Saturday, October 31, 2015

“Couldn’t All This Have Been Avoided?” - November 1, 2015

John 11:1-6, 17-44

               I once was in a hospital room where someone had just died as a result of some sort of brain trauma. I don't remember exactly what had happened anymore but it might have been a stroke or an aneurysm that burst.  I do recall that the woman's daughter was in the room and that she was distraught beyond the usual grief.  While I was there the doctor came in to offer condolences and she told her the same story that she had been telling everyone else.

               She had been staying with her mother but needed to go out of the house for a few minutes to get some groceries. When she returned, she found her mother on the floor. She called an ambulance, which carried her mother to the hospital, and she had not left her side since then. She had slept in the room and would not even go down to the snack bar to get a sandwich.

               The doctor looked at her and saw how tired she was, and said to her, "I hope you realize that even if you had been standing right there in the room with your mother four days ago there would have been nothing you could have done to prevent this."

               Now, that doctor knew what she was doing.  It is totally normal and natural for someone, especially someone who is a caretaker, to feel that there is always something that can be done for somebody who is sick, or even dying.  It is totally normal and natural, but it is not true.

               That seems to have been in the mind of Martha of Bethany when her brother Lazarus was sick.  The Gospels describe her as one of his two sisters, whose personalities had sharp distinctions.  Martha was always somewhere getting things done, even while her sister Mary would just sort of hang out.  At one point we read of Martha complaining to Jesus about Mary because she was spending too much time with him instead of helping her in the kitchen.  Given all of that, I can imagine what sort of nurse she must have been when Lazarus fell ill.  Just picture Martha tending to him, trying to break his fever, pulling the blanket up and down, trying to make him drink a little soup. That’s why it’s so easy to hear her after Lazarus died: “if only”.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” [John 11:12]

Jesus had delayed too long when he had been called.  She had done her part.  Why had he not done his?  It wasn’t just Martha that had that thought, either. 

“When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ [John 11:32]

There were other people there, too, and

“some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” [John 11:37]

No wonder Jesus wept, not just for Lazarus.  There he was, with his friend just buried, and he’s being blamed for it because he was somewhere else when it happened.

               Those words: “if only”. Let's put the blame somewhere when someone dies.  Let's blame the doctor who was there.  Let's blame the doctor who was not there. Let's blame the nurse, let's blame the patient. Let’s blame ourselves, or let's even blame God.

               Let's be clear, though. All human beings die, sooner or later. It's what happens. We are no different from any other part of nature in that respect. We like to think that we can put it off and avoid it. Just look at how much money is spent on hair dye every year so that people can deny that they are aging. Just look at commercials where 70-year-olds are shown bike riding and playing tennis all the time. That's not to say they don't or can't. But the suggestion is that if you buy enough Centrum Silver or eat enough Grape Nuts you will stay young forever.  It isn’t so.

               There is, however, one “if” that does make a difference, and Mary and Martha were not far from recognizing this. The presence of Jesus in our lives does not exempt us from death but does carry us through physical death into life beyond death.  Again, Jesus does not save us from our physical death. He did not spare himself from that experience either. But what he did and what he does is offer life beyond that.

“Jesus said to [Martha], ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” [John 11:25-26]

What we do here this morning in just a minute is to proclaim our faith in that hope.

               On All Saints’ Day, we remember people with whom we have walked through that experience of their dying.  In some cases we may have been just like Martha. Nevertheless, like her, we find ourselves in the end answering the question of whether we can trust our loved ones into God’s hands with the word “yes”.

               Could all of this of been avoided? Perhaps. Perhaps not. There is a certain mystery involved in the beginning and the end of life. What we do know is what God has revealed to us rather than what we can figure out with our own brains. In the long run, that is what matters. That is where we can find real comfort and hope.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

“What Do You Want?” - October 25, 2015

Mark 10:46-52

“As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’  Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’  Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’  So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.  Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’”  [Mark 10:46-51]

“What do you want me to do for you?”  Isn’t it obvious?  The man is blind.  He only knows that Jesus is nearby, not where he is, exactly, so he shouts to get Jesus’ attention.  People try to quiet him, but he only gets more stirred up.  This may be his last chance.  He certainly couldn’t chase him to catch up.  He couldn’t sneak up on him in a crowd, the way a woman with a hemorrhage did one time.  If he would get his attention, it had to be by shouting, which he did.  It worked, too.  Jesus went over to him and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Again, isn’t it obvious?

            Yes and no.

            One of the amazing things about Jesus is the profound respect he showed people.  He really and truly saw each and every person and looked at them as someone unique in the eyes of God, individual and special, a deliberate creation.  As such, he didn’t make assumptions that you or I might make.  You and I might first off see a blind man, one named Bartimaeus.  Jesus saw – and this is crucial – a man named Bartimaeus, who was blind.

            Which was the defining thing about him?  Who is was as a person, or the difficulties that that person had?

            A lot of times people who have full use of their bodies, or if not full, something within the usual range of ability, make assumptions about people who are in a different situation.  One assumption is that the difficulty or disability is the main thing about them.  Madysen, who works in our nursery every Sunday morning, taking care of the babies, does not have full use of both arms.  Nevertheless, she is perfectly capable of changing a diaper and holding a crying infant and juggling all the tasks that any parent has to handle at some point.  Many of us knew Minnie Thacker, whose condition was far more problematic than Madysen’s, and who could not have done what Maddie does, but who nevertheless painted beautiful paintings and taught ceramics to soldiers who had been wounded in Vietnam. 

The physical condition is real, and part of someone’s life, but it isn’t necessarily the biggest issue at every moment.  I read last week that Stevie Wonder is getting divorced.  I don’t know who initiated it or why, but I cannot imagine that if it was his wife who went to him and said, “I’m filing for divorce,” his first thought would have been, “Oh no!  I’m blind!”  It probably would have been either, “Oh no!  Is it over?” or “At last!”  People with disabilities lead whole lives with all the same issues as anyone else.

So Jesus’ question: “What do you want me to do for you?” honored Bartimaeus in the most wonderful way.  “You tell me.  You tell me who you are.  You tell me what is important for you, and what may be your deepest need.  Let the request come from you, not from my idea of you.”

Bartimaeus did speak.  He did ask for his sight.  But it was more than that.  The blind man said to him,

“‘My teacher, let me see again.’” [Mark 10:52]

In that word “again” there must have been a lifetime of experience.  Once he had seen.  We don’t know what had happened, but he knew what he was missing.  The gospel refers to him as “a blind beggar” and perhaps when he had had his sight he had also been able to work and to earn his own bread.  Perhaps he had had a far more dignified life than sitting down beside the road and having people tell him to be quiet and not to disturb anyone.  Perhaps nobody had ordered him around like the crowd did that day and others had considered him capable, the way that now – out of all the people there – Jesus alone thought of him.  Perhaps what he wanted was a chance of having others treat him once again the way that Jesus was treating him: as a whole human being.

“‘My teacher, let me see again.’”

It would not just have been sight that he longed for, but the life that he had lost when the sight left him.  His request of Jesus was for everything.

“Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. [Mark 10:52]

When he received his sight, he followed.  He followed because he had found someone who understood and who understands.  He followed because Jesus had seen what everybody else had been blind to.  Jesus had seen Bartimaeus.

            As for you and me, he sees us, too.  He sees the real us.  He sees the stuff, good and bad, that is inside us.  He sees the things that have made us who we are.  He knows the things that keep us from becoming whom we are meant to be.  He knows the false images that others have of us and the false images that we have of ourselves.  He knows all of that, and despite it all or because of it all, he loves us all the same.

            And he asks us, each and every one:

"What do you want me to do for you?”

Saturday, October 17, 2015

“Prestige” - October 18, 2015

Mark 10:35-45

When James and John went to Jesus and asked,

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory”, [Mark 10: 37]

you sort of have to wonder what they were thinking.  Were they asking to be second-in-command?  Maybe, but I suspect it had more to do with that picture they had of Jesus in his glory.  There they would be at that moment, right there beside him in the spotlight.  They were focused on the photo opportunity.  It’s like the line from Jesus Christ, Superstar, when the disciples sing,

“Always thought that I’d be an apostle.
Always knew I’d make it if I try.
Then, when we retire, we can write the gospels
So they’ll all talk about us when we die.”

If you aren’t in the center of the picture, you can at least be just to the edge of it.  It’s a place of honor, of prominence, and of prestige.  It’s like those restaurant owners who line their lobbies with pictures of celebrities palling around with them.

            Jesus responded with a realistic assessment of what it takes to get to that point, and it didn’t sound like a stroll down the red carpet.

“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” [Mark 10:38] 

When the moment came, they would not be able to see things through to the end.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, they fell asleep while he was praying, and when he was arrested they fled, like the others.  That’s really the whole problem with being preoccupied with prestige.  Either you find out that it isn’t such a big deal after all, or you discover that it comes at a higher price than you realized, or you find that it isn’t to be obtained the way you thought it would.

            Here’s a little quiz.  What do all of these people have in common?
John Breckinridge                               William King
George Clinton                                   Thomas Marshall
Schuyler Colfax                                  Levi Morton 
Charles Curtis                                     James Sherman
George Dallas                                     Daniel Tompkins
Charles Dawes                                    William Wheeler
Charles Fairbanks                              Henry Wilson 
Thomas Hendricks                             Garrett Hobart

How about if I add these?

Hubert Humphrey       Nelson Rockefeller                 Dan Quayle
Walter Mondale          Adlai Stevenson                      Al Gore
Of course, you recognized the answer from the start.  They have all been vice-presidents of the United States.  They have all been held in high esteem in their day, of course.  A modern vice president flies in Air Force Two and receives a nineteen-gun salute.  They live at one of the most famous addresses in Washington: 1 Observatory Circle, NW.  It is an office to which almost every child in the land aspires at some point, and carries with it an automatic seat on the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.

            You get it, right?  In fact, the vice presidency is a hard and mostly thankless job.  It has a lot of truly important duties attached to it.  In addition to hanging around in case the president dies and covering receptions and events that the president is unable to attend, the vice president presides at meetings of the Senate and casts a vote to break any ties.  The vice president oversees voting by the electoral college and presides at the impeachment proceedings of any federal official except the president.  The vice president is a member of the National Security Council, a body that does not show up in the Constitution but that has tremendous influence at key moments.

            All the same, there’s something that makes the office the object of jokes.  They started with the first vice president, John Adams, who wrote to his wife in 1793, My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."  That is what it is like to be second-in-command. 

            It’s ironic, in a way.  The office of the vice president (and I’m not commenting here on any of the specific people who have held it, some of whom have been statesmen and some of whom have been scoundrels) – the office itself is one example of what Jesus pointed out about worldly position.

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” [Mark 10:41-45] 

We see it in Washington, but it’s also true in Phoenixville.  What makes someone great is willingness to take a back seat, or to do what needs doing without reference to self.

            Every year, as we approach Charge Conference, our annual organizational meeting with the District Superintendent, I fill out all kinds of forms and am asked to consider questions that get to the heart of whether the church is being faithful to Jesus; if so, how? and if not, why not?  This year I can say a clear “yes” in part because we’ve had an unusual demonstration of that kind of discipleship, one that we hadn’t even envisioned clearly a year ago.  In January, we started cooking and serving (there’s a word that was in the gospel lesson today) meals to people who need them every other Monday.  Now, in order to meet health department standards, people who are doing that are required to cover their hair with a net or a hat, so we went to the list to see how many to buy.  

            We discovered that we needed more than fifty caps.  Mind you, that doesn’t include the people who support the work by providing supplies.  In other words, about one in three people sitting here on a Sunday are involved in direct, hands-on ministry of this one type – and there are other ministries worth celebrating as well.  

            So instead of finishing my sermon with a quotation or a poem or the joke about “Everybody knows Bubba” that I thought about using, I’d like to finish it with a prayer for these people and others:

Thank you, Lord, for people who hear your message and get it, who without fuss or fanfare simply do what you ask, whether in this ministry or any other.  Thank you for people who take up some form of service to your children, whether in their spare time or as their life’s work.  We ask you to bless them in what they do, and to raise up others beside them, as you work in and through your disciples by your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Friday, October 9, 2015

“Possessions” - October 11, 2015

Mark 10:17-31

            There are a lot of different ways of examining a Bible passage, and one of them is to ask yourself as you read it or hear it, “What words jump out at me?”  In the gospel reading for this morning, there was one of those words, for me at least.  The word is “inherit”.  The rich young man asks Jesus,

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

There are a lot of other ways that I would have put it, and a lot of other words that come to mind first.  “What must I do to gain eternal life? … What must I do to receive eternal life? … What must I do to earn eternal life?”  All of those come to mind easily.  Matthew [19:16] has him ask,

“What good deed must I do to have eternal life?”,

which, as I say, seems to be the way most people I know would put it.  However, both Mark and Luke have him using this word “inherit”“Inherit”?  That’s odd.  It has to say something about the mindset of the questioner.

            I would guess that inheritance must have been part of this man’s general atmosphere or environment.  He is identified in all three of the gospels where this story is told as being rich.  People in any class deal with inheritance at some point.  The family farm passes down from generation to generation, and do things less tangible, like a sense of humor or the size of a nose.  It’s only where there’s some level of financial stability, though, that people tend to think about inheritance, and only where there’s abundance beyond stability that it becomes part of someone’s everyday thinking.  My guess is that this man must have fallen into that category, and that Jesus caught onto that.

            The thing about such a level of wealth is that it can bring a degree of entitlement with it.  Inheritance goes to someone, usually, as a result of birth and biology.  When Jesus replied to the man, he started by speaking to him as part of the people of Israel, a people who over centuries had come to share a special awareness and relationship to God.  He tells him that if he wants to inherit, he should be true to his family’s values. 

“You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’[Mark 10:19-20]

Still, the man had a sense that there had to be more to it than that, which is why he had sought out Jesus.

            He was right.  What mattered was not only that he was true not only to the ways of eternal life, but to its source.  Eternal life, God’s kingdom, is not something for us to possess.  It is something that possesses us.

            Robert Frost wrote a poem, “The Gift Outright”, about the difference discovered in our own nation, between controlling the land and being a part of it.

“The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.”[1]

Frost speaks about finding “salvation in surrender”, and that is exactly what Jesus asked of the rich young man.  If he would discover the meaning of eternal life, he had to trust that it was an everyday reality, more real than his possessions.  So those other possessions had to go.

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ [Mark 10:21]

If the rich young man had really known the commandments as well as he claimed, he would have known that those very commandments say,

“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god.” [Exodus 20:5]

That means that God asks all of our love, not just part of it.  God asks all of our loyalty, not just some of it.  Whenever something else enters the picture, it is likely that we will be asked to choose, as this man was.  I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I cannot.

            It’s great to have the things that we have.  It is a good idea to ask, though, not just how much they cost but if there is some expense for them that comes not from your pocket but from your soul.  There’s a quote (that I haven’t been able to authenticate) that says

“The Dalai Lama was asked what surprised him the most; 
he said, ‘Man, because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived.’"

I have a feeling Jesus would have agreed with that.  What he said was this:

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” [Matthew 6:24-33]


Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Divorce" - October 4, 2015

Mark 10:2-16

                We are all aware of the intense debates over the nature of marriage that have been going on all around us recently.  There’s no question that the institution of marriage and the event of a wedding bring into focus a whole catalog of questions around sexuality, family relationships, church and state relationships, the relationship between law and conscience, what it takes to raise a child, and on and on.  In the middle of that, along comes this reading from Mark that talks about divorce.

            Once upon a time, divorce was controversial.  In the 1930’s the King of England abdicated because he wanted to marry a woman who had been divorced.  It would have been scandalous under any circumstances but in his role as head of the Church of England it was just plain unthinkable.  That has changed.  The divorce rate in this country spiked in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and has come down a bit since then, but according to The New York Times[1] about one in three recent marriages (meaning less than fifteen years old) will end in divorce.  We feel badly about divorce, but there is little public outrage.  Jesus’ words on divorce, however, have some bite to them.

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” [Mark 10:11-12]

Before we start pointing fingers, though, let’s look at where that comes from.

            First off, he admits its legality under Jewish law.  His words are a part of a discussion with religious authorities.

“Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.’” [Mark 10:2-5]

What was that hardness of heart?  That was the ability in that time and place for a man simply to discard a woman when he was unhappy with her.  Perhaps she was no longer in her prime child-bearing years.  Perhaps there was a personality conflict.  Maybe he felt a need for variety in his life.  It didn’t matter.  Women had no independent legal status.  For a woman to get a certificate of divorce was a small protection for her.  She probably would not have been considered a leading candidate for remarriage but at least she would not have been a landmine, since involvement with another man’s wife was more than wrong, it was dangerous.  It’s very much like things still are in the Middle East.  Marriages are arranged and are very much an economic matter.  A man’s honor may be involved, but a woman is still a commodity.

Jesus wanted to go beyond that outlook.  He pushed things back to look at marriage as a matter of relationship instead of convenience.

“‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’” [Mark 10:5-9]

He was speaking to those who had the ability to prevent divorce and telling them that their choices would not affect the woman only, but the man as well.  If the two are one, a divorce would mean amputating a part of oneself. 
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” [Mark 10:11-12]

There was to be no easy, clean divorce.

            Let’s be clear.  Modern divorce, in this country, is not the same thing.  A divorced woman is not sent back in shame to her family, and she is not going to be whispered about at the village well.  It is also clear that Jesus did not shun a Samaritan woman he met at a well one day even though her marital record was right up there with Elizabeth Taylor’s.  In fact, he welcomed her into the kingdom.  There is no reason for anyone to stigmatize someone over divorce.

            We also need to recognize that Jesus’ rejection of divorce was part of the way that he stood up for the powerless and the exploited.  In our time, divorce can be a way that the powerless and exploited stand up for themselves.  Marriage, as he insists, should be something that fulfills God’s will for people.  If marriage is being used as a tool to control somebody or as a cover for abuse of any type, that is not marriage as God intends.

            I’ll give an example from the Middle East again.  The Iranians struggle with the use of marriage and divorce as a cover for prostitution.  For a man to go to a prostitute is against Islamic law.  But if he marries a woman, offering a gift to her guardian, and then shortly thereafter divorces her – very shortly thereafter – the legalities have been observed. 

In our own society, where people can run to a wedding chapel and the next morning go to a lawyer in regret, or where weddings have become an industry of their own with thousands and thousands of dollars going into a show reception with no thought about the life that is to follow “the big day”, there is often a parallel disregard.  It just has a different shape.  Then if the marriage becomes the arena for people to live out the worst sides of themselves, it becomes toxic for everyone.  Divorce then makes sense, because it affirms what Jesus affirms, which is the value of a human being in relationship with God and other people.  It should be an event that brings to an end something that has harmed someone badly.

Divorce is never good.  Christian faith, though, is about how God brings good things out of bad situations.  He brought forgiveness out of Jesus’ death on the cross, and he brought life out of Jesus’ burial in a grave.  Surely a God who can make those terrible, painful events the key to eternal life for sinners can use the terrible things in human life to point the way to fullness of life as it should be.

            Ruth Graham, daughter of Billy Graham, grew up with all the pressures and expectations you might predict.  As an adult, she had a daughter who went through a teen pregnancy and a son who became addicted to drugs.  Her first marriage, of twenty-one years, ended because of her husband’s infidelity.  She then got into a “rebound relationship” and married, against her family’s advice.  That marriage lasted five weeks.  She describes what happened next:

"I had to go tell my parents. I thought, 'What are they going to say to me?' As I rounded the last bend in my father's driveway, he was waiting for me. He wrapped his arms around me and said, 'Welcome home.' He showed me enormous grace.
"As I was talking to him one day, really beating myself up and taking responsibility for everything and just pouring my heart out, he said, 'Quit beating yourself up. We all live under grace and do the best we can.'”[2]
To me, that sums it up, and it applies to anything we face.  We all live under grace, and we all live by grace.  ’Tis grace hath brought us safe this far, and grace will lead us home.


[2] Rose French, “Graham’s Daughter Addresses Gritty Issues” (Associated Press, November 13, 2008).