Monday, September 24, 2018

Who's the Greatest?


Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2018

Jesus was just explaining to the disciples again
about how he will be arrested and killed and rise again.

But the disciples are arguing about
which one of them is the greatest.
We don’t know exactly the content of the argument,
maybe it was about who cured the most evil spirits,
who did Jesus like the best, who did he pick first.

In the Gospel of Mark, mostly
the disciples have nothing to brag about.
They’re not models of courage or wisdom.
Even here it says they didn’t understand what Jesus
was talking about and they were afraid to ask.
But still they feel the need to compete with one another.

Human beings are a competitive lot.
It’s in our nature, DNA, it orders our society,
our lives, our days, our politics.

To be the greatest, the smartest,
the most successful, richest, smartest
world’s greatest bowler, world’s greatest dad,
the next American Idol, the gold medal winner,
the next senator or representative,
 whatever it is, there’s something about winning and humans.

It seem sometimes like winning is the only thing,
at any cost, even if the cost is your integrity.

But Jesus tells his competitive disciples that for God,
if you want to be first, you should be last of all. Servant of all.

Church people have heard this
and somehow we’ve made humility into a  competition in itself.

There was a story around my home church in New York
Communion was only once a quarter and people were told they
had to be right with God before they took communion.
So on that one Sunday every three months,
church ladies would go up to the rail and
make a big show about refusing communion.
To show people that they didn’t think they were good enough.
They were competing to see who could
be the greatest at showing the most shame and repentance.
Which is just silly and complicated when you think about it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with competition.
it’s natural, it’s even healthy to a point.
It often makes us improve and inspires us to be better.
But there’s one major problem with competition
about who’s the greatest.
That means someone is the worst.
Whenever there’s winners, there’s losers too.
When someone is at the top, that means someone is at the bottom.
Which is not really a problem when you’re talking about sports
or other manufactured competitions,
but it is when you’re talking about life.

We know this in our own Capitalist society.
While our form of economics has provided excellence
and unrivaled wealth for some,
it has left many, many people behind.
When only the most successful win,
the unsuccessful have been left out
of the running all together.

The world of competition and greatness,
calls those who never win undeserving,
leeches, burdens on society,
the world is more inclined to lock them up instead of help them.
And sometimes we believe the stories the world
tells about those who don’t win,
even if they’re talking about us.

So when Jesus hears the disciples talking about
who is the greatest, he’s not just annoyed
by the disciple’s personal lack of humility
he knows that this is a reflection of their whole world view.
And Jesus wants to change it.

Now Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples not to
try for greatness, he doesn’t even tell them
to stop competing with each other.
He doesn’t tell them to give up trying.

What Jesus tells them to keep striving for greatness,
but he reframes what greatness means.
Jesus says our greatness is not in gaining
more for ourselves, but in being a servant to all.
Jesus and the Little Child
James Tissot

Jesus then gives what could be a confusing little clarifier
he takes a child  and he says
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”

It almost seems unrelated in a way.
But that’s because of the way that we understand children now.
We love children, we value children just because they’re children.
Of course some people don’t, but the prevalent view of society today
is that children should be valued just because they’re small
and vulnerable and can’t take care of themselves.

But in the first century, children weren’t valued.
They were actually treated with disdain, annoyance, even hatred.
And often by their own parents.

Producing children was, of course, encouraged.
They represented the future—they would carry on the family name,
help provide help or income when they got older,
support their aging parents, and produce the next generation.

But actually having children was a liability.
Especially small children.
For the first 4 or 5 years,
they couldn’t help out much
and they were another mouth to feed.
And if they got sick, like children do, then forget it.

Abandoning children,
giving them away, or even killing them
was a fairly common practice.
This actually was a reality up until the 1800’s
Think of how fairy tales like Snow White and
Hansel and Gretel start out.

In ancient Rome, they estimate that 20-40%
of children were abandoned.
Even more were actually killed by their
parents without many repercussions.
More died as a result of accidents meaning
they weren’t being watched.

Children were seen as a burden and
Treating children nicely was seen as a weakness,
especially for men.
And if you welcomed a child you could
end up being responsible for them.
Feeding them, clothing them, caring for them, watching them.

And what they could give back couldn’t be counted.
Welcoming someone else’s child was not an advancement
to anyone’s status or lot or station in life.
Welcoming a child was a burden, a liability.
Welcoming a child, cost the welcomer.

So when Jesus said,
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”
it meant something very different than we would understand it now.

So being a servant of all is not just about doing a good deed,
but it is about giving your status and privilege away to others.
It’s about letting others be a burden to you.

So welcoming a child now may not mean the same thing now
but Jesus meant welcoming the least,
the least successful, the least able to repay,
the least able to give back.

Who would that be in your life now?
Would that be welcoming an illegal immigrant
a refugee,  a person of a different color,
a poor person, maybe a rich person,
maybe a democrat or a republican,
an atheist or a fundamentalist Christian,
a prisoner, a juvenile delinquent, a drug addict?
Who would we be burdened by?
Who could we help and give our greatness to,
even if we only have a little greatness in the eyes of the world.

Our world says Greatness is about status, wealth, perfection,
purity, achievement, it’s about winning.
But Jesus says it’s found in losing status, losing wealth,
losing our own perfection, our purity, our achievements.
It’s about losing, for the sake of others.

Jesus says, if you want to be great in God’s Kingdom.
don’t worry about the status of yourself,
worry about the status of someone else.

When it comes to God’s kingdom,
Having all the money in the world is no good
unless it can go to help someone else.
Having all the power in the world is of no use
unless it can be used to give someone else power.
Having all the food in the world can’t fill you
as long as someone else is hungry.
No use getting to the top of the ladder
unless everyone is up the ladder before you.

Ghandi, who often understood Christianity
better than Christians said,
"A nation's greatness is measured by how it
treats its weakest members."

What if all the celebrities in the world were
celebrities not because they were successful in movies or TV,
or how many followers they had on social media,
or how many touchdowns they were able to make,
or because they flaunted their riches,
but what if they were celebrities
because of how they helped people?
  
What if churches didn’t compete over
who had the flashiest or most beautiful worships
or who had the best programs,
or who had the most people in the pews
What if we defined the greatest churches by how
many people they served, and how many lives were made better?

What if we didn’t judge the greatness of companies by
how much profit they made and how well their CEO’s
were paid, or how many customers they had
but by how well they treated
the employees on the lowest rung?

What would our world be like if the
greatness of a country wasn’t based on
our stock markets, or our Gross Domestic Product,
or how many billionaires we had,
or how many rock stars or TV stars we had,
or how big our military was
but on how we treated the least among us?

What if our world wasn’t about the survival of the fittest,
but being the greatest was about
how we elevated the poorest, the sickest,
the most different and difficult?

Then everyone would be a winner.
That’s a world I would want to be a part of.
A world like the Kingdom of God.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Be Doers of the Word


Mark 7: 1-8
September 2, 2018

So, obviously,
Jesus is telling us not to wash our hands before we eat.
I guess someone could read this and understand that.
But this is not about washing hands necessarily,
is about traditions -- like washing hands and others.

We love traditions and rituals,
The Sermon on the Mount
Karoly Ferenczy
In our families and in our churches.

We have traditions at home 
that remind us that
we’re part of the family 
or a group of friends:
Eating together, praying together,
watching certain TV shows, 
vacation spots, games,
even greetings we use when 
we see each other

And we have traditions that we have in church.
Confession, Communion, Baptism, and worshiping itself are
religious traditions -- human practices that bring God into our lives.
Those remind us that we’re part of a community too.
Almost anything we repeat often can become a tradition.

Church and home traditions can ground us.
They give us stability and something to return to.

Confessions help us remember that we
are all sinful and need forgiveness.
Baptism reminds us that we are children of God.
Communion helps us remember a score of things:
God’s love, presence, sacrifice, abundance, forgiveness …
Too many things that to say, but the tradition says it for us.

 Traditions and shared practices can be beautiful.
Traditions bind people together. They bind generations together.
They are a wonderful way to worship and remember God.
They help us to touch the sacred.

But they are human practices and with everything human,
there can be problems.

Sometimes you can do traditions so often,
that you can do them without thinking,
or ever knowing the point behind them.
Sometimes we even forget the meaning behind the tradition,
and then we only remember the tradition
and not what it was supposed to teach us.

There’s a story we were taught in seminary called the guru’s cat:
Whenever the community would sit down to meditate,
the guru’s cat would come in and bother everyone.
So every night before worship, someone would tie up the guru’s cat.
After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied up before worship.
Then the cat died, and another cat was brought into the monastery
so that it could be tied up before worship.
Centuries later, papers were being written by the guru’s disciples
about the significance of having a cat tied up before worship.

And sometimes, the tradition becomes more important
than what the tradition was trying to help us remember.
So then the question becomes  “are we doing the traditions right?” rather than “are we living the life that God wants us to live”.

The Pharisees did this with the rules of the Torah.
The hand washing, the processes with
food and with cleanliness and all the rest.
  
Now washing before eating is probably a good idea hygienically,
but that wasn’t actually the main idea of it.
It was a ritual. It was an imitation of the priest who would wash his
hands and feet before going into the temple.

It was there signify our uncleanliness
it stressed our humility and our humanity
before the awesome otherness of God.

But not everyone who did the human tradition
of washing hands remembered their own humility and uncleanliness.
Some people thought they were actually better for doing
the ritual the right way.
And they started to look down on others who didn’t do the
tradition the same as them.

Eventually, these rules and traditions
overshadowed God’s will.
And to the people, they became God’s will.
Eventually, the religious leaders only took account of
whether these rules and traditions were being followed correctly.

Christians can understand that.
Do we cover our heads in worship?
Do we immerse or not in baptism? Infants or only adults?
Do we serve bread or wafers, or grape juice or wine,
or do we have communion at all? Do we have the right napkins?
Do we light the candles or not light the candle?
Do we pray for the dead or just their families?
Did you pray before the meal? Did you worship the right way?
A lot of these have been litmus tests of the faith for Christians.
Those who didn’t do the “right things” or do things
the “right way” have been looked down on.
Like Jesus was when he didn’t do the ritual hand washing.

Another problem that can happen with traditions
is that traditions can be confused with discipleship.
Many people throughout history have done the
Hand washing, praying, fasting, chanting, and worshipping
have felt that they were done with their business of being
Christian for the week.
Sometimes rituals can be substitutions for living
our lives as God wants us to live our lives.
Like doing the traditions is God’s objective and end goal.

Do we really think is God primarily interested in
having more hand-washers, prayers, fasters,
chanters, and worshippers? 
Or is God interested in something more from us?

Jesus is saying to the crowds and Pharisees and the disciples
that God wants more.
God wants all those traditions and practices and reminders
to change us and make us different, to help us make choices,
to motivate us to do wonderful things in this world.

In essence, God wants us to do good works. (gasp)
Now sometimes Lutherans get uncomfortable with “good works”.
And whenever you talk about it with a good-old Lutheran,
you get a cacophony of confusing Luther quotes and
mentions of how he didn’t like the book of James.
We’re not going to get into that now.

But I can assure you that, in the end,
Luther was on the same page as Jesus here.
And he was on the same page as James and Amos
and Isaiah and all of the other prophets.
In the end, God doesn’t just want  more traditions from us
God doesn’t want us to make sure that they’re done
perfectly and correctly and that no one slips up on them.
In the end, God doesn’t want full churches of people
just doing all the right traditions in the right way.

God wants churches full of people living their lives differently.
God wants those traditions to change our actions.
God wants disciples who do not defile this world with
avarice, theft, and murder and adultery.
But who overcome those things in the world with
generosity, giving, bringing life, and honest relationships.

God hopes for this, Jesus hopes for it,
and I have to tell you, the world wants it from us too.
Even people who are outside the church
who aren’t Christians or aren’t practicing,
would love to see us do God’s will here.

Whenever you hear from people about
why they’ve become disillusioned with the church
or why they’ve left the church,
the answer is almost always the same: hypocrisy.
People don’t do as they preach and teach.
Now sometimes I respond to that and say,
“what do you expect, we’re all still humans.”

But you have to admit what it looks like:
we have the traditions, we have the rituals, the doctrine,
and the scripture and the songs, but many times the church
as a whole has not lived a life that has agreed with those things.

We see pastors who get millions of dollars from preaching
and their churches not sharing it with anyone in need,
We see words of hate coming from the mouths of people of faith,
We see Christians with no care for the poor,
We see Christian parents withdrawing their love from
their own children because of their sexuality.
We see a lack of forgiveness coming from people to whom
forgiveness is central to their beliefs.

And that is why this scandal of the clergy sex-abuse
cases in the Catholic church is so horrible.
Not only have the clergy destroyed people’s
lives and harmed children, and done it systematically for years,
They have done it while holding the keys of the church
in their hands the whole time.
These are people who have been steeped in these traditions.
These prayers and practices.
These things that are supposed to teach us and change us
and renew our lives, and show us God and God’s love
but if this is the result, what has it done for them?
All that tradition done right for so long, and where are they?

I’m thankful that these things haven’t manifested 
in our denomination in quite the same way.
But their problem is still our problem.
It’s a problem of Christians and a problem of religion itself.
We are called to be different.
To be in the world, but not of the world.
Like James writes, we are asked to be doers of the word
and not just hearers of the word.

Living a life worthy of Christ is difficult.
There are a million draws and temptations
that pull us from God’s way every day.
Society is not formed to help us be generous,
to help us give, to help us to forgive, and love
and be honest in our relationships.
It’s actually easier not to in most cases.
It is hard to live what we believe and teach and desire.

The good news is that God has come into this world
in Jesus, to be with us, to struggle with us,
to suffer with us, to hear us, to teach us,
and to love us.

We need these traditions that speak to us of that love.
We need the water of baptism, the grace of forgiveness,
the bread and the wine. We need the prayers, the candles, the music,
We need these moments of God breaking into our regular world
and reminding us that God is there and we are loved
and that we are all in this venture together.
We need the promises of God to get through this life.

The ones that tell us that God loves us no matter what,
whether we’ve done the tradition right or at all,
whether we’ve done good works or bad –
God will be there.

We need to know that we can wash our hands
or not wash our hands,
And either way, God will make us clean.