Was MLK Great?

sermon on Mark 10:35-45

I want to start with a clarification on this Bible reading. As you may expect from me, the clarification actually makes it more confusing to start.

Let’s begin with the word “ransom,” that Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many. Some folks grab ahold of that verse to say that Jesus died to pay the price of your sins, sort of like bail or a get out of hell free card. That reads a lot into it and doesn’t really fit with the surroundings. So let’s be cautious.

The word for ransom in the original Greek is lutron. If it sounds like “latrine,” a couple times in the Greek rendering of the Old Testament, a version of this word is translated as latrine, so I’m pretty sure they share some sort of base meaning. For ransom, the root relates to setting loose, releasing, freeing. You can try to figure how that might relate to a latrine, but we’ll continue on with ransom for now.

One of the main ways this word was used in the Bible was for freeing from bondage or captivity. If latrine wasn’t enough of a trigger word, I’ll caution that we’re going to be dealing with a word that brings up brutal images from our history; most specifically the word ransom was about freeing a slave.

Now, we can envision what it is to free slaves. In our likely conception, it involved a massive deadly Civil War, incremental achievements and social movements, and more than 160 years of ensuing efforts in realizing that freedom.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says his life does it for you. It’s shocking that Jesus declares he has come to set your life free from being enslaved.

The confusing part I mentioned to start is that in the verse right before this, Jesus encourages you to become a slave, enslaved and willing to serve all. I hope we can conceive of that without the aspects we’d usually associate with slavery’s oppressions, and instead regard it as beloved dedication, giving yourself to others.

At any rate, Jesus is not likely first telling you to become a slave only in the very next verse to say you’re free from that particular enslavement.

So he’s not freeing you from loving others. It’s not, as we said, paying off sins, especially for some nebulous divine recordbook.

Instead, I suggest that the liberation and redemption Jesus gives relates exactly to the theme of the rest of the passage. It began with the putzy Zebedee boys trying to ask for special bonus favors from Jesus, who responds by repeating that striving for greatness isn’t what he’s about; it’s what others do, seeking power over, moving up in hierarchy. But among you, Jesus says, it’s not that way. Or it shouldn’t be.

Just before this, for the third time Jesus said that his mission will lead him toward confrontation with authorities who will torture and kill him. The brothers’ follow-up question, then, is the opposite of going with Jesus into those struggles. Their delusions of grandeur meant they hadn’t heard Jesus at all, just as the disciples completely missed it the other two times he raised the topic. Maybe they plain don’t want to hear.

I don’t think we want to hear it, either.

With this passage, Martin Luther King gave a sermon called the Drum Major Instinct, his last Sunday sermon, two months before his assassination. He picks up on the disciples wanting to be great and to be in charge, and turns it to a positive vision, reordering our priorities. When Jesus says the greatest is a servant

That’s a new definition of greatness…[It] means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.*

We take Dr. King’s point, and there’s something charming about it.

But I’m not sure it hits home among us. We’re people who are pretty happy to know a thing or two about both science and liberal arts. We may be insistent on speaking proper English. We are predominantly glad to benefit from having gone to college—and often far beyond—or are students striving hard to make it to a good college.

We are people who count our achievements and successes in moving up the ladder, who take pride in our efforts. Roger Pettersen directly admitted this week that this is just what his career trained him for and compelled him toward, to do what others couldn’t do and get what others weren’t getting.

Even in volunteering, we want to be recognized and complimented for our efforts of being so caring for others, adding up totals of our goodness. It’s a strange reality of churches that we want to be able to serve and don’t want to be the ones in need of helping service. We prefer striving for greatness.

Dr. King also indicted the career-driven self-importance, where “because [one] has some training, he’s a little better than that person who doesn’t have it,” and further includes economic security, superior sense of skin color, and even nations wanting to be first, with our own nation the supreme culprit, saying we engage in “senseless, unjust wars” and “won’t stop it because of our pride, and our arrogance as a nation.”

You might see that this pursuit of greatness stretches throughout our personal and corporate lives. It’s how we frame most all of our existence, in trying to come out on top. It’s an insidious trap for thinking you’ve won. At least as captivating and confining is the constant catchup because you feel you’re losing, needing to be more successful in these innumerable ways, that you haven’t done or become enough.

Either way, we don’t want to hear Jesus against it, upsetting our life’s goals.

Yet with this constant striving, your enslaved efforts, seemingly unable to escape trying to be better, Jesus came to set you free, to release you, to liberate you from the putzy pursuit of greatness. You may want to be the best, but Jesus wants you to be you. So he ransoms you for this alternate way of living, with his life as the proof. He’s not a status to work up to. Dr. King reminds us Jesus was abandoned by his friends, executed as a criminal, buried in a borrowed tomb without a single possession, and yet is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. So this is the one who is your model, your goal, the shape of life itself. That means all other efforts you keep trying to attain aren’t worth a minute of your time or a smidgeon of your energy.

For all of your striving, you may not want to hear it. But Jesus sets you free.

Hymn: Baptized and Set Free (ELW 453)


* references in Testament of Hope, p263-66

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Going Down the Road Feeling Bad

sermon on Mark 10:17-31

“The man’s heart fell to the ground. He hung his head and walked away.”

There’s a lot in this Bible reading, not least because it seems to be a word that cuts into us, deep into the marrow of comfortable North American lives (Heb4:12).

This particular phrase catches me: “The man’s heart fell to the ground. He hung his head and walked away.” It’s grabbed me since it didn’t have to be that way.

The man might’ve instead heard Jesus’ invitation to give his possessions and property to the poor of his village as an exciting idea, a joyous opportunity, inspiring possibility. Rather than feeling it as a deficit, he might’ve anticipated receiving satisfied smiles, the gain of relationships and reciprocity, of those who would return to meet his own needs.

The thing is, we presume that the man’s reaction is justified. We also figure it would be sad to walk away from our stuff. Our dominant initial perspective seems to be shaped by rugged individualism of self-security and late-stage capitalism notions of winning. We should probably at least make a side note that that wasn’t the cultural setting of ancient Palestine, where this man having land and property would’ve been exactly seen as cheating peasants, and so he wasn’t as blameless as he claimed.

For economics being a fairly new science, Jesus cuts to the heart of things both then and now. We have dedicated ourselves to our own system, to earning so we can—if not hoard, at least—acquire, dedicated to jobs so we can pay off homes and vehicles, putting ourselves into it so we can draw back out in retirement. And so our initial perspective may likely be wariness or worry that Jesus wants us to give up what we work hard not to give up.

But it didn’t have to be that way. Rather than cutting deeply, and our hearts falling to the ground, we could be cheerful givers.

It’s interesting that this isn’t all that religious. In spite of the man’s question about eternal life, this is real-world here-and-now kind of stuff Jesus addresses, of just distribution and responsibility. We know in stereotypical fables that Ebenezer Scrooge is unhappy as a miser and joyful when he discovers generosity and helping others. Similarly, I read this week that about 80% of Americans are bothered by wealthy people and companies not paying “their fair share” of taxes. We agree with the concept, and teach our children that life is better with sharing.

So why is our initial reaction so reluctant, so convinced it’s hard and sad? Why is it as difficult as the odd image of a moose fitting through the eye of a needle to convince us of what should be obvious?

It’s fortuitous that we wound up with that translocation of the odd image. The decision to use the new First Nations Version for our Bible readings came because of Indigenous People’s Day and some actions of our First Nations and the MCC group, and was a decision before seeing what the readings were for today.

But it meant that we also were given a verse translated “take all your possessions, invite the poor of your village to come, and have a giveaway.” The term “giveaway” shows another cultural context, one which might not have shared our initial reactions.

In many Native American cultures, the emphasis at celebrations is on giving, rather than receiving. At parties, instead of the guest of honor getting gifts, it’s an opportunity for them to give away cherished items. In this passage, Jesus wouldn’t have to be coercing something strange, since it was already the way to live.

This alternative understanding of how or why we own property also makes the language of most land acknowledgments striking, including in recognizing MCC property as previously the home of Ho Chunk peoples. I’m curious if that defaults to our own cultural perspective in saying we took their land, since they wouldn’t have seen themselves as owners, but been part of an interrelated shared environment, of all receiving, all giving away.

Ray Buckley, who is a Lakota/Tlingit person and a United Methodist, portrays interactions in the shared environment where “the four-legged [creatures] and those that can fly gather for council to discuss the needs of the two-legged (human beings). In an attempt to meet the needs of humanity, they offer the most precious parts of themselves. In the end, it is the Creator who chooses to give away the greatest gift for humankind—the Son of God.”*

Besides showing the character of our generous, benevolent, giving God, this is a nice and honest vision of how we are unavoidably in relationship. Even if you went off and lived “alone” in the forest, you’d still be dependent on the trees giving their wood for your heat (as well as your oxygen) and plants or animals to feed you and so on. You’re daily releasing your elements back to be recycled, and if you don’t wind up sealed in a cemetery vault, you’ll return your remnant for future use.

If you’re not ready to look forward to or celebrate that yet, we can presently participate in joyful giveaways. At Bible study on Monday, Doug J. talked about deciding they have enough and so setting up donations to share distribution of their retirement income. And Robin T., when I was visiting in the hospital this week, talked about her eagerness to connect her grandchildren to our sharing activities at church so that they’d know how much they have. There’s joy in these things.

I’d be happy to invite you into the joy of sharing, including as we’ll be hearing soon about pledges for next year. Even if your initial reaction is that that’s just grubbing for cash, I don’t hesitate to extend the invitation for your generosity, because I do believe you’ll find joy in it. Especially if you’ve felt you need to cling tightly to what you have and worry about having enough, it’s worth trying to release that strain.

If that still feels coercive, I’ll point out that in this reading, it says Jesus loved the man. That’s not at all dependent on what he’ll decide to do with his money or property. Jesus loved the man. Jesus loves you. Not because you’re good or follow the commandments or even his invitations. I’m not sure your sharing could change that, making Jesus love you more or less. That perspective would remain transactional, trying to keep count rather than recognizing God’s overflowing goodness.

Nevertheless, I’ll repeat the invitation to share, to give away, because it certainly seems you’d be missing out on the benefits of some joy and some real abundance in community. It doesn’t have to turn out with you going away heart-fallen.


*cited at https://bymyart.wordpress.com/2007/12/27/native-american-give-away-tradition/

Mark 10:17-31    First Nations Version

17As Creator Sets Free (Jesus) set out walking from there, a man ran up to him and honored him.

         “Good Wisdomkeeper,” the man asked, “what path will lead me to the life of the world that never fades away?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” he asked the man. “There is only one who is good—the Great Spirit. 19You must know the instructions from the lawgiver Drawn from the Water (Moses): ‘You are not to take the life of another, or be unfaithful in marriage, or take what is not yours. Never lie about or cheat a fellow human being, and always give honor and respect to your father and mother.’”

         20“Wisdomkeeper,” the man answered, “from my youth I have followed all of these instructions.”

                  21Creator Sets Free (Jesus) then looked at the man with love and said, “Only one thing remains. Take all your possessions, invite the poor of your village to come, and have a giveaway. Then in the spirit-world above you will have many possessions waiting for you. Then leave everything behind and come, walk the road with me.”

         22The man’s heart fell to the ground. He hung his head and walked away, for he had many possessions.

                  23Creator Sets Free (Jesus) then looked around at the people and said to his followers, “Finding and walking the good road is a hard thing for the ones who have many possessions.” 24His followers could not believe what they were hearing.

         25Creator Sets Free (Jesus) spoke again to them. “Little children,” he said, “the ones who trust in their many possessions will have a hard time finding their way onto the good road. It would be easier for a moose to go through the eye of a needle.”

         26They shook their heads in wonder, looked at each other, and said, “How then can anyone walk the good road that sets all people free?”

         27He looked at them and said, “It is not possible for weak human beings, but with Creator’s help all things are possible.”

                  28Stands on the Rock (Peter) spoke up, “We have left all our possessions, and our relatives, to walk the road with you. What will become of us?”

         29“I speak from my heart,” he answered, “no one who has given up homes or families to follow me and walk my good road will go without. 30In this present world they will become part of an even greater family, with many homes and lands. Even though they are abused and mistreated, they will receive much more than they have lost. Then, in the world to come, they will have the life of beauty and harmony that never fades away.

         31“But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

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a new hymn

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“Father and mothers”

sermon on John 15:9-17; 1 John 5:1-7 (and from Mothers’ Day)

It seemed an odd coincidence that on Mothers’ Day, our Gospel reading happened to have so much Father language. I didn’t clean up and edit the gendered stuff as I usually would, though. After hearing it that way, I wanted you to listen again another way, and notice if or how this feels different to you:

Jesus said, “As the Mother has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Mother’s commandments and abide in her love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the owner is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Mother. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Mother will give you whatever you ask her in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

So how was that? I’d love to hear your reflections. Maybe—especially today—it made you picture your own mother. Beyond that, I wonder whether the gender and term alterations helped you to hear what Jesus was saying, or not. Did it feel somehow liberating and closer, or was it kinda strange or awkward? Did the change make it less true, or more? (Either-or might be a bad prism to force it into, particularly for Lutherans who love to say both-and!)

Within or behind this little practice of hearing God the Father and God the Mother is a perhaps more fundamental base-level question about whether we’re able to reframe our mindsets and see differently, or if the whole thing needs to be torn apart. I mean, simply by hearing the word “Father” are we so totally preconditioned for one train of thought that we would just plain need to stop using it, or does other possibility remain within the word?

While the term “Father” could default us to picturing a white-bearded guy in the sky, I believe that we can deeply understand Jesus to use this language of Father not to reinforce patriarchy on a divinely-sanctioned level, but precisely to subvert it.

It’s like when Jesus uses the image of a kingdom, it largely reverses how we’d usually understand kings ruling.

Again, the surprising language about his servants in this passage today hearkens to a couple chapters and few minutes earlier on this same night, when Jesus stooped to wash their feet and said that if he, the one they call Teacher and Lord has taken the servant’s spot, they should do it, too. He leads and teaches by example, I guess we’d say. More, he shows he is Lord and Master in the way of a servant, the opposite of our presumed definitions for how that relationship operates.

So when Jesus uses the term Father, we can hear it in a way unlike and even contradicting the historical sense of fathers that gave us patriarchal systems. It might be that what he portrays of God the Father is more like how we’d traditionally see mothers—not controlling but loving. So he could’ve just called God, Mother! But using that term could make it fit into or maybe even reinforce our stereotypes and sinful systems, rather than challenging them and reframing our viewpoint.

Still, I recognize the possibility you see Jesus first and predominantly as male. That could make you want to rule him out and reject the whole thing, as if his being a man meant he was inevitably representative of the sinful system, and can’t fully be against it.

Yet if God and Jesus never meant to embody our usual models of masculine vs. feminine, maybe Jesus isn’t centrally seen just as a male, and we need to queer our outlook. God is identified with a poor, rural Palestinian, maybe with a single mother, and died executed by those in power. So it might well be that the God of Jesus wasn’t just reversing the power structures, lifting up the lowly and casting the mighty from their thrones, maybe didn’t intend to be a typical voice of authority, but was from and for those on the periphery.

We might also go on to wonder whether John’s Gospel wasn’t written as a focal point and central repository for settling theological arguments about the nature of God, but was a reminder and encouragement of abiding love for a small community. It may feel, then, less of a commandment from on high to love, but more of an enticement to see things differently, including ourselves, as beloved.

With that, it’s only as ironic ideas that this could be counted as a victory, in the language of our 2nd reading. It must also redefine what a victory is. Not military mastery, but that love wins. Not victory over, but with.

Extrapolating from this sense of God and Jesus and our purpose, we may well realize I’m not supposed to be a central voice, broadcasting from here in this central place out to you, with this new camera zoomed in on me. Not only that, but I fully realize and am stuck with the caveat that I’m a male saying all this.

Here I am, front and center, educated white male and all.

So maybe I should apologize.

Maybe we just call this wrong and demand I shut up.

Instead, I’ll try to suggest that unless we can hear this from a straight, white man, the system hasn’t been subverted. In some form, it would still be playing into the standard power structures, rather than creating new possibility.

I certainly don’t want to be dictatorial, to have it my way, to be the center of attention. When Luther Seminary updated its mission statement with flashy jargon about training leaders, I fondly remember a professor railing against it by saying that “what people need is a pastor, not a God damned leader.”

So can this serve for us to see that we’re in it together? Our practice is about loving, and being loved in return. That’s what I want for you, for us, not least because it’s what Jesus wants and is doing.

Once more, if Jesus is tearing apart the old systems and structures, we set aside other definitions as wrongly centered, including definitions of success or power in our world. And we instead do what we can to move on together in love, with that as our central definition.

Does that mean Jesus’ main project could be framed as the justice of undoing hierarchies of domination, or is it love, period? Or might we find one of those isn’t possible without the other—no love, no justice; no justice, no love?

To wrap this up, I could offer a salutation or benediction, saying: Happy Mothers’ Day and look for the Gospel to fit into that. Or perhaps the larger point that achieves some of the purpose is to declare: I love you. As Jesus was loved by one he (for whatever reason) called Father and, therefore, as Jesus loved us. I love you. And because of how this operates in us, I thank you for loving me as we abide inescapably in the love of God.

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Friend of the Devil

sermon on Genesis 2:15-17 and 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11, Romans 5:12-19 (from 1 March 2020)

“She’s a devil with a blue dress, blue dress on.”[1]

Although the devil does show up this morning with Jesus, we can’t really say how the devil shows up. It’s not described. There are no words about a hayfork or bifurcated tail, no fiery eyes or red horns. The estimations on the cover of your bulletin may be creepy or silly or more of a feeling of malevolence.devils

But I don’t think studying those images will help you know what to look out for. There seems to be perpetual allure in trying to capture these images…even while it is we who are lured into captivity. Though the temptations are real—lust for power, for protection, for our appetites—how they come at us may not be so obvious.

“You’re the devil in disguise. Oh yes you are.”[2]IMG_1429

In the Genesis reading it’s not the devil at all. It’s not even clearly a snake. (And, while we’re on the topic of what it’s not: it’s not an apple. They don’t grow in the Middle East. That’s why we have pomegranates here today, which—with apologies to my internship congregation in Wenatchee, WA—are a heckuva lot more tempting than a Red Delicious.) Anyway, it’s not a snake; it’s a serpent. And the serpent isn’t the devil. It’s just your run-of-the-mill talking serpent.

More to the point: is it really its fault? You may also try to claim that my dog ate your homework, but there’s probably a time to accept some responsibility.

Still…

“Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame.”[3]

Blame ripples onward. This story from Genesis blames animals. It blames other humans. It blames God.

Most insidiously, whether chicken or egg, the story has either given rise to rotten male-centered culture, or has been warped and abused as a tool for that culture’s patriarchal purposes. The woman is seen as the bad one for giving in to temptation, and then further corrupting her husband into sin. The blame for this woman continues to spread on and on.

I’d note that—though her doofus husband will eat whatever is handed to him—at least she engages in debate. She also suffers for getting caught in the middle.

To come back to the song, “Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, but I know it’s my own damn fault.”

And yet, is it only my fault?

“I can’t stop this feeling, deep inside of me.”[4]

For our own part, we’d like to be good, like to do right. I can’t just pass the buck. I may have to admit it’s my own damn fault. But it’s also inescapable. No matter how hard I try, I keep messing up and things don’t go how I want.

We still proclaim that God created us good. The Genesis story is for the sake of believing a good God didn’t create all these problems and messes or make us do wrong. We don’t want God to be to blame.

But we’ve got such an apparent problem. We can’t stop the feeling, can’t stop sinning, even though we want to. We are bound to struggle with sin, in separation from or rebellion against God, fracturing relationships even with those we love, much less with the rest of creatures whom we find degrees of loveable or with trees that we want to use for our own selfish advantage.

If it seems so inevitable, original sin is a way to say God’s goodness must’ve gotten corrupted, infected. Original sin isn’t that we do an original sin like poking a badger with a spoon[5]. That would be unusual, but this doctrine says we have it originally, from the get-go. It’s trying for a why, or maybe simply conceding that it’s not about your failure to put in the effort. Sin seems somehow inbred in our tendencies. Sinfulness is something we inherited. We’re born with it.

“Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied. That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.”[6]

Merle Haggard wouldn’t accuse his mother, but among the severe misuses of Genesis, some theologians kept trying to condemn Eve and said that it was through the birth canal that sinfulness was passed on to the next generation.

Again, blame doesn’t help anything. It doesn’t reduce your fault or culpability or sinfulness. So trying to implicate this through women (and through mothers, no less!) is shameful and extrapolates something Genesis never intended.

So what about…

“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, baby.”?[7]

The Garden of Eden, from the time it was put into the Bible, was intended as a fable to frame reality. If we had a time machine, we could not take it back 6000 years to visit Adam and Eve. They didn’t exist that way.

We know our DNA traces back not to apples in Eden, but to the first homo sapiens 300,000 years ago, to Lucy, the first upright hominid in the Rift Valley of Africa 3.2 million years ago, to earlier evolution of mammals. Maybe as we expand our awareness of other creatures, we discover sin is not only a human propensity, and we place its origins still closer to the dawn of life on earth.

Wherever it came in, and without needing to think our view is bleak or pessimistic, it seems like we can pretty realistically say we’ve got to deal with sin. The Romans reading is admitting that, knowing it’s deadly inescapable. So…

“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”[8]

Maybe rather than looking back to origins, we look forward for solutions. It probably points not to technical remedies of genetic manipulation or evolutionary expectations that we’ll grow out of it. It may not be psychological or sociological, that we can learn about our large or small families of origin and be able to address our inherent tendencies.

It is likely that some very core part of our sense that things aren’t right and we wish they were better is what brings us to church. It’s what points us back to God. We’re finally looking to Jesus.

Returning to the Gospel reading, we still have this urge to hear this story from Jesus and try to respond…

“Anything you can do, I can do better.”[9]

Yet that’s not what salvation is about. Jesus responds to the devil. He responds to temptation. He doesn’t give in when taunted and baited and lured. We like those things, and think they may help us also to defeat sin. We want to be strong and resilient and faith-filled, too.

But that’s not how this story goes. It’s about Jesus. It’s not about how you respond to sin. It’s about how Jesus responds for you.

The same taunts from the devil in this story—“if you are the Son of God”–come back to taunt Jesus on the cross. It signals that’s where God deals with sin, with temptation, with death, with this inescapable problem.

“A whole new world…”[10]

That’s the amazing news of the Romans reading: that even though we know this is prevalent and an inescapable human reality, just as prevalent and inescapable is Jesus. He’s creating a new reality, a new beginning. Or he’s recreating it. Making you into something new and original, filled with grace and life.

For all the forbidden fruit you eat, for all the temptations that get the better of you again and again, for all the sin and fractures, for the evil that lurks beyond your lookout and pounces unsuspecting, Jesus is still more inescapable. As much as you may know sin, Jesus knows you more. Anybody who confronts death, it says in another place, is more surely alive in Christ (1Cor15:22). Or to take it to the cosmic level, whether on earth or in the heavens, all things are reconciled through his cross (Col1:20).

That’s why we can sing a better song.

Hymn: Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery (ELW 334)

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXy7qYAKrfc

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyD62ZYdlMg

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohDqjRGqpIU

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrI-UBIB8Jk

[5] https://dai.ly/x6s30i3 (at 36:00 — not, as Lindy heard, “plunking a banjo with a spoon”)

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKuc4nfJByc

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCkHanF4v1w

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NG2ci9CyiwI

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WO23WBji_Z0

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ1Rb9hC4JY

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Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes

sermon on Mark 9:38-50; Numbers 11

One of my favorite learnings of the past decade or so goes like this: be careful about drawing dividing lines for who is closer to Jesus, because wherever you draw them, he’ll be on the other side.

If you’re reading this sermon, there’s a decent chance you count as an insider to church. We should be cautious feeling that about ourselves, though.

Or maybe you still feel like an outsider not fitting in, for not believing the right things or having doubts, or that you might not be good enough or are just busy with other things, or maybe you don’t feel very well cared for by God. But if you feel like an outsider, these readings today may affirm that that’s an okay place to be and the Spirit is still working in and through you.

Following a pattern in the Gospel of Mark—for example how we heard an “Ephphatha” healing of a speaking-impaired man result in other impure foreigners readily receiving and proclaiming the good news even though the disciples won’t do it—again in this reading, we have outsiders doing the insider work and insiders who might need to be cut off.

It’s no surprise that John the disciple complains about an outsider casting out demons in the name of Jesus because earlier in the chapter the disciples themselves were unable to do that. In the verses just before this, they nevertheless kept arguing with each other about who was the greatest.

And even though in the very verse before this Jesus said all you have to do is welcome a little child in his name, still these disciples want to do more impressive things, like casting out demons. You could see where it would be irritating when they want credit for doing superpower fancy spiritual stuff only to have somebody else get to do it.

It’s also noteworthy that John doesn’t phrase this other demon-caster as not following Jesus; John says following “us.” It could be an innocuous insider pronoun, or it could again be wanting to be in charge and get attention, to be the greatest by being a leader, not by being a servant.

Meanwhile, John and the others wanted to stop the one who was serving, who was doing good, helping others.

We should notice that God’s good and caring work isn’t restricted to inside the church. That’s one main focus of the Awaken Dane program that kicked off yesterday. It will be exciting to discover how our eyes and our hearts become trained to see the Spirit active around us—and sometimes in spite of us.

So I am grateful for the good we do—the hospitals and schools and food pantries the Lutheran church has set up through the years, for the racial justice programming and disaster relief and advocacy efforts we’re part of. But God is doing a lot more of that good outside the church, including through supposedly secular society, of healing, teaching, feeding, helping, saving, providing, caring.

We shouldn’t be worried about getting the credit, and certainly shouldn’t insist the work needs to be done by us, as our responsibility. Maybe our part is to reverse John’s reaction. Instead of restricting it as our role while resenting the good others are doing, we could celebrate what God is doing out ahead of us.

That’s Moses’ response in our first reading. 70 elders were supposed to receive a share of the Spirit, but two of them—Eldad and Medad—didn’t bother to show up for the special ceremony where the Spirit was going to be handed out. But it turns out that the Dad boys—El and Me—still got the Spirit and were doing stuff anyway. Does it seem fair that they could skip church and still get the benefits? I might have reason to complain, but Moses rightly says, “It’d be great if everybody had the Spirit!”

To go a step further on this, Jesus points out that not only shouldn’t we presume we’re the only do-gooders for others, but also just as much we have good done to us. When you’d get stuck on what more special spiritual stuff you could be doing, Jesus flips it to say that even somebody who gives you a drink has done an extremely important thing.

Good ol’ Ched Myers describes it this way: the disciples are “worried about those with competing power, but Jesus is welcoming all those who do the works of mercy and justice. John is entertaining ‘holier than thou’ delusions, but Jesus points out how his followers will often find themselves on the receiving end of compassion.”*

Again, it portrays that we shouldn’t be trying to draw lines that say we have unique jurisdiction for being closer to God’s work.

The next part of the Gospel reading sounds much more brutal. It would be preferable for you to be drowned under a millstone rather than to scandalize or trip up a little follower of Jesus. And then a catalog of amputations, dismemberment, and disgorgement. Cut off your hand, your foot, pluck out your eye. A “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” of scandalous, hellish body parts.

The infamous self-castration story of an early theologian notwithstanding, it’s probably worthwhile to hear these not as your own body parts, but more like our corporate body, the body of Christ. Where Jesus before was including an outsider—saying don’t forbid someone from serving and doing good works—here is the reverse: if somebody claims to be an insider but is causing harm, get rid of them.

That could be a helpful distinction, versus taking this as a blueprint from Jesus that if one of your body parts sins then you’ll go to hell. Jesus may be depicting the high value of this community and how we treat each other. Do we take it with this level of seriousness to fit language of unquenchable fire and deathless worms? Of severity that says hurting each other is worth expulsion? It’s a very different question than dreading eternal punishment.

But I’m not sure that makes it a whole lot easier. I’d have to wonder if I should be kicked out and cut off. Have I caused our little ones to stumble? Have I done any harm and failed in what I should be doing for you? You can most certainly bet on it, so maybe you should get rid of me.

And yet Jesus keeps including the outsiders, bringing even us back in. The disciples will go on to fail by betraying, denying, and abandoning Jesus himself. He will be the one cut off—and not just an eye or a hand, but head, shoulders, knees, and toes and life itself. Killed outside of town and outside the law, this is Jesus always stepping across the boundary lines, always reaching out to those excluded and left out, to bring you back to him with new life.

It’s how God works, never tightening the circle but opening the embrace. This was also in our first reading, where everyone was complaining and whining. Moses was kvetching about the people. The people were grumbling about missing the farmers’ market back when they were slaves, grousing that they wanted meat. Even innocent young Caleb was griping. But God will keep taking them back, forgiving, trying to satisfy them, abiding with them and leading them endlessly onward through the wilderness.

For our part, we can trust this God. We can keep our eyes open for how this God is active doing good works in the world around us, and even caring for us. We can receive the cups of cold water with gratitude, knowing God is behind even the smallest good we receive.

Further, we could stop drawing divisive and restrictive lines. We could try to quit complaining. We could see the importance of each other.

That may be in Jesus’ peculiar final words about salt. Many understand that reference to salt being a sign of covenant relationship, being bound together. It might refer to table fellowship, sort of like our notion of breaking bread with each other. We share a common sustenance. Just as God won’t give up on you, Jesus tells us to take these relationships seriously and be at peace with each other.

So even though we can’t much exchange or share the peace in this format, still I’ll offer you the greeting and blessing: the peace of Christ be with you always.


* Binding the Strong Man, p262. Italics in original.

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“Do We or Don’t We”

sermon on Jeremiah 11:18-20; Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

A mallard and a blue-winged teal. That’s a pair-o’-ducks. An obstetrician and a urologist. That’s a pair-o’-docs.

A contradictory statement that is yet true: that’s a paradox.

These Bible readings today have paradox. For example, on one hand, I could preach them to you. But maybe I don’t want to. It’s a both/and, of “do we or don’t we?”

It’s like saying “look on the bright side” may, indeed, be helpful, positive thinking to reorient your perspective. But that could also be a slap in the face, feeling like it ignores real negative things you’re going through. In a sermon, therefore, you’re unlikely to hear me tell you to look on the bright side.

Jeremiah sure doesn’t seem to look on the bright side, and I might not tell you to take his outlook, either. In these few—seemingly nasty—verses, Jeremiah is praying against his own people, praying because he’d been hurt, praying for God’s retribution, retributive violence as his vision of justice, to pay them back.

Several parts of these verses echo words of the prophet Isaiah that we hear on Good Friday—“a lamb led to the slaughter…cut off from the land of the living” (Is53:7-8)—and during Holy Week, the words are applied to the crucifixion, to the death of Jesus. But it’s hard to imagine Jesus—who preached loving our enemies—wanting Jeremiah’s retribution, praying for violence against those who hurt him.

That may be reason for me to suggest against emulating Jeremiah, to say that you should want reconciliation and shouldn’t pray for pay back. Generally, I guess I would hope for that.

But this sort of prayer abounds in the Bible, and it may fit for you. It may fit because of your own suffering or abuse. Maybe you’re still hurting and can’t bring yourself to want something good for those who hurt you. It may fit how you need your own restoration.

In these days, it may relate to those resisting vaccines and such, for having caused others enough sickness that they should get what they deserve—and I can’t say whether for you that means they deserve to get sick or to be forced to get vaccinated or what.

With hopes for wellness, in Jeremiah’s prayer, even as he’s praying for destruction of his people, it’s because he wants restoration. That may seem a backward way to go about it. And that’s a paradox, life through death, gain through loss, reconciliation by hatred.

Next—in the Gospel reading—is less of a direct paradox, but still has some yes and some no to it, and I hope we’re able to hold onto both sides seriously. Jesus places a little child in the center and tells us to welcome children as if we’re welcoming Jesus himself.  

Our first reaction: we like welcoming children. But a side note paradox: we should maybe flip the image, keeping it in Jesus’ own context, where he could be saying he has no more status or stature than a voiceless, disregarded, helpless child. We might want to see God in power and glory. Instead, as Wendell Berry observes in a novel, “Those who wish to see [Jesus] must see him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world” of “ordinary existence,” reshaping our view of greatness.*)

But back to our first reaction about gladly welcoming children, I suspect many of Advent and the MCC are prepared to congratulate ourselves for feeling like children are celebrated here and seen as important and allowed to be themselves. I appreciate the ways that is true, including from the great event that Andrea Olson organized Wednesday especially for children, as we continue to welcome Cheyenne Larson, who is in a staff role specifically focused on children and their families. We delight in typical children’s programming—as they sing songs or play instruments at Christmas, as they cry at baptisms, as they tell stories after the Boundary Waters, as they reflect on their faith and appreciation of the MCC in Confirmation faith statements, as we’ll get to hear again in a couple weeks. We like these things, partly because we think kids are adorable—able to be adored. I celebrate all that with you.

But for the paradox, what about the both/and, the yes and no? We do and we don’t.

For one odd version, if we are asked to put children in the center, right now children certainly aren’t. Even more than the rest, children are scattered into their own homes, not welcomed here or present for worship. Yet we’re also doing this worship format somewhat out of concern for children and their health risks in gathering. So that’s a paradoxical question of whether our children welcomed and centered or not.

If we really want to be welcoming, we must continue to ask how we connect children to or with Jesus. I’ve been especially worried about them through these long months. Online worship is not particularly welcoming for our children’s participation (even less than the rest of you), and that risks that they have fallen to the side.

In general, we must ask more than inviting children into what adults are already doing, but celebrate them for them, treat them with respect, hear their voices, understand their needs…and put those needs even before our own. Maybe we should be—at least in part—asking THEM what they need, not deciding for them. (Which also means that if children really were centered, I wouldn’t be using third-person terms, but, kids, I’d be talking more to you. I apologize.)

For the adults, I’d invite you to find ways to support our children—the cards some of you have written, and prayers, and your offerings funding Cheyenne’s ministry, but also dreaming of what more we may do and be together.

One more paradox comes from the last verse we heard from the letter of James: “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

I don’t much like the letter of James. I’m not sure it needed to be in the Bible, because it’s not very much about God and even less about Jesus. It’s got all these rules and instructions about what you should be doing, and very little to say about what God is doing. In this verse, God at least is mentioned.

Again, it may be a commendable effort, an encouragement to commit to worship services, promising a way to connect to God and find God closer to you. You could also seek that in prayer life, in Bible reading, in spiritual practices, in small groups, or acts of service that you find more godly. I’m not going to tell you not to make a point of being in worship, to devote yourself to it. Nor any other devotion, or volunteering for church, or maybe being quiet in nature, or in loving community.

But, in the perhaps paradox, I’d say the verse from James puts the emphasis in exactly the wrong place. The starting point isn’t with you. God’s entire goal is to draw near to you. God became incarnate in Jesus in order to get closer to you in your human life and reality. Not only the pious parts, not just for one churchy hour a week, not because you try to draw near.

God wanted to—and wants to—draw near in all your moments, such that there is no place you can go apart from God.

God is with you as a child, as we’ve heard from Jesus, and also when you age, and even beyond death. God is attending to you in your suffering, as we heard from Jeremiah, but also when you are the enemy causing the suffering, or when you’re doing just fine. God is with you throughout your spiritual journey, which isn’t a trajectory toward a destination, it simply means your life, because every moment of your life is sustained and held by God, and so every step you take is spiritual. Wherever you are, God draws near to you.

Maybe that’s a paradox: nowhere you go can take you away from God.


* from Jayber Crow, cited in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, p174

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“Dogs and Tricks”

sermon on Mark 7:24-37

“This Jesus may not fit well into comfortable suburban churches but was probably a hit in the back alleys and taverns of the empire…at home among the unwashed masses.” So says Ted Jennings in a provocative commentary on this passage. Here’s more:

This story has often served as a source of embarrassment for those who desire to present Jesus as a compulsive do-gooder with refined sensibilities. Mark’s narrative regularly offends this point of view. Mark presents Jesus as an irascible and (sometimes) reluctant wonder-worker. If we wish to understand this narrative…then we must surrender preconceptions of [Jesus as] a pious and courteous saint…and, instead, attend to this rather blunt-spoken teacher and ill-tempered doer of mighty deeds.*

I don’t know if you’d consider yourself part of a comfortable suburban church or if you find this offensive Jesus a hit. But I’m always insistent that God’s got good news for us, even in difficult Bible readings and our hard times, so let’s attend to this irascible unsaintly Jesus.

This passage with the woman and her daughter is so disagreeable that Luke entirely cut it out of his version. In a culture where dogs were dirty street creatures, mongrels, Jesus insults the girl and her mother. “It’s not fair to throw children’s food to little dogs!” he says, perhaps sneering.

It doesn’t help much to observe that Jesus is reacting as a typical Jewish man of his time would if a non-Jewish woman had the gall to approach him with demands, breaking social conventions. Even if that was a standard reaction, just because something used to be common doesn’t mean it was okay. We know that now better than ever. Christianity still must take responsibility for the past ill treatment of women and others—and often not very far enough past.

Further, we expect better from Jesus. Usually his interactions with women should’ve been a model these centuries when we had still gotten it wrong.

But this today definitely doesn’t seem like the Jesus who “loves the little children, all the children of the world” as he sounds mean to this woman’s child.

On the other hand, when I say “yes, Jesus loves me,” I have to realize there’s some offense in that claim. What would make me so loveable? At the very least, like those in the story, I’m not part of Jesus’ Jewish community, so including me would’ve been anathema. And I’m just a hypocritical comfortable suburban church member, who wants a kind do-gooder Jesus, even while I don’t manage to be that much myself.

So what’s the right to be included by Jesus? For my part, I count on grace to bridge the divide. The woman relies on her argument. After Jesus’ insult about it not being fair to throw food to little dogs, she retorts that dogs can eat crumbs the children drop.

Maybe she’s got a better view of God’s abundance, that God’s table is overflowing and even a crumb of God’s goodness is enough. Or perhaps it’s her thoughtful turning and extending of Jesus’ metaphor.

Whatever it is, it’s sufficient to change Jesus and for her to get what she wants. He praises her logic, her words, her reasoning, which steps away from his Jewish justifications as he compliments what a good Greek she is.

But this isn’t just about her getting what she wanted, not a story of a particular woman and her daughter. This is much larger and more emblematic of what Jesus was up to, including in relationship with us.

First, this is remarkably the only time Jesus loses an argument. In a culture that put great stock into the sparring of a verbal judo match, no other time does Jesus get taken down by an opponent.

In this one instance, when Jesus squares off with the culture’s stereotypical no-holds-barred ferocity against a foreign woman, he then backs down and declares her the winner. While he could’ve maintained his place by repeating the insult and saying “go away, dog,” instead he concedes.

More than her winning an argument, in that culture Jesus’ reputation was at stake, and it meant he received shame and handed off his honor to her. It is a major upset, and an exact reversal of their standings vis-à-vis each other at the start of the encounter.

Jesus, the big loser, seems happy at exchanging his insider prestige for her outsider disgrace. He likes it so much that, rather than rushing back to the safety of stature amid his own people, he seeks out more interactions with non-Jews. The travel itinerary in our reading portrays Jesus bypassing his hometown to go find more Gentiles. He’s evidently decided that the little dogs will get their share of bread. In fact, in the verses right after our reading today, he does that very thing, feeding 4000 of them in a story that parallels the more familiar miracle of feeding of 5000 of his own people.

Before he gets to that, we’re told he meets a man who can’t hear. Just as the woman advocates for her daughter, this man has friends who ask Jesus to help.

We know from Jesus having healed the daughter that he can simply say something from a distance and cause health. But in this instance, he does strange magic tricks: he takes the man aside, puts his fingers in his ears, spits and touches the guy’s tongue, groans loudly to the sky, and says a foreign sounding word. If this seems a little like a magician waving their hands and saying “abracadabra,”** that’s exactly what it’s supposed to sound like. That culture was used to such hocus pocus from healers, so Jesus meets them on their cultural turf. Again, he’s giving up something of himself for the sake of reaching out to foreigners and outsiders.

The end result is amazing. Ears are unstopped and mouths opened. This is what Jesus has been trying to foster with his disciples, to give them ears to hear, get them to preach the good news. They continually don’t get it, but this man and his people accomplish it right away.

To back up again, more than simply being on another culture’s terms, Jesus also, in a way, gives up something. Healing this man involved a triple contamination. He was a non-Jew, which we’ve already heard was off-limits. He’s blind, and contact with him would also make Jesus unholy. And then there’s the spit. Coming into contact with spit, according to Leviticus (15:8) made a person unclean. Three-for-three.

But again, Jesus does it as a reversal. As he’s absorbing this triple threat of impurity, he instead is offering—spreading—wellness. With him, it is health that is contagious. You get infected by his purity. I love how this works in the Gospel stories, and my standard characterization is that one good apple saves the whole bunch.

We’re used to spoilage and contamination and contagion. Much too used to it. Especially as our own cultural setting involves spread of toxin so pervasive we can hardly keep away from it. While hearing a story about spit that heals, you’re home for worship precisely because we can’t trust the cleanness of spit that floats in the air when we’re around each other.

So I can’t oversimplify this into an easy exchange rate, can’t make the metaphor so quickly effective that churchly proximity to spit and not distancing would be salutary and health-giving. But I’m sure these stories must have relevance for our own setting.

Maybe, as we consider Labor Day and vocations, we see it in health care workers who sacrifice their own health to help another’s sickness, or firefighters who face danger in order to extend security, or rescue workers who risk a flood to bring safety. Or we fight to help the wages of those who serve us. Or in parents who give up life to offer life.

That these exchanges are laborious we see also with this Jesus who can be ornery and not just courteous. Still, we trust his emptying brings fullness. He lays down his life to take it up again. Jesus comes onto our turf, into this strange world, when even our suburbs aren’t all that comfortable. He comes to give us himself, his goodness. He exchanges death for his life. He must also take sorrow to give joy. He comes into your own home, taking you off to the side, somehow to restore you to larger community, larger even than you anticipated beforehand, at a table more abundant than can be held.

If you’re wondering about your part, you may come begging and arguing, pleading like the woman, when Jesus doesn’t seem very approachable. You may be insistent on what you need, or what you see others need. It may seem insulting that God could do something, when it feels like nothing is happening and God is leaving you out. That may rightly be the shape of firm faith.

Or you may be tongue-tied, hardly able to hear the message, and yet Jesus is coming across to you, through any barriers. You may be trying to adopt his ways, or may feel far and offensive.

You may find this irascible unsaintly reluctant God to be just what you need. Or you may just be wanting some order, somebody to act appropriately, more compulsive in good-deed-doing, to make things fair. And still Jesus is reaching out, happily exchanging his goodness for you.


* The Insurrection of the Crucified: The ‘Gospel of Mark’ as Theological Manifesto, p108

** There are some interesting, surprisingly-relevant etymologies to this word. e.g. http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-abr1.htm

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“Legal Battles”

sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15-, 21-23; James 1:17-27

This is a dangerous Gospel reading, whether you recognized that or not.

You might think that a reading about doing the dishes would be fairly benign. But you’re about to get stuck in other people’s religious arguments and legal battles. And it’s risky to pick sides, especially if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.

For an obvious part of that, it would be wrong to take this as Jesus dismissing ancient Jewish ritual practices, and then propel that forward to our own time and dismiss current Jewish ritual practice as wrong-headed and separate from God. Don’t do that. Please.

Within this one Gospel reading are probably at least three layers of legal battles and religious arguments. Before you get yourself caught up in the fight, it’s worth knowing a little background. I’m no expert about biblical purity laws and 1st Century Jewish culture in Palestine and all of that, but I’ll try to offer a bit of insight to bring focus to what’s happening in the story.

The first layer of legal battling is revealed by Mark needing to offer an explanation. He has to explain the religious practice and why it matters that he’s talking about washing hands and how to do dishes. He gives two verses of background to clarify the interaction that’s going to come up. That means Mark’s original audience wasn’t familiar with this earlier conflict. It wasn’t their fight, just like it’s not ours.

And yet there are hints of another disagreement still simmering within Mark’s original community, and Mark uses this story to aid his argument. See, in verses cut out of our reading today, when Jesus has said that it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, Mark gives another little parenthetical comment: “(Thus he declared all foods clean.)”

Well, that isn’t how it happened historically. Jesus and his followers didn’t decide to skip the Passover lamb and instead have pork chops. Some years later, Paul and Peter were still arguing about whether converts needed to keep kosher food laws. When he was with Jesus, Peter may have eaten with people who were ritually unclean, but he still struggled with it later on. So he doesn’t seem to have understood that Jesus declared all foods clean, which probably means Mark was trying to use this in a battle about early Christians needing to follow old food laws.

That’s not our fight. If you are wondering whether you are allowed to eat shellfish this week, it’s probably because of allergies and not because of religious restrictions. Nor are you likely to criticize somebody’s food choice as ritually unclean (at least by those standards of what’s appropriate, though maybe you’re against fast food and for local, organic food—a different kind of purity we’ll come back to). Anyway, holy eating practices behind the story are one layer of somebody else’s legal battle.

Then there are more portrayed in the story with the Pharisees. Now, the Pharisees were pretty strict in trying to follow practices laid out in Leviticus and elsewhere, which were—indeed—God-given instructions for how the community should conduct itself to maintain holiness and their identity.

The distinction comes in a disagreement maybe layered in ancient Judaism itself. Besides the written Torah, the Pharisees also used the so-called “tradition of the elders.” The written law gave a guideline, and then the tradition helped explain how to follow it. These were and remain important for Jewish practice, telling how to live out what is written in the Bible. In our story, the Pharisees were maintaining this oral tradition, with its interpretations and explanations to guide behavior.

Jesus may have spoken against it more because of the setting of his neighborhood around the Sea of Galilee, where the realities of life for his family and friends and followers didn’t exactly make room for following the same practices.

A book that looks at the social setting of the Gospels explains: the strict following of the laws “was largely maintained, defined and practiced by small, elite groups in towns…These minority groups expected and demanded that every Israelite please God in the way these groups believed they must; hence they viewed unwashed Galilean peasants and fishermen as outside the law.” (For our own purposes, being outside the law goes with terms like outlaw and illegal.) To continue from the book: “Keeping such purity laws was a near impossibility for peasant farmers, who may not have the required water for ritual baths or been able to postpone [farm work] for ritual requirements. Like fishermen, they also came in constant contact with dead fish, dead animals, and the like…As a result [their religious tradition]…had adapted itself in significant measure to the realities of peasant life.”*

That shows a third layer to the legal battles; part of this may have been a religious argument, on what counts as following biblical laws, but another more cultural element is of urban elites vs. rural peasants, and when one says how another should live out or be practicing their religion. We have an indicator that, against the rule-following elites, Jesus sticks up for the outlaws.

But we don’t need to see that as a battle of peasant vs. Pharisees. It could be that Jesus is concerned when only those who behave like the Pharisees could be insiders. Instead, he wants to broaden the in-club. That might yet include Pharisees, but of course also everyone else: those farmers and fishermen, poor housewives and children and the sick and so on and so on.

Yes, Jesus wants to stick up for those whose social circumstances would’ve precluded them by insistent practices. But it’s important to see he’s not doing that simply to exclude the former excluders. He’s just wanting a bigger circle, against someone telling somebody else they aren’t close to God.

Maybe it’s less a legal battle at all and more about broad grace and the availability of an inclusive God. After all, the very next story is of Jesus healing the daughter of a non-Jewish woman, and then he’ll go on to feed—and eat with—non-Jews. The availability of God’s goodness supersedes practices of purity.

That flips the system on its head. Religious laws meant to maintain proximity to God, to remain closer to God’s holiness. It’s a view of holiness as special and restricted, and these practices and definitions kept a holy people who were separated from other peoples as special and chosen. But Jesus shows God comes close to us even when we’re impure, comes to clean our hearts.

In a meeting I was in this week for the Food, Faith, and Farming Network, another board member shared a quotation from Paul Kingsworth, whom he called the British Wendell Berry. Kingsworth said, “I was always very struck with the meaning of the word ‘holy.’ It is an Old English word—the original word is halig, which also meant whole, as in not separated, not divided.” He goes on to talk about feeling earth and nature as sacred and holy, and our sense of being part of its wholeness.

That may fit with Jesus, too: that we’re all in it together, and so how do we treat each other amid that wholeness. It’s not just a special people or these special practices. It’s all of life, always in proximity to God.

Our questions may have less to do with how we’re closer to God, but we still find our way into arguments that are essentially about purity and exclusive right ways to do things. They may take on religious tones but are much more ethical legal battles, issues of morality.

I named food choice as one, for those of us who self-righteously claim there are right kinds of food. That means if others are eating something else, they are wrong and therefore ethically impure, further from goodness.

That example may not hold a lot of emotion, but other battles are more heated, like immigration and refugees. In this case, the term “illegal” is used, for those who are outside the law, and therefore excluded. It’s a question of whether somebody is able to fit in. Are they part of the whole, or restricted because of purity—unfortunately including racial purity? Of course, legal questions for a nation are different from religious battles, but with the ethical overtones, they wind up blending together. So how might we engage the debate with love?

Even more ferocious of a battle right now involves masks and mandates. With our own cautions of purity in terms of what “comes out of our mouths,” perhaps we should be alert to how our human precepts are treated as doctrine, and how we might remain attuned to the larger whole. We may strive for health (another word related to ‘wholeness’) without judgment that condemns others as evil, as outside the law, as far from goodness. We should watch our lips and mind our tongues, as both Jesus and James encourage, and ask ourselves how we’re being Pharisaical, if we’re making the ritual of masks more important than the wholeness masks are attempting to preserve.

Again, that’s a fuzzy question, but that may help undo our self-assuredness. Just as hygiene was not the point of the discussion on hand-washing in this reading, and Jesus didn’t see hand hygiene as the most important part of religious practice. But neither did he tell the crowd to grab bacon cheeseburgers for lunch. Something may be less important, which leaves room to keep working on our interpretations and practices, with the deliberation subordinate to the larger matter of ensuring that the wholeness of God’s goodness is readily available.

We gather for worship not to pat ourselves on the back for being so appropriate and well-behaved, but to have our self-erected walls broken down when they would alienate us from our neighbors. We return our focus to the God who is with us in this sacred creation, and therefore also find our lives renewed in service to each other.


* Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina & Rohrbaugh, p175

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Ser-mini for Pride Sunday

on Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

One of my grandpa’s favorite hymns was “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He lived during an era of Christendom.

The last of our hymnals it was in came out in 1958. A middle verse begins “Like a mighty army moves the church of God; brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.” Not only is it male-centered and militaristic, but seems over-confident in our cause, in how right we are to conquer others.  

It’s not the only bombastic hymn; I looked up our Ephesians reference in the United Methodist hymnal and also found lyrics like “Soldiers of Christ, arise, and put your armor on, strong in the strength which God supplies thru (sic!) his (sic sic!!) eternal Son…from strength to strength go on, wrestle and fight and pray, tread all the powers of darkness down and win the well-fought day” (#513) Or this one: “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, the strife will not be long; this day the noise of battle, the next the victor’s song. Put on the gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer; where duty calls or danger, be never wanting there” (#514).

On Pride Sunday, we have to confess that—misjudging evil and misrepresenting our Lord—the forces of the church too often have been weaponized against LGBTQ people and those oppressed for other reasons. If Ephesians is about armor we should pray for protection for such vulnerable folks, including from the church’s violence.

But what after defense? Is there fighting back? Well, Poet Audre Lord, speaking for those “who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older,” declared “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never…bring about genuine change.”**

So Ched Myers, whom I referenced when we started Ephesians, asks an obvious question: Do military metaphors contradict work for peace and justice? I’d say yes. Yet he calls this Ephesians passage an ironic “nonviolent call to arms” in the struggle for change.*

This 20-year-old pair of Chuck Taylors may be a response to that call. I had written on the bottom “Ephesians 6:15,” referencing the verse “as shoes for your feet, put on whatever enables you to proclaim the Gospel of peace.” I don’t know if Chuck Taylors dismantle the master’s house in service to change for peace and justice. That’s likely too much confidence to put in beat-up footwear anyway. For this Pride Sunday, again ironically, I personally need to stand less proud and more humbly.

So I’ll throw in my stock with Simon Peter, asking, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It isn’t in my self-assuredness to fight others who are wrong. It’s not a charge leading a righteous army. That seems unlikely to dismantle anything. Instead, with humility at our failures, not taking life but sharing the life we’re all given, the church at heart is simply the community who trusts in the one with the words of eternal life, words not just for insiders, but for all of God’s beloveds.

I’ve got shoes for my feet. And for the peaceful words of my mouth, rather than Onward, Christian Soldiers, I’ll share the grace-filled “I received the living God, and my heart is full of joy.” That’s a worthwhile message to get behind.

Hymn: “I Received the Living God” (ELW 477)


** https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf

* Ambassadors of Reconciliation Volume 1: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, Ched Myers & Elaine Enns, p111, 107

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