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

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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

Tear It Out | Proper 21

Mark 9:38-50

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

39 Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. 40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us. 41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

42 “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake. 43 If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out. 44  45 If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet. 46  47 If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two. 48 That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out. 49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.”

Tear It Out

This is my proof-text for those who claim they only interpret the Bible literally.

I want to say, Literally? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. (That’s my one The Princess Bride reference for this sermon).

For one thing, not every part of the Bible is meant to be interpreted literally. The Bible has many different genres of literature. Some of it is poetry, and any junior high school kid can tell you that you don’t interpret poetry literally.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was America’s darling poet during the early to mid 20th century. (No relation. She was a Millay from the branch that settled in Maine, whereas I’m a Millay from the branch that settled in Kentucky). One of her poems—it’s probably my favorite because I use it all the time—is First Fig, which says:

“My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light!”

Now, if I were to interpret this literally, I would imagine Edna St. Vincent Millay holding a candle with both ends lit, with wax dripping all over the place, and it won’t last the night because she was ridiculous enough to light both ends of the candle instead of putting it in a candle holder and only lighting the top like she was supposed to.

But, if I interpret her words poetically, as metaphor and symbolism, I might find that one possible interpretation is that she’s talking about her life and how she chose to live it: with such fire and intensity that she seems to burn twice as brightly as the rest of us. Foes and friends, alike, are invited to see. They can compare, criticize, or applaud, but none of that matters. Because it’s her life, and she’s going to confidently shine no matter the consequences. Like it or not: She. Will. Be. Seen. And. Known.

That’s poetry. And the way I just interpreted First Fig isn’t the only way to interpret it.

The majority of verses in this section of Mark are exaggerated language—called hyperbole—and symbolism. If we take the words of Jesus literally, here, then we need to start looking for millstones, plucking out our eyes, and chopping off various body parts because I can almost guarantee we aren’t all as innocent as our mostly-complete bodies look. I know I’m not.

But, what precipitated these words from Jesus? Even if it is hyperbole, the directives sound kind of harsh. At least, they sound harsh to me. Then again, maybe harsh words are what the disciples needed to hear after what they had done.

Let’s look at what happened earlier in the chapter. After Jesus was Transfigured on the mountain, they came across the other disciples who were in an argument with legal experts while surrounded by a crowd (c.f. Mark 9:14). When the crowd saw Jesus, they ran to him to tell him what the argument was about. A father brought his son because the boy was possessed by a spirit who made the kid foam at the mouth and do all kinds of crazy stuff. He wanted the disciples to cast the spirit out, but they couldn’t do it. So, after Jesus chastised them for their lack of faith, and the father begged Jesus to help his lack of faith, Jesus cast the spirit out. Then, the disciples asked why they hadn’t been able to do it, and Jesus told them it required prayer.

So, just prior to our text, the disciples had proved themselves to be incompetent. But that’s not all. After the incident of their failure, they started arguing about which one of them was the greatest. Can you imagine the kind of audacity it would take to argue about which of them was the greatest after failing so miserably? I suppose Peter, James, and John might have had a leg up on the others since they, at least, were allowed to go with Jesus and witness his Transfiguration. But, really, they were so dumbfounded by the event that the only thing they could brag about was that they saw Jesus light up like a dazzling Christmas display (except that they didn’t celebrate Christmas yet).

So, the disciples had proved themselves incompetent. They proved themselves ignorant when they didn’t understand why they couldn’t cast the spirit out of the boy. And now, they’re jealously guarding what little turf they have left to stand upon. John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us” (Mark 9:38 CEB). Did you hear what John said? The disciples saw someone—likely a new believer in Jesus since this is probably around the middle of Jesus’ ministry; they saw someone succeeding at the very thing they’d just failed to do, and they tried to stop him.

Can you imagine how that scene went down? This person was successfully throwing demons out of sick people in the name of Jesus, but the disciples didn’t like it because this whole Jesus thing was their thing. They owned it. They were the legitimate heirs of Jesus’ power and authority. They were the Twelve whom Jesus had chosen. They weren’t about to let some random Joe edge in on their territory. No way! If this dude wasn’t following them, if they weren’t officially credentialed, if they weren’t walking beside Jesus as part of the inner-circle, then the “real” disciples weren’t going to have it!

The reply Jesus gives speaks against the lust for power and control the disciples displayed by trying to stop this person from doing good work in Jesus’ name. Yet, Jesus’ words can confound us, a little, because they’re full of symbolism and exaggeration. “Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us. I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded” (Mk. 9:39-41 CEB).

The cup of water comment seems confusing, but I think Jesus was essentially saying that this person they tried to stop was throwing the disciples a bone. He was doing their work for them. He was doing what they couldn’t. It’s like this unknown person was giving the disciples a cup of water, a cup of refreshment, when they were too weary or weak in faith to help those who needed help.

Jesus continued by saying, “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake” (Mark 9:42 CEB). Jesus scolded the disciples on behalf of the one who was casting out demons. Because the disciples acted out of jealousy, they might have done real damage to that person’s faith.

It’s a scenario that I sometimes see with children when one of them tries to exclude another child from their group or activity by claiming that they aren’t part of the in-crowd. But I’ve seen it with adults, too. I’ve even seen it with Christian adults. What if our actions ended up driving another person away from faith in Jesus? What if the person the disciples tried to stop threw up their hands and said, Well, if that’s how this Jesus thing is, you can forget it!

Followers of Jesus aren’t supposed to act that way. But sometimes we do. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that our jealous hearts can judge each other with a level of talent equal to the rest of the world. Instead of building up and adding to our community, our instinct can be, at times, to circle the wagons and keep others out. We’re just as good at protecting our turf as anyone else.

Maybe that’s why Jesus’ words about how it would be better for us to be tied to a stone and drowned than cause “these little ones” to trip and fall disturbs us. Maybe that’s why the strong imperatives about chopping off our hands and feet and tearing out our eyes bothers us so.

This is, I believe, a warning for disciples of Jesus to be careful. We have no claim on anything but the freely-given grace of God: grace that is offered to everyone. We don’t have a corner on the market of God’s acceptance. We aren’t any more welcome to God’s grace and love than anyone else.

The thing is, this whole Jesus thing—the Christian Faith, God’s redemption and offer of salvation—it’s never been about judgment. It’s never been about fencing others out. It’s never been about protecting our turf or guarding our comfort zones. It’s not even about comparing ourselves to what others are doing or measuring their successes and failings against our successes and failings. Aren’t we on the same team? Isn’t someone else’s success—even if it’s another congregation or organization; isn’t it a cup of water for us to drink?

Jesus warns that everyone will be salted with fire (c.f. Mark 9:49). Both salt and fire represent purification. Salt was to be given with the offerings made at the Tabernacle and Temple because salt purified the offering. But if salt loses its saltiness—if it loses its ability to make things pure—how will it become salty again and regain its purifying presence?

What I think Jesus is saying is our worth is going to be judged. In fact, our worth already has been judged. God found us worthy enough of God’s love to send Jesus Christ to redeem us from sin. But if we engage in petty jealousies and lay stumbling blocks in front of others, like the disciples were doing, then what good are we for the kingdom of God? When we do that, we’re like salt that loses its saltiness. God has judged us as worthy of love and grace, but what good are we for God’s kingdom if we throw away our God-given value?

Jesus tells us to have salt in ourselves, but how do we do that? I think the clue is in the final five words of verse 50 (it’s only three words in Greek): “keep peace with each other.” We have salt in ourselves when we don’t engage in the kind of jealousy the disciples engaged in by trying to prevent someone from working in the name of Jesus.

I think we show that we have salt in ourselves when we keep peace with each other, and when welcome others into our faith community. So, let us be salt. Let us be peacemakers. Let us love each other as Christ loves us. And let’s love those who may not follow us so fiercely that they can see God’s kingdom in us—that they want to walk with us—when we invite them in.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Talitha Koum | Proper 8

Mark 5:21-43

21 Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet 23 and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die. Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him. 25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse. 27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes. 28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed. 29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?'” 32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth. 34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher any longer?”

36 But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting.” 37 He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother. 38 They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about? The child isn’t dead. She’s only sleeping.” 40 They laughed at him, but he threw them all out. Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was. 41 Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.” 42 Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around. She was 12 years old. They were shocked! 43 He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened. Then he told them to give her something to eat. (CEB)

Talitha Koum | ταλιθα κουμ

In part, this text from Mark is one of several stories that tell us something of Jesus as king. You might remember some discussion I had in a previous sermon about the word Messiah. The word means anointed, and kings of Israel were invested to the office of king through anointing. So, when we talk about Jesus as the Messiah—or the Greek word Christ—kingship is always included. Mark 5:21-43 reveals that Jesus is king over life and Law, both of which are related to human community.

Here, we have a story, and a story-within-a-story. A leader of the local synagogue, Jairus, came to Jesus, fell at his feet, and told him that his little daughter was near death. Jairus begged Jesus to come lay hands on her so she could be healed and live. So, Jesus went. Thus far in Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish leaders had felt Jesus out and turned against him. They were curious enough to gather in his house at Capernaum and witness his offering of forgiveness and healing to a paralyzed man (2:5-12). They judged him when they saw him eating with known sinners (2:16). They accused him of breaking the Sabbath Law in a couple of places (2:24, 3:2-6). Then, they organized against him by sending for legal experts from Jerusalem to make accusations that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub and evil spirits.

So, the fact that a leader of the synagogue fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal his daughter is surprising because the rest of the Jewish leadership seems to have aligned themselves against Jesus and actively tried to destroy his reputation. But Jairus was a desperate man. The Greek word he used for his child is the diminutive of daughter that was often a term of endearment. Jairus was a desperate father asking Jesus to come heal his little girl.

But as these events were unfolding, a woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years thought that if she could just touch Jesus’ clothes, she’d be made well. Verse 25, alone, tells us a lot about this woman’s predicament. If she had bled for twelve years, then she had been ritually unclean for twelve years. If she had been ritually unclean for twelve years, then she was a woman who existed on the fringes of society and probably had very little physical contact with anyone in that span.

Leviticus 15:25-28 says, “Whenever a woman has a bloody discharge for a long time, which is not during her menstrual period, or whenever she has a discharge beyond her menstrual period, the duration of her unclean discharge will be like the period of her menstruation; she will be unclean. Any bed she lies on during the discharge should be treated like the bed she uses during her menstruation; and any object she sits on will be unclean, as during her menstruation. Anyone who touches these things will be unclean. They must wash their clothes, bathe in water, and will be unclean until evening. When the woman is cleansed of her discharge, she will count off seven days; after that, she will be clean again” (Lev. 15:25-28 CEB). This is part of the law that governed this stuff for women in Jewish society. (It actually begins back in verse 19).

You can imagine how alone this woman was. Because of her ailment, anyone she touched would be considered unclean. Anything she touched that someone else touched would be considered unclean. Honestly, it sounds like a game of cooties gone horribly wrong.

Not only was she an outcast, she was poor. All the money she’d managed to earn, she’s spent it trying to get well. (Apparently, they didn’t have universal healthcare back then, either). But she’d only gotten worse under the care of many doctors. (Physicians back then didn’t have the training that ours do today).

This woman, too, is desperate. She’d heard about Jesus and the healings that had taken place all over Galilee. She might even have thought there was something mystical or magical about him. She’d probably heard that Jesus had been laying hands on people for those healings, and she thought that, if she could only touch his clothes some of that magic might rub off on her and heal her. And, in her mind, she probably thought that she’d have to sneak it because she’d lived for twelve years as someone that most people in her community would not touch.

So, she came up behind him, winding her way through the jostling crowd. It’s almost funny to imagine this scene because every person she bumped into on her way to Jesus was made unclean. But she didn’t care. She was too desperate to care about their ritual purity. If she bumped into them, they’d be unclean until evening, but she knew that if she didn’t get to Jesus, she’d be unclean for the rest of her life.

When she touched his clothes her bleeding stopped, and she sensed in her body that she had been healed. Note also how Jesus sensed that healing power had gone out from him. Jesus felt himself hemorrhage power as the woman’s hemorrhage of blood ceased.

Then, everything stopped. Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (5:30 CEB). Again, the disciples reveal their lack of insight. They essentially said, Are you kidding? Who didn’t touch you? Don’t you see this crowd? But Jesus looked around carefully, searching for the person who had touched him.

You see, it wasn’t enough for Jesus to heal someone of a physical ailment. For one thing, there’s more to wholeness of health than physical healing. For another, Jesus wanted to know the person he had healed. He sought the relationship because loving relationships and caring community are what shape us into whole human beings. Jesus wouldn’t go another step until he found the person he healed.

Meanwhile, Jairus, whose little daughter was dying, didn’t say a word. He didn’t urge Jesus on. He waited. He waited while the woman, this unclean, poor, outcast, fell at the feet of Jesus just as he had moments ago, and confessed that she had touched him. She had made him, a holy man, unclean. She had bumped into all these people, making them unclean.

Part of me wonders about the fear and trembling that overcame her. It’s the same word used to describe how the disciples were overcome with fear after Jesus calmed the storm (Mark 4:41). I think it could have included several aspects. For one, her belief that Jesus could heal her with power that was obviously beyond the mortal realm had just been confirmed. She might have been afraid of Jesus because she’d just stolen that power from him. She might also have been afraid because she’d made Jesus and the whole crowd unclean. Remember, whoever she touches, and whoever touches what she touches… cooties gone wild.

She had no idea how Jesus would react. She knew how he should have reacted according to the law. He should have condemned her. He had every right to under the law. But I wonder if part of her fearful trembling was born of hope that Jesus would finally be the one to have compassion on her, that this healer who hadn’t yet been afraid to touch others might see her as more than a plague to be avoided. Can you imagine her relief and her joy when Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed form your disease,”? (Mark 5:34 CEB).

When Jesus called her “Daughter,” he claimed her as family. This is important. This is the relationship moment. Jesus restored both this woman to the community and the community to her. You see, neither was complete without the other. When Jesus told her to go in peace, healed from her disease, the word he used is different from the other instances of healed in this text. Those other instances also mean saved. But the one at the end of verse 34 means made whole. Her faith healed (σέσωκέν) her from her physical ailment, not magic as she may have suspected! Even more, now that Jesus has restored her to her community, she’s been healed—made whole (ὑγιὴς)—from the disease that had separated her from even the possibility of caring relationships.

Dr. Mike Rynkiewich told me he was reading a dissertation in which the author claimed that “the antidote for shame is not affirmation but connection.” Another scholar, Michael Lindvall, suggested that, beyond physical healing, it is “acceptance, intimacy, and touch” that have the power to “make us whole and give us peace… Our relationships—in the church, in friendships, and in marriage—are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment, as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation. Relationship, ‘touch’ if you will, makes us human and whole. As the contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray once phrased it, ‘I need “you” in order to be myself.’” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. B.3, 192).

On Thursday afternoon, I had a discussion with some younger pastors in the district about the meaning of church membership. The question was posed, “What’s the advantage of membership? What’s the point beyond saying you get to vote on stuff?” My answer pointed them to vows in the liturgy. Since we’ve received new members today, we might want to look more closely at the baptismal covenant. When we join a congregation, we’re connected to a covenant community where we promise to nurture one another and include each other in our care. We promise to live according to the example of Christ and to surround each other with a community of love and forgiveness. We love each other, care for each other, help each other, mourn with each other, worship with each other, and celebrate with each other. These covenant relationships are the things that make us whole.

While Jesus was still speaking to the woman, messengers came to Jairus telling him that his daughter was dead. Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting” (Mark 5:36 CEB). Jesus went inside and tossed the crowd of mourners out. They had laughed at him when he said the girl was only sleeping. They’d seen death before, and this wasn’t sleep. They knew the girl had died. The mourners knew she had no future and no hope.

Jesus took the girl’s hand and said, “Talitha koum,” which means little girl, stand up. Immediately, the girl got up and started walking around. Knowing that death must take a lot out of a person, Jesus told her parents to give the girl something to eat.

In what way is Jesus king? In these stories, he’s king of life and law. Jesus shows over and again that he cares more about people and relationships than religious purity laws. When he took the girl’s hand, he would have been considered unclean from touching a dead body. But Jesus overcomes the law. Instead of being made unclean by touching those who are unclean, the touch of Jesus cleanses. Our touch, our contact with others in meaningful relationships can do the same.

When we enter into relationship with Jesus, and with each other as a covenant community, we’re restored to wholeness through those relationships. In these stories, Jesus teaches us that, as long as there are outcasts and people living on the fringes of society, our community isn’t whole. Those we might think of as they and them and those need us. And, whether we recognize it or not, we need them.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Afraid | Proper 7

Mark 4:35-41

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” (CEB)

Afraid

I heard a story kind of like this once. It was about a small cruise ship on one of the Great Lakes that had been hired for a fraternity reunion party. Of course, everyone knew a storm was coming because they could see the front clouds in the distance. They could feel the wind pick up and the air grow cooler as the clouds approached. The captain assured everyone that there wouldn’t be a problem, and they should all enjoy themselves. So, the fraternity brothers and their significant others danced, ate, drank, and talked. As they caught up on each other’s lives, the storm grew suddenly wilder.

Wind buffeted one side of the ship, causing it to list and rock side-to-side. Waves crashed harshly against the same side, sending spray high above the windows on the dance floor. Drinks spilled. People lost their balance. Men and women screamed. Most everyone started to panic. Then, a terrified man grabbed one of his fraternity brothers and said, “Didn’t you say you’re a pastor? Do something pastoral!”

The pastor glanced at the growing terror of those around him. He quickly dumped a bowl of caramel corn on the table, held it out and said, “We’ll now receive the offering.”

Our Gospel reading begins with, “Later that day, when evening came…” (c.f. Mark 4:35 CEB). Those words alert us to the fact that something must have happened earlier in the day. So, let’s recap what happened. Jesus taught beside the lake, but such a large crowd gathered that he got into a boat and taught while the people stood on the shore. He told several parables about seeds: seeds that are sown on a path, on rocky ground, among thorny plants, and on good soil (4:3-9); seed that grows into a harvest (4:26-29); and a small mustard seed that grows into a rather large plant (4:30-32), among other things. Later, Jesus explained the parables to his disciples and others who were nearby (4:10-20, 34).

Verse 2 and verse 33 tell us that Jesus taught with many parables that day, as much as they were able to hear. He wore the crowds out with speech, and wore himself out, too. Public speaking takes a lot out of you. I get why Jesus was tired. I take a nap every Sunday afternoon before going to Youth Group in the evening. So, it’s understandable that Jesus crashed on a pillow in the back of the boat. He taught all day, and he was tired.

Then, the storm came. But not just a storm. A great gale of wind (λαῖλαψ μεγάλη ἀνέμου). In our idiomatic English, we might say it was a massive storm of wind. It whipped up waves that crashed against the boat and swamped it. Usually, when we read this story, we imagine panicked disciples who wake Jesus so he can perform a miracle and save them. But, honestly, there’s little in the story to suggest that. The only suggestion that the disciples were afraid is when Jesus asked them why they were frightened, and that word isn’t fear, the word means timid, cowardly, or lack confidence.

Several of the disciples were experienced fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. They knew the waters, knew how to handle their boats, and had probably survived more rough storms than they could count. There is no reason to assume the disciples were panicked, but they were obviously concerned and probably working hard to save their skin.

When they woke Jesus up, I don’t think they were expecting a miracle. I think they wanted an extra pair of hands to help bail the boat. Their comment to Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” (Mark 4:38b CEB) seems more akin to Hey, Professor, don’t you care that we’re getting swamped here? Get up and help bail the boat, you lazy git! Nothing in the story indicates the disciples expected Jesus to do what he did, that he could rescue them with a few commanding words to the wind and sea.

He rebuked the wind and spoke to the sea saying, “Silence! Be still!” and the wind stopped so that there was a great calm (γαλήνη μεγάλη). Then, Jesus asked the disciples a question that is challenging, confusing, and haunting, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (Mark 4:40 CEB). It begs the questions: What is faith? What kind of faith is Jesus talking about? We can look back in the earlier parts of Mark 4 and see that Jesus was teaching on the matter of faith all day. That’s why he was exhausted and fell asleep.

At this point in their lives, the disciples seem to have had the kind of faith that was like the seed that was sown on rocky ground. “When people hear the word, they immediately receive it joyfully. Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away” (Mk. 4:16-17 CEB). The faith of the disciples withered in a storm. And I have to admit that my own faith has done the same at times; not with a literal storm, but with the figurative storms of life’s trials and difficulties.

The disciples’ lack of faith is revealed fully in the next line. Some Bible translations tend to tone this down by rendering the Greek into English as, “Overcome with awe” like the CEB or “they were filled with great awe” like the NRSV. But they disciples feared with great fear (ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν). They were terrified at what Jesus had done. They were more afraid of the fact that Jesus had calmed the storm than they were of the storm itself.

How do we respond when fearful things threaten to overcome us?

There are fearful things out there. There’s a difference between saying There is nothing to be afraid of and Don’t be afraid. In the Scriptures, when something fearful happens, the admonition is always, Don’t be afraid (c.f. Genesis 15:1, 21:17, 35:17, 46:3; Exodus 14:3; Deuteronomy 1:29; Ruth 3:11; 1 Kings 17:13; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30, 2:10; Acts 27:24; Revelation 1:17, among others). Though fearful things surround us and press against us every day, having faith is trusting that, despite the fearful things of this world, God reigns and will not leave us alone. Fearful things do not have the final say over us no matter what happens.

Another storm story comes from the journals of the founder of the Methodist Movement. On Sunday, December 23, 1735, John Wesley was aboard a ship heading for the Georgia Colony, and the ship experienced a storm. He wrote in his journal, “At night I was awaked by the tossing of the ship and roaring of the wind, and plainly showed I was unfit, for I was unwilling to die” (Baker Vol. I, 19). He admitted that he was afraid, that his faith failed, that he didn’t trust that God was with him even if death should come for him. And he felt that failure of his faith keenly.

Several weeks later, on Sunday, January 25, 1736, Wesley described another storm, saying, “At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before… The winds roared round about us, and (what I never heard before) whistled as distinctly as if it had been a human voice. The ship not only rocked to and fro with the utmost violence, but shook and jarred with so unequal, grating a motion, that one could not but with great difficulty keep one’s hold of any thing, nor stand a moment without it. Every ten minutes came a shock against the stern or side of the ship, which one would think should dash the planks to pieces” (Baker Vol I, 21).

At seven o’clock, after the storm had passed, Wesley went to speak with the Germans aboard who had been worshipping during the storm. He wrote, “In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’” (Baker Vol. I, 22).

Those German Moravians had a profound impact on John Wesley’s faith. They sang songs of worship through a storm so violent that they were sure their ship was already going down. The Moravians had faith that, whether they lived or died, God was with them, and God would have the final say. They had faith that even death is not an end.

In essence, the Moravians acted with the faith of Psalm 107: “The waves went as high as the sky; they crashed down to the depths. The sailors’ courage melted at this terrible situation. They staggered and stumbled around like they were drunk. None of their skill was of any help. So they cried out to the LORD in their distress, and God brought them out safe from their desperate circumstances. God quieted the storm to a whisper; the sea’s waves were hushed. So they rejoiced because the waves had calmed down; then God led them to the harbor they were hoping for” (Ps. 107:26-30 CEB). Faith moves like this: when great storms give way to great calm, the response is supposed to be rejoicing and praise.

For the disciples, it didn’t go that way. When the great storm gave way to great calm, their response was great fear. In calming the storm, Jesus showed the disciples that he is, quite unexpectedly, king over all creation. Our faith holds fast to that truth no matter what fearful things come our way. Faith is knowing that, no matter the storms that come against us, God is greater than the storms. Faith tells us that we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

A House Divided | Proper 5

Mark 3:20-35

20 Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”

22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”

23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24 A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25 And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27 No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28 I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29 But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”

31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”

33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (CEB)

A House Divided

This text has always made Christians worry, and maybe for good reason. We’re afraid of the unforgivable sin of offending the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we’re nervous because we don’t know what offending the Holy Spirit is. I mean, what if we do it accidentally? Would God really not forgive us? Would God really send us to Hell because of an accident? I mean, it sounds kind of harsh. I’ve had people come to me and ask what it is because they don’t understand what it is. They wanted me to identify it for them so they could make sure they didn’t do the big oops and wind up in a situation where they won’t be forgiven.

Whenever Jesus says something that we find confusing, we have to look at the context. It’s something Rev. Dr. Mike Rynkiewich and I are teaching in our Bible study classes on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday nights. Context matters. It can inform those difficult-to-understand snippets, especially when we read the snippet as if it’s not related to the stuff before and after it.

We know things had been going on before this text because Mark tells us, “Jesus entered a house. A crowed gathered again…” (c.f. Mark 3:20 CEB). That word again tells us that this wasn’t the first time a crowd had gathered around Jesus. When we come across a word like again, wise students of the Bible will turn the pages backward to check out the previous instances of whatever happened, and maybe the other stuff that Jesus has been up to as well.

When we look at Mark chapters 1, 2, and 3, we see that Jesus was baptized by John, who announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB). Jesus was baptized and tempted in the wilderness. Then, he started preaching, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (1:14 CEB). Note that Jesus didn’t say, “Dig in your heels” but “Change your hearts and lives, and trust…” He called his disciples to follow him, too.

Then, in one day, he healed a demon-possessed man on the Sabbath while in the Synagogue at Capernaum, he healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and that evening he healed multiple people of sickness and demon-possession because everyone who knew a sick person was bringing them to Jesus for healing. This was the first big crowd.

Later, Jesus healed a man with a skin disease who blabbed so much about being healed (directly disobeying Jesus’ stern order to keep quiet) that Jesus could hardly enter a town. So, he stayed out in deserted places, but people still went out to him. So, more crowds gathered. Many crowds gathered.

In Chapter 2, Jesus went back to his home in Capernaum, and when people heard it, a crowd packed his house. So many people gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. So a few enterprising people tore a hole in Jesus’ roof to lower their sick friend down to him. But first, Jesus forgave the man of his sins, which annoyed some legal experts who were also present in Jesus’ house. To prove that he had authority to forgive sins, he healed the paralyzed man before the legal expert’s eyes.

Later, another crowd gathered near him at the lake, and he taught them. That’s when he invited Levi, the tax collector, to follow him, and he went to eat at Levi’s house alongside many other tax collectors and known sinners. You see, everyone KNEW these people were sinners. They had no doubt that these people were sinners. But Jesus did this incredibly unexpected thing and ate with them. The Pharisees saw it as a violation of purity laws to have fellowship with a sinner of any kind. Jesus was breaking the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law of Moses.

Jesus and his disciples also picked grains of wheat on the Sabbath and ate them. And, the Pharisees asked why Jesus was breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath Law. The Law said that no work should be done but doesn’t specify the nature of the work. Jesus and his disciples are essentially gleaning, which was legal. So, the question is whether or not it was legal on the Sabbath to pick grain, not in order to harvest but to satisfy hunger. The interpretation that Jesus made of the Law is that it was okay for hungry people to feed themselves. The Pharisees disagreed.

Next, in chapter 3, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Because this action of healing a person violated their interpretation of the Law, the Pharisees and supporters of Herod went out and sought a way to destroy Jesus.

All of this context points to what happens in the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus entered his house and a crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him or his followers to even eat bread. His family had heard all about it, and they were fit to be tied. They decided it was time for an intervention because Jesus was obviously out of his mind. The word used is a compound word made up of out of and to make stand. So the way they said someone was nuts back then was to say they stood out of their self. (Now, the next time someone tells you you’re outstanding, you’ll wonder if it’s a compliment).

Not only is Jesus’ family coming to get a hold of him, but the legal experts have mobilized in their effort to destroy him. They’ve sent a contingent from Jerusalem, and they were spreading the charge that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, which is a name that means Lord of the Flies. Jesus, they say, throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.

So, what we see here is a group of religious people who held to a certain interpretation of Scripture, and they were so adamant about that particular interpretation of Scripture that they were willing to say anything to denounce Jesus and destroy his reputation.

The thing is, the Pharisees and legal experts had seen with their own eyes the things Jesus did. They saw him heal people. They were drawn to him, too, that’s why they were at his house when he healed the crippled man. According to their own understanding of the Law, God doesn’t listen to sinners. Only someone who was on God’s side could do the things Jesus did (c.f. John 3:2). In fact, these signs were proof that Jesus was a prophet of God. The legal experts and Pharisees knew that. But, now that they felt the need to defend their interpretations and conclusions about the Scriptures and religious life, they actively attempted to make Jesus and his work into something Satanic.

So, Jesus called everyone together and told a parable. The first part is logic, “How can Satan throw Satan out? A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for” (Mk. 3:23-26 CEB).

The second part is Jesus describing himself as the one who walked into the strong person’s house and tied him up so he could burglarize it. Remember what John the Baptist said back in chapter one: “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB)? Jesus is stronger than Satan, and that’s why he’s able to throw demons out of people who were possessed by them. He’s not Beelzubul in disguise. Jesus is essentially saying, I tied Beelzebul up and started stealing his stuff. Beelzebul owned some people, I stole them back.

Now, we’re at the part that can worry us, and maybe should worry us. It should especially worry us when we think that we know God’s will so perfectly that we can map out the movements of the Spirit, that we know what lines God will never cross, when we know exactly who and what God accepts and who and what God rejects. Jesus said, “‘I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” Mk. 3:28-29 CEB). Mark lets us know that Jesus said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.’” (Mk. 3:30 CEB).

The unforgivable sin happens when we see the work of the Holy Spirit with our own eyes, or hear of it with our own ears, yet because we don’t like it—because it doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions and interpretations—we identify it as the work of Satan. The detractors of Jesus saw and heard of his healings, but because certain matters of his Biblical interpretation didn’t jive with their interpretations, they labeled the work of the Holy Spirit as evil. That kind of arrogance can lead any of us to mislabel what God is doing as the work of Satan. Whether the sin is eternally unforgivable is another matter of debate because Jesus used hyperbole all the time. My understanding of the matter is that if we repent of that sin and join in with the Holy Spirit’s work, then God will forgive us.

Now, in the next few years, our church, The United Methodist Church, has some stuff to figure out about human sexuality and whether people who are homosexual are going to be fully welcome among us. And it’s not going to be easy. It was apparent at Annual Conference in Indianapolis due to some of the resolutions we discussed and did not pass. It has been made apparent at several other annual Conferences that have taken place this year based on resolutions they have passed or failed to pass. Lines are being drawn and people are fighting for their understanding of the issues of human sexuality, and for their interpretations of the Scriptures.

But I want to offer a pastoral word of caution. Before we withdraw into our already-firm conclusions and our personal Biblical interpretations, before we start calling one side or the other evil or wrong or sinful—whether aloud or in our internal monologue—I caution each of us to be patient. I hope we’ll listen to perspectives that differ from our own. I hope we’ll open our hearts and minds to see where that unpredictable Spirit of God is blowing.

There was a time when the church was segregated by race, but now all are supposed to be welcome. That’s what our baptismal & membership vows claim. (I think we still have some work to do on that one). There was a time when women were not allowed to be ordained or hold certain other leadership positions in the church, but now we ordain women and every leadership position is open. (I think we still have some work to do on that one, too).

We don’t know what’ll happen at the Special Session of General Conference in 2019 or how we’ll move forward as a church. Three plans have been set forth for consideration, and I encourage you to read them. I urge you to speak and, most importantly, I urge you to listen with empathetic ears. What I believe, wholeheartedly, is that if we pay attention—not for that moment when our side wins the debate—but if we pay attention to the movements and urgings of the Holy Spirit and see other people as beloved of God, we’ll move into the next decade and beyond as The United Methodist Church.

But if we fight amongst ourselves in a civil war and try to throw each other out; if we rebel against each other and are divided, then we’re done for. We won’t endure.

When Jesus’ family showed up at the door to his house, they couldn’t even get inside. So people told him, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.” (Mk. 3:32 CEB). The thing is, when Jesus replied “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Mark 3:33 CEB), he didn’t reject his family. He broadened his family. He made it bigger. Jesus said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3:34-35 CEB). Perhaps we can discern God’s will by listening and speaking, praying and worshipping, loving and seeking – together.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay