, and all of these marchers are here to say that those who hate and use violence against others will not win. We will not let them win. We are marching because we love peace.” His words stuck with me because he articulated the reason for our silent march so well.

I remember the boy’s reaction, too. He sat down quietly on his porch in the cold December air and watched us walk by. He took it all in, and, though I can’t be sure, I think watching those hundreds of protesters walk silently by his house is something that he’ll always remember: hundreds of people who were marching for peace.

It’s also significant, in light of the Tree of Life Synagogue murders, that November 9th and 10th is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It’s important for us to remember. And it’s important for us to recognize that God’s dominion is one of love. Fear of others and hatred for others will not be tolerated in the future that awaits us. Anti-Semitism cannot exist in the minds or hearts of people who follow a Jewish savior. Hatred for any peoples cannot exist in the minds or hearts of those who follow a Savior who will bring together people from every nation, tribe, language, and people.

As much as All Saints’ Sunday is about remembrance, it’s also about looking forward to where we’re going. “In my beginning is my end,” T.S. Elliot wrote (East Coker in Four Quartets). God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Just as we came from God, God is our final destination. The book of Revelation is eschatology. It’s about the end, but not an end that’s necessarily restricted to chronological or temporal finality. It’s also about the end in the sense of our purpose and goal as people who belong to God.

In that future are a new heaven and a new earth: perhaps pointing to a resurrected heaven and earth since the former heaven and earth will pass away. The sea, which represents the chaos from which evil comes, will be no more. And in John’s vision he saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In early Jewish apocalyptic literature, a heavenly Jerusalem was thought to preexist the earthly Jerusalem (c.f. 4 Ezra 7:26; 8:52, 2 Baruch 4:2-6). Here, John sees New Jerusalem coming down from a restored heaven to a restored earth, where God will dwell among us.

The name of this very Jewish city means city of peace. As a people whose beginning is our end, I encourage us to consider whether peace is truly guiding our hearts. The words of Revelation are trustworthy and true. If we are, indeed, saints—if we are God’s holy ones—then the way we live our everyday lives must be rooted in God’s love and compassion for every human life, not the majority, nor the power-brokers, but every human life: even the most vulnerable and marginalized. Our future home is God’s dominion, and God’s dominion is perfectly cosmopolitan. How we think about other people, how we talk about other people, how we act toward other people: these things matter a great deal. To choose fear, anger, and hatred is to risk finding ourselves on the outside looking in when God’s new reality comes.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Now My Eyes Have Seen | Proper 25

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

1 Job answered the LORD: 2 I know you can do anything; no plan of yours can be opposed successfully. 3 You said, “Who is this darkening counsel without knowledge?” I have indeed spoken about things I didn’t understand, wonders beyond my comprehension. 4 You said, “Listen and I will speak; I will question you and you will inform me.” 5 My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you. 6 Therefore, I relent and find comfort on dust and ashes.

10 Then the LORD changed Job’s fortune when he prayed for his friends, and the LORD doubled all Job’s earlier possessions. 11 All his brothers, sisters, and acquaintances came to him and ate food with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him concerning all the disaster the LORD had brought on him, and each one gave him a qesitah and a gold ring. 12 Then the LORD blessed Job’s latter days more than his former ones. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, one thousand yoke of oxen, and one thousand female donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named one Jemimah, a second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 No women in all the land were as beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave an inheritance to them along with their brothers. 16 After this, Job lived 140 years and saw four generations of his children. 17 Then Job died, old and satisfied.

Now My Eyes Have Seen

What are the things we most deeply fear? Since Halloween is right around the corner, maybe it’s an appropriate question to ask. I’m afraid of flying, but that probably stems from my absolute lack of control by putting my life in the hands of a complete stranger. If something goes wrong in-flight, there’s not much I can do except put my oxygen mask on and curl up in my seat like a dead opossum.

For Job, what he dreaded most was that chaos might come upon him in the very calamity that happened to his family. At the end of chapter 3, Job said, “I was afraid of something awful, and it arrived; what I dreaded came to me” (Job 3:25 CEB). Job’s fear was that chaos is real, that it exists in God’s creation.

In some recesses of our hearts and minds, don’t we all share Job’s fear? Aren’t we all afraid that some tragedy like these might befall us? If I’m honest, fear for my family’s safety constantly lingers at the distant edges of my mind because chaos exists, and I doubt I’m the only one whom that fear touches. Any one of the tragedies Job experienced can happen to us. Such catastrophes come suddenly, unexpectedly, and randomly.

It’s the randomness of such events, the unpredictability of chaos, the possibility that calamity could happen to us at any time, that’s terrifying, isn’t it? When those tragedies strike us or other people, we all have our moral paradigms and explanatory frameworks ready, and we use them to try to understand tragedy. We try to find meaning and purpose in it.

Sometimes, as spectators to sufferers, we try to shove meaning or purpose down the throat of those who are suffering. I’ve considered coming up with a list of things NOT to say at a funeral, because there’s a lot of stupid stuff that comes out of people’s mouths at funerals. Well-meant, but absolutely heartless, unempathetic, and stupid. It seems like, the greater the tragedy, the stupider the theological commentary. I believe mathematicians call that an inverse proportion.

I cringe every time I hear a person tell a grieving parent that God must have called their baby home because God needed another angel in heaven, or something good will come from this. Such words of “comfort” are bad theology. They’re horrible things to say. And they’re really an attempt to silence the grief of the griever by someone who isn’t grieving so they can distance themselves from the grief. If we can silence their grief, then it can’t touch us. Which, if you think about it, is just plain mean. Even if well-meant, those words put the mean in well-meaning.

Yet, we all hold on to interpretive frameworks like these so we can veil reality and organize our own—and other people’s—pain to make it appear as something else. Our interpretive frameworks take the reality of chaos, when it crashes into us, and forces it into something that looks orderly and definable, and, as a result, a little less terrifying. So, tragic death becomes “God’s plan” or God “trying to teach us something.”

It’s too terrifying for us to live in a universe where there isn’t always a perfect plan, so we invent a plan at all costs and we claim that it’s God’s as if we know God’s plan. That’s what Job’s friends did. They said, everyone knows that God always has a plan, everyone knows God is just, everyone knows these things don’t happen for no reason, among other things. When we attempt to explain or justify suffering by defending God—or what we need to assume about God for our own piece of mind—we can easily dismiss the pain of those who are often suffering in ways that are unmerited.

Job’s friends each had their frameworks for interpreting Job’s miserable situation. They tried to frame Job’s suffering in the context of divine punishment for the wicked (15:20-35), into a warning for those with loose ethics (33:14-30), into disciplinary education for the morally weak (5:17-19), and for those who are righteous, they suggested that suffering is just something to bear until God restores things so that we’re okay again (4:4-6; 8:20-21). But each of those frameworks dismissed the suffering and pain of a father who had lost ten children.

Job had his own framework for understanding the relationship between God and humans, too. The initial framework to which he clung was that his fear of losing the very things he lost could be kept at bay by being righteous. When that framework fell apart through the profound loss that Job experienced, he switched to another framework. Rather than accept the traditional common knowledge that his friends were spouting—which was the very framework Job once held and taught others about—Job grasped to a legal framework that allowed him to declare the disasters that had befallen him, and his family, were morally wrong. And God was morally wrong for allowing these things to happen. That framework gave Job someone to blame, and that someone was God.

But Job’s new moral paradigm, his interpretive framework for his suffering, still allowed him to not see truth about such suffering. It’s not that Job couldn’t see this truth, it’s that he was afraid to see it. It was a means of denial. The legal framework was first introduced as parody in chapter 9 but it becomes something Job starts thinking about seriously in chapters 23 through 31.

What smashes the paradigms to bits is when God speaks from the whirlwind, answers Job directly, and presents Job with the reality that chaos exists in creation. Job’s quarrel with God is a long, desperate attempt to keep the reality of what Job dreaded away: that chaos can overcome anyone, even the most righteous of people who do everything right, plus a little extra just in case. God’s speech to Job reveals that there is no moral paradigm or interpretive framework for suffering. God didn’t offer Job a plan or a reason for what happened. God offered the truth that sometimes, bad things just happen. Sometimes chaos turns our world up side down. But that doesn’t mean God has abandoned us.

Job found it impossible to experience the presence of God in desolation. But God reveals that, even when we feel abandoned: when we feel like we’re the brother or sister of jackals and creatures of the most barren places—as Job did—God is there in that desolation sustaining life, sending rain and making grass sprout where no humans have ever lived (c.f. Job 38:25-27). God’s view of jackals and their world is quite different from Job’s.

From the whirlwind speech, God doesn’t give Job the answer he sought. Instead, God gifts Job with sight. God dismantles Job’s framework for trying to understand his suffering, and only then can Job face his fear by encountering the very image of his dread in the chaotic Behemoth and Leviathan. They’re symbols of chaos—the very chaos that overcame Job’s household—but even chaos is limited and restrained by God. Only when Job sees his fear can he see himself through God’s eyes. And only then can Job let go of his obsessive demand for a trial with God and begin the painful process of living beyond tragedy.

Job confessed, “My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5 CEB). That gift of sight—which may or may not be physical sight—is when Job is able to repent of his interpretive frameworks and accept that God is with him even in the depths of his pain and suffering.

Still, Job isn’t an easy book. We want Scripture to give us answer, but Job doesn’t give us answers or solutions. In fact, verses 10-17 seem to contradict the apparent solution in verse 6. Verse 6 actually highlights the necessity to wrestle with the material because there are at least five ways to translate and interpret the Hebrew in that one verse, all with different meanings (c.f. Carol A. Newsome, The Book of Job, NIB Vol. IV, p.629). The CEB translation emphasizes that Job relents of his former mindset and now finds comfort in the human condition.

If the book simply stopped there, we’d be good. But, it goes on. God declared Job correct, and Job’s friends wrong in their speech about God. Job sacrificed and prayed for his friends, and that is when God restored Job’s fortunes. The Lord doubled all Job’s earlier possessions. He had seven more sons and three daughters. However, the Hebrew word for seven is an odd form that might mean twice seven, so Job might have had fourteen sons and three daughters. And, Job lived 140 more years and saw four generations of his children, which was twice the normal life expectancy (c.f. Psalm 90:10) when an ordinarily blessed lifespan was to see two generations of your children (c.f. Psalm 128:6).

This doubling of Job’s former possessions and family might seem innocuous, but if you know about Israelite case law, it raises serious questions. The restitution owed by thieves was double the injured person’s loss (c.f. Exodus 22:1-15). So, God gives to Job the restitution owed by a criminal. Did Job win his case even as he repented of it? Also, paradoxically, the restitution God provides actually proves what Job’s three friends had been saying all along as correct.

It leaves us a little baffled, but by not giving the book a firm solution, our craving for a solution is exposed as an attempt to evade the same truth Job tried to evade: that chaos is a part of life, and divergent views can be valid. Remember, Job rejected his previous words and changed his understanding of God, which is not insignificant for a man who was so righteous as Job! It suggests that, sometimes, what we know with absolute certainty might not be the full truth after all. We still have more to learn.

The seeming abruptness of Job’s restoration can feel cold and uncomfortable, too. Surely the birth of more sons and daughters can’t replace the tragic loss of the ten who died. I don’t think that’s what the book suggests. The key to understanding this, I believe, is verse 11: “All his brothers, sisters, and acquaintances came to him and ate food with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him concerning all the disaster the LORD had brought on him, and each one gave him a qesitah and a gold ring” (CEB). This gathering of Job’s community who surrounded him and cared for him is when the seed of Job’s restoration was planted and began to grow.

His community came to him. They shared his distress, shared his pain, shared his grief, and made sure he ate. They gave him a qesitah, which is an unknown weight of goods, and gold rings. It’s the generosity and love of Job’s community that grew into the restored fortunes.

Something else to which we should pay attention is the fullness of this restoration. I noted in Bible study that the author of Job must have been a feminist because, at the conclusion, the daughters are named. Because of its roots in a patriarchal culture, Scripture has a bad habit of leaving women unnamed and uncounted. That truth is obvious even in the New Testament. Matthew 14 tells us about Jesus feeding the five-thousand. But what it actually says is this: “About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten” (Matthew 14:21 CEB). Then, in the next chapter, Jesus fed the four-thousand. But what it actually says is this: “Four thousand men ate, plus women and children” (Matthew 15:38 CEB). The women in these accounts—and so many others within Scripture—were not even worthy of being counted! They were a footnote.

It’s extraordinary, then, that Job not only counts Job’s daughters, but names them and declares that they inherited as equals with their brothers. There is one example of daughters inheriting their father’s property in Numbers 27, but it has nothing to do with equality between women and men. Daughters could only inherit when their father had no sons. Job had either seven or fourteen sons, yet his three daughters were given an inheritance along with their brothers.

It’s in this kind of world, in this kind of restoration, in this kind of equality that Job was able to find satisfaction and die with the fullness of that satisfaction as the last word over his life. As a Christian, I think we have a lot of work to do to change the mindset of our culture about matters of equality and justice before I can say the same. But Job gives me hope that even the most righteous can change their minds.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Wealth | Proper 23

Mark 10:17-31

17 As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

18 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19 You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

20 “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22 But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

23 Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” 24 His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! 25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

26 They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

28 Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

29 Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news 30 will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”

Wealth

Believe it or not, I pick the Scripture texts from which I’ll preach several months in advance. In fact, I chose to preach on this text back on June 1st. So, I didn’t plan for this to be the consecration Sunday reading, but I guess it works. After all, Consecration Sunday is when we present our giving pledges for the coming year, and in this text, Jesus addresses something about faith and wealth and the values of God’s kingdom. But this isn’t an easy text to hear or to understand. So, let’s walk through it together.

When this exchange with the man takes place, Jesus had just blessed the children after scolding the disciples to let the little children come to him and explaining that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a little child will never enter it (c.f. Mark 10:15).

In Matthew’s version of this encounter, the man is described as “young” (19:22); in Luke’s Gospel he’s described as a “ruler” (18:18). So, in Christian tradition, this man is often called the rich young ruler. But, in Mark’s Gospel, he’s simply identified as a man with no other adjectives.

There’s no reason to doubt the man’s sincerity, as we often do when reading this story. When he approaches Jesus, he kneels. When he addresses Jesus, it’s with great respect. And when he questions Jesus, it seems—at least to me—that he genuinely wants to know the answer to a very serious concern.

But, as I said a moment ago, Jesus had just taught that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom—a better rendering of the Greek word is receive—whoever doesn’t receive God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it. It’s a lesson this man obviously didn’t hear because the man asks Jesus “What must I do to obtain eternal life” (Mark 10:17 CEB). Instead of receiving the kingdom in complete dependence, like a child, the man wanted to know what he could do.

It’s a mindset that’s typical of the privileged, in whatever capacity that we’re privileged. I think it’s important that we recognize our privilege over others: I’m white, I’m male, I’m ordained clergy, and there are certain amounts of privilege over others that go with each of those. Early in my marriage, when Joy would tell me about an issue she was having, I would try to solve it for her. Like an idiot, I would try to figure out what to do to fix her problem when all my wife wanted was for me to listen to her. Privileged people can have a mindset that we can do our way out of any problem. If the problem is obtaining eternal life, tell me what to do. I’ll put that on my list and check it off once it’s done.

Eternal life obtained. Check!

What’s more, the man wanted to know what he could do to inherit eternal life. While I like the Common English Bible, obtain probably isn’t the best translation here. The man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. My grandmother had her twelve grandchildren in her will, so I received a small inheritance. I didn’t do anything to inherit it. It’s what Grandma wanted to give. An inheritance is usually something a person can only be given. There’s not much anyone can do to inherit something. Inheritances are received. So, the man’s question is a little odd even if it is sincere.

Jesus responded to the man’s question by referring to several of the Commandments: specifically, the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments (c.f. Exodus 20:12-16; Deuteronomy 5:16-20) along with a comment against fraud (c.f. Deuteronomy 24:14; Amos 8:5). These commandments remind us of the requirements of authentic and vibrant community life, and justice within our community. For authentic community to exist, we can’t kill each other, we can’t commit adultery with another person’s spouse, we can’t give false testimony to wrongfully convict our neighbors, we can’t defraud each other (the command against fraud in Deuteronomy 24 includes Israelites and immigrants), and we show honor to our parents by caring for them in their old age.

When the man responded that he had kept these things since he was a boy, Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. While we expect Jesus to love everyone, the statement by Mark suggests that Jesus honored the question and the questioner. This was a man who was trying to be faithful, who wanted to do what was right, and it seemed that Jesus saw that in him. But the requirements of discipleship can move us beyond the law. Jesus noted the one thing the man lacked, which was the utter trust in God he described earlier when teaching about how we must receive the kingdom of God like a child. It was this lack of trust that Jesus sought to bring to completion in the man’s faith.

Jesus said, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me” (Mark 10:21b CEB). Out of his love for this man, Jesus gave him something to do. And we’re told that the man was dismayed at Jesus’ words, and he went away sorrowful because he had many possessions.

Only now in the story do we find out that this man was wealthy. Like the majority of interpretations throughout Christian history, our interpretation of this man’s sorrow and dismay stems from an assumption that he went away in sorrow because he was unwilling do what Jesus told him to do. That’s how we often interpret these lessons.

I’d suggest that one judgment against us might be that we hear these lessons, we think: Well, that person should have done better, they should have obeyed Jesus. Then, we walk away without even attempting to obey the same command. I wonder if our assumptions about other people in these Biblical accounts is our unconscious attempt to comfort ourselves for failing—actually, for not even trying—to be faithful in the same ways as those we’re judging in the text.

The truth is that we don’t know if the man walked away sorrowful because he wouldn’t sell off his possessions and give the money to the poor. It’s entirely possible that the man walked away sorrowful because he intended to do exactly what Jesus told him to do: to sell his many possessions, to give to the poor, and to come back and follow Jesus. That kind of bold decision, that kind of radical action, that kind of leaping out into the deepest waters of faith would not be emotionless, would it? It’s difficult enough for many of us to throw away our junk, which is why we have mini-storage units all over the place. To sell our possessions would be a monumental relinquishment. It could be incredibly painful.

Jesus’ words and invitation to this man begs questions. What is the relationship between faith and possessions? Why would this man need to sell his possessions in order to follow Jesus?

I have heard Christian people say that they don’t think pastors should talk about money from the pulpit. I’ve heard that sentiment about political policy, too. Yet, the fact is that Jesus spoke about money and possessions more than any other topic except for the Kingdom of God. (In fact, many of his teachings about the Kingdom of God have to do with money and possessions). And, Jesus promised the disciples that they would stand before the political leaders of the world, (c.f. Matthew 10:18-28; Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-19), just as the prophets stood before—and often against—the politicians of their day (c.f. 2 Samuel 12:1-12; 1 Kings 18).

If Jesus taught so much about money and possessions, we can be sure that our relationship with wealth is a deeply spiritual concern. In fact, it seems to be such a serious concern that nothing less than our salvation is at stake. Why was this man told to sell his possessions and give to the poor? My guess is that his many possessions were what kept him from relying on God and receiving the kingdom like a child. Remember, the man wanted to know what he could do to receive eternal life. Jesus told him that he needed to let go of the things that held his heart captive. Jesus told us in another place, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21 CEB).

Where is our treasure? What do we value most? If we value God’s kingdom, eternal life, salvation—those words seem to be used interchangeably in Mark—then we’ll be able to let go of the things that can be a stumbling block to receiving it. Jesus told the rich man that, if he sold his possessions and gave the money to the poor, then he would have treasure in heaven because that’s where the man’s heart would be after such a bold act of faith. After that, the man was invited to become a disciple of Jesus: to follow him.

Even the disciples were startled and shocked when Jesus told them three times that it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom. In their world, the prevailing theology of the day said that the wealthy were wealthy because they were good people and God was blessing them. Their wealth was a spiritual blessing and proof that they were faithful. Or course, they knew of exceptions just as we do. The book of Job is, seemingly, one big exception. But, for Job, it all worked out in the end, so it’s really not much of an exception.

In many ways, the teachings of Jesus take the theological assumption that good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, the good are rewarded with wealth and health, and the bad are punished with poverty and disease, and he turned it up-side-down. When everyone thought the wealthy were blessed, Jesus said, “Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours” (Luke 6:20b CEB). Jesus preached a radical divine reversal of our human assumptions about who and what is valuable and important. Jesus said, “many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first” (Mark 10:31 CEB). And the stark-yet-exaggerated language Jesus uses ought to tell us that Jesus is serious about this stuff.

At the same time, Jesus reminds us that salvation isn’t ours to earn. There’s nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. The kingdom of God is a gift, and we must receive it like a child would receive a gift. Salvation is impossible for human beings, but all things are possible with God. Now, that does not mean that we get to ignore the demands of faithful discipleship because we can’t earn the kingdom no matter what we do. That’s like Paul arguing against the idea that, because grace is more powerful than sin, we should sin more so that we can get more grace (c.f. Romans 6:1). On the contrary, we are called to repent, to change our hearts and minds, to walk in newness of life, among other things.

The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to get rid of the things that hinder our full trust in God. For those of material means, wealth and possessions is almost always a hindrance. Does that mean we should sell everything we own and make ourselves poor? No. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. The disciples were fishermen, and they still fished throughout the Gospel stories so they obviously didn’t sell their boats. Peter had a house, and his mother-in-law lived there (c.f. Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30-31; Luke 4:38). The disciples didn’t impoverish themselves and their families. But they did give up what they needed to give up so they could be about the work of Jesus Christ and follow God’s teachings.

In a way, we can turn our stumbling blocks into blessings. At times, we all worry about money, and we usually take pride in our possessions. How easy is it for us to give our wealth away, and do we give as God requires of us? Ten percent is a lot. I know because my wife and I give 10.7% of my income to church, and we give more to support other ministries that we think are important. (I don’t say that to boast. I say that so that you know that your pastor practices what he preaches). I learned a long time ago that, if you can give wealth away, if you can give generously, then your treasure won’t be in your money and possessions. Your treasure will be in heaven.

It’s important that we consider where our treasure is. May God give us the grace we need to value most what is truly valuable.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Let Them Come | Proper 22

Mark 10:13-16

13 People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 15 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he hugged the children and blessed them. (CEB)

Let Them Come

As a parent, I wonder what the Disciples’s problem was.

Did they not have children of their own, so they didn’t see the importance of allowing children to be blessed?

Did they think Jesus was too busy to be bothered with children, who, in the Disciples’ patriarchal society, were some of the least valued and most vulnerable?

Were the children making a scene, as children are often capable of doing, and the Disciples wanted to clear them out for the sake of some peace and quiet?

We don’t really know for certain, but in the greater scheme of Mark’s narrative this is one more example of how the Disciples just didn’t get this Kingdom of God thing that Jesus was preaching. It’s the continuation of a negative portrayal of the Disciples in this section of Mark’s Gospel, beginning in the middle of chapter 8 and continuing through the end of chapter 10 (8:22-10:52). This negative portrayal shows us that the Disciples were constantly concerned with positions of power and influence, and they were constantly getting it wrong.

So, perhaps what the Disciples were really concerned about here was that, if these parents were bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing, children who have no status in their society, then they were essentially taking up the Disciples’s precious time with Jesus. Maybe they thought these children didn’t have a claim on Jesus, they didn’t have a right to be there. Children certainly weren’t more important than them. Likely, in their humble opinions, the Disciples were the important ones. They were the chosen followers of Jesus. They were hand-picked by Jesus, himself. They should get the majority of Jesus’ time and attention. They deserved the blessings. These parents, by bringing their silly children to Jesus for a blessing they probably didn’t deserve, were getting in the way.

It’s interesting that we aren’t told specifically who the Disciples were rebuking: were they rebuking the children, or the parents who were bringing them to Jesus for a blessing? One thing that is certain: we know toward whom Jesus directed his anger. We’re told that Jesus became angry at what he saw the Disciples doing in turning the children away.

Some translations render the Greek word here as indignant or angry. I kind of like the old King James rendering, which says Jesus was “much displeased” (KJV). The Disciples were trying to exclude those whom their society and culture deemed unworthy, while Jesus constantly had to remind the Disciples that his ministry is one of inclusion: even to children and the women who were most likely the ones bringing them forward to be blessed by this holy man. The Disciples were trying to enforce the social norms of the day, while Jesus was more or less smashing them to bits because the social norms of any human culture aren’t necessarily the norms of God’s Kingdom.

Today is World Communion Sunday. I have to admit that I’ve always thought of World Communion Sunday as a bit of a bad joke. After all, we’re United Methodists, we’re Wesleyans, and if we know anything about John Wesley’s theology or the practical divinity of Methodism, we know that every Sunday should be World Communion Sunday. Wesley insisted that his Methodists received the sacrament at least weekly because it’s the grand channel of God’s grace. Even more so than breakfast, it’s a meal that’s too important—too beneficial—to skip.

Nevertheless, the one thing that World Communion Sunday has going for it, in my mind, is that it does attempt to remind us of the universality of God’s grace, and that the Gospel, the Good News of God’s Kingdom, and the salvation offered to all in Jesus Christ, is world-wide. The Good News is open to all people of all cultures and all nations. No one is left outside the possibility of God’s redemptive grace, from those who are seemingly the most important people in the world to those who are wrongly thought of as the non-essentials of our various cultures. The Christian church is world-wide, and despite what our culture—or any other culture—thinks of the worthiness of certain people, all are invited by God to enter God’s Kingdom.

Still, the meaning of what Jesus is teaching the Disciples here can get away from us first-world, 21st century folk. When we hear Jesus talk about children like this, we tend to romanticize the whole thing. We tend to put children on a pedestal: thinking them to be unspoiled and innocent little creatures. My assumption is that most of the people who have this romanticized idea about children either never were parents, or they’ve suffered a brain injury of some sort that has completely wiped their memory of parenthood.

As a father of three, I have absolutely no idealistic notions of the innocence of children. I tend to agree with the person who suggested that children are the perfect theological cure for anyone who says they don’t believe in original sin. Innocence of children? My foot!

The Greco-Roman world didn’t have any of our modern romanticized ideas of the innocence of children either. Jesus didn’t say that we have to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child because children are innocent. None of us can do that because none of us are innocent. Jesus said we need to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child because, in that first century Greco-Roman, male-centered world, children were completely dependent upon their father for everything. Children belonged to their father and remained subject to his authority even as adults. Children were the non-persons in that world. They had nothing, and they couldn’t get anything unless someone gave it to them. They were dependent upon their father for their status, their inheritance, even for the means of life itself. Children received everything as a gift, and that kind of receiving is the only way we can enter the Kingdom of God.

No one enters the Kingdom of God because of their status or their influence, which is what the Disciples kept fighting about. No one enters because of who they are. We don’t get to check our accomplishments off a list and say, Look at what I’ve done, God, you know I deserve to make the cut. Mark emphasized that entrance into the Kingdom of God is wholly and completely dependent upon God’s grace. God has offered this gift to all people—Jesus died for all people—; we have only to receive it as a gift.

Sometimes we’re a lot like the Disciples. We have this seemingly natural urge to want to fence people out. We tend to want to exclude people who, in our judgment, are unworthy to receive the Kingdom of God. Sometimes we forget that God’s perspective is different from ours. Psalm 14 can help adjust our view by reminding us that, “The LORD looks down from heaven on humans to see if anyone is wise, to see if anyone seeks God, but all of them have turned bad. Everyone is corrupt. No one does good—not even one person!” (Psalm 14:2-3 CEB). And this same God who sees this in us as he looks upon us from the throne—for some unfathomable reason—chooses to cover us with grace each day, worked out a way to forgive us, recklessly desires to be reconciled to us, and unimaginably offers the Kingdom to us.

Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t strive for perfection in holiness and love. In another place, Jesus tells us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NRSV). And Paul tells us, “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone” (Titus 3:8 NRSV). Yet, even as we devote ourselves to holiness and good work, we must recognize that all is gift. All is grace. Outside of God’s grace we have nothing.

The reality of being a child of God is that it has nothing at all to do with one’s age. According to what Jesus is telling us in this text, the oldest person in this room had better be child-like in their receptiveness of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom is a gift offered to us, and we must receive the gift with the understanding that we are completely dependent upon God for our salvation.

The invitation list to enter the Kingdom of God is longer than we can possibly imagine. How shall we respond when we see the least, the non-persons of our culture, coming forward to receive it? Do we act like the Disciples and attempt to fence them out and tell them they don’t belong here? Or do we welcome them with the radical hospitality of Jesus and embrace them with the loving recognition that the Kingdom of God belongs to them?

The reason Jesus got angry at his Disciples is because they thought it was their job to blacklist certain people from receiving God’s abundant blessings of grace: a grace that we are all radically dependent upon. None of us can set the conditions for entrance into God’s Kingdom. We must receive the Kingdom as a child, not because we’re innocent—clearly we’re not—but because, like children, we are utterly in need, wholly reliant, completely dependent upon the grace of God.

And if we’re eager to receive this gift, we should be eager to see that others receive it as well. The Good News of Jesus Christ is proclaimed for all to hear, and the Kingdom of God is open for anyone who would receive it. Thanks be to God that such grace extends even to us!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher