Servant? Leader? Both!

“Servant? Leader? Both!”

Mark 10-45 Son of Man came to serve

Mark 10:35-45 (10:43) – October 21, 2018

Almost everyone is familiar with slogans and jingles. I could say, “You deserve a break today, so get up and get away to…”  What about “I am stuck on Band Aids, ‘cause Band Aid’s stuck on me.” Or, “It’s the most original soft drink ever in the whole wide world—Dr Pepper.” When I mention these jingles, you can almost see the product right in front of you. That is how vivid the slogan or jingle from Madison Avenue is. This advertising hook is planted deeply in many people’s brains and memories.

I am not going to mention any political party in this sermon, but currently, one political party today uses a slogan that bring images to many people’s minds today. (Either strongly positive, or strongly negative.) It is “Make America Great Again.” Again, a lot of people have vivid, strong ideas or thoughts about this slogan. Similar to the advertising jingles I just mentioned, “Make America Great Again” strikes deep in people’s brains and memories.

Greatness. What is greatness? Who is the greatest? That’s the argument among the disciples in the Gospel reading for today. I suspect that argument resonated deeply in their hearts and minds, too. The disciples all had a basic idea in their heads of what “the greatest” was supposed to look like, act like, speak like, and be like.

Our reading is from Mark 10, just a few verses before the beginning of chapter 11, where Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday for the final week of His life. This is the very end of Rabbi Jesus’s three-year ministry. His disciples had been with Him, and learned from Him for three whole years. And, still, after all this time, the disciples are still bickering over who is going to be “the greatest” among them. How clueless, how thick can they possibly be?

James and John, two of the disciples closest to Jesus, have the presumption to march right up to their Rabbi and ask Him something outrageous, straight out. In the Gospel of Matthew, same question, except Matthew softens it a little by having the mother of James and John ask.

The question? “We want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” Talk about a self-centered and self-serving request! But, don’t we say almost the same thing to God, sometimes? Some of us might be looking in the mirror when we look closely at this reading.

In our modern world in this twenty-first century, we still repeat the identical demand to God: ‘Lord God, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ And then we ask God for our own way, what we want, e.g. healing for ourselves, our loved ones, a good job, a good spouse, a good house, a miracle of some sort, a special blessing, a way ‘out of a jam.’” [1] (In other words, some say prayers to a vending-machine-in-the-sky-God, or foxhole prayers said when things look really black, and there is no hope left.)

James and John wanted to be great! Whatever “great” meant to them. Oh, we know what “great” means to many people. Lots of power and control! Lots of people running, fetching, carrying for you! Being “great” meant lording it over everyone else, over all the little people. After all, James and John had a pretty good idea that their Rabbi was soon going to be proclaimed the Messiah. After all, hadn’t He told them so? Hadn’t Jesus been displaying the signs and miracles of His Messiahship for the past three years? Wasn’t that why Jesus was going to Jerusalem? As Messiah, they thought Jesus would become an earthly King. So, He would need right-hand guys to be His lieutenants. They figured they were those guys.

What is the matter? This picture does not jive with Jesus, that’s what.

Everyone else was pinning their hopes on Jesus, hoping that He would overthrow the Roman armies of occupation and restore the earthly kingdom of Israel. Then, everything would be hunky-dory, as far as the Jewish people were concerned. However, Jesus had no desire to become an earthly king, with an earthly kingdom, like King David.

People just did not understand. Not even when Jesus explained to the disciples that they needed to become completely of no account, like children, they still did not have any idea of what Jesus was talking about.

What is the overarching disconnect and problem here? “Power has been the perennial problem in human history. The reality of power is complex; its use and misuse in all human, social and political relations and interactions has been a question of utmost importance for all peoples.” [2]

Here, in this 10th chapter of Mark, Jesus clearly outlined His path and direction several times. Then, how did James and John get so mixed up, so close to the end of Jesus’s ministry? When people get focused on the wrong direction, they can end up in a very different place from where they started.

Listen again to Jesus’s words: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”  I’d like everyone to notice: Jesus calls His friends to serve others. That is how they are to lead.

Jesus does not slam ambition and striving. Jesus does not call us to be Godly doormats, or worms under other people’s feet. He did not mean for us to be so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly good or of no earthly use to others. In this passage, Jesus redirects our efforts of leadership. Our servant Savior teaches that true success requires a servant heart, and a servant practice.

Can you think of humble, thoughtful people who were chosen to lead, rather than those who proudly grasped for power?  Lording it over the people they lead? I can think of several who are particularly proud, high and mighty, looking down their noses at the “little people.”

Remember, Jesus said of His friends, “Can they drink the same “cup” of suffering and death he must drink, a cup that he himself will later ask be removed if possible? (14:36) Can they be baptized with the same baptism Jesus is to endure?” [3] Challenging words of Jesus, indeed.

Again, would we accuse Jesus of seeking for authority, status, honor, glory, or power? I think not. As followers of Christ, He modeled for us the style of leadership He wants us to use. We need to serve each other in love, not rule with a rod of iron or blunt force.

In Jesus’s day, all roads were dirt roads. People wore sandals. Whenever they went anywhere, people arrived with dirty feet. A household servant would show hospitality by washing guests’ feet. When Jesus and His friends were having dinner, there was no servant available to wash anyone’s feet. I leave us all with the vivid image of the Rabbi Jesus with a towel and basin. He’s a loving servant in the Upper Room at that Passover Seder, washing feet.

What kind of leader would Jesus want? Someone who is brash, proud, high and mighty, lording it over others? Or, someone who is humble, helpful, ready to pitch in, even available to wash other people’s feet? What kind of leader is Jesus? What kind of Christian are you?

Challenging words, indeed.

[1] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_having_the_hearts_and_hands_of_a_servant_GA.htm

“Having the Heart and Hands of a Servant,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

[2] “Minjung and Power: A Biblical and Theological Perspective on Doularchy (Servanthood),” Kim Yong-Bock, at Religion OnLine.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2641

Commentary, Mark 10:35-45, Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

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Jesus Loved Him

“Jesus Loved Him”

Jesus and The-Rich-Young-Man, Harold Copping

Mark 10:17-27 (10:21,24) – October 14, 2018

One of my favorite movie series made recently is “The Lord of the Rings.” Huge, sweeping fantasy epic, made for the wide-screen. I realize that fantasy is not everyone’s favorite kind of movie (or book), but I absolutely loved it. The ultimate battle of Good versus Evil, with the clash of armies fighting for supremacy in the world called Middle Earth.

One supporting character in this fantasy is an ancient, twisted creature named Gollum, who had the Ring in his keeping for many years, but lost it. The Ring was magic, you see, and the Ring exerted a magical pull or craving on anyone who came near to it. Gollum spent years and years trying to get close to the Ring, and perhaps possibly steal it back. Gollum not only craved the Ring, he thought about it almost all the time, and talked to it. Called it “my Precious.”

In our Gospel reading from Mark today, we have something similar to the situation with Gollum and the Ring. But, I’ll get to that in a few minutes.

What is the centerpiece in this picture from the Gospel of Mark? A rich young man? Is this about a wealthy young person, who had everything in life he could possibly want or desire? Some preachers make use of this bible reading to criticize wealthy people for being stingy. Even more preachers use this as an example of good stewardship, and how Christians are to be generous with the money they have. This sermon is not going to focus on either of those things. Let’s take a closer look at what is actually happening here.

A rich young man comes to Jesus, and asks how he might go to heaven—that is, inherit eternal life. This is not an odd question, for a rabbi. Not out of left field, at all. Rabbis got this and similar questions tossed to them on a regular basis.

Jesus took the young man directly back to his religious training in the synagogue. Jesus mentioned several of the Ten Commandments—all commandments that refer to a person’s relationship with others.19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

The young man seems to be very earnest and sincere.20 ‘Teacher,’ he declared, ’all these I have kept since I was a boy.’”

“We have this rich man (Matthew describes him also as young) coming to Jesus, actually, kneeling in front of him, asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How often do you get rich people asking you that kind of question? Not much, I suspect. But here’s a live one.” [1]

All of these commands—all of these rules and prescriptions and social morés for behavior this young man has followed since he was a boy. Reading between the lines, I suspect this young man felt empty on the inside. He felt there was something missing in his relationship with God. Thus, prompting the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The response of Jesus? 21 “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

It is at this point some preachers say, “Aha!” This young man had too much wealth! Shaking their fingers at their congregations, some advise their congregations to divest themselves of their wealth, and a few preachers even mention how blessed it is to give it all away to others.

Well, yes. At first glance, we all can see that is kind of what Jesus is saying. But as with many things Jesus says in the Gospels, we can read deeper than the surface communication, and get so much more.

It may be that Jesus saw that this man was trapped in his riches, that it had become an idol that needed to be cast away. On top of that, as many have pointed out, what is the man supposed to do after he impoverishes himself?” [2]

Yes, riches and wealth can be a huge obstacle in anyone’s relationship with God. A rich person’s money might be on their mind too much. How are they investing the money? What kind of money manager do they have? How much are they paying in taxes? What if the stock market takes a big hit? And what about making more money? What then?

All of these persistent questions and random thoughts—and many more besides—can preoccupy someone’s mind. They can get in the way when you or I are thinking about having a close relationship with God. Why? Because, our skewed relationship with money or wealth is more important than a relationship with God.

To expand on what Dr. Vander Zee just said was that the relationship with riches had become an idol. It was getting in between the rich young man and God. Isn’t that what idols do? But, let’s go one step further. We are talking idols, what might be all-important to many people. Do you know people who have a real focus on their house? I mean, take care of their home impeccably, even are constantly boasting about it? Is their house an idol to them, maybe?

What about people who put their job first? Work extra-long hours, neglect their spouse and family, but are always available for work-related activities? We can say their job is their idol, even what they would sacrifice much of their life for.

Remember Gollum? I mentioned him a few minutes ago. A sad, twisted creature, so set on the magic Ring. He even called it “my Precious!” Is there anything extra-special in your life, so special you might be tempted to call it “my Precious?” Anything that consumes your mind and heart?

I believe that is something Jesus was so concerned about, with this rich young man. “We all have something ‘precious’ to which we cling. It’s the thing that separates us from God, from our full potential as faithful disciples. In order to see and experience the truth found in Jesus that leads to real life, the rich man has, to turn from his “precious” thing (money/possessions).” [3]

It does not matter what we lift up, what consumes almost every waking moment. Possessions, or physical fitness, or money, family, friends, or education. Any aspect of life can become too-important. Anything can become an idol, and get in between us and God.

What strikes me so much in this reading? Jesus loved this young man. He loved him. So earnest, such questions, really wanting to find out more about how to have a close, sincere relationship with God. Yet, the young man went away sorrowful, because he was not willing to set aside that idol or riches, of comfort. He was too comfortable, too complacent. Or, perhaps it was because the young man was too set in his ways, and that amount of change may be too disruptive. For whatever reason,

Jesus is calling. Jesus beckons to you, to me, to all of us. Leave behind whatever idol, whatever separates you from God. Embrace a loving, abundant relationship with Jesus, today. Jesus loved this young man, despite his faults and flaws. He loves each of us in exactly the same way, without strings, without conditions. Praise God! His arms are open to welcome each of us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-23b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

The Center for Excellence in Preaching, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. Author: Leonard Vander Zee

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2015/10/who-can-be-saved/

“Who Can Be Saved?” Sharron R. Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

All the Children of the World

“All the Children of the World”

jesus loved-children-clive-uptton

Mark 10:13-16 (10:13) – October 7, 2018

Today, the first Sunday in October, is World Communion Sunday. Today, we celebrate the holy practice of Communion, along with the millions of Christians in thousands of churches and gathering places all over the world. I know I asked already about the many different Communion services we all have been to, in different churches. I would like to go back further, before the Passion Week, before the time Jesus instituted Communion at that Passover dinner.

We have a little, short Gospel reading today. This situation is not long before Palm Sunday. We are not exactly sure how long. A number of days perhaps, or a few weeks before Jesus and His disciples enter Jerusalem for that last week, that Passion Week.

What is the Rabbi Jesus doing here? Teaching, as usual. Also, arguing with the Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses. These smart guys were always testing each other, to see whether each of them could give wise answers—and correct answers. A lot of the Gospel writings were responses of Jesus to these questions. He had just finished one of these verbal duels with the Pharisees when this particular situation with the children came up.

“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have Him touch them.” Both in the first century as well as in later centuries, it was common for parents to bring their children to rabbis for a blessing. This was a very common thing, often done. However, the disciples here rebuked the parents. “Children should not be allowed to disturb the teacher and his students.” [1]

They considered themselves more important. Rabbi Jesus was doing very important teaching, teaching His Very Important Students, the disciples. We can see they just did not get it. The disciples completely missed the point of Jesus and His ministry. Again.

We have one group of men—the disciples of Jesus—and another group of men—the Pharisees—bickering and arguing about who is right, and who is more important, and who gets to listen to the Rabbi. Then, we have a third group, probably mothers and maybe grandmothers, bringing small children for a blessing from the Rabbi Jesus.

Let’s come at this from a different point of view, and look at the feelings, emotions and the power struggle going on.

A snooty, self-important group of Pharisees have been asking Jesus challenging questions, again. As is always the case, Jesus answers their questions well. The beleaguered disciples are probably relieved that they have finally gotten rid of the Pharisees, and finally are able to sit and listen to their Rabbi’s teaching by themselves, for a change. Some women with small children in tow come to the door of the house, tap-tap-tapping. They would like a blessing for their young kids, if it isn’t too much trouble. Can you see the picture?

A couple of the disciples poke their heads out the door. “What? Now? Come in and bother our Rabbi? He just got done with the Pharisees, and He’s doing some important work right now. Get lost. Take off. The Rabbi doesn’t have time for you, anyhow.”

But, Jesus finds out. I don’t know whether He overhears the disciples, or what, but Jesus gets upset with them.

In English, we usually need to use special words for emphasis or to show something is really important. The language the New Testament was written in, Koine Greek, has specific verb tenses, the aorist active imperative tense. Jesus uses one of these verbs right here: “Let—or, permit—the little children to come to Me.” Jesus was particularly urgent and intense, here. He caught His friends in the middle of turning these moms and kids away, and publicly rebuked the disciples. In front of the women and children. Jesus really meant what He said!

What is more, in the act of shoving away the unimportant folks Jesus capped that rebuke of the disciples. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

The view of children in the first century was radically different than today’s view. Modern readers or listeners of this Gospel lesson often romanticize children. Oh, how innocent! Oh, how accepting a child is! However, “ancient societies lacked such romantic notions of childhood. Jesus directs His comments to adult male disciples who are shoving away the ‘non-persons.’” [2] The child in ancient culture was not even considered a “person.” Children belonged to their father, and were dependent and subject to him even as adults.

Do we understand how radical the words of Jesus are, yet? If we see the children of the first century as totally dependent on their father, we can take His words one step further. Jesus tells His disciples they need to become like children—become totally dependent on their Father in heaven. The disciples—and by extension, the followers of the disciples, that is, us!—must understand we are totally dependent upon God’s grace and care and welcome.

And, after Jesus gives this stinging rebuke to His disciples, Jesus then turns around and blesses the small children. He takes them up in His arms, and holds them. What a picture! Can you imagine holding a little one in your arms, perhaps smoothing back their hair, smiling back at them, maybe even tickling their tummy—and then blessing them? That is what Jesus did. He cared for them. He blessed them. And, probably blessed their moms, too.

Children were considered “non-persons,” not yet adults, not yet important like the Pharisees or rabbis or priests or teachers of the Law. And, certainly similar to the status of women, who were often considered “non-persons,” at best second-class citizens, if that. Not males, not the important ones. Who might be considered “non-persons” today? Would the handicapped be considered “non-persons?” What about the mentally ill? What about the homeless, or the street people? Are they all “non-persons?”

All of these individuals are important to Jesus. He reached out to children, to women, to lepers, to the blind and lame, to foreigners, to ritually unclean people, and the mentally ill. Jesus was not exclusive, but radically inclusive. Jesus raises the social standing and the self-worth of all individuals. His welcome transcends all barriers, all boundaries, all colors, all separations of class and language and ability.

What a marvelous welcome each of us has on this World Communion Sunday. Our Lord Jesus bids us all come. All are welcome here.

Amen, alleluia.

(Postscript)

  • The image of Jesus gathering up the children has me imagining Jesus gathering up those most vulnerable among us — particularly now those whose memories have been rendered raw by the necessity of reliving their most traumatic moments in these last days. Who among us most needs the safety of that divine embrace? And what does it look like, what does it mean for you and me to extend it in Jesus’ name?
  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline number is 1-800-656-4673. If you have need of it, use it. If not, pass it along. Indeed, may we continue to hold close in prayer those whose suffering is ongoing. And may we keep on seeking to shape a world where such a hotline is no longer necessary. [3]

[1] Perkins, Phemie, The Gospel of Mark, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 647.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/jesus-gathers-the-most-vulnerable-into-his-arms-then-and-now/  Pastor Janet Hunt has served as a Lutheran pastor in a variety of contexts in Northern Illinois. Currently she serves as pastor at First Lutheran, DeKalb, IL.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Prayer: Powerful and Effective

“Prayer: Powerful and Effective”

James 5-16 prayer of righteous, words

James 5:13-20 (5:16) – September 30, 2018

If anyone has been following the news in the past weeks out of Washington, you know that journalists have been trying hard to get as much information as possible about the people and the situations involved. Journalists always are on the lookout for reliable information. They want to answer some basic questions: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. If you can answer those five questions clearly, you will have a good, solid news story.

The past two weeks have been a roller coaster for many people. With the nail-biting news about the Supreme Court nomination, many people across the United States have been sitting on the edge of their seats. While I am not going to play politics or tell anyone which Washington politician or opinion is right or wrong, as a pastoral caregiver I do pay close attention to people’s emotions and reactions.

What I have seen in these past days are the overwhelming number of people with heightened emotions and reactions to anxious, even fearful situations. As someone involved in pastoral care and trained as a chaplain, I notice these things. In our scripture reading today, we find the apostle James talking straight about how to pray, and thus deal with things similar to these: heightened emotions and reactions to anxious situations.

The apostle James was a practical kind of guy. We can see that from this short letter, the only letter he wrote, included in the New Testament. He gives some practical advice to his readers on how to live a faithful and effective Christian life: how to live faithfully with others in society, how to control the tongue, how to turn away from evil and towards God. Here, in the fifth chapter of James, he turns to prayer. As we look at this passage, James tells his friends how to pray, in very practical terms, almost the same way as a news reporter might tell it.

Here are the first verses of our scripture reading, from one of my favorite modern translations of the Bible, The Message, by Eugene Peterson. “Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.”

James covers the bases here. People who are hurting, happy, sick, sinning. In other words, he tells us Who ought to pray. Anyone ought to! Anyone who needs God’s help or anyone who has received God’s blessing ought to pray. That means anyone—all of us.

What is the next question? What should we pray about? Anything, and everything. That is the wonder and power of prayer. So many things to pray about, but James gives some great descriptions. He tells us what kinds of situations, in just a few words.

When should we pray? Anytime is a great time to pray. When we are hurting, or feeling great, or sick, or sinning? In each case, we are invited by James to bring everything to the Lord in prayer. Whenever we are in trouble, or in need to healing, or for forgiveness from sin? That is the time for prayer. Anytime.

Where are we to pray? Absolutely anywhere. This is one that James does not directly address, but we can see James tells us we are able to pray any time we need help from God. So, it just makes sense that you and I can pray anywhere we happen to be. Wherever we are, God is with us. God is everywhere.

The last question is, Why should we pray? The simple answer? Because God answers prayer. Verse 16 tells us “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Did everyone hear? “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Except, I have been hearing from a large number of people during the past two weeks. Such difficult and traumatic events are extremely hurtful, especially for people who have had similar things happen to them. Psychologically speaking, the mention of a similar traumatic event can very well cause someone else to vividly relive their personal experience, no matter how long ago it happened. Trauma is imprinted on the brain in a unique way. It’s like the brain flags the specific memories as super-important. Those flagged memories can surface or re-surface at unpredictable times, when someone reminds you of something traumatic that happened. Like, for example, this serious discussion in the news of harassment and assault.

During the past two weeks, calls to rape and sexual abuse help lines have skyrocketed, anywhere from doubling to running four times as many as in a similar time period. Online, in social media, and personally, I have heard more people tell of harrowing incidents of rape and sexual abuse, and the horrible responses received when these actions were reported. Plus, I have both read and heard of situations where no one ever reported these horrific acts—until now.

Though I don’t who or what you believe, I think all of us can agree that as God’s people, we all need regular repentance and soul-searching, no matter what. We are also all in need of healing, personally, and certainly communally. Isn’t that what James tells us here?

When I was a chaplain, working in critical care units like the Emergency Department, Intensive Care, and trauma support all over the hospital, my primary job would be that of compassionate listener—even before prayer, and also as a heartfelt part of prayer. I suggest for all of us to consider a heart of compassion and a gentle hand of mercy. It’s time to put our defenses down and instead experience the vulnerability of listening to one another.

“If someone has a story to tell, the greatest gift you can offer is simply to listen. You don’t need to have answers or wisdom. You probably don’t need to say anything except, ‘I hear you. I believe you. I’m sorry you experienced that.’ In the compassionate version of the world I yearn for, we offer one another solidarity, a listening ear, and a tender heart. “ [1]

As this letter tells us, the apostle James was practical. He also had quite the reputation for prayer. We all know the familiar saying “Listen to what I do, not what I say.” That was James. He would not tell his friends and followers to pray if he didn’t follow Jesus in prayer himself.

Through the power of prayer, total personal and communal healing can occur. James was following the example of Jesus who taught his disciples to pray and showed them that people can be healed through prayer.” [2] James spent so much time in prayer that he had the nickname “Old Camel Knees,” since his knees were so hard and callused from staying on them in prayer for hours on end.

As one commentator said, “we must be active participants in the process. Whether it is the healing touch of the laying on of hands or a simple hug from a sister or brother in Christ or the potent power of prayer or the relief of corporate confession, active participation in the Body of Christ is preventative medicine at its best.[3]

What are we waiting for? “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Amen. Alleluia.

 

(My sincere thanks to Charles Kirkpatrick, for his Object Lessons & Children’s Sermons, Coloring Pages, Puzzles. Sermons4Kids.com. https://www.sermons4kids.com/5Ws_of_prayer.htm  I borrowed freely from this children’s activity for this sermon.)

(What follows is the Response our church had after the sermon. Instead of a Prayer of Hymn of Response, we had the following activity.)

Amidst the prescriptions James prescribes, the anointing of the sick is one that we do not do enough of, and one I want to offer to this congregation, to this family of faith during the worship service.

We read again these verses from our scripture passage from James chapter 5: “Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.”

Come, let us worship God, and claim our desire to be made whole – spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

And if anyone is just sick and tired of the current state of the world, come and be prayed over and be anointed with oil, a sign of the possibility of healing, inside and out.  

 

In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, be strengthened and made whole, filled with God’s grace; may you know the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Dear Comforting God, thank You for hearing and answering our prayers. Help us to remember that You want to heal us when we are sick, help us when we are in trouble, forgive us when we sin, and rejoice with us when we are happy. In the healing name of Jesus, Amen.

[1] https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2018/09/30/time-for-compassion/

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster (Sue) is the pastor of the East Woodstock Congregational (UCC) Church in CT.

[2] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=52

Commentary, James 5:13-16, Christopher Michael Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2008.

[3] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2012/09/rx-for-broken-lives-and-faltering-faith/

“Rx for Broken Lives and Faltering Faith,” Sharron R Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2012.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Welcoming Children

“Welcoming Children”

jesus and child

Mark 9:30-37 (9:37) – September 23, 2018

Can you remember back to elementary school? Remember the bickering and fighting on the playground and in the hallways—“who is the best?” Who is the best speller? Who is the best at math? Who is the best kicker at kickball? Which one is the greatest? It doesn’t matter whether you remember your own school days, or the bickering of your children or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews. Isn’t that a common conversation among children? They are encouraged to compete, to win ribbons or trophies—who’s the greatest? Who’s the best?

Just before the Gospel reading for today, Jesus and the disciples are walking on the road to Capernaum. The disciples have an argument: they are bickering over which one of them is the greatest—the “best” disciple. One problem: they tried their hardest to have this argument privately, without their Rabbi Jesus hearing about it.

Of course, we all know what really happened. Jesus knew about the argument anyhow. Except, He acted like He didn’t, and asked a leading question: “When Jesus was in the house, He asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’”

I suspect you are all familiar with the reaction of a small child when he or she has been found out, and is guilty of something. Perhaps breaking a glass, or spilling some milk, or something even a little more serious. The guilty look, the sidelong glance, the trembling lips, ducking the head. Even a few tears. There is embarrassment, even feeling ashamed. We all know the signs. We’ve all been there. The response from the disciples? “34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”

Who is the greatest, anyway? Jesus tells us, in His usual puzzling, even roundabout way. With a seeming paradox, no less.

Jesus sits down. That’s important! Did you know that teachers and scholars in the first century would always sit when teaching? Our Gospel writer Mark wanted to make that clear, so that’s why he mentioned Jesus sitting down—going into teaching mode.

We already know the disciples were confused about a lot of things. This was another of those things. Just before this reading, Jesus reminds them about His death and how important it would be. Immediately after that, almost as if Jesus had never mentioned such a serious thing at all, the disciples start to bicker about which one of them is the greatest. Imagine! We always knew the disciples were pretty clueless. As if we needed another reminder.

Next, Jesus did something quite unorthodox. (As was His habit, after all.) Jesus brings a little child front and center, right into the middle of His teaching session.

Sometimes, when children are brought to the front of some churches, it’s because “they’re so cute!” With pretty little outfits, and darling, chubby cheeks. Often, children act silly or say the darnedest things!

As one commentator says, “However, during the rest of the sermon, are the children central? Are they models of faith? Or are they there just for the giggle and cute factor?

Jesus very distinctly does not say, ‘I love these cute little guys. Isn’t this kid so adorable?’” [1] That is not the purpose at all.

Just to make sure we all understand just how unorthodox this was, we need to know the position of children in the first century. Children were not considered persons, yet. They were considered helpless and marginalized in that society. Isn’t that what Jesus always did? Didn’t He go straight for the helpless, the marginalized, the outcasts, the least of these? That is what He did, in this situation.

Bound up in this spotlight on a small child is Jesus’s statement about who is truly “the greatest” in God’s eyes. Remember, Jesus is still in teaching mode. He states that “the kingdom of God was based on a completely different set of principles. God’s kingdom ushers in a new world order…. [This] radically reverses normative standards and declares a different definition of discipleship—service to others. The one who is willing to be last of all and servant of all is, in fact, great in God’s kingdom.[2]

Talk about turning the world in its head! Jesus was, indeed, turning the world the disciples knew on its head. I suspect the words coming from Jesus did not compute in the disciples’ brains. Not right away, anyhow.

What does this definition of greatness mean to you and me? Jesus’s definition is completely counter-cultural, whether we are talking about the culture of the first century or of the twenty-first. This does not mesh at all with any modern idea of “the best” or “the greatest” or ribbons or trophies or Olympic medals. However, Jesus does not concern Himself with adjusting or accommodating to other people’s standards. Instead, He “calls us to imagine that true greatness lies in service by taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little influence or power, those the culture is most likely to ignore.[3]

Isn’t that Jesus, all over? Isn’t that what Jesus would do? He wouldn’t hang out with the cool kids on the playground, or with the rich folks on the right side of the tracks. Instead, Jesus would seek out the lepers, the tax collectors, the Samaritan woman by the well, the blind and the lame and the demonized ones. Those most vulnerable, those with little influence or power.

What would Jesus do? Who would Jesus hang out with?

As we consider our church, St. Luke’s Church, and our children, we can follow the excellent example of many African American congregations. Overwhelmingly, they have “reached out to children in love. This spirit has deep roots within African American history and culture. Now, more than ever, vulnerable children need to be embraced by the church just as Jesus embraced children.[4]

That’s what Jesus did. Listen to our reading: “Taking the child in His arms, Jesus said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the one who sent Me.’”

Jesus reached out to the margins of His society and drew a small child into the center of His community. What is more, He welcomed the child. He welcomed the least of these and integrated them into our fellowship. Can we do any less?

It’s not only the children, but also the other people on the margins, on the outskirts of society today. The outcasts, the lonely, those who are stigmatized or separated. We need to welcome all of these, the least of these. No matter what. Just as Jesus welcomes the children fully into our fellowship today.

Who would Jesus welcome? He welcomes you. He welcomes me. Praise God, Jesus has His arms open wide to welcome everyone.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary25bgospel/

Children in the Center of the Assembly, Clint Schnekloth, The Hardest Question, 2012.

[2] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=74

Commentary, Mark 9:33-37, Imani Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

[3] http://www.davidlose.net/2018/09/pentecost-18-b-a-different-kind-of-greatness/

“A Different Kind of Greatness,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2018.

[4] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=74

Commentary, Mark 9:33-37, Imani Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Love Drives Out Fear

“Love Drives Out Fear”

1 john 4-18-perfect-love-casts-out-fear.

1 John 4:7-8, 13-19 (4:18) – September 16, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

When I was in grade school, I remember a story I read where a boy was punished very severely. He was beaten, and sent to the barn without any supper. I don’t remember where the story was from (probably in one of my textbooks), but I do remember my gut reaction to the moving and evocative words that described the boy and his situation. Sullen, lonely, filled with anger, but at the same time torn with some remains of love for the brutal father who had beaten him and turned him out of the clapboard house on the frontier into the cold night.

What kinds of fear do you remember? If not fear that you experienced, fear and anxiety of someone close to you? Those feelings, emotions and experiences can be so traumatic. I know, because I dealt with many painful, fearful, anxious situations while a hospital chaplain. And, sometimes, I was completely helpless to do anything to lend a hand.

Is there some fear or anxiety that even now surfaces from deep within? If so, I am so sorry to remind you of that painful experience. Except—in this sermon, in this scripture reading today, the apostle John deals with God’s love, and with personal fear and punishment. We can relate to John’s moving words.

To back up, in this letter John talks a great deal about love. God is love. Love is of God. We love, because God first loved us. Simple words, yet profound ideas. In our reading today, John continues with more of the same: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Yet, you and I know that we cannot love all the time. Because, we are human. We get angry, and lonely, and fearful. Sometimes we back away, isolate, or even snap back at others. All of us do at times. Mile-deep emotions and mile-wide feelings come upon so many as we live our day-to-day lives—in the first century, as well as the twenty-first. Awkward situations and traumatic experiences choke out the joy and delight of living in community, of life in the family of God. What can we do about these complications of living, and of loving?

The apostle John knew very well about this dilemma. He was the youngest of the disciples. He was identified as “the disciple Jesus loved.” He lived the longest of just about any of the direct witnesses to Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. He wrote this letter late in his long life, a life full of hardship and trauma, full of persecution and anxiety. Yet—he was able to write moving words such as these: “Dear friends, let us love one another.” Matter-of-fact presentation of a simple yet profound concept.

John communicates God’s unconditional love to us in this letter, even in difficult circumstances. He shows us Jesus and His love through these simple words.

John understood very well what kinds of horrible things the persecutors could (and probably would) do to any Christians they got in their clutches. From the writings and letters of the second century, we know that John had personal experience with the persecutions. He was finally exiled to a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea called Patmos.

So, what does John have to say about fear? We are talking about gut-wrenching fear. Remember, he was well-acquainted with fear, and its close cousin anxiety. Verse 18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

The word for “fear” John uses here is the Greek word phobo, or the run-of-the-mill word that is found in the suffix “-phobia.” Many of us are familiar with all kinds of phobias, from fear of heights or enclosed spaces, to fear of spiders or snakes, to fear of the dark. Could I remind us of a certain phobia that Charlie Brown had, in the Charlie Brown Christmas special? He was frightened of everything. He had “pantaphobia.”

Perhaps the apostle John “does mean something closer to Charlie Brown’s depression-inducing pantaphobia in which fear becomes a general way to go at life.  John yokes this fear that has no place in perfect love specifically with a fear ‘of punishment,’ which may be an indication that what he is talking about is the fear of still being punished for our sins.” [1]

What a fear, indeed! Being afraid that God probably will not forgive me, no matter how much I do, no matter how hard I try to gain God’s acceptance. That unfeeling, unforgiving attitude from God would break my heart. Sort of like the attitude of an uncaring, unfeeling, even brutal parent. Not at all like Jesus, like the God whom John knew personally.

After this life is done, we move into the life to come. Common questions many would ask: “’How can I be sure I did enough for God to love me?  What if God plays all the sins of my life on some giant screen for all to see?  How will I ever live down the humiliation of that?  How do I know there is grace sufficient for even me?’ This is clearly the kind of fear of punishment John is pointing to.  And it is a miserable thing to have dangling over your head” [2]

Again, we get full assurance from John. And, John intimately knows Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, the Messiah, the creator of all the universe, the Logos, the Word. John is the beloved disciple, the one close to Jesus’s heart. John lets us know that “perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Yet, what are the next words from John? “We love, because He first loved us.” John circles back to this simple yet profound truth.

Commentator Judith Jones says, “God made love real and present by sending Jesus to live among us and to die for us. God continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us.” [3] That is the presence John is a witness to. That is the presence John is willing to suffer for. John loves, and through extension, we all love, because Jesus loves us. Unconditionally, fully, and with all His heart. Jesus loves us. Period.

So, it does not matter what our creaturely, very human selves tell us about phobias. It does not matter what Charlie Brown and his fear of everything whispers to our insides. John’s witness is that Jesus loves us, period. Jesus’s perfect, unconditional love drives out fear. Not only fear about everything on the outside, about fighting, hardship, and persecution, but about illness, loneliness, and sorrow.

Most importantly, His perfect unconditional love drives out the fear that I won’t measure up, that I won’t be able to do enough, be enough for Jesus. We love, because He first loved us. Period. John is a faithful and true witness to Jesus and His perfect, unconditional love.

Do you believe that? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” John tells us so, right here in this reading today. Receive the Good News of the Gospel. Jesus came to save sinners, of which I am chief.

Fear is done with, banished, gone. Jesus came into the world to love us, unconditionally. That is truly Good News.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-5b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2448

Commentary, 1 John 4:7-21, Judith Jones, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Don’t Be Frightened!

“Don’t Be Frightened!”

1 Pet 3-14 don't be afraid

1 Peter 3:13-17 (3:14) – September 9, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Do you know anyone who talks straight? Comes right to the point? Doesn’t pull any punches? Sometimes, a person who speaks this way can be refreshing. So unlike other speakers or politicians who sugar-coat problems or sometimes sweep difficult matters under the rug.

Except – I am not sure whether we might say the same about our New Testament scripture reading for today. Suffering and pain are not exactly the favorite topics of most Christians in the 21st century. Yet, the apostle Peter is just such a man as I just described. A man who talks straight, comes right to the point, and does not pull any punches. We ought to listen to him, a man who was loved deeply by our Lord Jesus Christ, and a man whom God appointed as leader, the person in charge of the band of disciples after our Lord Jesus ascended.

No one enjoys talking about suffering, pain and harm. But, what do we find here? Peter tells his fellow believers in Christ that suffering, pain and harm will surely come. We do not want to hear that. None of us do! Yet, let us listen again to the words from 1 Peter 3, once more: “13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”

Peter does not mess around. He comes straight to the point. Christianity is not a safe religion. Of course, the first century was not a safe time to live, either. One of the commentaries mentions “the situation referred to in 1 Peter 3:13-22 could range from mild abuse and mockery at the hands of the families of these new Christ-believers, to open, official, harsh persecution by Roman officials under [the emperor] Domitian (81-91 CE).” [1]

Christianity at the time of the apostle Peter was one of many religions, and a brand-new one, at that. It was closely related to Judaism, but the Jews were not high in the regard of the Roman Empire, either. As far as the Roman government was concerned, this new sect or religion called Christianity was nothing but a headache. Imagine, people running around, saying that there was only one God, instead of many gods and goddesses. How demeaning! How insulting to their families and the towns where they live, which all have patron gods and goddesses!

And, not wanting to, even demanding not to bow down to any other god, or call anyone else their Lord except this one particular God? Why, that was treason, pure and simple. On top of everything else, there were rumors that in the Christian worship services, there was cannibalism. They actually ate and drank the body and blood of their God. Imagine that!

If you and I step back from our current understandings of Christianity and try to see this brand-new religion in the same way that the Roman government of the first century did, we might get a little insight on the way that many others—both Jews and Gentiles—viewed this strange band of religious converts. Ridicule and open jeering at least, and harsh persecution, even death, by officials of the Empire. That means soldiers busting down doors in the middle of the night, dragging people into the streets, throwing them in prison. Maybe there was a trial, and maybe there wasn’t. Uncertainty, fear, pain, suffering.

Do you understand what Peter was talking about now? “Clearly, identifying one’s self as a Christ-believer in the first century CE was not something as common and mainstream as it is in certain places of the world today. Christianity as one of the leading world-religions did not yet exist as such.” [2]

Not only from the New Testament, but from other historical writings, we can see how persecuted the early Christians were. Peter had guts, I’ll say that for him. He did not have an easy life. Peter kept on the move, spreading the message of the Gospel, the Good News. He introduced people to his Lord and Savior, the risen and glorified Jesus Christ.

And yet—and yet, he told his fellow believers in Christ to “Be Not Afraid!” He knew very well what could (and quite possibly did) happen to some of them. Yet, he had the faith and assurance to write these very words. Don’t be frightened!

What is the next thing he says? Listen to Peter’s next verse: “15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” We need to stand up for what we believe, and who we believe in. Gently and respectfully.  

Peter knew that even if his friends gave a respectful defense for the Lord they believed in, persecution would come. “Peter wants his readers to understand that, although they may act in a good and right way toward others, they may still suffer. Suffering for doing right is something we may all have to experience.[3]

I am reminded of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, the man called “the Flying Scotsman.”. The movie Chariots of Fire was made about him and his story at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell was a devout Christian. He refused to run in a race he very much wanted to run—the 100 meters—because it was scheduled on Sunday. Liddell believed that playing sports on Sunday was disrespectful to God. So, he calmly announced that he would not run in that particular race.

Eric Liddell’s decision was not popular, at all. “He had to be brave because lots of people got really angry with him.  He was however gentle.  He didn’t scream and shout about how wrong the officials were to schedule the race on Sunday.  He simply said that he would not run because much as he loved racing, he respected God more.” [4]

I would like us to imagine that we are overseas, today. In parts of Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, or Thailand; in Algeria, Iran, Sudan, or in Saudi Arabia. Christians are less than 7 percent of the population of these countries, especially in Saudi Arabia. Let’s close the blinds and put out the lights. Shh! We can’t be too careful! The police are looking for people who go against the government, and the small minority of Christians are often arbitrarily persecuted. Several pastors and church leaders have recently been thrown in prison, so we need to be really careful and keep a low profile. No public church services! Keep quiet about meeting for bible study. And, make sure to hide your bibles!

In 1924, Eric Liddell still faced a great deal of opposition for his decision not to run. Imagine how much more difficult the apostle Peter and his fellow Christians had it, in the first century, with widespread persecution and suffering?

In the Beatitudes, in Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus tells us “blessed are the ones who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  What is another way of saying this Beatitude? To be righteous, to practice righteousness, is to be like our Lord Jesus. What would Jesus do? We need to do that. Show others the Gospel through our lives and words. Be like Jesus. Love others, with kindness, gentleness, and respect. Always. And, do not be frightened, because Jesus will always be right by our sides. No matter what. Peter would certainly agree.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/easter5ae.html

“Raised to Life,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/04/year-the-sixth-sunday-of-easter-may-25.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 6A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)