Friday, October 16, 2015

Missing the Point

Sermon for Sunday October 11, 2015 Harmony and First Presbyterian Churches Johnson County Arkansas.

Text: Mark 19:32-45

 I’ll never forget the day we were given a tour of an active Mountaintop removal site in Eastern Kentucky.  We walked around and were given a driving tour of what used to be a beautiful mountain.  There were sections where rock trucks bigger than any vehicle I have ever seen were carrying pieces of the mountain away.  There was another section where elk were reintroduced to the mountains.  There was a tree farm.  There was something that looked like grass, which was also painted with fertilizer. And as we ended the tour we got back to the front of the site and I stood looking out over the destruction of the coal mining operation on one side and the beautiful Appalachian mountains on the other when our guide came up and said “Did you see the elk sitting over there? Beautiful reclamation site isn’t it?” It took every filter I had inserted for the entire trip for me to not say, “No, sir, actually this is obscene.  We take apart mountains and attempt to put them back together, disturb the wildlife, and you want to call it beautiful?” But instead I shrugged my shoulders and said “yeah, beautiful.”  As we headed to the car (most of us in tears) I took one last look at the destruction around me and thought to myself “We as Americans, as consumers of energy, as followers of Christ have missed the point of the creation story. We have failed to be good stewards of this earth.”  I’ll never forget the feeling of emptiness that came with the feeling of missing the point, of failing to understand God’s plan for creation, of failing to have the courage to say something to our guide about how I really felt that day as I stood on the reclamation site. 

 As I read the texts for this morning I couldn’t help but come back time and time again to the disciples and their continued pattern of missing Jesus’ point.  You see this is not the first or second time Jesus predicts his death. This is the third time he does so.
The first came after Peter’s Declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, when Jesus rebuked him and said, “Get behind me Satan!”
The second was after he healed a boy possessed with Spirits… and scripture says the disciples did not understand his predictions and were afraid to ask him any questions.
The text from this morning is the third and final prediction of Jesus death and resurrection.

The text tells us that they were already on the road to Jerusalem when Jesus took the twelve aside from the larger crowd to make this declaration, he tells them that he is going to be mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed.  And James and John respond by taking this as an opportunity to ask if they can sit at the right and left hand of Jesus. The conversation continues and the disciples get angry with one another and finally Jesus tells them it is not about who gets to sit on the right or the left it is about living a life of service.  It is not about being the greatest; it is about becoming the lowest.  It is not about having the answers or the solution it is about serving. It is about waiting on people, giving them the basic necessities to live, learning what their problems are, listening to them, loving them, and giving them all that they need. 
Jesus predicts his death and resurrection and then tells the disciples that this life is not about being great.  He has made it clear throughout the Gospel of Mark that this life-that is the life of following Christ-will be one of suffering, maybe even to the point of death.  And after he is gone it will be a life of service, of putting the needs of others, even strangers before the needs and the desires of the self. 
And Jesus didn’t just command his disciples or us to cast our needs and desires aside to serve others-Jesus did it. Jesus healed the blind, those with leprosy, and the hemorrhaging woman.  All of these would have been considered unclean or deserving of their afflictions.  Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus didn’t look out for himself or put himself before the needs of others, he served. He served selflessly.  Even to the point of death.
The disciples were on the road to Jerusalem.  On the road to Jesus’ betrayal, death, and resurrection.  The disciples knew they were following the messiah, the anointed one who would change the world they knew, but they couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was telling them.  He was telling them he wasn’t the messiah they expected.  He was telling them that sitting at his right and his left was not going to look the way they thought it would.  He was not going to go out in a glorious reign of power that overthrew the oppressive systems of the time.  There would be no end to war, no deliverance of God’s people from enemies, and no immediate divine intervention that turned the world as it was upside down.
No.  Jesus was going to suffer at the hands of humans. He was going to be ridiculed, spat upon, beaten, and nailed to a cross.  Jesus was going to die hanging on that cross with two criminals at his right and left hands.  He was going to be buried in a tomb just like any other human being.  But unlike any other he was going to rise from the dead, overcome death, and reconcile humanity to the One who created the universe. 

John Calvin in a sermon during passion week said: "In truth, though death in itself was cursed in its nature, yet when the Son of God was put to death, the angels worshiped Him as their chief and sovereign prince. And if we consider the power of His death and the fruit that comes from it, we will find it not at all a curse, but it will be the fountain of justice, life, and salvation."

Christ’s death is the fountain of justice, life, and salvation because in his death we were given true life.  Not a life seeking to be the greatest, not seeking to be at the right or left hand of the messiah, but one of service to humankind. One of being Christ in this world. 
We reflect that service in the work we do here:
[Work of the Churches]
These are great ministries and do great work.
The questions we have to ask ourselves are: What is our motivation? Is it to feel good? Is it to seem good? Or is it pure self-sacrifice, putting the needs of others before ourselves?
What more can we do in our world?  What more can we do in this place? How can we reach out to those who are unclean or afflicted? How can we serve those with addictions? How can we help those who have fallen on hard times? 
How can we share the Gospel with those who haven’t heard it? 
How can we as a church and individuals continue on-reminded of the death of Christ- living into that fountain of justice, life, and salvation?
I was speaking recently with a group about sharing the gospel with those who don’t know the story.  It came up in our discussion that many of us didn’t know people who needed to hear the story of salvation in Jesus Christ.  I think the same can be said of those who need to be served.  We may not know them on a personal level, but are we willing to step out of our comfort zones to get to know them? To get to know their needs? To serve them as Christ would have?  It is easy to sit back and send money or supplies but are we willing to build lasting relationships?
In my time in Eastern Kentucky we built some relationships with some wonderful people.  We spent an entire week listening to stories and hearing how life and culture are in the mountains.  We learned how coal mining is crucial to the survival of the people of the mountains in Eastern Kentucky and how more and more jobs were leaving because mountaintop removal was becoming the new way of doing things.  What we found on our listening trip was a group of people who loved the mountains, they loved life in Appalachia, they had loved ones who worked in the mines, and to them life was indeed beautiful on that mountain. 
At the surface beauty isn’t always what we expect. For the disciples beauty was not in sitting at the right and left of Jesus as they expected but it became caring for God’s people.  The point was not to be the greatest but to humble oneself in service to the least.  It is easy to miss the point in our world.  It is easy to get caught up in the flashy ideas, new technology, and next greatest thing.  But what if we decided to get caught up in the business of humility? What if we stepped out of our comfort zones and befriended the strangers who are different or “other than” us? What if we began to tell a story of a man who was so concerned with the lowest of the low that he followed a road into Jerusalem, onto a cross, and out of an empty tomb so that all the world might know and have an intimate relationship with the greatest of the great?  What if we stopped missing the point and started seeing the beauty?  What if we consider the power of Christ’s death and the fruit that comes to us from it-the justice, life, and salvation for all of God’s people. 
From the strip mines of Appalachia to Ferguson, MO
From the delta to the lower ninth ward of New Orleans
From third world countries to war torn cities
From those ravaged by addiction to those stigmatized with intellectual or physical disabilities
From the rich to the poor
Whether black, white, brown, red or otherwise
What if all of God’s children were seen as people worthy of our reaching out to. Not as charity cases but as children of God who deserve authentic human relationships and the opportunity to learn about living in a relationship with the God who created them. 

The disciples may have missed the point of discipleship but we don’t have to.  Who are the “other than” people in our lives? Are we willing to step out of our comfort zones to truly serve God’s people? 
May we be willing and able for the sake of Jesus Christ in our world.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Encountering the Human Jesus

I haven't posted a sermon or a blog in a long here goes nothing...weird format of part manuscript part notes, sorry for that, but it's what I'll preach from tomorrow. 

Sermon preached at Harmony and First Presbyterian Churches of Clarksville, Arkansas on 10/11/15
Text: Mark 14:32-42
 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’ 

I have to admit that when I read this text from Mark I find myself thinking “Jesus why are you being so rude and mean to your disciples?”  But as I dig into the text I realize time and time again that in this text we do not meet the superhero Jesus we expect.  We do not meet the Messiah the disciples expected Jesus to be. What we encounter in this text is a Jesus who is human. He is dirty, scared, tired, and grieving what is to come. In this encounter we cannot help but to be drawn into the story and to allow ourselves to experience and identify with the same emotions the disciples and Jesus experienced.    

This passage in the Gospel of Mark is important because it is the turning point of the Gospel. Throughout the entire Gospel of Mark we find the disciples stumbling along and failing to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing. Look at Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus rebuking him, or the transfiguration when Peter wants to build a monument to remember the moment. Despite having good intentions and falling short time and time again the disciples keep following Jesus and keep trying to understand the best they can.  For 14 chapters Jesus’ disciples follow him from town to town, they are rebuked by him, they stand alongside him when he is approached and questioned by religious leaders, they do tasks he asks which they think are impossible, and they stick with him through it all. 
In the 14 verses just before this text Jesus makes 3 predictions:
1-Betrayal of Judas
2-Dessertion of the 12
3-Peter’s denial
In the 36 verses immediately after this text all 3 of the predictions come true.

And in this particular moment in the story we find Jesus and all of his disciples in Gethsemane,
Jesus is no longer making divine predictions but instead he is having a moment of humanity, a moment where the weight of what is coming down the road at him head on is weighing on him.  So he takes his inner circle of friends for moral support while he has an intimate conversation with his Abba, his Father, and he tells them he is very sad and asks them to remain in a particular place and keep watch.  The disciples then fall asleep. Unfortunately we are not given much clue to why they fell asleep or if they prayed at all before falling asleep. The only thing the text gives us is that their eyes were so heavily burdened, or oppressed that they could not stay awake.
 This might be the one time in scripture that we see the full humanity in Jesus as his vulnerability is revealed to us. Jesus places all he has left in the hands of his disciples while he attempts to make sense for himself of what is coming.
 From this mindset - from fear and shock and sorrow - he asks that God would simply take the cup from him.  He asks to be spared from all that he has predicted.  And in the midst of asking for all of this, he realizes that God’s will is what will carry all him down the road ahead.  It is not his own understanding or doing, but the divine plan and purpose of the world.  After acknowledging this, Jesus returns to his disciples to find them asleep. He is perplexed and comes across as angry. 
This cycle of prayer and return continues until Jesus says that it is enough and the “time has come.” These three words set the tone for the entire passage.  The reader can see Jesus going through the stages of grief (depression-I am very sad to the point of death, anger-disciples can’t stay awake, bargaining-take this cup, and finally acceptance-leaving Gethsemane and walking the road of suffering all the way to death on the cross) In the midst of this divine story of journeying towards death and resurrection we get a human Jesus, falling on his knees before God and asking human questions.  It is in seeing these things we can truly understand, believe, and identify with a Jesus was truly human.
This passage from Mark is intense.  It is full of raw emotions.  This is not the Jesus we normally think of when we read scripture or talk about Christ and the work of Christ in the world.  This Christ is…too human.  Too emotional. Too messy. But isn’t that the Christ we need in a time such as this?  In a time where every time we check the news we are brought to tears because the world is so broken?  When headlines read 11 year old boy shoots 8 year old girl over a puppy?  Where parents live in fear of sending children to school because they are not sure they will come home alive?  A world where the justice system seems more like a continued cycle of injustice? A world where forgiveness is absent? A world where war, poverty, and injustice reign?  Isn’t this the time and place where we need a Christ who is on his knees praying and begging us to stay awake with him while he prays?  Isn’t this the world where we wish we might hear ENOUGH ALREADY, ENOUGH!! Isn’t this the world where we so desperately pray that God’s will be done and that all people learn to participate in the love, mercy, and justice of God? 
In these 10 verses in Mark we are met with a very human Jesus and his human disciples.  His disciples were so physically and spiritually exhausted that they could not stay awake as Jesus had asked them to.  Yet Jesus still came back time and time again and asked them to wake up, to pray, to keep watch with him. 
Jesus returns to us time after time and day after day and we too are invited each and every day to wake up, to keep awake to the tasks of discipleship, to follow Christ, to participate in the ongoing work of Christ in the world, and to pray.  In a world such as ours it is easy to become discouraged. It is easy to feel the walls caving in and the darkness becoming overwhelming. It is easy to long for and want a superhero Jesus to return and fix everything around us.  But today we met by a dirty, tired, scared, and human Jesus who reminds us that the story does not end with “enough” it does not end with “the time has come” the story does not end with the failure of the disciples, it does not end with our faults, our fears and our failures.  It continued on and continues on. Jesus left Gethsemane and journeyed to the cross where he took on the sins, the brokenness, the despair of the world and died so we might know what it is to live reconciled to the God who created us and calls us by name.  The good news today is that even as we often journey the road of despair, betrayal, and desertion of God like the disciples did that day, even though we journey in fear, grief, anger, and darkness we have a Savior who journeyed to the tomb which is now empty.  We journey with Christ who is willing to get on his knees and pray and cry with us in this broken world so that the hope of light might shine through the darkness. 
It is in this journey we are invited to participate in the ongoing work of Christ. We are invited to proclaim the good news, to reach out to those imprisoned, to welcome the stranger, to lend hand to the refugee, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to love the unloved, to be light in a dark and broken world.  The good news is that Christ lives in each and every one of us.  The question is: are we willing to participate? Are we willing to get dirty? Are we willing to look at the raw emotions of humanity and stare them in the face with the hope, mercy, and love of Jesus Christ? Are we willing to fall on the ground and pray with raw and honest emotions so that this world might look and be different than it is? 
            We may not have encountered a superhero Jesus in the text this morning.  But I believe we have encountered Jesus.  We encountered the Jesus who is right for this time and place in our history that is the one who challenges us to wake up, to pray without ceasing, and to participate in the work set before us.  This human Jesus is someone we can identify with because we see that just as we lament the way the world is around us Jesus laments with us. But Jesus does not call us to stay in that lament, instead he calls us to find it within ourselves to say enough is enough, it is time to go from here, it is time to head towards reconciliation, towards grace, towards love, and towards a world that is very different than the one we are standing in. Are you willing to journey from Gethsemane? Are we willing to say enough is enough? Are we willing to step out in faith and find ways to do something about the way the world around us looks and acts?  I do not have all the answers on how to fix this broken world but I know with God all things are possible and with one another we can begin to make a difference here in this place.  So what do you say friends? Do we go home and fall asleep? Or do we wake up and walk with Jesus?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Holy Week and RFRA

I’ve struggled to write all week because I have had a lot of anger.  I did not want to write angry, so I put it off and wrote off and on constantly editing what I was trying to say.  Today I realized the anger is not going away because we live in a world full of hatred and brokenness.  On Monday afternoon I drove to Little Rock to participate in a protest against HB 1228.  This piece of legislature gives people in the state of Arkansas the ability to discriminate and refuse service to people based on what they are calling their religious freedom to do so.  

I write because I am struggling to understand.  The main examples given have been florists and bakers who do not want to provide services for same-sex marriages. The argument is that some believe homosexuality is a choice; a way someone chooses to live their life in this world is a sin and “against their religion.”  I have many thoughts on this and on discrimination and hatred in general but I will try to keep them brief. 

I will start by saying even if something is against your religion you still do not have the right to discriminate, alienate, and refuse to treat someone as something other than human.  Period.     

I have found over the years that those who often take this stance are people we label as “conservative Christians.” As a Christian and as a seminarian I have spent a lot of time reading scripture and studying theology and at no point have I ever found that scripture has told me to reject, discriminate, or mistreat someone because I do not agree with them.  What scripture has taught me is that in all things I am to love my neighbors and serve all of God’s children.  I am to treat them as children of God-with dignity and respect-because anything less would be a sin.  What I have learned in scripture is that from the time Adam and Eve were sent from the Garden for disobeying God and sinning against God, God has been at work trying to reconcile the broken world to God’s self.  Discrimination, hatred, alienation, intolerance, lack of compassion, promotion of fear, violence, and isolation of others are all unacceptable because to participate in any of these is to treat someone as less than human.

Today in my tradition we celebrate Maundy Thursday, the night when Jesus ate with the ones who would betray and deny him.  The night when Jesus told his closest friends and bearers of the Gospel that his end was coming.  The night we were given the command to love one another.  On this night we remember. We remember that Christ's death was not just for our own selves but for the sake of the world.  Christ did not die for me and for my friends but for my enemies and for strangers.  Christ died not to condemn the world but to save it.  The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts being passed by states like Arkansas do not reflect the Gospel I have read and studied because they condemn, they alienate, they promote the treatment of those who are not like me as less than human, and they take away people's dignity.  They promote hatred and intolerance in the name of the One who told us to love all people and to serve all people so that the light which overcomes the darkness might shine through.  Tonight I remember that even those I disagree with are children of God who command me to love.  And so I lay aside my anger and I pray that somehow and in some way God might open all of our eyes to see God's own extravagant grace and embrace of all the children of God.  For in doing so I know the world can see the light and we are people of the light. 

I think it is only appropriate that we struggle with these things this week because there is something about the cross and resurrection that speaks to us and says God has been in that darkness with us. And because we are resurrection people, we see the light, we know the light, we can feel the warmth of the light somehow in some way breaking through even the darkest dark.  We feel it hit our face and that glimpse of hope carries us into the next day, the next week, the next month, knowing and trusting that in our darkness God is still present somehow and somewhere.  May God break through and shine light into this world so that we might love and serve all of God's people as God has called us to do in Jesus Christ. 

Peace be with and within you all,