“Things Are Looking Up” Luke 21:25-36

I’m a little tired of all the warnings that seem to have become a part of everyday life.

I flip though the television channels and some new breakthrough drug is being pitched to me for an ailment that I never really knew was a problem before, and I wouldn’t have known it if the company didn’t warn me about it.

Then after the company has shown me bright and cheery images of people living their lives free of the ailment that I didn’t know I was supposed to worry about and that the medication is supposed to treat, here comes the list of side effects and the warnings.

“Don’t take _________ if you have______.  If you develop these symptoms stop taking _______.   Suicidal thoughts and depression may accompany some people as they take _______.   ______ may cause constipation, diarrhea, heart palpitations, a change in mood or appetite.  Stop taking ________ if you experience sudden weight gain, weight loss, hives, boils, a plague of frogs, insects or gnats.

Ask your doctor if _______ is right for you.

Warning upon warning.  One often wonders if the side effects are worse than living with the condition?

The evening news is full of warnings and urgings to be vigilant as well.  Scam upon scam is mentioned out there, or more things to worry about.

Crime and violence “may be coming to your neighborhood.”

Personal information has been hacked and may be compromising your identity.

Global Climate change is shaking the heavens and the earth.

I’m under a constant barrage of urgings to be vigilant, to watch for suspicious activity or behavior, (whatever that may be to me), to take measures, put in a security system, to get a “cop cam”, to change my passwords, etc. etc.

It is all so very wearying.

Maybe you find it wearying too.

We hang our heads and slog on through another day, wondering what will come at us next.

So it doesn’t really strike me as a cheery moment to hear the Gospel put forth its little apocalypse today and issue its warnings as well.

Signs, in the sun, moon and stars, distress among the nations, people fainting with foreboding and fear.

I have plenty of fear and foreboding already, I really don’t need it from Jesus!

I think when we first read or hear this lesson it is the fear that jumps out at us, the list of things for which we think we ought to be watching out and worrying.

We tend to hear this as a warning from Jesus because our ears are so fine tuned to listen for warnings and to draw conclusions from this world.

But I would urge you to read and listen to this again, this time without your “warning weary ears,” for when we do that, we catch the real force of Jesus’ words.

This is not just a warning about the awful things that are about to happen.  Nothing mentioned here is really any different from the things that have been happening since the beginning of this world.

Signs in the Sun, moon, and stars, …. Those happen on a regular and cyclical basis.  Just ask any teacher or law enforcement offices what a full moon will mean for them.

Distress among the nations?   When has there not been a time when competing national interests, or tribal differences didn’t set one people against another?

Confusion at the roaring of the seas and the waves?   When hasn’t weather and ocean been unpredictable and downright scary when considered or experienced?

These things will happen, and they might be scary if dwelt upon, but the real point of what Jesus has to say is that all these things are nothing to be scared of really.

They are reasons for us to look up!

What, Pastor, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and you’re telling me that things are looking up?
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, not because of all the things we see that have always been around anyway, but rather because looking up is what is commanded to us by Jesus!

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

That’s what Jesus says to the otherwise scary events.  Stand up and raise your heads!   Look up!  Look for God!

It can be scary to think of God as entering into the places where we usually have free reign, mostly because we’re not sure what God is going to do when God arrives.   Is God to be found in more force, in the raging of the wind?   In the desolation of battle or the power of despots?   Do we find God in the unraveling of the world as we know it?

No.   Abraham and Sarah, Elijah and the Widow, Moses and Miriam and all the prophets of old saw many a great and terrible sign, but God was not found in the unraveling.   God was rather found working in the midst of those things to bring about redemption, promise, and fulfillment of God’s word.

Now in Jesus, (the Son of Man incarnate,) we get a glimpse of what it is that God actually does when God does enter this world and it’s not at all scary!  It is (in fact) what God has always done when God shows up.

Good news is preached to the poor, and the powerful are overcome.

Sight is given to the blind.

The hungry are fed.

The naked are clothed.

Demons are cast out and those with afflictions are set free from suffering.

The Prisoners are set free, and the hungry are filled with good things.

Outcasts are welcomed, and the forgotten remembered.

There isn’t much scary about what Jesus does.

Well, I should qualify that a bit.   What Jesus does is scary if you have your eyes fixed firmly on the things of this world and look to them for your comfort and your hope.

If what you are preoccupied with is getting rich, then to hear that Jesus shows partiality and favor to the poor, or hear to him say, “do not be anxious about what you will eat and what you will wear” is incredibly threatening.   It topples the economic system we have in place, the engine of our way of life!

If your livelihood depends upon hiding things, on people being blind to your actions, then to hear from Jesus that “nothing will be hidden that is not revealed” and to hear the promise that in the coming of Jesus God brings the “light to shine in the darkness and the light is not overcome.” That is incredibly threatening for someone who depends upon clandestine operations, hidden agendas, and operating in the shadows of this world.

If you are most comfortable with the current divisions, with some people having more than others, with labels and prejudices that hold people and ideas in the status quo, then to hear that Jesus welcomes the outsider, casts out the demons, and bridges the divisions long held between people may very well be threatening to your comfortable way of looking at the world.

The Gospels remind us that looking at Jesus is like looking at God.  We “see” who God is and what God is like through the actions, words, and concerns of Jesus.  What we “see” Jesus do is good news if you are caught up in the signs and turmoil of this world.

If you are a part of keeping the world in chaos, to hear that God is present is a very threatening thing indeed!

What Jesus drives home here is this.  When the world looks scary, it is time to raise your head and look for Jesus!

Look to God!

God is about to do something, and it will not be found in the power or “eye catching” events, but rather the Word and action that arises out of it or in the face of the scary.

The warning given is not to avoid the scary stuff, but rather to not be weighed down so much that you miss God coming in the midst of these things happening, the little signs of hope and power in the midst of big distractions.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, Jesus says.

That’s the trap, letting your heart be so weighed down or trying to cope with the scary stuff in life with the things of this world will sucks the joy out of your life and cause you to miss the signs of God’s Kingdom coming in your midst.

Letting your heart get weighed down by the cares for this world causes you to lose sight of the God who created this world with all its wonders.

Look up!

Dissipation is a distraction deeper into the cares of this world.  Getting lost in a life of material goods at first promises shiny toys and temporary joys, but it clouds your judgment and blinds you to the God who provides all good gifts and whose intention is for all to enjoy the goodness of creation.

Lift your head up out of the fog of materialism, of running after the things of this world, of being consumed with consuming or bedazzled with celebrity!

Drunkenness lets you escape the cares of this world for a brief time, but there is a price to pay for your temporary relief, and it numbs you to what God may be up to in your very midst.

Be alert!

It is the Word of God that lasts forever, not the ups and downs of daily life here on this world.

Advent focuses our attention on the coming of Jesus, and we sometimes let that “coming” be reduced to preparation for Christmas, but really Advent is about looking for the signs of Jesus’ return, and do you know where you find those?

You find those in the little things, in the words and action that are Jesus-like that seep in around all the noise and bluster of big signs and scary events.

You won’t find God in the roaring blaze that destroys, but you will find Jesus at work in the firefighters who look up and assess and work diligently to contain and to make a stand against the overwhelming.

You won’t find God in the devastation, but you’ll see the hands and feet of Jesus sifting through the rubble and offering aid, comfort and recovery to those devastated.

You won’t find God in the earthquake or the flood, but you will see Jesus in the picking up of the pieces and the rebuilding of lives in their wake.

You won’t find God in the fainting and the foreboding, but you will see Jesus at work in the care and redemption of bringing hope to the hopeless.

You’ll find it hard to see God at work in the sending of troops to protect a border, but you’ll see the actions of Jesus in those who work to reunite families separated, and to bring refuge and shelter to those who wander.

So look up, get your head out of the scary stuff and remember how it is that God comes.

Not in power and might and with fanfare, but as one who is vulnerable, a babe in a manger who is bent on getting our minds off all that wearies and scares us.

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To Where are you pointing?” John 18:33-38

This is Christ the King Sunday, a festival that is a little quirky to say the least.

It is sometimes hailed as kind of a collapsing down of the whole church year into a single day, a time to look at where we are pointing as people of faith.

Do we point to the world, or to faith?

Who rules us really, our own desires and passions, or God and the Kingdom?

The focus for this day is alternately a consideration of the last Judgement in Matthew, that whole Sheep and Goats episode.

Or in the year of Luke we get Jesus and thieves on the Cross, one who calls in derision and one who calls for mercy.

And in the year of Mark’s Gospel we get this story from the Gospel of John, of Pilate questioning Jesus.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”  he asks.

Pilate is very much like you and me in many ways, although you may not have thought of that before.

He is a Gentile, an outsider to the Jewish faith and all this talk about Messiahs and kings and prophecies holds little interest for him.

He is in a position of authority and power, and that’s where most of us find ourselves in this society, whether we recognize it or not.  You may not feel particularly powerful, but you make your own decisions most of the time, and most of us enjoy the privilege that comes from citizenship in the United States, and from our position in society.

More often than not, (like Pilate) we are also just a little skeptical about Jesus power and his presence in the world.  We question God from time to time, wondering how Jesus fits in to our lives, and the assumption that we (like Pilate) make is that it was for this world that Jesus came, to fix what is wrong with it.

In the film, “Jesus of Nazareth”, when Pilate asks this question of Jesus, he points behind him into the Praetorium.  There in that splendid architecture stand the statues of the Roman Gods and of Caesar, all of which are the mark of Pilate’s own position of power and authority as Governor.

Those are the gods that back him up, and they look a whole lot more powerful than the Jesus who stands before him.

The gods behind Pilate control most of the known world.  They back the political power that has its thumb on Jesus’ neck!

“You say you are the Son of God, Jesus?  Which God?”

There are so many gods to choose from – then and now — and most of them look a lot more powerful than this One God you claim to represent with your penchant for the poor and the outcast.

Here’s a quick exercise I may have had you do before.  Look through your wallet and sift through all the things that you carry close to you, the things that you can’t go through a day without.

What do you find there?

I have Credit cards and cash, discount cards and government I.D.  I trust in the Bank of the West, Visa and Mastercard.  I am a resident of Missouri and authorized to drive on its highways, and if I have an accident Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota will see to my health care, Delta Dental will replacing my teeth, and if I’m emotionally wounded by the experience, Cigna Behavioral Health will provide me with mental health care.

If my injuries are fatal, American Family and Thrivent will see to caring for my survivors.

I can get discounts at Office Max, bonuses at Price Chopper, Panera, and Hy-Vee, discounts because of my age and AARP, and Guest privileges at Comfort Inn.

When I empty out my pockets, I find all kinds of things that (in other words) talk about the Kingdom of this world to which I belong.

I am very much like Pilate, pointing to the things that back him up and asking where Jesus “fits” in to these.

Is there anything in here that bears witness to Jesus being my King?  Anything that I carry day in and day out, that I cannot get by without, that witnesses to my allegiance to Jesus?

You might think that you could point to the ‘In God We Trust’ found on our currency as a sign of trust in God, but then you have to remember that the value of that note is not guaranteed by God, but rather by “the Federal Reserve of the United States of America.”

This statement on the bill does not bear witness to faith in any God, but rather to faith in the government that backs the piece of paper.

Again, it’s not unlike Pilate pointing to the statues that are the sign of the Roman government behind him.

Pilate points to the things that surround him, and says, “Where do you fit into these?”  These are the things in which Pilate puts his trust, the signs and symbols of how the world works in his day and age.

I could point to my wallet ask Jesus the same question.  Jesus, where do you fit in to all of these gods to which I give allegiance?

That is the Pilate in us speaking, and we are sometimes just as uncomfortable with the question.

It may be that we are uncomfortable with a representative of the Living God standing before us.  Really afraid that if we were to say to Jesus, “why haven’t I heard of, experienced your Kingdom in my life?”  He might just respond to us by saying, “My Kingdom is not of this world…,

We are, you know, so preoccupied with the things of this world!

Today Jesus stands before us all, and takes our questions as he did Pilate’s, and all of our accusations, and all of our indifference toward God and this world.

They are to him, I suppose, still like hammer blows on nails, like thorns pressed down into flesh.

Our questions of “where do you fit in, Jesus?” makes him to suffer, because it betrays our fundamental misunderstanding of God’s Kingdom.

We assume that what God sent Jesus to do was to tinker and to make this world a little better.

But Jesus knows that what he’s really here to do is something quite different.

He’s here to call the whole human endeavor that we put into place into question, because the Kingdom that Jesus comes to proclaim is one ruled by relationship, and not by things.

That’s our fundamental misunderstanding.

We keep wondering where Jesus fits into all the “things.”

The “things” we have meticulously built, our ideologies, philosophies, beliefs and systems.

The “things” that happen, tragic and senseless.

The “things” that we call important.

The “things” that make up our government, our commerce, our security and sense of worth.

All these “things” that we point to as being of most importance to us.

Jesus takes our “Pilate-like” questions about God and where God is and what God is doing in this world.

He takes our questions born of our arrogance and our own self-centeredness.

He came and endured it all, so that he could remind us that what he does is what God always does.

God always stands before us, looking at us in love — offering us another way, and it is not a way of this world.

Where is your Kingdom, Jesus?

Well, it’s not of this world, but it’s about truth, and the truth is, God loves you, even when you are acting like Pilate, pointing to the “things” instead of paying attention to the relationships.

This is the Kingdom Jesus comes to bring, one that is less centered on “things” and more upon relationships.

When “things” happen that are tragic and senseless, Jesus does not come to change the “things”, he comes to console those affected by those “things.”

When we call “things” important, Jesus points us instead to the relationships.

“And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks.   Jesus redirects the conversation from things to people, and to relationships, and to actions taken to care, to comfort, to heal.

“What you have done for the least of these my brothers and sisters..”  Jesus says, changing the conversation from worry about judgment to a matter of relationship.

“Is there no one left to condemn you?  Then neither do I.”   Jesus changes the conversation from what “thing” should be done to this woman caught in adultery to a matter of relationship shared by all.

This is the Kingdom where Jesus reigns.  It is not made up of things, but of people, real people with real names and real concerns.

They are not “things.”

They are not migrants, or immigrants, or “those kind” of people.

They are children, and fathers and mothers and husbands and wives seeking compassion, asylum, freedom from the violence and oppression of their land, much of which is often our doing by meddling in the political structures or imposing beliefs, systems and ideologies.

The Kingdom of God is not made up of titles and factions, it is not comprised of Pharisees and Sadducees or Publicans, nor Americans, Republicans, Democrats or Libertarians.

The Kingdom of God, (the one Jesus reigns over as King) is made up of people who have names, and some who are sometimes nameless to us but never faceless and never unknown to Jesus.

It is made up of the woman at the well, (who is not a thing, or thing that she has done,) but rather is someone in relationship with Jesus because they share a common conversation and need.. water.

She is not a thing. Not a Samaritan.  Not divorced.  Not having five husbands and living with a man who is not her husband.   She is someone.  She is in conversation with Jesus and learning of the Kingdom where you never thirst.

The Kingdom of God is made up of the older brother, and the younger son, and the character who own the pigs, and the Father who welcomes and loves and who insists on treating his sons on the basis of his relationship with them, not on the things they do or the decisions they make.

I name you all as Pilates this day, as I rightly name myself.

We all spend far too much time trying to decide what to do with all these “things” as they present themselves to us.

But maybe, just maybe the way to glimpse the Kingdom that Jesus promises is to be less in concerned or upset about things, and to pay more attention to the people.

It is in the hearts of people that Jesus rules, and when Jesus rules in the human heart, then the “things” that we are usually so preoccupied with don’t seem to matter as much.

Things like borders and walls.

Things like papers and status.

Things like security and comfort.

Things like skin color and ethnic ties.

None of those “things” to which Pilate, or we would point seem to matter much in the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom Jesus comes to proclaim.

Maybe on Christ the King Sunday, it’s not a bad thing to ask where we are pointing, and what is Jesus reminding us about.

“My Kingdom is not of this world…”

“As You Have Been Blessed.” Isaiah 25:6-9

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”

Isaiah with a few strokes of his pen evokes in us a flood of emotion, of yearning, and all the power of memory with the senses fully engaged.

“A feast of rich food…”  he says.

The phrase itself evokes all the senses, does it not?

It brings to mind all those places and times when the aroma of food triggers in us delight, anticipation and memory.  All the gatherings where we may have experienced such blessing.

“Rich food filled with marrow…” brings to mind the smell of barbecue over the American Royal, or while tailgating before a Chief’s game.

Or, perhaps it is the scent of ham in the oven, or roasting pork, or prime rib of beef, or the turkey with all the trimmings, or the goose with its fat dripping, ready to be made into gravy of the favorite family holiday gathering.

“A feast of rich food…”  The scent of bread baking, or rolls in the oven the tantalizing aroma of fresh baked cookies, or mom’s apple pie, or the cake before the birthday.

“Well aged wines strained clear.”   Not just any dinner, any meal, but an event!  Isaiah’s words describe a gathering where the host has chosen the vintage, paired the tastings, planned the appertif, the main course accompaniment, and all the way through to that final wonderful glass of the port at the end.

A feast, Isaiah says, on this mountain.

He evokes the gathering.  The coming together before or because of the event, seeing those whom we have not seen for a long time, and then pushing it beyond just this event to include even more as he describes death itself swallowed up, a promise that Christians will see as foreshadowing Jesus’ promise of resurrection and the opening of the graves.

A feast for all peoples…he says.  This is not exclusive to invitation, but rather the invitation is going out and YOU are included because you are in the hearing of it!

You are invited into the imagining of it.

With a few strokes of his pen Isaiah invites his own people to step out of their measured, difficult existence that they are living under exile to imagine what God is going to do, what God does, and what God promises to do.  It is a promise that is lavish, one befitting a gracious God!

We hear it, and we are invited to do the same, to step out of our own measured existence, whatever that might be, and to imagine what God’s intention is for us.

A feast…

Abundance…

Rich blessings…

All done as an exercise in creative imagination and prophetic promise.  This is what God intends to do, and this is how it will unfold, so now, Isaiah says begin to imagine it, and be ready to live into it!

In the same way John’s Gospel gives us the story of Lazarus, and the lament of Mary, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died….”

It is an exceedingly sad story, rife with detail about the difficult, measured existence under which Mary and Martha are now living, along with their community since Lazarus has died.  The story gives us an abundance of detail about regret, death, hopelessness, mourning and grief.  A measured existence of just getting through the next day.

Right up until the point at which Jesus says, “Take away the stone.”

We hear it, and Jesus’ words first evoke a panic of what could be with his command, the waft of stench, of rotting flesh, the grief interrupted of mourners and relatives.  We, along with those gathered in John’s Gospel at first resist with every impulse we have, not wanting to dare go there,  But Jesus’ words of command are quickly followed by words of God’s intention and promise.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  Jesus says.

What follows is every bit as much of a stretch to the creative imagination as a feast of rich things to a people who are living in exile.

Lazarus coming forth from the tomb, alive, walking, and eventually bound for a feast!

Abundance of joy!

Rich blessings of being reunited and sharing once again.

All this done as an exercise of creative imagination and prophetic promise.   This is what God intends to do, to swallow up death, to unbind those wrapped in the dressings of grief and decay.

“Lazarus, come out!”   Jesus says.

“Unbind him and let him go!”  Jesus says.

With those spartan words Jesus invites Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and all of us really to step out of our own measured existence, focused on mourning, death, decay and decline to imagine what God is going to do, what God does, and what God promises to do.

It is a promise that is lavish, wiping away every tear, one befitting a gracious God!

So, on this All Saints Sunday we are invited by both of these scripture passages into our own creative imagination and prophetic promise work.

How shall we experience this gracious and audacious God, who dares to promise feasts to those in exile, and life to those stricken by grief?

We light candles.

We make our way up to the table, up to the feast that we say is a foretaste of that feast to come, and we light a candle of remembrance.

We dare to say in this flame that that one who appears to be with us no longer is with us still.

They join us in the Communion of Saints, the gathering at Jesus table where everlasting life and the forgiveness of sins is promised.

We light a candle against the darkness of our own measured existence, and we imagine the day when we will feast together again.

It seems such a small thing at first, until we remember that it is the lighting of a candle that marks the beginning of our journey to this table.

The candle lit at the font where God takes hold of us in Baptism and commands, (with audacious hope and power, befitting a Gracious God) “Let YOUR light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In the lighting of that candle over the gurgling, spitting, fussing lump of baby flesh the creative imagination is being stirred, and the prophetic promises of God are being called forth.

This is what God intends to do, to be with this child, to pour God’s Holy Spirit into the child, to empower this child for good works, and for life, and for a future with promise.

It’s just a helpless lump of flesh when the water is splashed, but in the lighting of the candle and the words of promise spoken the creative imagination is sparked.

We can begin to see great things, expect great things befitting a gracious God who led people throughout history, and who now promises to lead this little one as well.

It is a promise that is lavish, “Child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ …. Forever!”

It is a promise befitting a gracious God who has always been called steadfast, abounding in love, and who promises to be with us all to the close of the age.

On All Saints Sunday we are called to invoke the creative imagination of our God and to reflect upon the blessings of God, and how abundant they are.

But more than that.

We are this day called upon to live into them, and that gets us to this little experiential packet you received when you walked in today.

It’s annual Stewardship time, but this year I’m challenging you to make this experiential.  Not something you throw on the table and think about in 3 weeks time when we ask for your pledge card.

No, this year I’m encouraging you to engage the creative imagination and prophetic promise of our gracious God in your daily life.

card frontI am challenging you to live into God’s graciousness, by being gracious and generous, and it has to do today with these little cards.

“As you have been blessed…”

In this coming week, I want you to get rid of these in as creative and imaginative a way as you can find.

Be a blessing to someone.

Dare to say, “at this restaurant God prepares a feast of rich food…and pay for a random stranger’s lunch, or coffee for the person behind you at the coffee shop and give them this card telling them they have received a random blessing from God, and ask them to pass it forward however they choose, to be a blessing to someone else this day.

Or maybe you’ll double the normal tip you would leave to your server, and pass on this card with an explanation that your crazy pastor is asking you to be a blessing to someone this week, but not only that, to pass the blessing forward.  Take the card and use it to bless someone else in a random way, let blessings multiply.

Engage your creative imagination.

It doesn’t have to involve money, how could I be a blessing to someone this day?  How could I show them that God is real, and is here, and has lit a light in me that is mean to shine out to others.

Could I give up a coveted parking place in a crowded lot, let someone else have it, and hand them the card?

Could I spend some time volunteering and hand a person the card?

If you each get rid of your cards, that will be 500 blessings that will flow from this place into the lives of people, hopefully mostly strangers, who will look at you dumbfounded, and then look at the card, and will have to make a choice.

If they take that blessing and call to heart, and decide to pass it forward, that would be a thousand blessings flowing from St. James into the community, most of which we will never see or know of, but that is after all befitting a gracious God who sets a feast for all people, and whose intention is to swallow up death and wipe away tears.

Who knows how far the blessings could reach, how many different hands the cards could pass to, how many lives might be given glimpses of rich feasts and unbounded joy?

It might even be said by someone, (somewhere down the line of all these blessing who has been hoping to see some sign of God,) “This is our God, we have waited for him.”

“(This is a sign from) the Lord for whom we have waited, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

As you have been blessed…. Go forth and spread God’s blessings and experience the creative imagination and prophetic promise of God.

“Truth Takes a Beating” John 8:31-36

The truth has been taking quite a beating lately, or at least that’s the way it feels.

Maybe it’s just the political season and the incessant negative advertising.

Claims and counter-claims are made.

Half-truths are disguised as facts.

Cleverly edited video and audio clips are quoted which seem to imply one thing when another was meant altogether in the longer argument.

Claims are made that cannot be substantiated, but that become manipulation points to drive agendas.

Stories change as facts become unavoidable, or as details are revealed that are indisputable.

It feels like the truth is taking a beating.

I’m captivated this Reformation Sunday by Jesus’ words here.  “you will know the truth, and truth will make you free.”

Oh, to know the truth at last!

I think that’s what we tell ourselves in the midst of confusing and mixed messages.  There is a “truth” to be found, and it can be distilled down to a single one, and once we have that answer the ambiguity and the anxiety we feel will melt away.

That’s how we pursue questions for understanding, is it not?

The Bomb packages show up on doorsteps and we backtrack trying to find out the single “truth” behind them.

Who is the perpetrator?

What are his motives?

We want a neat answer, perhaps a straight line that can be drawn from words spoken to actions taken, and once we discover the “truth” about the cause, specific actions can be taken.

The mass shooting takes place in a house of worship… again.

We want to know the truth about it.

Who is this perpetrator?

What were his motivations?

What thoughts, beliefs, ideologies may have contributed to his action?

Truth is reduced to a set of cause and effects that were set in motion.  If we could get to the central “truth” about what motivated these people, perhaps we could address it, stop it in its tracks, make sure it never happens again.

But like all searches for the truth, the attempt to distill, discover, isolate and finally point to ONE truth is often frustrated, largely because the looking into the “one” thing simply promulgates more complexity.

You discover more and more things that could be contributing factors, and often every succeeding complexity brings with it a potential for greater distraction from the central point.

Searching for one truth pretty much derails or sidelines the very truth for which the search began in the first place.

Searching for a single “truth” raises the specter of competing truth claims, which often simply raises the heat of the argumentation all the more.

Even in this Gospel, the claim to truth is met with an insistence in what we might well call the very first “alternative fact” comment.

“We are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!”

It’s curious that Jesus does not meet that statement with a fact check.

He does not remind his fellow Jews about Pharaoh and Egypt, or about Assyria and the fall of the Northern Kingdom, or about Babylon and the captivity for 70 years, or about the conquest of Alexander the Great and the Ptolomy and Selucid dynasty occupations that followed.   He does not even speak about Rome who occupies the land at the time of Jesus’ speaking.

Fact checking will not, (in the end,) convince anyone of the truth, and Jesus knows that well, better than we do it seems.

No, “truth” as Jesus offers it resides much deeper.

It resides in the area of relationship, and more specifically in the area of discipleship, following Jesus in word and action, and that ends up being about how we treat one another.

This is what will set you free.  Love one another.

Following Jesus, becoming his disciple takes you out of the area of opinions held, or competing interests to be defended, or politically charged debates to be won or lost and places you instead squarely into the matter of doing for the sake of the other.

To be a disciple is to engage in the actions and philosophies of your teacher.

This is what makes us most uncomfortable, because it means we cannot engage in something that we have not seen modeled or spoken of by Jesus.

“If you continue in my word,” Jesus says, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

That drives us back to looking at what Jesus’ word has been, and the actions connected to that Word.

And when you are driven back to following the words and actions of Jesus, you find that you have very little room for argumentation, or for exclusion, or for judgmentalism, or for rejecting others… anyone really.

When you are driven back to the word of Jesus and following as his disciple you will find encouragement after encouragement to feed the hungry, to cloth the naked, to care for the widow and the orphan, to welcome the stranger, to engage with those whom you might disagree, not to make points or to “win them over” but to bring and find understanding and reconciliation with them.

You will find very little in the way of protecting your own interests, but much in the way of giving your life away for the sake of the other.

“For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world, and to lose his soul?”

I defy you to find a teaching or action of Jesus that says, “defend yourself and look out for your own interests first.”   That is a pathway to complexity, because suddenly we’re all pitted against each other for our competing interests.

But “love one another and pray for your persecutors.”   Now that’s a simplifier.   Who do I pray for?   Anyone who rubs up against me wrong.

Who do I love?  Whoever I happen to run into today, whoever is in front of me, whoever is there.

Simple.

Jesus almost never talked about others, outsiders, “those people.”  Instead, even here, as he confronts his own people there is an overwhelming impulse not to divide, but to include, and to find ways to speak that draw people in instead of naming outsiders as threats to be avoided, excluded, or “dealt with.”

It is Jesus who gives us the words of the beatitudes, which remind us that “blessed are the poor,” “blessed are those who mourn,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and even paradoxically, “blessed are you when others persecute you, and revile you, and utter all manner of evil against you falsely….”

Blessed because you are doing the work of the Kingdom.  It is work which the kingdom of this world does not understand or appreciate, because it upsets the scarcity thinking that currently makes the world go round.

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

The truth is we are all children of Abraham, and we have all sinned, and we are all slaves to the passions that threaten to divide and to drive us to find simple answers to complex questions.

We are all slaves to the predominant thinking of this world, and of its rulers, that there is not enough, and that for some to have, others must be denied.

“They are coming to take away…” is the rallying cry of this world.  It sets in motion the need to build walls, and to raise defenses, and to hoard, and to prep for the zombie apocalypse, the ultimate in labeling “the other” as something that can be killed or disposed of without regard for their worth.

But when you follow Jesus, the first point of order is seeing the worth and the value of the other.

When you follow Jesus, you discover the truth.  There is no distinction between us, and there are no simple answers to the complex questions in life.

There are only those who are loved, and those whom love has not yet found, and as disciples we are now to be the agents of that love.

As disciples, we dwell in the word that Jesus came to give, the living word which says that everyone is worth dying for.

“If you are truly my disciples, you will continue in my word, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

The truth it seems, does takes a beating, and it does so willingly because the truth is, insisting on one’s own way and following the passions of this world and its rulers will always brings in its wake suffering of one kind or another.

Truth takes a beating, because that is what the Master models in both word and deed.

The way of the cross is the way of love that this world does not understand.

It is ultimately being willing to suffer for the sake of the other that wins the other over.  Walls can never protect.  Those who have must share with those who do not, and there is plenty to go around, because God provides and you can’t out-give God.

This is the truth, and this is what the world hungers to hear and to experience.

This is the ongoing Reformation to which we are called, a reformation of the heart brought by trusting in God’s word revealed in Jesus.  The call to learn how to trust in a gracious God and to continue to live into following the living word that God has sent

Is this Probable? Possible? Mark 10:17-31

“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

           It’s just so hard to visualize, this metaphor of a camel going through the eye of a needle.   While it’s easily the most memorable of Jesus’ illustrations, it’s also one that we shy away from because, well, we’re not sure what to do with it.

Scholars have at various times tried to reign it in a bit, commenting the translation of “Camel” as being similar to the word for “rope,” or searching for metaphors of city gates with names like “eye of needle” or other literary references to make sense of this odd pairing.

None of those are credible.

No, it is in fact the absurdity of the image that is compelling, and the impossibility and improbability of it that is its very the point.

But then, there are more improbabilities in this story than the one with the camel and the needle.

How about we start with the first improbability, that a rich man would come to Jesus and kneel?

Even Jesus seems to note there is something amiss here, “Why do you call me good?”

There is something about the very beginning of this story that doesn’t quite pass the “smell test” — unless you see it from the point of view of “further acquisition.”

“As he (Jesus) was setting out on a journey, a rich man ran up to him and asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”

There is the request.

How do I get my hands on that?   It’s a “drive by request” to begin with, while Jesus is passing by, heading out on a journey somewhere else, the rich man makes a quick stop.  It’s also a request that is made from a privileged position, — he speaks of it as a “right”, an “inheritance.”   It is as if the rich man is saying “surely I’ve got enough frequent flyer miles and a high enough credit score to put me in the position to get this perk before you move along?”

Jesus is not having any of that.

“Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.” – Which is a sneaky way of asking the rich man if he believes that Jesus is indeed God, and if he truly believes that he kneels before God, why would he ask such a question?   If you knew you were in the presence of God, would you not rather ask that entrance to the Kingdom be granted to you, rather than how you might “get it?”

Is it probable that this rich man is looking at Jesus as God, or is it more probable that he’s looking at Jesus as a conduit to get what he wants?

The second improbability shows up next, which is revealed in the answer the rich man gives to Jesus’ question, “You know the commandments….”

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth…”  Just how probable is that?   Possible even?

While the Pharisees emphasized adherence to the 617 laws that helped you keep the commandments, even they would be reticent to say that they had “kept them all since their youth.”

Who can imagine (for instance) any teenager not breathing a curse under his breath from time to time about their parents and what they would or would not let them do?

Great wealth is almost always acquired at someone else’s expense. So then, are we to believe that this rich man never engaged in any cut-throat business tactics?   That he never took advantage of competitor’s weaknesses, or leveraged information to gain the upper hand in a business deal?

Can we imagine that he never spoke ill of any others in authority, never exerted his own will to grasp and get hold of someone else’s goods?

That he never stretched the truth in turning a business deal, always used fair weights and scales, never took advantage of others.   And yet, amassed great wealth??

How probable is that?

Yes, we all know that the ranks of robber barons, business venture capitalists, and real estate moguls are just packed with good, hard working, honest folks who have always kept all of the commandments, even from their youth.

Or at least, always kept them to their own advantage.

You catch my drift here.

See, I think one of the difficulties in understanding this story is that we are all too ready to give this rich young man a break and feel sorry for him, because in so many ways we identify with him.

We see him come to Jesus with his question, and our hearts sort of melt.  “Isn’t he noble for coming to the good teacher…”    We can imagine ourselves doing the same.

We listen to his pious words and think, “my what a good person this is, really.  Always kept the commandments, earnest in his desires for eternal life.”

We even think maybe Jesus is just a little too hard on him with that sharp tone of voice, “Why do you call me good?”

C’mon Jesus, give the poor guy a break, he’s trying here…as are we all… trying to live up to the call, and to figure out how best to follow.

And it really breaks apart when he gets his answer, and that “look of love” from Jesus, who then tells the rich man straight up what this is going to take.

We all want that “look of love” from Jesus, that acknowledgement that we’re close, just on the cusp of figuring it out, getting our hearts desire from God.

“You lack one thing….”   Jesus says.

Let me pause here, and do a little speculation with you.  I wonder how that response must have struck the ears of the rich man in that moment?

Was it as a relief?   “What, I only have to get one more thing?”   One more thing after a

life of speculating and grasping and fretting and accumulating?

Did it strike him as another worthy challenge?  “What do I have to do to get my hands on that one, last perfect piece?”

Was it perhaps an insult?  “What, there’s something I don’t already have?”

How did the rich man hear just that part of Jesus’ response, before he went on, I wonder?

How do you hear it?

We will never know of course, because Jesus was quick to lay out the final

requirement.

“Sell all your possessions, give alms to the poor, and come follow me.”

We know how that comment hits our ears.  It hits them the same way it apparently hit his.  We squirm and chafe at it and try to find ways around it.

It’s like … well the whole “Camel through the eye of a needle” thing… Jesus can’t be serious, can he?

“Surely Jesus didn’t really mean all.

Maybe he’s just talking about “metaphorically” giving up everything, a spiritualizing of it.   Like Peter says later, “Lord, we’ve given up everything…”

Maybe Jesus had in mind just recent possessions, or excess possessions, or re-evaluating personal wealth and riches, with never an expectation to really sell.. or give.

And so, we go off on our own little expedition to find a way around the clear command of Jesus.  We are off looking for gates called “eye of the needle” or different translations of “camel” to make the call of Jesus seem more plausible, more probable.

“Oh, that must be what he meant…”

But see, here’s the thing.  Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God again, and the Kingdom of God always works differently from the way our earthly minds work.   It’s values are different, what it calls important is different.  It is always something that stands in stark contrast to the kingdom of this world that we strive to set up and live in.

In the Kingdom of God the meek are blessed and the rich are sent away empty.

In the Kingdom of God those who mourn find joy, and the comfortable are afflicted.

In the Kingdom of God the Lazarus’s found on our doorstep receive comfort in the bosom and Abraham, and the rich man who walked over them him daily, ignoring their suffering, end up in the fires of eternal torment.

This is the moment when we no longer want to identify with the rich man, and it is always at the “too late” moment that we come to the realization, or come to our senses.

It’s hard, because we sincerely cannot visualize that the Kingdom of God could be in our midst, as a free gift and not a future inheritance, if we would but do what Jesus commands.

There is more than enough for all, but for all to have enough, I must relinquish my excess.

We have 12 years to address global climate change, but to do so we would have to relinquish our dependence on fossil fuels, and our lifestyles, and our investments… and to do so would be unimaginable, improbable beyond belief.   Like putting a camel through the eye of a needle.

Surely there must be another way….

There is a way to address health care for all, but to do so would require dismantling the current for-profit system of health care, and all of the layers of profit and delivery, and yes, it would be “socialized” and those who can walk in and receive care any time now at their leisure would have to join a que and wait their turn, and it would be expensive to the nation.  We look at that and it appears to us as likely as a camel going through the eye of a needle.

“Impossible!”  We scream.

And then the caveat comes.

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

But that of course, means relinquishing what we have built for ourselves, and faced with that, we are once again right there with the rich man.  Shocked, grieving, and all to ready to walk away because what we have in our hands, is really great.

How hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God!   Jesus is right in his saying here, because entering God’s kingdom always entails the dismantling of our own little empires.

That is hard for us to do.

That is unimaginable.   Camel through the eye of a needle kind of stuff.

So, thanks be to God, who looks at us in love and is not content with us just walking away.

Thanks be to God who in Jesus comes to walk with us.  He walks with us as we are grieving and shocked at his command, looking at us in love.

Jesus leads us both to the way of a cross, (where we do eventually learn to let go of our many things, maybe everything) and in the way of the servant, where it is that we glimpse at last the promised Kingdom of God.

Is this possible, that Jesus would be willing to walk with us, work with us both when we so deeply disappoint and also as we have occasionally have little sparks of obedience and trust?

Well with God, all things are possible.   Even the impossible stuff, like being loved as we are.

“The Child Is Still There” Mark 9:38-50

Jesus is still holding that child.

You have to see that, understand that’s where we are when we start this lesson today to make sense of the kind of hyperbole and “racheting up” of illustrations that Jesus does.

Jesus sounds a little bit angry here, heaping one illustration on top of another, and rather violent ones, millstones around people’s necks, chopping off hands, feet, plucking out eyes.  Salted with fire and condemnation.

What makes Jesus go off like this into a series of exaggerated statements?

Well it helps to see that he’s still holding the child when John comes up and brings up this concern he has about someone they saw casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but not being “one of us” and so we told him to “knock it off.”

That child, which was the focal point of the illustration Jesus just got done using, about how whoever welcomes one such little one as this, welcomes not only Jesus, but also the Father.

Jesus has just made an important point about welcome and inclusion and about not seeking to the be greatest.  He’s just put forth an illustration about being trusting and child-like in one’s faith, open to wonder as only a child can be.

Jesus is still holding the visual aid that was supposed to make clear the teaching… and now John comes in and we are right back off topic again worrying about the credentials for demon casters, and who is in and who is out.

This is what makes Jesus go off on this tumble of hyperbolic illustrations.

If you’ve ever tried to teach children, you can appreciate this.

The lesson plans are in place, the illustration is solid, there should be no question about what the students are supposed to learn and retain, it’s all perfectly clear.

Except it doesn’t come off as planned.

Someone hiccups in the back of the room, or another bodily function happens, and what was a perfectly planned and executed illustration to drive home the main point becomes a muddled message.

If you’ve watched me do a children’s sermon, you get this.

I ask the question.

I show the prop.

I have in my mind exactly what point I want to make, how this will all be crystal clear to them, but as Art Linkletter used to say, “Kids say the darnedest things!”

Suddenly what I thought my words or prop would prompt in their inquisitive little minds is miles away from where I had planned this would go, and I’m off to the races!

I’m trying to make comments that I hope will eventually bring this conversation back around to where I thought it would go, and sometimes the lesson you want to drive home is not the one they take away from it all.

That’s Jesus here, with the child still in his hands that was meant to drive home welcome, inclusivity, child-like trust and faith.  He has not connected with John at all.

And so, Jesus is off to the races, heaping up one illustration after another trying to get his disciples to finally see what he’s been talking about all along.   How this discipleship thing is not about holding on to power but rather bringing in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ own ministry has been questioned to death by those in authority and in power, reacting against a God who Jesus makes out to be far too gracious and inclusive.

The Pharisees could not quite believe that Jesus was “from God” because what he does is so far out of the norm of the expected practice, of the recognized lines of authority.

“Who can forgive sins but God?”  They ask.

“It must be by Beezebal that he casts out demons.”  They reason.

“Why do your disciples not wash their hands and observe the traditions of the elders?”  They inquire.

“Why do you heal on the Sabbath?”  They inquisit.

Much of Jesus’ ministry has been marked by God coloring outside the lines.

The healing of the Gerasene demoniac, in Gentile territory.

The healing of the Syro-Phonecian woman’s daughter, again outside the boundaries of Judea.

The healing of the blind man in the Decapolis.

God as been at work in a lot of places that were unexpected, and out of the norm, and Jesus continues to talk about the Kingdom of God is breaking in… and how those who are not against us are for us.

“No one who does a deed of power in my name will soon be able to speak against me.”  Jesus tells them.

But here, even those who follow him closely, his own disciples seem to have a hard time getting the central point.

All bets are off now that God is loose in the world, and Jesus seems to be just fine with that by the way, which is just as galling to us perhaps as it was to John and the other disciples.

We’d like a little more orderliness, as well please.

We’d like to hold on to a few distinctions, and few cherished ways of doing things, or we’d like to think that we have more direct access to Jesus and therefore know better how and what to do than outsiders would.

We’re all for God being at work in the world, but we’d like that work to take place through us, and through our institutions, and through our time honored and cherished ways of doing things, and with our approval.

We can, in fact, get so consumed with doing things the right way that we miss what God may be up to in our very midst.

There he stands with the child in his hands, trying to show us something and we are distracted by other things happening around us.

We can also get so worked up about those other things that ultimately do not matter, that we miss the teaching of Jesus, the center of his concern, the child in his hands.

“Everyone will be salted with fire….”   Jesus says here.  Passions will be stirred, and that’s a good thing!

Salt is good!

Passion is good!

“But,” Jesus goes on to say, “If salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”

I’ve quizzed over that little teaching.  Salt is an element, it can’t “lose” its essential nature.  It can’t get “unsalty.”

I’ve heard various explanations about what Jesus might be referring to here, about the purity of a salt mixture, or what it’s good for, or the various ways salt might have been used in ancient times.

None of those arguments really are helpful in the end.

I think what Jesus is talking about more than salt, is passion.  Passion that is mis-placed or mis-directed.

“Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”   He concludes.

Have passion about things, but have passion about the right things, and get along!

John is clearly passionate about who should be casting out demons.  So much so that he’s lost sight of the fact that demons are being cast out!  He’s more concerned about in who ought to be authorized to do that than to see it’s happening!

The Disciples were clearly passionate about who should be in positions of authority in their midst, so much so that they were arguing amongst themselves instead of listening to Jesus!

The Pharisees were passionate about the Law, and about keeping things in good running order in the community and the Synagogue, so much so that they confronted Jesus at every turn and dismissed the signs of the Kingdom coming in their midst, the lame walking, the blind seeing, and the hungry being fed.

The Sadducees were passionate about the operation of the Temple, so much so that they conspired to have Jesus crucified rather than let him upset the rhythm of Temple life and the delicate balance of power with Empire with his announced Kingdom.

Pilate is passionate about keeping the peace in Jerusalem and Judea, so much so that he’s willing to wash justice from his hands and to let mob violence have its way.

Herod is passionate about holding on to the vestige of the identity of Judah as a nation, so much so that he kills the prophets John and dismisses Jesus.

There is passion all over in this story, but the passions are pitted against one another.   No one is at peace with one another, or even attempting to be.

Jesus acknowledges that you will be passionate, “salted with fire”, but that passion is to be tempered by compassion, and put in the service of loving and caring and being about the work of the Kingdom, and not hindering it.

Whatever gets in the way of such compassion is to be cut off.

If your passion about something causes others to stumble, well better that you go down than that others be harmed.

Jesus is still standing there with this child in his arms today, reminding all of his disciples, (us included) where God’s heart and desire resides.

God’s heart is in caring for the little ones.

God’s heart is in having regard for the forgotten ones.

God’s heart is in the actions of cups of cold water given to the thirsty, and simple acts of kindness that lead to living in peace.

God’s heart is found in working for health, hope and healing amongst those who suffer.

God’s passion is with those who mourn, or who are vulnerable, or who cannot fend for themselves, like this child!

God’s heart is in the things that make for the Kingdom, and to enter the Kingdom, you must first become like one of these, like the child he holds in his arms, for the child he holds in his arms is really you.

“What We Are Afraid to Ask.” Mark 9:30-37

We are told as the Gospel lesson begins today, that Jesus is teaching his disciples.

He’s making his way along the dusty back roads of the Galilee.  He’s dodging crowds, so that he can instruct them.    He seems to be intent on having them fully understand what it is that he is all about, where it is that this journey of his ministry leads.

What it is that he is “all about,” is this matter of what will happen in Jerusalem, how he will be betrayed, killed, and after three days will rise again.

This is now the second of Jesus’ three so called “passion predictions” in Mark’s Gospel.   This is a very important point to be understood.   Mark wants to make sure from the very beginning that Jesus was very clear, or that he “spoke quite openly” about this matter of what awaited in Jerusalem.

But, it appears that classroom attention span in the first century, (even when engaged in active learning practices like movement,) is no better than it is in the 21st Century.

While Jesus teaches about his impending betrayal, death, and resurrection, the Disciples are engaged in a furious debate amongst themselves in hushed tones.  I imagine them to be like the teen-agers in the back of the classroom.  They engage in a conversation over which one of them is “the greatest.”

So it is, that just like in any classroom, when the teacher calls upon them, they are silent.

“They did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask.”  Mark tells us.

This could have been any classroom, anywhere.  The dynamics have not really changed in 2000 years.

So what are we to make of this Gospel lesson?    What does it have to say to us?

I’d like to suggest that one way we might discover that is to follow the question that is never asked.

What are they afraid to ask Jesus about?

There are several possibilities.

Maybe they were afraid to ask Jesus what he was talking about because they did not hear him clearly.  Maybe they were preoccupied with their own conversation, their own desire to figure out which was the greatest among them.

Maybe, (like me) they have a little hearing deficit, or one that involves “selective hearing.”   They simply did not hear his teaching, or could not hear it because of their own situation here, their thoughts distracted to what seemed like other, more pertinent and pressing matters than what the teacher had to say.

Is that what it means when it says, “they did not understand him?”   Was it garbled words?   Unclear context?   Maybe it is a bad case of ADHD, they just couldn’t concentrate well on what he was saying.

But none of that quite rings true.

This is the second time Jesus has talked about what will befall the “Son of Man.”   If it was simply a matter of not hearing correctly, or hearing only in part because of their distraction, they probably could have filled in the blanks at least well enough to form some kind of question for clarification or blurted out a half answer.

I don’t think this “being afraid to ask” is about not hearing clearly, or not being able to concentrate.

I think they are afraid to ask Jesus what he is talking about because they simply do not want to know what this really means.

This is the point at which the Gospel leaps across the centuries, for we tend to avoid the same question as well.

This is what we are afraid to ask of Jesus.  “What will your suffering, death and resurrection have to do with me?  What will following you mean for me?”

When you think about it, you know; we aren’t really that afraid to ask all kinds of questions of Jesus, or of God in general.

The gunfire erupts in that same general area of Kansas City, and another young person lies dead, and we ask, “Why doesn’t God do something about that?”

“Jesus, why don’t you do something about hunger?”  We ask as we see the starving waif on the nightly news.

“Jesus, why don’t you end all this violence and war?”  We intone as the latest reports come in from Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, or any number of other “hot spots” of unrest and struggle around the world.

“Jesus, why does my friend have to suffer like this?”   We find crossing our lips after we hang up the phone getting the latest news about their illness.

“Jesus, why don’t you heal my broken heart?”  The lonely man asks as he bites his lip and forces back the tears that he hopes no one else will see.

Oh, we have no lack of questions we’d like to throw Jesus’ way, once we get rolling.

“Jesus, why does justice seem so elusive?”

“Jesus, when are you going to do something about Cancer?”

It’s not that we don’t know how to ask questions, all of them good ones, all of them deserving of an answer in the cosmic sphere of this universe of troubles and tribulations.

But, these are all questions that demand something of that ruler of the universe.   They are all questions about God’s apparent inability or maybe unwillingness to intervene in this world.

These are all questions about why God seems unwilling to step in, to do something, to come near where and when God is so desperately needed.

And the grand irony here is that the one time that God did decisively step into this world, (in flesh and blood no less) to actually do something, we crucified him.

The one time God steps in, what God chooses to do rather than jumping in like a King like David, or like a General to rally the troops and go to war, or like Superman to fix everything with a snap of his fingers, what God chooses to do instead is to suffer betrayal, to die at the hands of the very humans that he came to save.

We don’t understand that…

And, deep down, we don’t really want to understand it!

We don’t want to understand it because we have a sneaking suspicion that if we DID understand it, what it would mean for us is that we would have to be willing to do what Jesus is willing to do!

We would have to lay down our lives for the sake of others, for things to change in this world.

We would have to suffer at the hands of others, rather than carving out for ourselves in positions of favor, or of power, or of authority, or being “the greatest.”

No, see, if I were going to lay a bet on why the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying to them, it would be because they were (in effect) holding their hands over their ears and going “La, La, La….”   I don’t want to hear any of this Jesus!

I don’t want to hear that in order to follow you, I will have to give up my own aspirations of greatness, having notoriety of some kind.

I don’t want to hear that the way you will take me is not the path of glory, of everything getting better every day in every way, but rather the path of the suffering servant, and the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

I don’t want to hear this Jesus, that you call those who follow you to give sacrificially, to live simply, and to love deeply the outcast and the ones of no apparent value or status in this world.

See, that’s what is happening when Jesus reaches out and takes that little child, and says “whoever welcomes this one….”

The child Jesus picks up in his arms is not what we imagine, not some well-dressed little tyke, but is more likely the rag doll brat who’s been screaming all night because he’s hungry and tired, and the parents are nowhere to be found.

Maybe he is orphaned.

Maybe he is in this position because of the wars or oppressions of this world, the greed or the callousness that labels God’s child as “other” or “illegal” or “not my problem.”

We have always done this.   Whether it was Jesus’ backwater territory in this Gospel lesson, or our own country.

Each successive wave of immigration, each striving to be “great” in some measure left in its wake another round of victims, outcasts, or discarded people.

This is what we don’t want to hear… that Jesus points our hearts and minds away from ourselves and our sniggering comments about what or who will make us “great,” and instead directs our attention to either to the way of self-sacrifice (his way of death and resurrection) or to care for “the least,” that no account neighbor’s brat who we’d rather ignore or see go away.

Jesus directs our attention to his teaching, and if we won’t pay attention to that, he directs our gaze to the child, and says; “if you want to be greatest, look to these.

Have regard for them.

Love them.

Welcome them.

For, when you welcome one such as this, you are not only welcoming me, but the Father who sent me.”

This is what we don’t want to hear.

This is what we don’t really want to understand.

This is what we are desperately afraid to ask about, because if it was made any more clear to us, if we actually did understand, we would have no more excuses, and no more reason not to follow where it is that Jesus leads.

What we are afraid to ask about, we are assured we will know in the end.

The Son of Man will suffer, and be rejected, and die at human hands, — and he will be raised, and he will do all this for you, so that you can begin to see where true greatness lies.

It lies not in what you argue about that you think makes you great.

It lies instead in what you are willing to do for the sake of others.

“Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all, and servant of all.”

That’s a teaching in word and deed that we really do not want to hear, because we know it’s true.