“The Church Reformed and Always Reforming”

“Heritage Sunday” July 29, 2012  Joshua 4:1-7; John 6:1-21

Joshua 4:1-7

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1 When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua:  2 “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe,  3 and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’”  4 Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe.  5 Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites,  6 so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’  7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”

John 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him,

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because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

“The Church Reformed and Always Reforming”

Reading the text from Joshua makes me smile.  I’m sure whomever wrote it was a parent who had raised children.  Every parent knows about the question stage  that children go through.  They want to know “why” about everything.  Why is the sky blue?  Why do stars twinkle?

So right in the middle of telling us about this amazing Jordan River crossing, in the heart of the explanation about how this event is supposed to be memorialized by means of the stone monument, the author pictures a child in the future asking “why?”  You can hear the child reasoning: “Twelve stones don’t just happen together.  Someone must have put them there.  What does it mean?  Why are they there?”

Forgetting Our Story

What would it mean if the father didn’t know?  What if the memory of that day of crossing from the wilderness into the promised land was forgotten?   What would they think about their identity if they didn’t know themselves as people with a past as slaves in Egypt?  What if they didn’t remember Moses, Sinai, the stone tablets, the whole Torah?  What if they forgot the years of wandering in the wilderness, the manna from heaven, the water from the rock, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night?

What if they did not remember that they had been formed as nation by a covenant?  That each of the twelve tribes represented by those twelve stones was connected to each other by the bonds of that covenant?

A community knows how it is to live by knowing who they are, their identity.  A community knows its identity through its history.

This is a powerful truth that can be used for good or evil.  Remembering and rehearsing a family story of victimization can lead a new generation to seek vengeance.  That is exactly what fuels the conflicts between Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, Serbs and Coats, Hutu’s and Tootsie’s, Palestinians and Jews, and, dare we say also, Christians and Muslims?

This is why remembering and retelling the story is so crucial, and why it is so important to tell the right version of the story.

Remembering our Story

This is what we are doing today, on Heritage Sunday.  Look at these walls: what do these stones mean?  Where did we come from?   How did we get here?  Who are we now?

We American Presbyterians trace our history back through the Scottish people who came to this country at its very beginning.  That’s why,

Knox

later today we will be hearing bag-pipes. In Scotland the word for church is kirk, which is why each year the Montreat conference for small churches is called the “Wee Kirk” conference.

Knox

John Knox was the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.  He was one of the primary authors of the Scots Confession of Faith which is in our Book of Confessions.   His name is part of our Presbyterian publisher’s name today: the Westminster/John Knox Press.

It was the Scotts who called the Reformed church Presbyterian, a name that announced our organizational system.  The word Presbyterian comes from  a Greek word for elder, signifying that our church is governed not by Bishops and priests but by elders; teaching elders (pastors) who are authorized to preach, teach and administer the sacraments, and ruling elders who are responsible for all aspects of the church’s life and mission.

Knox was grounded in Reformed theology by his study with John Calvin in Geneva.  John Calvin was a brilliant man whose writings, especially the Institutes of the Christian Religion are foundational for Reformed Theology around the world.

Calvin

Calvin also wrote commentaries on most of the books of the bible. Stop and consider this for a moment.  For us today, thinking of a theologian writing biblical commentaries seems as normal as a Scottish person playing the bagpipes.  But in the 16th century, it was not so.  It was more common to find theologians writing about other theologians; the tradition of the church, built up over the centuries.

Calvin

The great slogan of the Reformation was “ad fontes”  or “to the fountains” meaning “to the sources.”  The source of what we Christians believe is the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments which are for us, the written Word of God.  In the scriptures we learn our story and learn who we are.

It is from the scriptures that we learn “what do these stones mean” so that we can tell new generations.  This is exactly why we are interested in the “Reading the Bible in 90 Days” even though we know it’s not going to be easy: we Reformed Christians continually return “to the sources.”

Always Reforming

This quest to go back “to the sources” for guidance is the fruit of the Reformation of the 16th Century that has great significance for us today.  The motto of the Reformed Church is “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” or “The church, reformed, always reforming.”

We as Reformed, Presbyterians are not merely Scottish-nostalgic.  Nor are simply attempting to preserve the insights of the 16th century for all time.  The church  that experienced such a powerful reformation in that time knew that the need for reform would never cease.  The truly Reformed Church is always being reformed, as it continually returns to the fountains, the scriptures.

We continually return to the scriptures asking the question: what needs reforming in our day?  What are we missing?  What have we distorted?  What have we been blind to?

Blind Spots

Can you believe, that even though the central story of the whole Old Testament, the foundational narrative for the people of Israel is the exodus story, the story of being set free from slavery, nevertheless, it took the church nearly two-thousand years to see that we had been blind to the injustice of slavery?

Can you believe that after all this time, there are still people who can read the Genesis stories which tell us how this precious planet was created and pronounced “good” by God himself, who feel no obligations to protect the earth from degradation?

Why is it that so many  Christians can read story after story of Jesus feeding people and healing people and not see the biblical mandate to eliminate poverty and hunger and to bring decent, affordable health care to people made in the image of God?

How can we read stories of the enormous abundance that God provides for his people, from manna in the wilderness to twelve baskets of leftovers after the 5,000 were fed, and still believe in the narrative of scarcity that says, “don’t share; there may not be enough.”

How can we read the stories of Jesus’ table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, his ministry to non-Jews and to marginalized people, his embrace of all kinds of people and feel free to exclude anyone?

Back to the Jesus Story

Thank the Lord we Reformed Christians have at least learned where to go to hear the stories that tell us who we are,  and that we have learned to keep returning to them again and again, so that the church that is Reformed, can continually be reformed.

Our central story is the story of Jesus.  In Jesus we see the love of God in human flesh.  Christians believe that, as Jesus himself taught, to see him is to see the Father.  We come to understand God by studying and imitating Jesus.  He is the ultimate source.

And what do we see?  Constantly, we see the active, practical love of God, lavishly, extravagantly, compassionately, graciously given.  We see

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Jesus focusing most of his time on people in greatest need, people who have been pushed to the margins by the powerful, people who have been written-off as unworthy by the purity-geeks.

We see Jesus illustrating time and again the theology of God’s abundance.  Grace knows no limits.  Love never ends.  Lostness and lameness is never the last word.  There is enough for everyone when the little lunch of barley loaves and fish is given away.

It is hard for us.  As John Calvin said, “we are so strongly attached to outward means, that nothing is more difficult than to depend on the providence of God.” (Commentary on John 6:12)

And yet, as Reformed Christians, depend on the providence of the abundant God, we shall do.  This is our heritage.  We may be a small church, a “wee kirk,” but we serve a great God who has no limitations, and we have been sent into a world that is desperate for grace. Thanks be to God.

Master Class: Planning and Not

Lectionary Sermon on Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Mark 6:30-34,  53-56 for 16th Ordinary, Year B, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 11

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of

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Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Mark 6:30-34,  53-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Master Class: Planning and Not

I am so glad that we have this small window into the life and practices of Jesus and his disciples; I believe it is here, in the gospels, to teach us something powerful that we all need.

But what if it were not here?  What if all we had was a collection of Jesus’ teachings, but no connecting stories about his life?  Would that be enough?  If we had his teachings, like, for example, the Sermon on the Mount, wouldn’t we have everything we needed?  The core of his ethical, moral and wisdom teachings would all be there, right?

The Gospel of Thomas: Sayings Alone

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Actually, there is such a text.  Discovered in Egypt in 1945, the so called “Gospel of Thomas” is a collection of sayings, attributed to Jesus, most of which are found in parallels in the biblical (canonical) gospels.

But the gospel of Thomas has only sayings, no narratives about Jesus’ life.  There is no story of his birth, no miracle stories, nor any crucifixion nor resurrection accounts.  Clearly, many elements crucial to our faith are missing.  The story we read today is, of course similarly absent.  It contains no famous “sayings” of Jesus, so someone felt it had nothing to teach us.

That idea is so tragic!  This text is hugely important to us.  Why?  Because, though Jesus’ direct teachings are of utmost value to us, so too is his life.  Jesus came, not just to present a set of moral teachings or an ethical guide to life.  Jesus came to announce the Good News which he himself defined as the arrival of the Kingdom of God among us.

Jesus’ Vision of God as King

Jesus had a vision of God as king: not just a replacement for local king Herod, and not just an alternative to Rome’s Emperor, Caesar.  Rather, Jesus had a vision of God as rightful King of the Universe, king of all people.

What is more, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God actually turned the whole concept of kingship on its head.  Normally we think of kings as those who wield great power and authority.  The ones able to do what they like – like assassinate prophets if they care to, even at the whim of child-dancers at drunken parties – as we saw Herod do last week.

King of Responsibility

Power and authority is one side of the coin of Kingship; the reverse side is the king’s responsibility for the citizens of the kingdom.   The king is the one ultimately responsible for the protection and safety of his people.  He is the one who has to make sure that there is justice in the courts and righteousness at every level of government.  The King is the one who is responsible to ensure that the dignity and integrity of all of his people is protected.

This is why the lectionary gives us that Old Testament text from Jeremiah.  In it, the prophet speaks on behalf of God who is scandalized at the irresponsible kings, the bad shepherds of Israel, who have failed to be responsible to produce “justice and righteous” for their “sheep” – their people.

The solution is that in the future, the prophet says, God will raise up a new “branch” from the old family tree of the ancient king David.  Speaking for God Jeremiah says:

“I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5)

So, Jesus has been proclaiming that the kingdom of God is present and active in his ministry in a new, climactic way.  Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God is that God’s will is perfectly done, starting now, on earth, not just in some remote, distant, heavenly realm – as he taught us to pray;

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” 

Family Responsibility

God’s will, in this rather upside-down looking kingdom, includes that each one of his citizens comes to know each other as one large extended family.   One Father in heaven is father of all of us – the old barriers that humans have erected out of fear of each other, out of hatred of those who are different, or out of sheer envy, have been eliminated in the Kingdom of God.  Jews and gentiles, people in all the world, “from Jerusalem to Judea, to the ends of the earth” are included (Matt 28:18-20).

Getting Practical

What does this mean, practically?  Because God is Father and we are all family, we all have responsibility for each other.  We all become extensions of the King’s responsibility to care for and protect his people.  We are responsible to care for and protect each other, in the family.  The same perspective holds true in this family as in any healthy family: the older, stronger members of the family look out especially for the younger, weaker members.

You heard stories this past week of people shielding others with their own bodies in that theater in Colorado as the man opened fire and

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started shooting.  One man was interviewed and described crawling on the floor with his four month old baby, shielding this precious life with his own.  This is exactly how families live for each other, even to the point of sacrifice.

Now, it is true that everybody who is normal and healthy looks out for their own – their own family, their own kind.  Even the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s were good to their own kind, their own family members.   There is nothing particularly praiseworthy about that (in fact, it’s simply the function of the “selfish gene” protecting its own future).

Our Extended Family

This is where the vision of the kingdom of God is so powerfully different.  This vision is not a selfish, parochial, chauvinistic one, like is so common among humans.  In Jesus’ compelling vision of the Kingdom of God, compassionate care for the family extends to the family that migrated to Holland and now speaks Dutch.  It includes the family in  Africa where the Klaas family live and work.

This is what we see at work in this bit of the story of Jesus that we see today, that the Gospel of Thomas misses.

Planned Mission

There are two parts of this text: In the first part, the disciples return after their two-by-two mission that Jesus sent them out on.

“The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.”

People who have embraced the fantastic vision of the kingdom of God do what Jesus taught his disciples to do: they organize for mission.  They plan mission work.  They go out intentionally as a missional community to proclaim the Good News of the kingdom of God.  It’s all very organized and strategic.  Plans were made, locations chosen, pairs were formed and off they went.

We do that too.  We plan for mission; we organize and strategize ways of getting God’s love and mercy to people.  We support the methodical work of literacy that people like the Klass’ are doing through Wycliffe. We organize and run the Christian Service Center.

We raise money to respond to distant disasters through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  We go fix houses of poor people through Repair Baldwin.  We learned all of this strategic organization from Jesus – from texts like the one we read today.  We are a missional community, organized for mission.

Spiritual Basis for Mission

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We also learn from texts like this that we are, at root, fundamentally a  spiritual community.  After the disciples return from organized mission, what does Jesus do?

“He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Jesus frequently got away from the noisy, chaotic, needy world, so he could be alone with his Heavenly Father.  He was used to getting away to pray in solitude.  This is the source of the fuel that fires mission: it is our spiritual connection with God who is Spirit.

Notice, they didn’t go to a temple or even a synagogue.  They simply went off for some solitude, to commune with God.  There is no such thing as authentic Christian mission that is not, at it’s very root and foundation, based on a vital spiritual connection with God.

Unplanned Mission

There is one more powerful lesson we learn from this Master class text: it is that some ministry happens because we organized and planned for it.  At other times, our mission is simply plopped down in front of us, unexpected and unplanned.

This is exactly what happened to Jesus and the disciples that day we read about.

“As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” 

What was it that motivated Jesus in this unplanned moment?

“he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them”

“Compassion.”  The word for “compassion” means that when you see need, it gets you in the guts.  It moves you.  You see hurting people, and it does something to you inside, so you naturally respond.

No Law

There is no law here that is there to obey such as: “thou shalt help people”.

There is no duty here to feel obligated to.  There is no assignment, no command, no drudgery here.

Rather its the opposite.  From deep in the heart comes this feeling – “O my!  Look!  There are people in need – and here I am with something to give.   I didn’t plan this, but God must have put me here for a purpose.”

This is like the impulse to dive on top of children being shot at in a theater – it is “compassion” that comes from having embraced the vision of the Kingdom of God, responding to unplanned opportunities to be family.

Some local examples

new wheel chair ramp built by volunteers

This is who we are; this is what we do.  We are now going to hear a report of two of our family here, who have recently been “sent out” on an organized mission, right here in Baldwin County through the ministry called Repair Baldwin.

Hear the “Halverson Benediction” which sums up the message today:

“Wherever you go; God is sending you there.  Wherever you are; God has put you there.  He has a purpose for you being there. Christ, who indwells you, has something he wants to do through  you, where you are.  So, believe that.”  

“What if it were lawful?”

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time , Sixth Sunday after Pentecost-Proper 10 for July 15, 2012

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the

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dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Sometimes we hear the warning on TV or radio “the following contains subject matter that younger or more sensitive viewers (or listeners) may find offensive.”  Maybe that warning should have been written into the bible just before the this episode from Mark’s gospel.  It’s got it all: abuse of power, seduction, graphic gratuitous violence; a lot that is offensive.  You have heard me say that the bible is an adult book; this story is one good example.

But what is it that offends us?   Maybe not enough.  The way Mark tells this story, it draws us in, and then leads us down into descending levels of vileness.  We may have the desire to look away – but this text is as important for us as it is offensive, so let’s look at it together.

Narrative setting

Where are we in Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus when we get this story?  Last week we heard that Jesus had been basically forced out of his home village and began his itinerant ministry out in the marginalized country-side villages.  He launched his strategy of sending out his newly trained disciples in pairs, having given them authority to heal and to confront evil.  They have been successful.

Jesus’ reputation of the leader of this movement is growing.  The government’s ever watchful web of informants has passed the news all the

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way up to the man in charge, Herod.

Mark calls him “king Herod.”  He’s not actually a king.  His father was Herod the Great, a client-king that Rome tolerated – but that had all changed. The Herod of this story, called Herod Antipas, was in charge only of the region of Galilee where Nazareth is.

Why would Mark call him “king” if he were not?  Probably to mock him.  In the story, Herod gives himself a birthday party like a king might do, and promises half his “kingdom” to the dancer who famously “pleased him.”

Why mock him?  Because he is completely pathetic.  Not only is he not really a king, he is not even in control of anything, as we will see.

From the beginning of the story, without any spoiler alert, we are told the conclusion: Herod is responsible for the death of Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist.  In fact, Mark tells us that Herod fears that Jesus is actually John, come back to life,  (which would be potentially bad news for his killer).  Herod then is living in some kind of guilt and dread.

“when Herod heard of it [Jesus’ growing fame], he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 

How it came to this

What follows is the description of how Herod came to behead John.  We find out that it wasn’t his idea; that in fact he was fascinated by John, he even “feared him” because he recognized him as a “righteous man.”

So why was John being held at all?   He had offended Herod’s wife, Herodias, by calling into question the legitimacy of their union.  She used to be Herod’s brother’s wife.  Now, it is true that the law of Moses forbids a man to marry his brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21), but there is more reason than just that to oppose this union.   Herod was also her uncle.  (see Joel Marcus, Yale Anchor, 394)

In the English version of the story we read, it says,

“John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

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“Not lawful” is a bit of a free translation of the text that originally says something more like: “it isn’t done” meaning it’s morally out of bounds.

Now, of course that made Ms. Herodias angry, but let’s not rush past what is happening here.  John the baptist is presuming that Herod and his family are not at the top of the moral food chain, free to consume at will.  This means that they are under obligations that supersede them in power and authority.  John is saying they are not in charge.  God is.

The Law of the King

John the baptist comes from a long tradition in Israel that had repeatedly reinforced the notion that the rightful king of Israel was God himself.  If any human being arrogated himself to a throne, he did it as one under obligations to the Divine King whose law was the law of the land.

In a fascinating paragraph from Deuteronomy 17 we hear these words,

“14  When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you… and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,”  15 you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose… he must not acquire many horses for himself, …he must not acquire many wives… also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.  18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him…   19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes,  20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left….”  

Of course a king like that is hardly a king at all, and it’s obvious that none of the kings of Israel (or Judah) were obedient to that law (Solomon was the exact opposite).  Nevertheless, in the heart of the Jewish tradition there is the understanding that no human king is the final authority.

The Prophetic Tradition

Therefore, in Israel there is also the tradition of prophets who often found it necessary to criticize kings.  The prophets held kings accountable to a higher standard, and were often persecuted for it by the kings they addressed.  This was exactly the tradition that John the baptist was following in his critique of Herod’s domestic relationships.

The central point is actually not that Herod’s marriage violated the law from Leviticus.  The central point is that the governmental authority is not the highest authority.  Perhaps this is what was most offensive to Herod’s wife – that her family’s authority was, after all, penultimate; accountable to standards of morality and ethics that they were not free to flaunt.

What if it were “lawful” in the sense of “legal” for them to be married?  Even that would not make it right.  There are standards which the prophetic book Isaiah repeatedly refers to as “justice and righteousness” that every human is obligated to, including those who wear the robes of royalty and conduct their parties in palaces.

Ridiculous (and worse) Herod

The way Mark tells this story makes Herod look ridiculous – for a reason.  At his party, his step-daughter, the daughter of his brother, who is actually also his own niece, does what normally the prostitutes of that world did – dance for the men.

There are lots of paintings of this dance.  Clearly the toxic mixture of money, sex and power, blood and lust, has captured many imaginations.

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But all of the paintings I have seen get it wrong.  They make the dancer a mature woman.  Mark calls her a “girl” – and no, back then, females, post-puberty, were not called “girls” as happens in our culture.

The “delight” this child dancer gave to Herod was perhaps familiar to people like Jerry Sandusky, but Mark expects the rest of us to be horrified by it.

Mark completes the picture of Herod he has been painting by recording the ridiculous promise Herod gave her of “up to half my kingdom” – as if his administration of a morsel of Roman territory gave him the right to make that foolish offer.  It  only increases our sense that this man was neither responsible nor  in control.

Then, we watch his wife manipulate her own daughter and her husband, at the same time, by demanding the beheading of innocent, righteous John.

So What?

Why are we given such a disgusting story?  What does it meant to us?  This is crucial.  At the very center of our faith is the cross; the instrument of execution used by a corrupt government to put to death an innocent person, Jesus.  By itself, that should be enough to make it clear to all of us that governmental power may be used for illegitimate ends.

But Jesus was not in opposition to Pilate.  That was not his crime.  That charge made against Jesus, that he was seeking his own coronation as earthly king, was mistaken.  But right here in the heart of the Jesus-story, is this account of direct criticism of the governmental authority of the day.  John held Herod accountable to the standards of justice and righteousness that were set by a higher power; by God himself.

The Final Authority

This text gives us the mandate to hold all authorities accountable the the one and only true king of the universe.  No government is free to make unjust laws or to violate the dignity and integrity of the people they have been set over.

If this is true in the case of a monarchy such as the Roman Empire, how much more true is it of governments which “we the people” freely elect?  Long ago we were disabused of the notion of the “divine right of kings.”  We know that the right to govern is one which “arises from the consent of the governed.”

So then, when the laws of the land unjustly discriminate, they are wrong.  When the laws of the land criminalize humanitarian care for people because they are aliens, those laws are wrong.

How about us?

What do we, in Gulf Shores, think about laws that make it illegal to be homeless?  Instead of criminalizing sleeping in your car or in a park,

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should we not rather sound the cry for help?   Should it not be the case that every example of a homeless person causes us all to reach out in concern and compassion?  Should it not call us to examine the conditions that led to homelessness and to work to find solutions and interventions that preserve the dignity and integrity of these fellow humans?

We could and should continue this self-exam further.  What about these Pay Day loan companies that feed off of the misery and vulnerability of people who are already at-risk financially?  Should their interest rates and fees be legal?  Some of them are at levels that would make Tony Soprano blush.

The test of any society is how it cares for its weakest and most vulnerable.  In biblical language, we know them as “the widow, the orphan and the stranger” in the Old Testament.  In the New Testament we hear them called “the least of these brothers of mine.”

The fact that something is legal does not make it right.  Every human law is accountable to God’s standard of justice and righteousness.

The Call

This text from Mark’s gospel is a clarion call to us all.   It is about our society; it is also quite personal.  This text brings into the story of Jesus the very same prophetic call sounded, for example, by Micah and Isaiah.  This is about personal spirituality; as personal as the means of our approach to God and what we can expect from God.

6       “With what shall I come before the LORD, 

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old? 

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love mercy,

and to walk humbly with your God?”  (Micah 6)

 

“6    Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke? 

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 

8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator shall go before you,

the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 

9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;

you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”  (Isaiah 58)

 

“The Jesus Issue”

Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 for July 8, 2012, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, 14th Ordinary, Year B

Mark 6: 1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the

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synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

This is a fascinating glimpse into the life of Jesus, his family, and the early days of his ministry – but it is so much more.  This small text has huge implications that are so powerfully needed today.  Let’s look at the text together.

First, here is the big picture: Jesus has already been seen in Mark’s gospel to have power from God to heal (remember the hemorrhaging woman from last week), to raise back to life a person who had died (the daughter of the synagogue leader), and he has power over the demonic realm – the world of evil.

He comes back to his village-of-origin, teaches in the synagogue, finds local skepticism, gets frustrated, and leaves them.  He embarks on a traveling ministry,  then sends out his disciples in pairs on a mission of healing and exorcism, giving them specific instructions about how to conduct themselves and what to do.  The conclusion is given in the final statement:

So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

So, it starts well, goes badly, but ends well – but why tell us?  Of all of the things we wish we knew about Jesus but were never told, why did Mark spend so much precious papyrus space on these almost trivial details?  Let’s look at them.

Local Boy Makes Good

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Jesus returns home.  No doubt, before he arrived, news about him had spread back to his home village, tiny, little Nazareth, where nothing much new ever happens.  Well now, something new has happened. It is like a local kid from Gulf Shores making the olympics.  Suddenly he’s the talk of the town.

At first it seems that they are proud of their famous local boy.  When he taught in their synagogue Mark tells us:

many who heard him were astounded.”

And yet, quickly, their thoughts turned dark.  Why?  It looks to me like petty jealousy.  “Maybe now that he’s getting famous he thinks he’s better than us?”

“They said, “Where did this man get all this?” 

The tragically odd thing is that they recognize some kind of power at work in Jesus, noticing his extraordinary wisdom and healing powers”

What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!

The Birthers’ Suspicions

But that’s not enough for them.  They know where he comes from.  They know his mother.  She’s the one who got herself pregnant before marriage.   They say:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Notice they didn’t mention Joseph? They call Jesus, “Mary’s son,” as if to leave open a question.  These people, shall we call them the “birthers”? in Nazareth are after a missing birth-certificate.  Their heads are full of dark suspicions about whose name is sitting there in the box labeled “father.”

So it’s clear that even after the evidence of their own eyes and ears they are not prepared to believe that Jesus could possibly be the one to bring the kingdom of God that they have been longing for.  How could this local, blue-collar, illegitimate kid grow up to be the one to bring in the time of God’s shalom, wholeness, well-being?

Not Him, right?

How could local boy Jesus be the one to bring in the time when the nation, or, as the prophets would picture it, “daughter Zion” would be

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healed of her injuries?

How could “Mary’s son” confront the fearsome evil powers that held the people in bondage to foreign oppressors?  Doesn’t his inauspicious background prove that he is not The One?

Just the opposite; Jesus quotes a proverb that shows that he is in exactly the same position that prophets of the past found themselves in: rejected by their own people.

Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Jesus is frustrated.  He is able to do much less than he intended.

Learning God from Jesus

We need to pause right here to learn something absolutely crucial:  We Christians believe that we know God by knowing Jesus.  We believe that Jesus shows us what God is like – what he thinks is important, who he thinks is worth his time, what is wrong and how to fix it.  Basic fact #1 in Christian theology is that God is most clearly, most fully made know to us in and through the life and ministry of Jesus.

Well, if that is true, what does this part of the story tell us about God?  It tells us that God’s agenda is to bring healing and restoration to us.  That was Jesus’ goal.  That’s what he wanted to do there in Nazareth.

But this also tells us that he may be resisted.  He does not force himself on unwilling people.  As tragic as it is, people can stay sick instead of being healed of the damage that evil always does.

Nevertheless, the take-away point is that God wills our healing and restoration to shalom.  That is what he wants for every one of us.

Into the Margins with the Message

Let’s continue with the story.  So Jesus departs with his newly constituted family – people who believe that God is working through him.  And he goes out to where the suffering people are, out into the marginalized countryside villages, and proclaims his message.

Soon, he implements his plan to expand his ministry by sending out the ones whom he has trained, his original disciples.

“He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.”

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If Jesus was resisted, if his ministry was less than 100% successful in his home village, the disciples should expect resistance to their ministry as well.  Jesus gives them detailed instructions about how to conduct their mission, and what to do when it fails.

“He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

Why the odd details?

Why are we told about these details.  First for an old reason that is interesting, but doesn’t exist anymore, and then for a reason that will never become irrelevant.

First, the disciples were supposed to be dependent, not independent of the people they ministered to.  They were not to bring their own  means of support and stand aloof from the poor villagers they went to; rather they were to be one of them – eating from their dinner tables.

In this way, they were to be completely different from the Cynic philosophers who were so popular in that world at that time.  Although there were some surface similarities – that they traveled and taught and shunned normal comforts, nevertheless, the Cynics kept a full bag of provisions so that they were independent of the people they tried to convince.  The disciples, by contrast, were utterly dependent upon, not superior to the people they served.

Incarnational ministry

In this way the disciples were like Jesus himself, who came to humanity as one of us.  Just as Jesus divested himself of all his divine prerogatives when he took on our human flesh, so too the disciples mode of ministry had to be “incarnational.”

In Jesus’ kingdom, nobody outranks anybody else.  We are all equally members of God’s family, all equally loved by God.  God wills the healing and restoration of all of us on this planet whom he has made in his image.  None are second rate, or second class.

So the first thing we learned from the mission of the twelve is the way they were among the people as equals, especially to be unlike the Cynic philosophers.

The Mission may Fail

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The need to make that distinction may no longer be relevant, but the second fact that this mission shows us is still true: the disciple’s mission may fail.

Just like Jesus’ own mission was frustrated in Nazareth, so too, disciples who continue his work should not expect complete success.  There will be resistance.  There will be rejection. Expect to fail sometimes.  Just because you are doing exactly what God wants  you to do, do not expect it to be easy.

Mark’s story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth is very short.  Luke goes into more detail.  We know from him that the people hated it when Jesus spoke of God’s openness to foreigners.  That’s just an example.  There are all kinds of reasons not to like Jesus’ message.

Reasons to Reject Jesus

In a world of vengeance, who wants to hear Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek?

In a world in which no one tells me what to do, who wants to hear about going the second mile?

In a world of selfishness and apathy, who wants to hear that our obligations to our neighbors includes everyone whom we see lying on the side of the road in pain?

In a world in which people are treated as commodities, who wants to be told not to treat each other as objects to lust after or as targets of angry name-calling derision?

In a world where lawsuits have become the new American dream, who wants the message of forgiving 70 X 7?

In a world of materialism and greed, who wants to hear about giving your coat to someone who needs only a shirt?

There are many reasons to reject Jesus’ message.  And so the disciples who carry that message into the world should expect resistance and rejection.

The Wrong Consensus Belief

The status quo may be, and often has been, completely wrong, and the people who said so, were often, just like Jesus, rejected.

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The early abolitionists were the despised minority, even though slavery was and is evil.

The first ones to champion the civil rights movement were persecuted, some even killed for their work for justice and freedom.

Every culture I have been exposed to has a huge number of people who are  materialistic, patriarchal, misogynist, xenophobic, nationalistic and homophobic.  There are no new ideas.  And these sick ways of thinking are like poison, harming everyone they contact.

Change is Required

This is why the message of the disciples had to be the same as the message of Jesus:

“So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.”

Repent” literally means to think differently, and therefore to behave differently.   There are huge areas of ugly, destructive and self-destructive thoughts that people take for granted as the truth, that are killing us, but we cling to them anyway.

Self-deception and the psychological defense mechanism of denial is probably the most tragically common human characteristic we have.  Like the myopic, smug, pretentious and foolish people of Nazareth, many of us  would rather stay sick than admit that we could be sick, or that someone like Jesus could be the means of our shalom.  But he is.

God’s Will and God’s Call

Listen, God wills our healing from all of the destructive effects of evil.  He wishes our release from the dark powers that possess our cultures and our minds.   He comes offering a way out, offering the kingdom of God.  Jesus shows us this God at work.  And he is still at work today.

The first call of this text is to all of us, to actively repent of all the ways we have been seduced by evil and to offer ourselves to God for his healing.

The second call is to be an active part of his continuing mission.  This is the call to be one of the sent-ones who go two by two to the margins to offer God’s message of shalom and healing to everybody.  We may not be successful, we may face some rejection.  There are those who would rather cling to their smugness than repent and be healed, but there will also be those who respond.

God has you where you are to be a part of his mission of shalom; in your family, in your neighborhood, in your (our) church and denomination, and in our nation and world.  We have been sent out by the same one who sent the first twelve, to be a part of bringing God’s justice, compassion, inclusion and healing love to a hurting world!