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.

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“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.

“Who to You say that I Am?” Mark 8:27-38

 

This is the age of the Opinion Poll.

There isn’t a week that goes by where we aren’t bombarded by either a request for our opinion, or information about one.

I can’t get a Latte or a burger without being handed an opportunity to respond to a survey.

“Tell us how we’re doing….”

“This is what people are saying….”

“An ABC, CBS, Fox, CNN or NBC or Pew Research poll has shown….”

“In response to your feedback we’ve made the following changes…”

Public opinion seems to drive everything these days.

Opinion Polls are used to tell us whether the President’s approval rating is up or down, and then speculation is made about what kinds of things the President can or cannot do based upon his approval rating.

Opinion Polls tell us what effect those numbers may (or may not!) have on everything from the economy to the upcoming elections.

The Polls can even postulate what kind of response should be pursued to change those numbers and what should and should be talked about, what positions should be taken.

Maybe it is all that exposure and sensitivity to polling that causes me to pick up the nuance of Jesus’ question in the Gospel for today.

“Who do people say that I am?”

That’s what Jesus asks of his disciples.  What are people saying about me?  What do you hear?

Is Jesus in the opinion polling business as well?

It’s hard to imagine Jesus worrying about his approval rating or determining his next move on the basis of public opinion!

And yet, there does seem to be a fair amount of diverse opinion out there about Jesus.

Some are saying that he is John the Baptist come back from the dead.

Others have put him in the role of Elijah the Prophet, the one who was to return before the coming of the Messiah.

Still others have Jesus pegged as one of the prophets in Israel of old, long before the time of Ezra and the time of Exile.  Maybe God is up to God’s old tricks again?   Maybe God is raising up a leader like God did in the old days!

Public opinion about Jesus is ranging far and wide.  As word about him spreads, people are talking and forming opinions.

By and large we would see that as a good thing.  “At least people are talking about Jesus!”

We would see this as people taking interest in what God has to say about things.  We might even see that as some kind of a sign of God’s activity in the world.

“Well, at least people are talking!”

But in Mark’s Gospel, time and time again Jesus urges folks NOT to talk about him!  It is one of the mysteries of this Gospel that is really no mystery if you think about it.  Talking about someone or something tends to raise expectations, and sometimes unrealistically.   It appears that Jesus does not want people talking about him as much as he wants people talking about and working for the Kingdom he comes to proclaim.

After asking his disciples what people are saying, he turns and asks them, point blank, “But who do you say that I am?”

I didn’t understand what Jesus was doing here until I was interviewed with the Bishop of the Upstate New York Synod for a congregation that they wanted me to consider serving.  I had completed all the paperwork, answered all the theological questions in advance in the precise and clear kind of language that Bishops and Professors like to hear.

The Bishop and his assistant had asked me several situational kinds of questions, how I handle conflict, what my views were on several pertinent church related issues.  I had sailed through all those questions without much difficulty.

Then the Bishop said, “Just one more question.  It is one we are asking of all the people we interview now in every capacity.  Tell me, what does Jesus mean to you?  Who is Jesus for you?”

The ramifications of the question was clear immediately.

Suddenly, we were not talking about what other people thought and postulated.  What was politically popular or theologically correct.

This question was about what I held to be true.

I was in Peter’s shoes, in the shoes of all those disciples who heard this question from Jesus’ lips.  I had to make a profession of what I believed, and what Jesus meant to me.

“But who do you say that I am?”   Jesus asks.   It appears that he already knows what other people are saying, (and he wants his disciples to be aware of that), but the real question is what are you saying?

What are you saying with your lips?

What are you saying with your life?

What are you saying with the decisions you make, with the company you choose to keep, with the way you spend your time and your resources?

All these things reveal a piece of who you say that Jesus is to you.

I think it is very possible to go through your whole life without really struggling with this question of Jesus.   “Who do you say that I am?”

You can even do that as a good church member.

You may come here week in and week out, be on any number of boards or committees, and never really struggle with who Jesus is for you.

For many of us, Jesus came as a package deal with the family we grew up in, or he came with the marriage, or he came with our Old World heritage, or with our membership to the choir.

Jesus is who we talk about, sing about, all the time to time.

We direct our prayers to him, in fervent anticipation that he will know what to do with them.

Jesus is the one to whom we direct our praise and our offerings, but we may also send a check to the Cancer society or to Public Television with about the same fervor or interest.  The church is one of the many things I support.  I seldom think of what those things really mean to me, unless they are threatened.

Jesus is the one that we from time to time will postulate about.  We might even find ourselves saying, “I wonder what Jesus would think about that?”

And that is perhaps the most telling phrase that we can use.

Because you see, if we are wondering what Jesus would have to say about something, it means that we really haven’t been pondering what Jesus would have us say about something.

We haven’t thought through what it is, (because I follow Jesus,)  I may have to say as a disciple.

What I will be called upon to say as a follower who did have something to say to that!

Jesus said it with his life.

He said it with how he treated people, and what he confronted, and what he was all too willing to forgive.

“Who do you say that I am?” is an invitation to think critically about what you will say as a follower of Jesus, when confronted with the same things that he is confronted.

It is not sufficient to simply talk about Jesus.

It is not sufficient to be connected to him from afar, and that is why the second half of this Gospel is so hard for us.

No sooner does Peter “get it right,” than he is also rebuked.  Why?  Because his mind is set on “human things”, not on divine things, or so Jesus tells us.

After plainly spelling out the steps of what will come next for the Son of Man, the Messiah, Peter isn’t so sure about that direction.

He takes Jesus aside and says, (we can imagine) “Are you sure about that, Jesus?  I mean is this really where you want to go?”

Human things are about self preservation, self interest.   This is where Peter is.

And this is (more often than not,) where we will tend to go as well.  Toward self preservation, and protection, and things of this world.

Yes, Jesus said, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

And, as soon as Jesus says this and we hear it, we are right there with Peter.

“But I’m sure he didn’t mean…..”

Whatever we fill in there, (and we will fill it in!) is an attempt to put human things in front of the call to discipleship.

We’ve done it in our own lives.  We’ve set our eyes on human things.

We rationalize away the call to take up the cross.

Each time we do that, the words of Jesus seem come back to hit us, often just a little bit harder.

“Who do you say that I am?”   With your life, with your decision making, with your actions and choices?

Am I just a nice guy to you?

Am I just someone to turn to when everything else is in the crapper?

Am I your last resort?

Am I who you turn to in convenience?

Am I subject to polling?

Or am I, to you, the Messiah, the Lord and Savior who comes to lay a claim upon your life and to call you to a life of service and self denial for the sake of others?

Am I only an occasional concern to you, or do I order your every moment?

“Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus asks his disciples, and of you and me this day.

Beloved in the Lord, I don’t expect you to answer the question perfectly all the time.    The point of any question when raised is to invite us into consideration.

I only expect you to do what Jesus expects all of his disciples to do, which is to  face it, to struggle with it, and to struggle to live into it.

Jesus does not ask his disciples who they think he is because he is concerned about opinion polls, or about what others are thinking.

Jesus asks, because he is concerned about his disciples. He wants them to be struggling with the right questions that will help them to follow, and to bring in the promised Kingdom.

The way of the Cross is not a natural move.

The natural move for us is the way of the human, to take care of ourselves first, to question the difficult path.

Who do I say Jesus is?

Let that be the question on your heart this week, the one that makes you look at the world with new eyes.

“No Business Being There” Mark 7:24-37

Tyre-Sidon“You really had no business being there in the first place…”  

I remember that stinging assessment from my parents on more than one occasion when I had managed to get myself into some kind of trouble.

“What were you doing there in the first place?” my father would scold.

It is a familiar story, finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It plays itself out on the news weekly, from tragic events to freakish accidents.

Wrong place, wrong time.

Someone gets hurt.

Someone gets insulted or bullied, or property is damaged.

The question on everyone’s mind always seems to be, “What were they doing there in the first place?”

I’ll bet if you let your mind wander back over the times that you got yourself into some kind of scrap, or got caught doing something, the same assessment was made of you – maybe even as a self-assessment.

“What was I doing there?”

When things seem to go terribly wrong for Jesus this week, we could be forgiven for offering our own very similar assessment of his choices and actions.

What was he doing there in the first place?

Jesus had traveled far north of Galilee, up to the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon, big cities, bright lights, diverse populations, and most decidedly not Jewish populations.

He is far from Galilee.

Far from Jewish territory.

Far away from any place where he might feel like he “belongs.”

He’s here to get away, Mark seems to say.   “He did not want anyone to know he was there, yet he could not escape notice.”

We’re not given much more detail than that.

We don’t know if Jesus traveled there because he was weary and tired of the crowds pressing in on him.  Or if he was just fed up with always being recognized, or of always being expected now to perform, – some miracle or to offer a quick-witted parable or retort to the Pharisee’s inquisitions.

He might have retreated there just to get a break from always needing to respond to someone else’s need.

We simply know from Mark’s comment that he doesn’t want to be bothered, and so he does a big retreat to a place where he really as no business being.

It’s like going off to New York City, or to the “Vegas” of that day and age.  Tyre is a bustling seaport city.  It’s a place where no one is supposed to know who Jesus is, recognize him, or pay any attention to him.

But apparently there is no getting away.

Even though Jesus is the outsider in this place, he is recognized, and he is sought out by this woman.  She implores him to act.

She does so with all due decorum, humility, and politeness.

But Jesus is uncharacteristically gruff with her.  Maybe because he’s far from home and he thinks word about what he says or does won’t get back from here.

Maybe he snaps back and calls the woman a dog because he’s just plain bone tired and only has one nerve left, and darned if she hasn’t gotten on it with her request, no matter how politely made.

We can even perhaps sympathize with that.  It happens to us all, we know that feeling.  Being asked to do something, even politely, when we’re frazzled or tired or not at our best.

We can understand snapping, being short, cynical, even snarky.

That does not excuse Jesus’ actions, but it helps us connect with his humanity here.

And in the end, it does all work out all right because she turns out to be quick-witted and persistent herself.  She deflects Jesus’ derogatory comment with an insistence that God is bigger than his own small-minded comment in this moment.

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs….”

Her comment is counted as faith.  “I just need some crumbs here, of what you have…”

Her daughter is made well, even from a distance.

End of story.

Except, it’s not the end of the story, or the end of Jesus’ wanderings into Gentile territory, a place he has no business being if his message is only “for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

From Tyre Jesus returns home by way of Sidon (which is further north than Tyre!) and then on to the Decapolis, the “Ten towns” which is down to the east and south of Galilee, another Gentile territory.   There Jesus encounters another Gentile in need of the healing.

This time when asked for help instead of snapping or disparaging the plight of the deaf man or those who have brought him, Jesus moves privately to address the need.  He opens the man to hear and to be able to speak and earns praise for it.

“He does all things well…”  The Gentiles proclaim.

Which brings us back to the original question, which is “What is he doing here in the first place?”

It appears, he is learning how big God’s intentions truly are for the Kingdom.

Jesus had thought there was a place where he could escape the demands, the pressures, and the work.  Get away from where all “my” kind of people are and maybe I can get a break or respite.

But as it turns out, word about Jesus precedes him, and the need for God’s presence in the midst of a demon wracked world does not allow for such respite.

It’s not just for his own people that Jesus is here.

He is here for everyone, Jew and Gentile, for those who are from his own homeland and those who are far flung and who seem to have no connection to him whatsoever except that they are breathing, and in need, and they are of God’s concern as well.

Jesus had no business being in those Gentile cities, territories or regions.

But apparently, God does have business there.

God has business of casting out demons wherever they dwell, and healing no matter the pedigree, and bringing hope in the midst of despair.  That’s what Jesus’ task as the Messiah, the Son of God, who announces a Kingdom is to be.

It’s our task as well, as followers, disciples of the Jesus who went beyond the boundaries and discovered how big God’s intention is for the coming Kingdom.

Isn’t that often the way it turns out for us, upon reflection?

Truly now, when I started this sermon and made you think of some of the times when you might have been asked why you were in some place where you got into a bit of trouble.

Isn’t it usually the case that you did have business there? At least you thought you did.

Maybe you went where your parents thought you shouldn’t have gone because of love. Maybe it was some person you had met, some desire to see them, to be with them.    Scolded though you may have been for being out too late, or having traveled too far, or breaking curfew – you had business there!

It just wasn’t the business you thought it would be, or the kind of business of which your parents would have approved.

And all the tragic moments, the “wrong place, wrong time” moments where we search to try to find meaning.  Don’t they usually have an element of this as well?   As we search for why that the person was there, isn’t there usually an element of finding out what their business was?

It often didn’t turn out to be what they thought it would be.

No one finds themselves in the midst of a tragic situation and thinks at the time, “I’m right where I need to be.”

They usually think, “what am I doing here???”

But later, as the event unfolds or after the fact, we begin to sense the hand of God moving in the midst of it all.

Maybe you have heard, “you had no business being there” followed immediately by “but I’m sure glad you were….”

That’s a part of the stories we tell as well, isn’t it?

The nurse who just happens to be driving down the highway when the accident occurs in front of her and who stops to do the triage until help arrives.

You know, she has no business doing this.  Not without gloves, or without proper equipment, or without anything but the muscle memory skillset of knowing how to stop the bleeding and save the life, buy some time, using whatever she can find at hand.

The police officer who is on his lunch break and sees the child in distress, choking, the mother frantic, every bit as much as this woman in the Gospel, pleading, imploring.

He does not say, “I’m on my break.”

He has no business you know administering the blows to the back (that could be viewed as abuse of the child) until the food is dislodged… but we’re glad he does.

The older man who stops to talk to the teenage girl who is looking sad, telling her she has a nice smile, a pretty face.  He has no business doing that.  It could be mis-interpreted by passers-by as him being a creepy old man talking to a teenager.  What are his intentions really?

But the young person’s features change, and her demeanor is lifted, and we recognize that there is some wisdom that the old have that can give encouragement to the young, and so we’re glad he did take notice of her.

We do indeed, have business with humanity, with acting when he sees the need, with letting the training kick in, or the all-too-apparent need direct our actions, despite the risk.

You can flip though the newspaper or the news feed and find a thousand different places where bad things happened, or where tragedy ensued, or senseless events took place, and see them all as “wrong place, wrong time” moments on the surface.

But if you will but scratch just below the surface, you’ll often find someone who views it differently, who sees this moment as a turning point or a shift in understanding.

There will be someone who will praise the actions.  “He does all things well…”

Someone who will identify the person as one who is exactly where they needed to be for just this moment.

Someone who will look beyond the harsh words and the ugliness of the moment to see something beautiful come about because of it.

A life is transformed.

A person is healed.

An attitude is changed.

A view of the world is widened, and God’s intention for this world is revealed.

Yes, it appears that Jesus does indeed have business in Tyre, and in Sidon, and in the Decapolis, and in my house and your house, — my community and your community.

This is what Jesus discovers in this story, and we as well.

God makes every place in this world, — every people, every person, every circumstance and event – a matter of God’s business, and a place where Jesus and the Kingdom are meant to be.

“Pot, Meet Kettle” Mark 7:1-8;14-15;21-22

“Oho!” said the pot to the kettle;
“You are dirty and ugly and black!
Sure no one would think you were metal,
Except when you’re given a crack.”

“Not so! not so!” kettle said to the pot;
“‘Tis your own dirty image you see;
For I am so clean – without blemish or blot –
That your blackness is mirrored in me.”[8

 

“Pot, meet Kettle.   Kettle, Pot.”   That’s about all you need to understand the Gospel lesson for this week.

Jesus is being criticized by the Pharisees today.  They have observed that his disciples are not keeping to the tradition of the elders in terms of ritual hand washing.

It’s not, by the way, a comment about the disciples’ actions.

It’s really more of a comment about the Master, because if your students, your followers, your disciples aren’t doing what they are supposed to do, well that’s really more about what kind of teacher YOU are, isn’t it!

No wonder therefore, Jesus leaps back at them with the Kettle and Pot kind of comment!

The Lectionary Committee leaves out the detail of Jesus’ response, where he talks about how the Pharisees have conveniently re-interpreted the commandment to “honor your father and mother” in order to get themselves off the hook for caring for aging parents.

They leave off as well Jesus rather crude illustration about eating and what goes into the sewer.

“It’s not what goes in that defiles, but what comes out…

However, even left out you get a quick sense of what is going on here because it mirrors very much our own experience in these charged political and social times.

You can’t point out someone else’s shortcomings without finding yourself very quickly accused of that same thing, or something worse.

This is the weariness of our times, is it not?

We justify our own actions, as if our own excrement doesn’t smell.

We criticize the actions of others in an unrelenting loop of finger pointing and accusations hurled back and forth like a tennis ball across the net, and all of this is done without there ever being any pronouncement by a referee of “love.”

How is Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees any different from the “he did/she did”  “he said/she said” action that engulfs our own news cycles, social media exchanges and our everyday conversations?

I think there are at least two important differences that are worth noting.

The first is that when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, he does not do so to them as a group.

It’s not “you Pharisees…”

It’s “This people…”

It’s a not so subtle change of direction.

This is not about a political or religious party, it’s not about a cultural norm, it’s not even about the established practices or ritual actions.

It’s about all of us, what the Prophet Isaiah had to say about all of us!

“This people” throws the observation into the realm of introspection.   “This people?   Who is he talking about when he says “this people?”

Is that us?

Is that me?

This is a critical move, because so long as the Kettle and Pot, back and forth goes on, we can all hurl observations and accusations at one another non-stop, can we not?

We (in fact) see that happen every day in the twitter and social media threads.

Those things usually get nastier and more personal along the way, because “amplification of offense” is the way that you try to score the fatal blow.

I have to say something that finally dumbfounds you.

I have to come up with something that you can’t come back against.

That is how one wins an escalating “war of words” or “stream of accusations.”

But Jesus isn’t interested in scoring points or winning an argument over the ritual practices with the Pharisees.

He’s more interested in getting those who are making such casual and judgmental observations about his followers and his teachings do some self-reflection.

That is the second noteworthy move here.

The fact that we are all hypocrites is a given.  That’s just who we are as people.

“This people” invites you into a consideration of your own actions, instead of a defense of them.

Then, once Jesus has you in a self-reflective posture, he can deliver the message that needs to come to break the cycle of accusations.

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 

This is a re-iteration of that observation that we are all hypocrites, at least to a certain extent.

We don’t live up to our external aspirations.

We don’t behave in consistent fashion all that time.

We are fond of pointing out the offenses of others with whom we disagree, or whom we perceive as “other,” or those who we value differently than ourselves.

We call the kettle “black.”

All the while, we tend to pass over our own offenses, or the offenses of those who are “our own” or who are “like us.”

We do that, and fail to see how some of what we object to and point out is in fact our own reflection of what we think we see. 

This is who we are, we really can’t help but make observations of others when they don’t quite jibe with our own expectations of the way things ought to be.

The Pharisees can’t help but make the observation, notice what the disciples are doing, and the question is legitimate, “Why?”

The answer however, is not found in getting the ritual right.

The answer as to why Jesus doesn’t insist on strictly adhering to the ritual actions is not found in external things.

It is found in matters of the heart.

It is found in what comes from within.

Let me tell you of a couple of incredibly proud moments that I have had through the years, moments when I observed that people “got” this.

I took a youth group to Arizona once and we stayed at the Navajo Lutheran Mission doing a service project of cleaning and working there.  As part of the experience we were invited out to one of the members of that community’s Hogan for dinner and an experience in their life.

We arrived, and this was a very different world from the one my suburban youth lived.   The Hogan is an 8 sided wood and mud structure, with a center fire pit and hole for the smoke to ascend.  Furnishings are built into or along the walls.   The floor is swept dirt, over which rugs are placed.  The walls were variously decorated with traditional Navajo textile work, interspersed with 1960’s vintage pictures of Presiden John F. Kennedy.

They had invited us to share in a traditional meal of fry bread and mutton stew, which as a special treat just for us had some frozen mixed vegetables cooked in with the mutton neck bones.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had mutton stew, but I have to tell you that it is not found on the menus of many 4 star restaurants.

This group of Jr. High an high school kids from Nebraska had never encountered a thin broth of sheep neck bones with a few meager vegetables here and there.

It would have been so easy for them to enter the game of “Kettle and Pot,” to criticize the host’s ability to provide, to make faces and make fun of the thin yellow broth.

But those kids sensed the holiness of this event, and they ate that perfectly awful stuff as if it was grandma’s home cooking… which is exactly what it was to those who had invited us.

I was so proud of this moment when they understood that the intention of the heart was what was most important, not the outside things, and they responded with their own hearts.

I had a similar moment here at St. James.   A couple of years ago on our Wednesday Night Soup Suppers, we started to invite those who come to be served by our food pantry to come and eat with us.

Now normally we have an embarrassment of variety of soups, but for a number of reasons, this particular night there was only one pot of soup that someone had brought.  There was bread, crackers, and a big tossed salad.

We prayed, and invited our guests, and I watched as each and every member of St. James bypassed the soup (tasty as it looked) and just “felt like a salad” tonight so that our guests could have the soup.

It would have been so easy to fall into complaining about how folks were really slipping up around here, or to criticize the planning committee, or to complain about things.

I was so proud watching as each and every one of us got the matter of the heart that night, and what was important, and how reflecting on how blessed you were made skipping a meal, (which is, after all, a Lenten discipline!) possible.

I give you those examples because I think they reveal to us what Jesus is up to in this Gospel.

This is about what comes from the heart, and valuing that over all the other stuff.

This is about being able to be self-reflective enough to recognize what is truly important.

If you cannot do that, then people suffer.

“This people” suffers, because whenever peoples’ hearts are far from God, the result is always suffering in some measure.

So today, Jesus does indeed sound a little sharp, but not to do what this world would try to do, win any arguments.

Today Jesus is sharp to make us reflect and think, that “this people”… God’s people… may not have to suffer any more.

“What Armor?” Ephesians 6:10-20

armor paper doll

We come to the end of our look at the book of Ephesians with this well known metaphor of putting on “the full armor of God.”

Somehow this image “rings” with us.

Maybe you, (like me) remember a Sunday School lesson where the craft activity was a cut out paper doll and we got to put the “armor” on the Christian.

Here is the Belt of Truth.

The Breastplate of Righteousness.

The Shoes of Peace.

The Shield of Faith.

The Helmet of Salvation.

And lastly, (but by no means least!) tentatively picking up that Sword of the Spirit and being reminded that it is the only offensive weapon here, and it is under God’s control.  The Spirit is given at God’s direction, and Jesus’ promise.   You can’t take that weapon up on your own, it comes to you at the right time and at the right moment when it is needed.

I remember looking at my outfitted little Christian paper doll warrior and thinking how good it would be to be outfitted like that, shielded and protected from all the threats of the world.

I looked at that, and wonder why I can’t feel that way.

“Armor of God?   What armor?”

I confess that all too often in the midst of this world I feel exposed, unprotected and far too weak to face what life throws at me.

How about you?

As it turns out, the problem is how little I knew about battle, or armor, or the true nature of the strength that the author of Ephesians understood and to which the author referred.

You see, when I think of the “Armor of God” I think of the individual, all decked out, and ready to tackle anything all on their own, equipped by God for the battle.   I picture a solitary person in their suit of armor ready to stand the assault.

I’ve watched one too many old “sword and sorcery” B grade movies, where the knight in the shining armor is protected from all harm.

I’ve seen too many “RoboCop” reruns.   I look at this metaphor and think that the suit is meant to make you invincible.

I’ve seen too many “Marvel” movies, where “Iron Man” suits up and withstands whatever the bad guys throw at him.

But for the author of Ephesians, this metaphor had a very different meaning.  One that was consistent with what he has been talking about all along, which is the importance of the community.

“For OUR struggle…. The author says.

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers, the spiritual forces of this present darkness…”

The person writing this would have known, (and would assume that we know) that the strength of the metaphor is found not in the individual “suiting up” but rather in the community “suiting up and standing together.”

The strength of the Roman Army was not found in the individual.  It was rather found in the formation, and in the connections of citizen soldiers who stood side by side and in formation.

The Phalanx of the Greek and Macedonian armies (from which the Romans took their initial tactics) were close knit interwoven armored warriors.  It wasn’t your suit of armor that you trusted in, or that made you powerful, it was your neighbor’s armor, and how those who stood with you suited up and made ready for battle.

It was how you stood and worked together.

Your shield was of limited use by itself, but linked together with that of your neighbor, it offered protection that was multiplied and formidable against outside attacks.

When the author talks about taking up the “Shield of faith,” it isn’t your stand-alone faith that is important.  It is the “faith” of your neighbor and how it is joined to yours, and how yours is interlocked with those around you — that is its strength!

This is what quenches the flaming arrows that are thrown your way, the shield of faith as it is connected to the faith of one another.

It wasn’t the Helmet of your personal salvation that gave you any kind of assurance.

You can’t see your own helmet after all, it was rather your neighbor’s helmet that gave you confidence.   They had their brain bucket on, which in turn reminded you that your own head was protected, your own Salvation is external to yourself.

“The breastplate of righteousness” is not about basking in your own self-righteousness.  It is rather depending upon the righteous actions of your fellow members of the Body of Christ.

My own “righteousness” is of little value, but when you, –and you, — and you, –and you act in a righteous and forthright manner, when you attend to being just and honorable and stand with me, then we are all strengthened with mutual trust in one another to withstand the lies and false dealings of this present age.

My righteousness is nothing if it is not accompanied by others who are trustworthy and who act in a forthright manner.   When that happens then all the powers and principalities out there who seek to do us wrong or to take advantage of us have no opportunity to do so.

I depend upon the righteous activity of those around me, and together we move as one against the threats that are much bigger than any one of us.

We get this illustration, this metaphor all wrong if we think of it as simply suiting up to be self-sufficient, or to be able to stand alone against outside threats or powers conspiring.

It was suiting up to stand together that gave the Roman army the advantage on the battlefield.

It is suiting up to stand together that will give the community in Ephesus the ability to stand against whatever is amassing against them.

Prayer becomes the essential activity.  Why?   Because prayer communicates concern, and connection with one another and with that God who equips you.

From time to time we wonder, “what good does it do to pray?”

If you understand prayer as simply your one-to-one time with God (which it certainly can be) then it’s hard to see how it does much good.  We reduce the ability of God to respond to a single action….God will grant something to me or not.

But if you understand prayer to be the way in which the community works together, holds itself together, communicates its ability to respond together, then prayer becomes a powerful force for maneuvering in this world together.

“I’ll pray for you.”

“I’ll pray with you.”

“Pray with me..”

“Let us pray together..”

This becomes the power holding the unit together, allowing it to move in agile and powerful ways, to cover one another, to protect one another, to work toward a common goal or direction together.

Prayer becomes a means through which, (when equipped with the sword of the Spirit) God can direct us all together, and can put the enemy to flight.

This is the image that the author of Ephesians wants us to capture, to understand.

This is not about you suiting up to do battle on your own.

This is about joining together with those around you to become a force to be reckoned with in a dark and dangerous world.

As I thought about the author of Ephesians use of this militaristic metaphor, (as unlikely as it may at first seem for peaceful Christians), I found my mind wandering back to the Gospel, and to Jesus, and curiously to those places where Jesus seemed “saddest.”

Jesus would not use the metaphor of militarism, not in the face of the Roman occupation.

But Jesus did seem to be most sad when his call for people to join together was met with individualistic rejection.

Think for instance, of the rich young man, who has kept all the commandments is told by Jesus that he lacks only one thing.

“Sell your positions, give alms to the poor, and come follow me.”  Jesus says to him.

And the sadness of the moment when rich young man turns and walks away from Jesus because he had many possessions.  He could not leave them to join Jesus and the disciples.

It is a sad moment, not just because he couldn’t give up “things,” but because he could not join!   He decides to “go it alone” again.

Giving alms to the poor would have been an acknowledgement that the needs of others were as important as his own needs.

Giving generously would have opened him up to all those opportunities to depend upon one another instead of just relying on his own resources or abilities.

It is a sad moment because he misses the power of being joined with Jesus, yes, but also joined with his neighbors.

Think of all the sad moments, all the times when Jesus made an invitation for people to join with him and to join with one another, and for a variety of reasons, they could not or would not.

Those are the moments when the powers of darkness seem most able to break in and create mayhem.

Those are the moments when we sense that what would make for the Kingdom of God to be visible is somehow obscured.  The promised Kingdom cannot be seen because we can’t envision being together on this, coming together on this, or on anything.

And when you think in that way, you begin to see the power of the Cross, which is the only place where Jesus could gather all together.   Some to scoff, some to weep, some to marvel, but together, and in that moment a glimpse of what could be.

I can tell you that the most heartbreaking moments of being a pastor are when you have a sense that the congregation is not joined as one and will not standing together.

Those are the moments when darkness tends to finds opportunity.

Those are the times when you cannot overcome the forces mounted against you, (whatever they happen to be) because you really cannot equip yourself to just stand alone.

The Sword of the Spirit only comes when the community is joined in such a way that it can be summoned and put to its intended use.

And so it is that at such times when unity and coming together seems difficult or impossible, we pray.

We Pray as Jesus did in Gethsemane, hoping others will join us, pray with us.

Pray as Jesus did, that we might be one.

We pray as the author of Ephesians directs us to, that we might be able to stand together.

The author of Ephesians wants us to see, and to know, what Jesus knew and came to show us.

The powers of darkness cannot take the field when the people of God come together and are joined as one.