Mark 10:17-31, Sermons

That Would Be Enough

It’s that most wonderful season of the year, when we gather together all our financial information not only to meet with our accountants or tax preparers, but for those of us with college students, it’s time to do battle with the almighty FAFSA and its elitist cousin, the College Profile. Mind you, we are extremely grateful for the financial aid our daughter receives. Doing the paperwork is well worth the trouble in the end, but there are always moments in the midst of it when we wonder how anyone could be expected to keep track of all these things.

And we often reach a point of mild hysteria along the way.

This year it came as we researched the value of our cars. Kathryn drives a used-when-she-bought it 2001 Honda Odysse, thus called because the “y” in Odyssey long ago dropped off the back of the van. She asked, “Want to hear how much my car is worth?” “Sure,” I said. “$942.” Let that sink in. “And yours…” she said while typing, “is worth $517.”

“What?!??!!! That can’t be right,” I insisted.

I drive a 2005 Volvo V70. It has to be worth more than her Honda. The tires cost more than that!

I don’t think of myself as someone who gets wound up about the value of cars, but I didn’t like hearing mine be devalued. And as it turned out she had the year wrong; mine is worth a whopping $1702.

If we were to follow the counsel of Jesus to give up our earthly goods and use them to care for the poor, these two cars would not go very far, although at least they’re long since paid for. Would that be enough?

What *would* be enough?

This gospel story asks all of us that question. It’s a warning to the faithful, not scolding but loving. The riches of this world get in the way of our relationship with God.

It’s hard to hear that even when we consider ourselves to be fully committed people of faith, and it’s no coincidence that this is the story of a person who defined himself the same way, a striver in his religious practices who wanted to take it all one step further.

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

He went away grieving. Jesus didn’t ask him to tithe a full ten per cent, or to set up an endowment fund for widows and orphans to be managed carefully by a board of trustees. He didn’t ask him to go to a state college instead of the Ivy League and give  the difference to a deserving poor student. He told the man to sell it all and give the money away and follow him.

What would be enough?

One of the suggestions for a Lenten practice floating around on Facebook features a picture of a big black garbage bag, the idea being that you spend Lent picking out one thing each day from your closet that you no longer wear or need, then at the end give away the bag with forty items of unwanted clothing…

I’m not against giving away clothes to those in need, but please note the key phrase in that description is “no longer wear or need.” Give away your excess and at the end you will be rewarded with a more manageable closet! That’s a fine life practice, to pare down the unnecessary, but since this suggestion has been adopted by fashion websites urging people to get rid of their old and out-of-style clothing for their own sake, it’s easy to see how far from Jesus’ intent this can get, quickly.

Valentine's Day is hard in Lent.
Valentine’s Day is hard in Lent.

Lent has traditionally been a season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We take on practices or try to give up habits with the intention of becoming closer to God, making space not between clothes hangers but for spiritual pursuits outside of our ordinary schedule. We make space for prayer and contemplation, space for cultivating a deeper awareness of God through some new or renewed spiritual practice, space for hunger and desire we ordinarily slake with chocolate or wine or whatever one’s pleasure might be. Perhaps we create space in our budget to save money and give it to those in need, even space created by the lack of the thing from which we fast. These activities come at a cost; we give up something we like or enjoy or even zone out on in order to make more space and time for relationship with God.

The first Sunday in Lent usually brings us a passage about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness. Mark’s is the shortest:

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

It’s Peter he calls Satan later on, in a passage we read on Ash Wednesday. “Get thee behind me, Satan,” Jesus says, when Peter tempts Jesus to think of a scenario in which things are easier, an end to the story that does not result in arrest and torture and death. Peter wants to keep his beloved teacher with him. We can understand that. We are tempted by the things we want, the things that make us feel secure, our sense of the value of things we have purchased.

Volvo’s bringing sexy wagons back and the new 2017 V90 proves it. You know you want it.

The other day we saw a “leaked” picture of the new Volvo wagon, a V90 described by one car website as “one hot family hauler.” It looks so shiny; the version pictured is silver.

I immediately said, “But it’s not just that it’s pretty. You feel so safe in them, with all the air bags.”

Get thee behind me, Volvo.

It’s a danger for preachers and readers that we want to narrow this story and make it only about the Rich Young Man. *He* had a lot of money, and clearly that was *his* problem. But that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus goes on to assure the disciples that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. How can anyone be saved, they wonder?

“…for God, all things are possible,” Jesus tells them.

Peter, who is never afraid to get himself into more conversational trouble, says, “But seriously, man, we already gave it all up to follow you.”

What *would* be enough?

Jesus goes on to say some things we may find a little obscure: he makes it pretty clear that following him in this life doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be poor and have nothing. That we should listen carefully is signaled by the beginning of this speech, “Truly I tell you.” Listen up! Here it comes.

“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

It all sounds great until we get to “persecutions.” We won’t necessarily be poor, or lose our families forever if we follow him, but there are going to be some ramifications, some consequences, some persecutions. If we accept the invitation to follow him, we have to be ready to lose what matters to us.

Mark 10:17-31 Agnus Day copy
From Agnus Day

Jesus made sure the Rich Young Man knew the basics: we show love for God by following the commandments that keep us in good relationship with others. He looked at the Rich Young Man not with scorn but with love. It’s important to remember that. Then Jesus told him the deeper truth: he needed to do more than fulfill the basic requirements. Doing his best meant giving up the things and the status that made the Rich Young Man feel secure.

He just couldn’t bring himself to do it.

What *would* be enough?

Maybe it’s enough to try our best. We don’t know what that means for other people; sometimes it’s hard enough to know for ourselves. Trying our best means being prepared to be wrong sometimes, as Peter was. Trying our best means giving it all we have. Trying our best means giving up whatever keeps us from following Christ.

God took human form in Jesus and told us the truth: it’s going to be hard to follow me, but try your best.

We build it right into our covenants with God and one another. When we are baptized, or when we join the church, we affirm that we want to follow God, but because it’s hard we say, “I will, with the help of God.”

*That* would be enough. That would be enough.

And it’s a lot.

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

Thanks be to God, who is enough. Amen.

((A sermon for Lent 1, NL Year 2 – February 14, 2016 – Mark 10:17-31))


The Book of Hope

At a time when all seems bleak, where do we find hope?

Yesterday we started a re-watch of the Star Wars movies, with the real *first* movie, Episode IV, A New Hope. It’s been almost 40 years since I first saw it, since I watched the iconic credits roll and heard the soon-to-become famous lines spoken by the actors who will always be associated with their characters. The people who lived a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away were in trouble, and they pinned their hopes on a young man who had only just learned about The Force, Luke Skywalker.

Manasseh sacrifices his son.
Manasseh sacrifices his son.

I suspect his story is better-known to most of us than that of the central character in our readings today, although his tale could make its own interesting chapter in an epic movie series. Josiah came from a long line of mostly wicked kings who ruled in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh was the Emperor Palpatine of Judah; he reigned 55 years and “did evil in the sight of the Lord,” shedding much innocent blood. Josiah’s father, Darth Amon, was so terrible that his own servants killed him and put an 8-year-old child on the throne in his place.

Somehow, despite the evil of their leaders, there were still people who wanted to follow God, who wanted something better. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they thought there was a possibility of change. They looked at the child, Josiah, and somehow they saw a new hope.

In a world of confusion where do we find answers?

In the trailer for the new Star Wars movie, which was all over TV this weekend, you hear the presumed heroine say, “There were stories about what happened.” After a moment’s pause, a voice responds. “It’s true. All of it.” Of course we feel relieved to hear the familiar voice of our old friend, Han Solo, and to see his face, offering her these assurances. Why, it’s only been thirty years, if I’m reading the ads the right way! Are you telling me people don’t know what happened?

Yes. Yes. Somehow the story has been lost, but it is not lost beyond all hope. Surely if they remember the story, things will get better, right?

Josiah became king at age 8, and scripture tells us he did what was right. The description of him says “he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.”

He was unusually faithful, and his supporters must have been, too, or it’s hard to imagine he would have survived to adulthood. We meet him eighteen years later, when he decides it’s time to rebuild the Temple. His grandfather let it fall into disrepair; this was one more thing to set right.

Josiah sent his secretary to visit with the High Priest, to give him all the money that will be needed to repair the damage and rebuild what cannot be fixed, and the High Priest, a kind of Obi-Wan, tells him that he has found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.

Now, it sounds strange to us that the book of the Law might have been missing, and it’s not clear whether it was actually lost, or whether the high priest has been keeping it safe until a trustworthy king came along again. But whether by strategy or accident, the book of the law has been lost. There were stories, but were they true?

It’s easy to forget in our age of information that stories were lost, and that history was written by the winners, that treasured documents might be hidden away carefully and not seen again by human eye.

Josiah hears the words of the Book of the Law.
Josiah hears the words of the Book of the Law.

Josiah had been on the throne for 18 years. It took that long for the high priest to risk it. We believe that scroll held the core of the book of Deuteronomy, the laws carried from the wilderness into Jerusalem and kept in the Temple. The laws warn at length against idol worship and pagan practices, set up dietary restrictions, establish the practice of tithing and marking the Passover, give justice into the hands of priests and judges and set limits on the power of kings, and institutes some measure of fairness in dealings with family members, neighbors and enemies, as well as some measure of brutality that we would consider primitive today.

The results were dramatic. Josiah tore his clothes, a sign of repentance. He realized that although he was a good person, with the best intentions for his kingdom, he was completely ignorant of God’s commands. This discovery could change everything!

Josiah called together his advisors and sent them to a prophetess for confirmation. Then Josiah brought together all the elders in his kingdom and went to the Temple, and he read them the words of the book of the law, and together they affirmed their covenant with the Lord. Josiah would depose all the idol-worshiping priests and bring about the first real celebration of the Passover since before the first king ruled in Israel. He hoped this would make things right.

This is where I would like to say “The End” and bring down the curtain on a scene of the refurbished Temple. (Sort of like the party with the Ewoks.) But Josiah died in battle, and his son, Darth Jehoahaz? Did evil in the sight of the Lord. Things got darker for the people of Judah, until a few kings later, they lost their struggle against Babylon. The Hebrew elite traveled to exile, while the less interesting and valuable stayed behind to live in occupied Jerusalem and witness the dark day when the Temple was destroyed.

In a world of darkness where do we find light?

See what I mean about a movie? Josiah seems like a perfect hero, but instead of overcoming evil forever, he dies a mortal death. Sometimes one good guy – or gal, it looks like it’s a gal in the new Star Wars movie – but sometimes one good guy isn’t enough.

Well, really, one good guy is never enough unless that guy is more than human.

We have a tendency to put our hope in each other, to make heroes out of mortals, and to engage in our own desperate and wrongheaded idol worship. Whether they are megachurch pastors, popular speakers, athletic prodigies, billionaire businesspeople or winning politicians, our society often puts its faith in whatever looks shiniest at the moment.

Everything is a popularity contest, with polls and surveys and statistics used to determine agendas, styles and flavors. It’s a vicious circle.

The Hebrew people had their own vicious circle. They didn’t like the results they got with God, so they worshipped other gods. If there was no rain, they worshipped Ba’al. If one sacrifice didn’t work, they made a bigger one. They made their situation worse with each terrible decision.

I’ve stood here a lot of times in the past year and said words to the effect that things can’t get much worse, but I imagine they can. Our general disregard for one another, our obsession with weapons, our prejudice against people who look different or think differently continue to collide until we cannot listen to the stories anymore. The stories get lost, because there are so many of them.

We see these cycles play out again and again. Josiah ruled for thirty-one years out of 347 years of kings of Judah. Eight were good, and he was the last of them. He could disrupt the cycle, but he couldn’t end it. The people of Israel and Judah fell out of relationship with God; no one person could fix it.

And there is no one person, male or female, who can get us out of this mess in which we seem bent on breaking every kind of code God has set down for us, for treating our families, our neighbors and even our enemies.

There is no one human person who can do it.

A new hope?
A new hope?

At a time when all seems bleak, where do we find hope?

Our hope is in the Lord.

And every Advent we hope – WE HOPE – that the cycle will be disrupted. We practice anticipation. We wait for the One who is coming, God breaking into the world, the Word of God, coming into the world to save us from isolation and despair, to show us how to love each other the way he loves us. And that sounds good, but it is not enough. Those words, the ones meant to guide us, are already written down. We are not waiting for a new story this Advent; we are being prodded to behave as if we have already heard the old one, to put down our weapons and outgrow our fears and remember the stories and gather together as one people, God’s people.

The Living Word, Jesus Christ, is our Book of Hope. It’s time to renew our covenant with him.

In the name of the One God coming into the world, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mark 2:1-12, Sermons

That’s What Friends Are For

I’m terrible at artsy-craftsy things. Terrible. But I understand why we do crafts in Sunday School, because making the image of a story has the power to imprint it on us in different ways. There are some stories I remember because of the pictures in a book or a children’s Bible, but there are others that became part of my life through folding paper or coloring or gluing things together or twisting pipe cleaners or some combination of the above plus or minus popsicle sticks and string (although I prefer yarn).

It must have been a group project. I want to think it was, because it’s hard to imagine I constructed the three-dimensional paper house with the removable roof and the man on the stretcher alone. I also hate to think of the poor teachers who might have been supervising a classroom full of kids all working individually, with scissors (I forgot to mention those before) and crayons and string and all that paper.

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:1-4, NRSV)

I remember the house, and I remember how fragile it seemed, and I can see the flat little man on the paper stretcher. I think the edges of the paper folded around a string on each side, the long ends used by the friends to lower the paper man into the house.

We children, of course, lowered him ourselves.

We were the friends who removed the roof.

Now I tend to identify with the man who was paralyzed. I have lived through times when I was stuck, and unable to help myself, and only a friend’s love and care made a difference. I can feel the story from the perspective of a person lying down, carried through town on a mat, hearing the sounds of other people’s voices on either side and wondering how your friends were going to get you into the place where they expected to find help and healing.

I’ve only been in an ambulance once, but I remember the feeling of helplessness and disorientation. I had an attack of vertigo during a middle school poetry reading – my son Peter was a 7th-grader – and a teacher who was also a friend from church called 911. It was scary to be so dizzy — the room actually appeared to be spinning around me, but the more frightening time began as paramedics loaded me onto a gurney and into the ambulance. The ride was rough. They were taking my vital signs, and on the radio I heard a blood pressure number that sounded high. Was that mine, I asked? I had no idea what was happening, maybe I was having a stroke! No, no, they reassured me. But when they finished taking mine, it was even higher; it was going through the roof!

Even after we got to the hospital, where I knew help would come, it was hard to get my bearings.

Imagine the care with which the four friends carried the paralyzed man up the stairs outside the house. That’s how those houses were built, with a roof you could use as outdoor space, and a staircase along the side of the building. Imagine the confusion of lying there, paralyzed, your safety in the hands of people you trust, but not knowing quite what they will do next.

You may remember the song, “That’s What Friends are For” –

Keep smilin’ keep shinin’
Knowing you can always count on me for sure
That’s what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I’ll be on your side forever more
That’s what friends are for

It was written for a movie, but it became better-known when Dionne Warwick recorded a cover with her friends Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. The record was a fundraiser for AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. It was the mid-1980s. Awareness of AIDS and HiV began to spread, but before many people understood how the *disease* was spread, there was an enormous amount of fear and misinformation in the world. It may be hard to remember that now, thirty years later, but it’s the truth.

Warwick told the Washington Post, “You have to be granite not to want to help people with AIDS, because the devastation that it causes is so painful to see. I was so hurt to see my friend die with such agony. I am tired of hurting and it does hurt.”

Those four friends raised over $3 million for AMFAR, but they did more; they helped remove the roof of closed minds, digging through misconceptions to bring about healing.

That’s what friends are for.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  

I don’t remember that part from when I was a little girl. I only remember it was his friends who made sure he got to see Jesus.

They removed the roof of a house. Listen to that! Don’t just pass it by. Read it out loud.

They removed the roof!!!

“And after having dug through it”…dig that!

I have an unsurprising tendency, as a liberal Christian who also majored in English, to suck the reality out of Bible stories and teach them as metaphor. And there are surely many metaphors to be explored. But we need to hear this story literally.

(Make a note of the date. I asked you to read something from the Bible literally. This won’t happen often.)

We need to hear this story literally.

They carried their friend on a stretcher, their paralyzed friend, and because the crowds were so enormous, they took him to the roof of the house and REMOVED THE ROOF and DUG THROUGH IT and lowered him into the middle of the room where Jesus was.

A group of friends helped me through another time of difficulty, of emotional paralysis. I had a postpartum depression so severe that I spent almost a week in the hospital. When I got home, I was flat and sad, and not sure how I would manage to take care of my three little children. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out what exactly. Then the women in my Bible study group decided that in addition to bringing my family dinner for several weeks, they would pay for someone I knew to come and clean my house.

When one of them called to tell me, I cried. This was such a kind gesture, but the house was a wreck. And I am well-trained. You pick up the house before you let someone else clean it! I didn’t see how I could do that myself. The task was beyond me.

My friend on the phone said, “Don’t worry. I’ll come pick up the house with you.”

With each toy we put away, each stray sock we placed in a hamper, each piece of clean laundry folded and placed in a dresser drawer, I felt a little better; I moved a little more easily.

We have the power to do this for each other,

to do this for our friends,

to do this by being friends to one another.

That’s what friends are for.

They carried their friend on a stretcher, their paralyzed friend, and because the crowds were so enormous, they took him to the roof of the house and REMOVED THE ROOF and DUG THROUGH IT and lowered him into the middle of the room where Jesus was.

Remember what the scripture said:

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

This is when Jesus forgave the man.

Jesus Mafa - the friends who removed the roof
Jesus Mafa – the friends who removed the roof

This is when Jesus healed him:

when Jesus saw the faith of his friends,

a faith that gave them courage to take the roof off a neighbor’s house,

a faith that gave them courage to put him down right in front of God.

We have the power to do this for our friends. Maybe someone has done it for you.

That’s what friends are for.

In the name of the One who heals and forgives, Jesus Christ. Amen.

(This is week #2 in a series on Favorite Bible Stories; the story is one of my particular favorites. This sermon is drawn in part from a blog post I wrote in 2012, when this text was not in the lectionary. It only appears in years when Easter is late.)