“There Is Hope” Sermon on Mark 5:21-43 for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost B, July 1, 2012

Mark 5:21-43

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When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing (ignoring) what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this and told them to give her something to eat.

There Is Hope

This is a significant moment for many reasons.  We are just a few days away from the celebration of our nation’s Independence; the 4th of July.  We are in the midst of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, and we are in a presidential election year (as if anyone needed reminding) in the context of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

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Since we are on the subject of time, I wonder how this time is significant for you?  Most of us here today are retired.  In these times we often look back over our lives.  We evaluate what our lives have meant and wonder about how much more we will have.

Calls to hopelessness

In these days, for so many reasons, we hear people telling us that this is a time of  hopelessness.  The nation is still in an economic crisis – along with Europe.  The church is in  numerical decline.  And we all have our personal reasons to struggle with hope.

Hopelessness is all about death.  It is a truism that as long as there is life, there is hope, but death is the great dead-end to hope.

Unless it’s not.  Unless death does not have the last word.

The Gospel and Hope

I believe that the text we just read from Mark’s gospel give us reason to have hope.  And by “hope” I do not mean the feeling of optimism that “everything will be alright.”

Hope is not the feeling of optimism – if it were, it would certainly be an illusion.  We know that we all will die.  We know that there are no guarantees for our church or our nation’s success.  Hope is not just optimism.

Hope is confidence that we are in God’s hands, and that God’s will for us is good.  His will is for our “shalom” our wholeness, our flourishing, our well-being.   And not only ours alone, God’s will is for the world’s shalom; God’s purpose is for the restoration of our world – of the earth itself, and of every man, woman, boy and girl , made in the image of God.

Seeing God in Jesus

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How do we know this?   We Christians believe that we see God most clearly, most fully revealed to us in Jesus.  Seeing Jesus, we see God.  Observing Jesus’ life, we see what is important to God.  Watching Jesus in action, we see what God’s will is.

If anything is 100% clear from the gospels is that Jesus’ will was totally committed to restoring shalom to people.  We saw it in the story we read today.  Jesus is called by an anxious father to come and restore his sick daughter, and he goes, immediately.

Along the way he is contacted by a woman in desperate need, and he stops and meets her need; he restores her to “shalom” – to wholeness.

He continues on to the home of the sick girl, and ignoring the consensus  conclusion that the situation is hopeless, undeterred by the great dead-end of death, he shows what God wills to do, and in fact, does – he restores life, wholeness, well-being, shalom.

Seeing Jesus, we see God’s will.  God wills the restoration, the shalom, of all of us who have been damaged by life, by the destructive effects of evil, by our experiences, and by our own reactions to our experiences.  This is the basis of our hope.

The central text here is what Jesus says in verse 36

“Do not fear, only believe.”

We could re-phrase his words this way:  Do not give-in to hopelessness, rather, have confidence that God’s plan for your shalom is will be fulfilled.

Evidence for Hope

So is there any evidence that God is working to accomplish that shalom now, in these significant times?  Yes, I believe there is.

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Last week I attended a Christian Conference which takes its name from the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit, the Wild Goose.  Jim Wallace, founder of Sojourners ministry was there.  He said that he was amazed at how for the first time, he and the Focus on the Family people agree about a public policy issue: immigration.  He said that both agree that laws which tear families apart are deeply misguided and must be changed.  Both groups, Sojourners and the Focus on the Family share a vision of Shalom that they learned from Jesus, who ignored long-standing barriers to bring shalom to people in need.

Have you ever wondered why Mark told us the story of the lady who was hemorrhaging right in the middle of his story of Jesus going to heal the daughter  of Jairus, the synagogue leader?  Clearly that sick woman’s story is told to make it public knowledge that Jesus has just been touched by a person who is ceremonially unclean and is now therefore, himself, unclean.

Because Jesus publicly notices her touch,  everybody in the crowd knows about it.   Everybody can see that Jesus ignores the whole impurity issue.  That former barrier is no longer relevant.  Jesus shows us that God’s care for people and their healing, their shalom, will not be impeded by any social convention.

In the past, that woman was considered unfit to participate in the life of the community.  She was excluded because of her condition.  No more.  Now there is hope for her. Now she is able to experience God’s shalom.  Jesus does not reject her touch, as if it were impure.  He affirms her and calls her a “daughter” – she is part of the family.  We see God’s will for restoring shalom in operation in Jesus’ welcoming, healing acts.

Hope for the church?

Is there evidence of hope for the church?  Right now we Presbyterians are having  our General Assembly.  Yes, it will be a time of debate.  But one thing

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is clear: our church is moving towards full inclusion of all people made in God’s image.

We were on the right track in the civil rights movement.  We were on the right track in the women’s movement, and we are on the right track now in affirming that all people, gay or straight are equally loved by God and welcome in our community.

Again, at the Wild Goose festival, Frank Schaeffer, son of the late Francis Schaeffer, said that he is observing a growing movement all across the country.   People of all ages, but especially young people are unwilling to allow old barriers to stand.  Our Presbyterian Church is in a better position to reach out to a new generation than ever before.

Often the old expression is true: it is “darkest before the dawn.”  Yes, we have been experiencing numerical decline, but a new day is just around the corner.

Hope for Our Country

Is there hope for our country?  As we approach our nation’s 236th birthday, yes we have our problems, but look at what we have achieved.  The promise of a land of liberty and freedom for all was not realized all at once.  At our nation’s birth neither slaves nor women could vote.  We have come a long ways from those days.

We are much better today at spreading the fruits of this nations prosperity to people in need, the sick, the disabled, the elderly, than ever before.  Now more people have access to a decent education than ever before.  We are living longer than ever before.

Yes, we have large problems to solve, as we always have had, but we are a nation of people who are free to gather together in prayer that the God of hope will guide us and help our country in the future as he has in the past.

Rejoice in Hope

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This is not a time for despair and hopelessness.  This is a time to embrace the Shalom that God is still producing in our lives, in our church, in our country, and in the world.   This is a time to renew our focus on Jesus, learning from him the nature of God’s good will for his people.

As you see and hear the fireworks this Wednesday, let each explosion of color and sound call forth from each of us a prayer of thanksgiving to the God of hope who has allowed us to see this day come.  He is the one we rely on.  Let us be the hope-filled people who do as our Lord Jesus told us:

“Do not fear, only believe.”

“Seeds of Hope” Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 for June 17, 2012

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
(Third Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 6)

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 

Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel

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grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Mark 4:26-34

He [Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed

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would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

I cannot help but think it odd that this text from Samuel would come up on Father’s Day.  David was about the worst father imaginable, not just because of what he did with Bathsheba, but what he failed to do about his son Amnon who raped his half-sister Tamar, and how he handled his son Absalom’s reprisal murder of Amnon – and the story of David’s failures as a father goes on from there.

Nevertheless, the story we read does set in motion a chain of events that begin with this inauspicious shepherd boy and culminates in a united Kingdom under David’s rule.  That kingdom, and the covenant that supports it, is then the basis for the hope in a future restoration, which will be an important part of our discussion of Jesus’ parables.  (see 2 Sam. 7)

Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed reminds me of Azaleas.  Living here in the South, I have had to learn about Azalea bushes.  They grow.  They grow huge.  And they seem to have a survival instinct that is unrivaled.  You can take a huge Azalea bush, cut it down to knee height, leaving only a bare few branches, and next spring you will have a full green bush again.

Azaleas will get huge, but they will never become trees with large branches.  They are, in that way, like mustard bushes which could reach even ten feet tall, but which

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remain bushes.

We read two short parables that Jesus told, and we will look at them, but I think to understand them best, since we did not live back then and don’t know what they knew already, we should look at them in reverse order.

The Mustard Seed 

In Jesus’ parable, the mustard seed grows up and morphs from a bush into a tree, with branches capable of supporting “all the birds of the air.”  Now, that is a major tree; something you would never expect from a mustard bush!

That huge tree was familiar to people.  In the ancient world there was the myth of the cosmic tree.  The tree represents the whole living world.  Its roots are in the waters under the earth.  Its branches reach up to the heavens.  It shelters every living creature.*

The great empires of the ancient world like Assyria, Babylon and Egypt, wanted to dominate the whole world.  They wanted to be the world-tree.  Ezekiel describes the

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great empire of Assyria thinking of itself, as that cosmic tree:

“…with fair branches…and of great height, its top among the clouds. So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long… .

All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs;  (Ezek. 31)

But, Ezekiel says, it grew prideful, and so the Lord allowed another empire to come and cut it down to a stump.

Israel: from Tree to Stump

The same thing happened to the nation of Israel.  Like a great tree which David’s   kingdom had grown to become, it was cut down to a stump by the Babylonians.

That was not, however, the end of the story.  Hope remained, because God was not finished with it.  The prophet Isaiah said that a new shoot would come up from the stump of Jesse (king David’s father).  The stump, Isaiah said, contained,  a “holy seed” from which which God could bring a new branch that would become a new tree, a renewed kingdom.

When the Babylonians cut them down to a stump, Israel had to endure exile.  In Jesus’ day, under Roman occupation, they felt as though they were still, for all intents and purposes, in exile.

But maybe there was hope that the holy seed that remained in the stump could once again be planted in its land and the Kingdom of David could grow up like a new, great tree – one that all the birds of the air could rest in, like that ancient mythological cosmic tree.

The Realism of Revolution

Could it ever happen?  How?  Being practical and realistic, many of the people of Jesus’ day had figured out that the re-birth of the Davidic kingdom was going to require action.  The time to sharpen swords and knives was at hand.  There were Romans to slay so that the holy seed of Israel could grow up out of the stump in its own land as a new tree, an independent kingdom.

If the promise God made long ago to “the seed of Abraham” was ever going to come to its proper climax, it would have to come, they believed, by force of arms.

Some scholars believe that Judas was one of the people who believed that.  It could well be that his last name, Iscariot, came from the group of secret assassins, the

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Sicarii, who carried the curved dagger, the Sica, hidden in the folds of their robs, to slit the throats of Roman collaborators right in the marketplace at midday.

Was “Simon who was called the zealot” also a would-be revolutionary when Jesus called him to leave his former life and follow him?  It is certainly possible.

These people longed for the renewal of the kingdom of their ancestor David.  They believed the ancient promise to David that God would restore a descendant of his to the throne.  They had a well-formed idea of how this new kingdom would look, who would belong to it, and where its borders would be.

Jesus’ cryptic Kingdom-speak

So, when Jesus spoke of “seed” being “sown on the land,” it made people perk up and pay attention.  When he told a story of a tiny, mustard seed-sized seed, just like the small faithful remnant of Israel, growing up to become a new tree – people knew he was telling the story Israel longed to hear.  He was speaking kingdom language.**

Of course speaking of cosmic trees growing up from a tiny seed was cryptic; it had to be.  There were the spies of local king Herod about, and there were Roman soldiers around to enforce Caesar’s ultimate authority – neither of whom would appreciate talk of being replaced as king.  The Romans famously made crosses for people who spoke like that.  And they were not shy about using them.

Double Subversion

Jesus’ parables were subversive.  He came preaching about the kingdom of God which necessarily had to threaten everyone else who claimed to be the king.  But his parables were doubly subversive.

Not only were they subversive of king Herod and of Caesar, they were also subversive of the Sicarii and the (nascent) zealots, the would-be Jewish revolutionaries.

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They were subversive in two ways: in what the kingdom was going to look like, and how the kingdom was going to come to life.

Just as the Azalea never becomes a tree, neither does the mustard bush.  It gets big, but it stays a bush.  When Jesus told his parable, he did not tell a parable of a small cedar seed growing up to become a giant tree – though he could have told it that way.  He told of a seed of a bush.

The tree that this bush becomes looks nothing like the bush.  It has huge branches.  The bush concept is left behind.   It is utterly transformed.  The tree is so much larger and grand than the bush, there is no comparison.

In the same way, the kingdom of God was going to look much different than the renewed kingdom of David that the revolutionaries had in mind.  It was going to be so much bigger, you couldn’t even compare it to the little bush they were planning to fight, to kill and to die for.

In fact the kingdom of God was going to look like that cosmic world-tree, in which all the birds of the air could nest in; all the creatures of the earth could find shelter in its shade.  It’s boarders did not end at the Nile or the Tigris Rivers; it’s branches spread out to cover the whole earth.

How?  The Secret Seed Parable

How would such a world-wide kingdom come?  Not by force of arms.  Not by swords and sicarii, the methods of men of action, but by the power of God.  This is now time for the first parable we read; the parable of the secretly growing seed.

What does the farmer do after sowing this seed?  Nothing.  This parable announces that the kingdom is surely coming, but this parable is not a call to arms.  There is no action required.  Night and day, sleeping or rising, there is no blood to shed for this kingdom.

The plants grow up because that’s how God made the seed to grow in the “automatic earth.”  The only sharp blade that appears in this parable is the sickle that comes at the end when the harvest is ready.  That’s God’s sickle; it’s for him to wield.  Humans have no role in that action.

A Different Kind of Kingdom

How was Jesus’ kingdom concept different from the one the revolutionaries sought?  Jesus’ kingdom was not about power and domination, it was about mercy and healing.

It was not about one national or ethnic group and their exclusivist agenda, it was about including all kinds of people – Samaritans, Canaanites, Romans as well as Jews.  It was not about “us against them,” the righteous against the defiled, it was about recognizing that we are all on the same ground as God sees it, needing forgiveness.

There is no basis for excluding lepers or sinners, rather this kingdom is about bringing the message of God’s love to them.   This kingdom is not meant to be like a small private-property garden bush, but a huge tree whose shade is broad enough for everyone.  As John pictures it in the book of Revelation,

“the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  (Rev. 22:2)  

The Climax of Israel’s Story

In the ministry of Jesus, the story of Israel has reached its climax.  The promise to Abraham that through his seed, his descendants, all the families of the earth will

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be blessed is coming true at last.  The kingdom of God has come.

But the story is not finished.  Harvest time is still in the future.  In the mean time, we live in the kingdom that has already arrived, and in anticipation of its finale.

Like watching a play in the theater – the action is in progress already, though the final curtain has not yet fallen.  The Lord is King, yet we have been taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come.”

Living as Citizens

As citizens of the Kingdom of God, what kind of people should we be?  We should live lives that are congruent with the kind of kingdom in which we are citizens.  We are called to embrace all people and to exclude none, because those are the values of the Kingdom of God.

We are called to reach out with God’s love, to find ways to bring healing and compassionate care to everyone who is hurting, because those are the values of the Kingdom of God.

And we are called to trust that God is the one who is in control.  We do not for a minute believe in the cries of hopelessness and despair we hear around us.  We are people who trust that what God has planted, God will see through to the harvest.

Our lives are in his hands.  He is the one who sends rain and sun in its proper time.  We are people of faith, people of hope, and people love because we know we are loved, cared for and watched over by our heavenly Father.

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Notes:

*Cosmic tree myth: see Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 28, p. 263

**I am following the construct of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 230-243

“The Thickness of Blood” Sermon for 10th Ord., Pentecost +2, June 10, 2012 on 1 Samuel 8:4-20 & Mark 3:20-35

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways;

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appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; [and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.] He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.

Mark 3:20-35

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Thickness of Blood

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I am amazed by the way the two stories we just read connect with our world today.  In one sense, both stories are set in ancient worlds; cultures and world-views that couldn’t be more distant from our own.  But in another sense, they are practically describing the news in this morning’s paper.  Let’s look at them together, because I believe we need to hear the message that they give.

Common to Both Stories

Both stories have a couple of things in common: one person in each story, Samuel in one and Jesus in the other, is confronted by groups of people.  Both men have families with issues. It’s not a happy moment for either of them.  The ones confronting them are not on the right track; Samuel knows it, Jesus knows it.  Both Samuel and Jesus predict bad times ahead.

What Israel Wanted from Samuel

In Samuel’s day, Israel was a relatively young nation.  They could hardly be called a “nation.”  Actually, they were a collection of clans, or tribes, connected by the thickness of blood and by the bonds of covenant.  But they wanted more.  They wanted to become a monarchy like everybody else.  They wanted a king.

Samuel knew what this meant.  It meant that a king would take, and take, and take from them, the very essence of their covenantal community, and turn them into virtual serfs.

11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots…  13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards… 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards… 16 He will take the …best of your cattle and donkeys… 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

Wishing for Security 

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We all know the expression, “be careful what  you wish for.”  It was never truer.  Why did they want a king?  What were they after?  Security.  They felt threatened by hostile neighbors and believed a king and his army (every king has an army) could protect them.

The story of Samuel is part of a long story about their life as a people from the day they left Egypt where they had been slaves, all the way to the day they ended up as exiled captives in Babylon.  Their great idea that a king was going to solve their problems turned out to be a tragic mistake.  Be careful what you wish for.

I don’t think we are much different.  We don’t want a king, but we do want security.  And I believe the things we are doing to achieve that security will be our undoing.  But more on that in a minute.

What they Want from Jesus: Stop

The story from Mark’s gospel has two groups of people confronting Jesus.  First his family comes looking for him, but they get interrupted and have to wait until Jesus deals with the scribes from Jerusalem.

Neither Jesus’ family nor the scribes understand what Jesus is up to, so both try to shut him down.  His family wants to bring him home since what he is doing is practically insane, as they see it: attracting huge crowds and getting them excited about a kingdom other than the Roman kind.  People who do that kind of thing get themselves and lots of other people killed.

But before the family can get a word in edgewise, the scribes from the capital come down on a character-assassination campaign.  Jesus clearly has shown power over evil spirits, so he must, they believe, have a direct relationship with the head evil power.

Jesus and “the Satan”

Now, that’s just absurd.  Jesus points this out.  If he was working for the head of the evil spirits, why would he be casting out evil spirits?  He asks:

“How can Satan cast out Satan?

Then he says something you could take in two ways:  neither a house nor a kingdom, divided against itself, can stand.  Is he talking still about Satan casting out Satan?  Or could he be cryptically referring to the “house” or “kingdom” of Israel with all its internal divisions?  Was this a prediction of the fall of the nation?

Binding the Strong Man

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With that thought still playing in their heads, then he tells the famous “binding the strongman” parable.  If you want to plunder the house of a strong man, first you have to tie him up.  When he is helplessly bound, then you can plunder the place.

Jesus is clearly talking about the source of evil whom he calls “the satan.”  In contrast to the idea that he is working for the strong man, the satan, as he is accused of doing, he is, in fact, plundering satan’s house.  He is taking back what has been stolen in the first place.

In the ministry of Jesus, the kingdom of God has broken into the world.  His healings are a sign of the new creation.  His exorcisms are signs that the power of evil has been bound.  God is at work in Jesus, restoring people whom evil had damaged and creating out of them a new community, a new family.

The problem was that many people had identified Rome as the enemy, instead of evil itself.  And their plan to have a violent revolution to rid themselves of the Romans, as Jesus saw it, was going to head them straight for disaster.   The house would fall.

Who/what is our enemy?

Here is how this maps up to us, today.  Many of us have mis-identified our problem, and so we are applying hopelessly ineffective solutions.  And, we are failing.

We, like Israel of old, believe our problem is security.  So we make security enhancements all over the place.  We end up less secure.  We have failed to heed the advice, “be careful what  you wish for.”

This happens all the time. For example, crime.  We need to be secure from criminals.  So we vote for people who promise to “get tough on crime.” We pass mandatory sentencing laws, and end up incarcerating a higher percentage of our own people than any other nation on the planet.

What we got

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Now our prisons are full.  In fact they are hideously overcrowded.  They call our prison system in Alabama the “Department of Corrections.”   I don’t know who comes out “corrected.”   We are not making ourselves more secure, but less.

We all know the factors that produce criminals.  We all know that poverty is a huge predictor.  We know that sub-standard eduction is a huge predictor.  We know that dysfunctional families are a huge predictor.  But as long as we fail to identify these problems as the ones we should fix and instead simply concentrate on our own security, our insecurity only worsens.

But do we hear a loud, sustained, impassioned call from any of our political leaders to end poverty?  Are we, as a country, willing to do what it takes to make educating all of our children to the highest possible level, especially poor children, a national priority?

We know that only 64% of high school students graduate in Mobile, which means that nearly 40% do not.  This should scare all of us.  What do we think will happen to these people?  Many will end up in the most expensive housing and meal program in the world: US prisons.

Why not fix it?

What would it take to fix these problems?  A lot.  It would be costly.  Very costly.  Perhaps too costly.

Ah, maybe now we are getting to the root of the real problem.  Maybe at root it is my own lack of concern for “those people” and “their problems.”   Maybe I simply don’t think they are worth what it might cost me.  After all, they are not connected  to me by the thickness of blood.  They are not my “family.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asks?

The Enemy Evil in Me

The enemy-evil that Jesus came to bind and plunder, it turns out, is the evil selfishness and criminal apathy in me.  The thought process in me that says, “We have got ours, and we intend to keep it; you go find your own.”  The evil in me that refuses to recognize “the least of these” as “brothers of mine;” as my family.

Satan is bound!

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But the good news of the gospel is that Satan has been bound.  We do not have to live in the world of evil selfishness and criminal apathy.  We are members of God’s family.  God’s Spirit is living and active in us!

We have everything we need to participate in the plundering of the strong man’s house.  We have the keys of the kingdom.  We can unlock doors of hope for people that give them an alternative to the revolving doors from poverty to prison and back.

We have been given the vision of a world in which we can call one another “brother” and “sister” not on the basis of race or language or status or economics, but because we know that we share one “Father in heaven,” whose name is Holy, and whose will we will-to-be-done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

“The Love Dance,” Sermon for Trinity Sunday Year B, June 3, 2012 on Isaiah 6 and John 3

Isaiah 6:1-8 

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In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

John 3:1-17

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

What is God like?  How do we know God?  How should we think about God?  What does God want from us?

We will look at two stories of people who had those questions, and through them, we will be able to ask our own.

Isaiah’s Vision

Can you imagine what it must have been like for Isaiah to have that vision?  Seraphs, fiery angelic beings, are flying, calling out to each other and answering.  The temple fills with smoke.  The whole building is shaking.  And he gets a glimpse of God, so immense that the hem of his kingly robe fills the entire temple.  He thinks he is certainly doomed.  We hear him say,

“Woe is me! I am lost”

What did he think about God that made him believe that he would die in his presence?  What did he think about himself?

The angelic beings are calling out to each other,

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Another way to say it would be to say,

Utterly, utterly utterly Transcendently God-like is God: who fills the whole world with gloriously blinding divinity!”

That description fits exactly the God that Isaiah believes in.  But Isaiah is not an angelic being; he is a finite creature, a mortal man, flesh and blood.  Even worse, he knows himself as a sinful human being.  He is utterly unfit on both counts to be in God’s presence.  He believes he is doomed!

Was he wrong?  Well, what happened next?

He was not instantly consumed like a pine needle in a flame.  Rather an angel flew to him with a live, red-hot coal from the altar fire, touched his sin-stained lips, and in that act of purging and cleansing, pronounced his guilt forgiven, saying

“Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Yes, Isaiah had been wrong about God – not in what he understood, but in what was left out of his understanding.  Yes, God is utterly, transcendently God-like and glorious.   And also merciful; willing to forgive.

He should have known better than to think that God would kill him just for being in his presence.  After all, when Moses was in God’s presence, what did he

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hear God say?  He heard God describe himself – his true character; his essential nature, saying, as he passed by:

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Ex. 34:6)

What about us?  Lots of people believe that God’s orientation to the world and to us is basically hostile.  They believe that God is powerful and demanding, like a Prussian father, whose word is law, and who never smiles.   They think God to enjoys punishing sinners.  The first thing they think of when they think of God is hell, as though God created the world and its people just to watch them suffer.

That is not what Isaiah experienced when faced with the thrice-holy God.  He experienced a God whose goal was to cleanse, purge, purify, and forgive.

Nicodemus

What about Nicodemus?  He comes to Jesus at night, with only a shadowy understanding of Jesus’ identity.  He has seen some of Jesus’ “signs” which has led him to a conclusion:

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

What does Nicodemus think about God and what he wants?  He’s a Jewish leader.  He knows Torah, the Old Testament backwards and forwards.  He understands that God is One.  He knows that God made a covenant with Abraham, and that he is included in that covenant.  He knows the Law of Moses, the commandments.

Nicodemus apparently believes that God is able to be active in the world, even to do miraculous signs through special people like Jesus as he had done through the prophets. That would mean that God is not entirely hostile to the world and the people he made.  But how far does he go in his direct personal involvement with the world?

As a good Pharisee, Nicodemus focuses his thoughts about God on God’s expectations, his commandments.   For him, it is not as though God never smiles, it’s just that he believes he reserves his smiles for the deserving.

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But Nicodemus needs a new vision of God.  He needs to go back to square one and start over.  He needs to be born again into a new perspective.  He is missing the essential fact.  God does not start with commandments, God starts with love.

What does God do when he looks at a world full of sinful, commandment-breaking people?  Jesus corrects Nicodemus’ perspective, saying,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What about us?

When you think about God, thinking about you, what do you think?  Is God sitting there waiting for you to mess up so he can punish you?  Or is God merely waiting for you to finally “get it together” so he can begin to love you?  Both are simply incorrect.

God takes the initiative.  He isn’t waiting for anything.  God’s desire is not for our condemnation; he doesn’t want anyone to perish.  God’s desire is for us to be saved.  Saved from what? – from himself?  That would absurd.  God wants us to know life; life as he created it to be lived.  Life lived with him, in his presence, and in kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

So God looked at us sinful, commandment-breaking, selfish, vengeful, spiteful humans and said (in effect) – “they need my Son to show them who I am and what I want.  I love them too much to let them flail along in the dark any more; I’m sending Jesus to them.”

How should we think of God?  God the Father, sending Jesus, the Son into our world, empowering him by the Spirit: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the holy Trinity.

The Love Dance (“perichoresis”)

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One theologian from the 7th century (John of Damascus) thought we should picture God as a trinity of three dancers, holding hands, dancing together in harmonious joyful freedom.   They dance a love dance – the Father loves the Son who loves him back.  They both love the Spirit who loves the Father and the Son.  Round and round the love dance goes, eternally.   (see Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine, rev. ed. 1994, p. 91, ff.)

This dancing trinity pictures God, not as a single, isolated individual, but as an eternal community of persons.  God, by nature, is inter-personal, social.  God’s love is not megalomania self-love, but always other-directed love.  In fact, love is God’s essential characteristic.  God is love.

Love cares.  Love acts.  Love sends the Son to be the way, the truth and the life for sinful finite humans so that they can live as he created them to live.

But he will not leave them as he finds them.  Or should we say, he will not leave us as he finds us.  We, like Nicodemus, need to change our distorted, score-keeper concepts of God.  We need to let that old view die and be born in to an entirely new understanding that begins where God begins: with Love.

What God wants from us

Then we will see that he wants from us exactly what he wanted from Isaiah and exactly what he wanted from Jesus.  He wants to send us in to the world that he loves, to go to the people he loves, and to love them.

Isaiah heard it first hand.

“I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” 

And he immediately responded,

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“I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Jesus said, a bit later in the Gospel of John,

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  – John 20:21

Who is God?  God is love!  What does he want from us?  Love.  Love for God, of course, but love for the world that God loves.  Love for the people that God loves.

There are no exceptions here.  There is no one outside the reach of God’s love, no one whom he does not want to love through us.

How are we to live as Trinitarian Christians?  As love-dancers.  Where should we begin the dance?  Wherever it is needed the most.   That’s what Jesus did.  That is what we are here to do.