Friday, March 30, 2012

Ability and Opportunity

Mark 14: 3-11
Ability and Opportunity
Sunday, March 25, 2012

Trust in a dying man. In some Christian traditions, it is the practice of worshippers to bring their Bibles with them. That is not commonly our practice, but if it were, I would have you open you Bibles to Mark 14. The beginning of this chapter reveals a practice Mark uses throughout his text. Mark takes 2 stories, splits the first story in 2 sections, and places the second story in the middle. In today's text, Mark takes the story of religious leaders seeking a way to arrest and destroy Jesus, splits it in two pieces, and places the story of a woman anointing Jesus with costly perfume. This combination allows us to seek the difference between a woman who trusts Jesus with all she has and men who seek to destroy Jesus.

An Unnamed Woman Always Remembered
At the home of Simon, a man cured of leprosy by Jesus. An unnamed woman enters, opens a small container of ointment/perfume worth the average annual wage of a blue collar worker. This act, Jesus states, is an act that prepares him for his burial.

The act of bathing an anointing normally happens after death, a before burial. John Grisham, in the Chamber, writes of a mother, whose son wrongly accused of murder, is executed by the state of Texas. Her son's body is brought back to the local funeral home. The mother asks all to leave the room, and she slowly and tenderly bathes her son's body, as she did when he was a child.

I have seen wives bathe the bodies of their husbands after their death, to prepare him for burial.

We do not know the name of the woman who performed this act for Jesus, neither do we know her life story, but what we do know that her act was consistent with what Jesus had been teaching his disciples--he was to die and be buried. While many rejected this prophecy, it appears as if this faithful woman trusted Jesus, and took him at his word.

In the Gospel of Mark, trust does not typically come after an amazing sign of miraculous act, but trust precedes the act, and receives the sign or wonder as an act of God's kingdom breaking into the world.

The unnamed woman always remembers reveals the ability to trust.

Looking for the Right Moment
The story wrapped around the story of the unnamed woman, always remembered, is the story of the search for the opportunity to destroy Jesus, and the willingness of Judas to play the role of betrayer.

In the Gospel of Mark, there is an ongoing give and take about those who are insiders and those who are outsiders in the kingdom of God. We read about the call of the 12 disciples of Jesus in Mark, from a large crowd. But the list of those called insiders concludes with the mention of Judas, and his description--the one who will betray Jesus.

The desire of the religious leaders of Jesus' day to destroy him is revealed as early as the beginning of chapter 3 in Mark. The desire to destroy Jesus, appearing in the beginning of chapter 3 comes at the end of a conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders over the issue of sin. The argument starts with the question of who can forgive sin, and concludes with Jesus redefining sin. Perhaps the destruction of Jesus is rooted in how sin is defined.

In every culture, there is a purpose and there is a personal need for naming what is wrong. There is a purpose in naming what is wrong, for it allows for reconciliation; for justice; for healing.

There is also a personal need to name what is wrong--a personal need that may not serve a larger good, but is self-serving. There is a personal need for sin, to name what one believes others are doing the go against the will of God. There is a personal need for laws against what we think is wrong. Consider the moments when, offended by the actions or words of others, you have said, there should be a law against that action. There is a personal need for diagnosis. To have a diagnosis can take away a person's responsibility for creating the situation in which they find themselves. Parents, not wanting to see their own contributions to their child's problems, can actually be relieved with a diagnosis.

Jonathon Haidt, author of "Why Good People are divided by Politics and Religion," writes, Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to ge started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning...if you thing about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas--to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to--then things will make a lot more sense.

Perhaps the personal need to define what is a sin, what is illegal, and a diagnosis is a later construct to justify one's self, and an attempt to control what happens next.

Is not control the opposite of trust?

Trust, Control, and Money
Fascinatingly enough, these two stories about one who trusts and one who destroys through control have repeated references to money. Money is mention three times. We first hear of the value of the ointment of nard that is being used to anoint Jesus. We also hear of the statements of those around the woman, claiming she could have sold the ointment and given the money to the poor. Finally, we hear about the money Judas was offered to betray Jesus.

When reading scripture, we can unwittingly connect place in assume that commonly used phrases come from somewhere outside of scripture, such as "A house divided against itself cannot stand." This is attributed to Lincoln, but comes from scripture. Or, "Those who do not work, do not eat," which is attributed to John Smith, but comes from scripture. We can also place into scripture lines like, "God helps those who help themselves," which is not in scripture. And, we can adjust lines from scripture, such as "Money is the root of all evil." The actual line is, "The love of money is the root of all evil." That line is helpful to our conversation today.

In our modern day culture, money represents power and control.

Lottery. When lottery jackpots get large, more people buy tickets. Many will say, "If I win, my life won't change much. I will still go to work, but it would be nice to know that if I got tired of my boss, I could quit, and not worry about money." There is a level of control in that claim.

Giving. I once had a parishioner who rarely gave money to what he was asked to give to. For instance, if there was a death in the parish and the family indicated that memorial contributions were to be given to the music fund of the church, he would give the money to the mission fund instead. Surface wise, sounds honorable that he is striving to help those in need. Here is the curiosity, this man was the chairperson of the mission fund. He had control of the money he gave away.

Good Reasons. We have this troublesome line in the text from Jesus, "You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me." This offends our sensibilities related to acts of charity for those in need. Perhaps this line challenges our assumptions. Perhaps giving to the poor becomes a good reason to avoid giving up control of our money. Each time I receive my paycheck, I sit at my desk and write my offering check to Trinity Church, believing that I give first to God through the church, before I do anything else with my money. Then, I write checks to the community organizations in Lancaster that I support--organizations that serve those in need.

Money, I believe is mentioned, because how we use our money reflects our desire for control over our lives and over the lives and actions of others.

My cousin recently told me about a colleague of hers who had adopted at son when the child was a year and a half old. Any attempt that he and his wife made to draw the child close to them, and hold him met with complete resistance. In fact, they had to be carefully that in his efforts to push away from them, the child did not fall. One evening, at a church meeting, as the man was speaking, he saw, in the corner of the room, his wife, sobbing with tears running down her face. Concerned, he went toward her to see what was troubling her. Then he saw it, the child had stopped fighting, and was resting his head on his mother's heart.

Control gave way to trust, through the patient, loving, and trusting presence of the child's parents.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Not Understanding. Not Asking. Not Getting Along.

Mark 9: 30-37
Not Understanding. Not Asking. Not Getting Along.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Not Understanding. Not Asking. Not Getting Along. In speaking of personal surrender to God, Oswald Chambers writes, "I became thrilled with something infinitely greater than myself.

Not Understanding
In the Gospel of Mark, this is the second, of three times, where Jesus defines the nature and character of the Son of Man. He re-states, "The Son of Man will be betrayed, killed, and on three dies, be raised from the dead." This definition finds resistance among those closest to Jesus, for it does not match their expectations.

From the post-Easter perspective, we claim that we would get it. Yet, we must remember that to believe after having heard it came true is much different than believing, before it came to pass.

Yet, even in the post-Easter perspective, the Christian tradition has struggled with defining the Son of Man and what he requires of us. There are, for example the Nomian and Anti-nomian struggles. The Nomian--the commandment driven, legalistic, law centered approach to understanding God and discipleship. The Anti-nomian--the love oriented, suspend the rules out of love for the other, acceptance through love approach to understanding God and discipleship.

We are an eclectic smattering of both approaches. I have my definitions, my beliefs about God. I prefer to think that the values that I draw from these definitions are reflective of who God is, but it is possible that I have chosen values that serve me well, and then laid them over God, expecting God to conform.

Gerhard Forde speaks of these definitions as masks we place over God. God, with divine omnipotence, power, all authority, is an overwhelming burden of judgment upon us. We mask God. Our definitions of God are the masks.

Jesus, as he offers the definition of the Son of Man, as one who is betrayed, killed, and is raised from the dead, unmasks God. When God is unmasked, we are terrified.

Not Asking.
We hear that the disciples, not understanding, were afraid to ask. Too terrified to ask.

What does this mean?

Martin Luther, in his explanation of the Lord's Prayer, offers this comment on the petition of "give us this day our daily bread."

God provides without us having to ask, yet it is good for us to ask. It is good for us to ask, for then we are reminded from whom our daily bread comes. God is the source of our very lives and all that sustain our very lives. God provides for us all that is good for us, including his Son. The God of whom we are afraid is a God who is good.

Not Getting Along.
Holding onto and defending a definition of the Son of Man, too afraid to have God revealed and unmasked in any other form, the followers of Jesus find themselves with a narrow definition of discipleship. This definition of discipleship is rooted in the paradigm of winner and losers. When defining discipleship, the argument turns to "Who is the greatest follower, most consistent with the definition of Son of Man?"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "Violence stands condemned by its failures to evoke counter violence." I would say that the word anger could be inserted in place of the word violence. Anger is condemned when it fails to bring about an equal or greater level of anger in the other person. If you want to convince a person, who has done something wrong, that he or she is right, then be angry with him or her. At an expression of anger, the person who has done something wrong will find all of the physical and emotional systems engaging, be offended, and become convinced he is right. Blow your horn at another driver who has illegally turned in front of you, and the other driver will yell at you. Being angry at another convinces the person he is right.

In that, we find the age old division of humanity--those who hold positions of honor and those who are reduced to shame. The desired position is honor, of being right, of recognition, of contentment with self. In order for one to be in a position of honor, more than likely another person will have to be shamed, relegated to a place of being wrong, opposed, and labeled undesirable.

Were there to be a power that would overturn this carnal desire? Where the first would be last and the last would be first. Where life brings about death and death brings about life.

Through the Word of God, God's righteous kingdom is established on earth. A new world order is established. As God is unmasked in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God redefines human life, and life for all creation. All eyes are on God, as all people stand in the same place, on the same plane, in the unity of faith.

Arts and Music
I do not have to work very hard to make a case that we live in a divided time, full of disagreements of what is right and wrong. I do, however, want to point out a symptom of a divisive time that we may not normally consider. In divisive times, parts of our culture that unify people are victims of budget cuts. One area of cuts is the area of the arts. I want to speak in particular about the musical arts today.

Most of us, if asked to recall a picture in our minds of community responses after the 9-11 attacks, would remember the Congress gathered together on the steps of the Capitol building. And what is it they did there? They sang God Bless America. I think that the more poignant piece of that moment is not asking for God's blessings--which is most desirable--but that they were joined in song. Male and female, gay and straight, hawk and dove, democrat and republican. Music, especially collective singing, unifies.

In communal singing, much the same in instrumental music, people full of their own oddities, can, for a brief moment, be on the same page, be of one voice, in full harmony with one another. In that moment of harmony, we experience beauty. Perhaps, in that moment of beauty, our imaginations will be inspired to something greater than ourselves.

Surrender to God, wrote Chambers, is to be thrilled with something infinitely greater than myself.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Shame as a Obstacle to Life

Mark 8: 31-38
Title: Shame as an Obstacle to Life
The Reverend Timothy A. Mentzer


To bind a Roman citizen is a crime; to flog him, an abomination. To slay him is virtually an act of murder. To crucify him is--what? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe a deed so horrible? Cicero, in Against Verses.

God's will was that Jesus would die in that way, on the cross, for our salvation.

We love the cross of Christ, for what it accomplishes for us. We are also called to love our own crosses. That is much more difficult for us.

The Need To Be Offended
Until this point, the 8th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we have seen little conversation between Jesus and his disciples. We have heard about their calls, and being set apart from the crowd. That changes in Chapter 8. In this chapter Jesus begins to ask them questions. First, he asks the disciples who other people are saying that he is. The disciples answer with a recitation of public opinion. Then, Jesus asks a more pointed question of them, "Who do YOU say that I am?" At that point, Peter shows a moment of brilliance. YOU are the messiah. As with any of us, moments of brilliance are typically followed by moments of stupidity.

After Peter's acknowledgment of Jesus as messiah, Jesus describes the nature of messiah--one who is rejoiced by the religious elite, one who suffers, one who is arrested, crucified, and is raised from the dead on the 3rd day.

Peter' moment of lucidity is followed by rejection of the definition of messiah that Jesus provides. Peter needs to defend his notion of God's one from Jesus' claim. And indeed, do we each have a notion of God and ourselves that we need to protect?

Let us speak about this in terms of needs. I need shelter. This need grows, however, as I live with the shelter that I have. So my need for shelter includes a growing number of square feet. I need water when I am thirsty, however, soon the taste of water is not exciting enough, so I require lemonade, iced tea, or even soda. I need food, however, what meets my body's requirements is not the most exciting, so the need for steak and a baked potato soon evolves.

And, I need to be offended. Each of us has a chink in our armor, an Achilles Heel, a vulnerable spot. At some moment in our lives, either by serendipity or on purpose, another person will speak a truth that cuts right to our vulnerability. That truth is painful to bear. My defense against that truth is being offended. I hold the speaker of the truth accountable for lacking sensitivity to the needs of others, and am offended by what he or she speaks.

The messiah is the one who endures suffering, is rejected by others, arrested, crucified, and will be raised from the dead. It is his death on the cross that brings our salvation. As we love his cross, we are also called to love our own crosses.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in A Testament to Freedom, writes "There are many Christians who bend their knees before the cross of Jesus Christ well enough, but who do noting but resist and struggle against every affliction in their own lives. They believe that they love Christ's cross, but they hate the cross in their own lives...They needed the cross, but did not love it....Whoever loves the cross of Jesus Christ, whoever has found peace in him, the begin to love even the sufferings in their life, and in the end, they will be able to say with Scripture, "We also rejoice in our sufferings."

Claiming the Wrong Authority
This text from Mark 8 would better be performed on stage, as there is some fascinating blocking happening. Jesus is facing the crowd, defining the role of Messiah (rejection, suffering, arrest, death, resurrection). Peter is standing behind Jesus. At Jesus' words, Peter turns Jesus around to face him, with Jesus now having his back to the crowds. He rebukes Jesus. Jesus, having been rebuked by Peter, first turns his back to Peter, to face the crowd again, rebukes Peter in front of the entire crowd.

It is at this point that Jesus teaches, If any want to be my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.

A point of authority is conveyed here. Peter is claiming an authority that is not his--not denying himself, but instead defining the role of Messiah--and not claiming the authority that is his--taking up his cross and following Jesus. Jesus defines his authority, as he has been doing frequently in the earlier sections of Mark.

Jesus' positioning to Peter is both a rebuke, in that his back is to Peter but also an invitation, Peter is already behind Jesus, and in the right place/position to follow.

Chaos is when a person takes responsibility for something for she has no authority and is not held accountable. This happens in families, when children want to be parents and not children. This happens in the classroom, when students want to be the teacher, instead of the student. This happens in places of employment, where people want to be the boss, and not the employee.

Shame loves chaos, as it loves to muddy the waters. If shame involves hiding from the painful spots in one's life, it also avoids accountability--not capable of owning one's own mistakes or failures. Muddying the waters, as to not be discovered. It is much easier on my soul to tell another person what he has done wrong, than to claim my own failures.

Loving the cross of Christ, and loving our own crosses is self-denial and action. It is giving Jesus authority to be the Messiah, and it is taking action on our own part to be faithful to him. This journey starts at the point of suffering, and requires perseverance.

A Systems Cosmology
The cosmology of antiquity, that is, the world view of Jesus' time, differs significantly from the cosmology or world view of today. In Jesus' day, there were believed to be 3 levels of the world. Heaven was the top layer, where God dwelt and reigned. Earth was he center--the place where humanity and creation dwelt. Hell, or the underworld, was below--the realm of Satan and his demonic forces. Earth was the battle ground between the powers of God and of Satan. This battle was shown forth in demon possession--used to explain many types of physical and mental maladies and to explain acts that destroyed the lives of others and to explain natural calamity.

In our modern, scientific world, we have a different cosmology or world view. Our world view is empirical and is commonly communicated in terms of systems. We speak of bodily systems such as the immune system, respiratory system, or the nervous system. We speak of social systems such as the legal system, the political system, or the educational system. And, there is growing interest in the emotional system. In addition, we study the interaction of each system.

When there is a physical malady, a breakdown in the social system, or a natural disaster, we turn to one or more of the systems to make sense of what happened and trust them to implement a process, set of policies, or laws that will keep the breakdown from reoccurring.

We find ourselves at a loss when our systems do not have the capacity to perform the function we desire of them. There is no system in to stop E4 tornadoes from ravaging complete towns in the mid-west. There appear to be no systems in place to stop a young man in Chardon, Ohio, from killing high school classmates. No system appears to have the authority to demand a stop to the destruction and death in this world.

We have faith. We have faith to trust in the one who all authority in heaven and on earth. One who announces that life comes from him, and nothing can separate us from his love and power to save. Salvation is more than being taken to heaven if we are good enough when we die. Salvation is the setting right of all creation.

For that reason, we love the cross of Christ, and we love our own cross. In the cross of Christ, we have life.


Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace: So clothe us in thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know thee to the knowledge and love of thee; for the honor of thy Name. Amen.