“My kingdom is not from this world,” says Jesus. No kidding. That seems pretty obvious. Yet at the same time, this has to be one of the most obscure statements from Jesus. Working for Jesus’ kingdom, praying for “thy kingdom come” is a rather difficult endeavor when it seems so far away from the reality that we know and in which we live. The kingdoms of our world could hardly be more opposite than the kingdom Jesus has in mind.
What kind of kingdom does Jesus propose? Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, kingdom language in John is rare, used only here (John 18:33-37) and in the conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:3-5). Interestingly, Jesus’ reference to kingdom in the Gospel of John comes up in dialogue with those who represent the kingdoms of Jesus’ present day world. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus represents the kingdom of the Jews. As a Roman procurator, Pilate represents the Roman Empire. It seems that the kingdoms of the world as it was known back then are called into question by Jesus who is the Word made flesh loving the world (John 3:16).
It will not be sufficient when preaching on Christ the King Sunday simply to suggest that the negative aspects of today’s kingdoms are therefore made positive in Jesus’ kingdom. Or, to insist that we can name every bad feature in kingdoms of today and turn them around so as to describe adequately the goodness of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is not opposite of our kingdoms, it has to be more than — it just has to be.
I am finishing this column on the day of the Paris attacks. In the face of sheer horror, peace seems impossible (Revelation 1:4). In the face of senseless violence, imagining the absence of terror seems hopeless. God’s kingdom looks so very far off on these kinds of days, in these kinds of moments, in this kind of world. Working for God’s kingdom feels like a rather futile determination. It’s not just an up hill battle — it’s unfeasible, even ridiculous to think that our efforts and energies can turn a world around into the world God sees it can be. Across my Twitter feed today was this quote, “Changing the world begins with a small group of people who simply refuse to accept the unacceptable” (Richard Branson). It is beyond hard to believe that we can stand up against the unacceptable, but we have to believe it — we just have to.
While God’s kingdom will come regardless because it’s God’s after all, Revelation reminds us that Jesus “made us to be kings” (according to the Greek; not “a kingdom,” Revelation 1:6). And since we have been made to be kings (and queens) of God’s kingdom, it is our calling to work for that kingdom and not for those kingdoms of this world. It is our calling to strive for different. It is our calling to bring about “thy kingdom come” even with the promise of God’s kingdom coming.
Of course, part of the challenge in all of this is the penchant to limit kingdom to location. This is when the “reign of Christ” is a helpful corrective for this festival Sunday, not just for the sake how we talk about Jesus and the titles we give to Jesus, but for the sake of realizing that Jesus’ kingdom is a state of being, a way to live, a commitment to a particular way to view the world.
And in John, Jesus wants us to see that his kingdom is only about place if place indicates the profound and intimate “place” of relationship with God. Jesus’ kingdom is not about amassing additional amounts of control. Jesus’ kingdom is not about his ultimate rule over and above others. Jesus’ kingdom is about relationship. “My kingdom is not from this world” because it is from God. Pilate attempts to construe the boundaries of Jesus’ kingdom in terms of those perpetuated by the kingdom to which he is beholden. But Jesus’ kingdom is from God, just as Jesus is from God (John 1:1) and Jesus is God’s kingdom. The concept of kingdom is radically recalculated in the Gospel of John, from kingdoms that strain and sever relationships to a kingdom that puts relationship at its core. That’s a whole different perspective on kingdom. When kingdom is construed from the truth of relationship and not rule, from the truth of incarnation and not location, from the truth of love and not law, then Jesus as truth will ring true.
This is the truth that the kingdoms of this world cannot see. God’s truth. Jesus as truth. But it is the truth that we can see and that we are called to preach, that we have to preach, not only on Christ the King Sunday, but every Sunday. To love fiercely even in the face of fear (“In the face of fear I will love fiercely,” Jessica Ortner).
“What large stones and what large buildings?” If you have ever been to the Holy Land, you know just how big those stones really are. I have a picture of me standing in front of a Herodian block of stone, far, far taller than I. Of course, that doesn’t take much effort in my case, but still. Massive. Impressive. No wonder the disciples were agog and amazed. I certainly was. And suddenly, this story made sense. Suddenly, I completely understood the astonishment of the disciples. The impetus for awe is typically justified — and on many levels.
“What large stones?” There’s a sermon right there. We love bold. We love big. We love better. That’s the human motto, in every form, it seems. The bigger, the better. The disciples are no different than we are and we are no different than the disciples back then. While we tend to trust in our two-thousand-plus-years insightfulness or insist that the disciples are less than insightful, Jesus calls out the truth of our humanity — both for his past and for present disciples. Regardless of time, regardless of proximity to Jesus, regardless of so-called illumination, disciples across the age are attracted to splendor and grandeur. We are drawn to the biggest and the best. The most influential. The most powerful. The most anything. We love superlatives. Lest we think we are any more knowledgeable than Jesus’ first disciples, we are not. We only know different attractions, manifestations, and incarnations of magnificence, especially when it comes to what it means to be a Christian.
Membership numbers, programs, innovation. Stewardship campaigns, “transformative” preaching, Christmas pageants. Christian education, moving worship, building projects — there is no end to what large stones we seek to erect. Our large stones are meant to draw the attention and wonder of onlookers. Our large stones are put in place to attract potential members. Our large stones are even constructed so as to secure the dedication and continued wonder of our own flock. Our faith, our religious life, our churches are not free from the want for prestige, for desire of greatness and grandness, for a yearning for a majesty beyond comparison. In fact, when it comes to faith and how we do church the penchant for better is frequently even worse. Why is that? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it a belief that church is really just one big competition? Is it a sense that God really doesn’t mean what God says? That God doesn’t really keep God’s promises?
On the brink of his own arrest and death — I know, weird here and now but where we are in Mark — Jesus’ lesson, to his disciples, to us, is critical. As Jesus’ ministry comes to a close in Mark, it will be all too easy to fall back into a kind of mode of expectation that seeks to compare Jesus’ kingdom with those of this world. As we look toward to the end of the church year and Reign of Christ Sunday, it is easy to be convinced that bigger and better are marks of God’s church. As we get settled into our fall program schedules, it is easy to disregard that God’s criteria for success in ministry is not bigger and better but faithfulness. That what God cares about is not the “blank-est,” but our best — and there’s a difference between those two.
“What large stones?” is something we are quick to notice but we are not as quick to ask what stands behind the perceived greatness. There is always a backstory of which we are not privy. We cannot tell from the outside the story the lies on the inside. We cannot see in first impressions what has made possible the result or the efforts to get there. We cannot know what it took to make our amazement possible.
In part, Jesus is asking us to ask what’s been overlooked in the past for the sake of what is viewed in the present. And, usually such large stones do not come without a significant price. That which and those whom we prop up, admire, wish to be, or envy, have particular reasons and rationales for being what and who they are. If we knew the truth about how the greatness came to be? Well, we may not like what we hear. We may start to realize that such greatness is not worth the overhead. And we may begin to understand that another’s striving for greatness has come at the expense of others, and perhaps the cost of one’s very self.
“What large stones” is a phrase never without sacrifice, either the sacrifice of others or the sacrifice of who you intended to be, wanted to be, and thought you could be. Sometimes this sacrifice is positive, but we can never think that the greatness of another is achievable on our terms. Our tendency is to see this greatness and think we could have done better, rather than inquire about how the greatness came to be. Sometimes this sacrifice is negative, because the allure of grandeur then throws all others under the proverbial bus or the grandeur itself takes over the soul.
In the end, “what larges stones” is itself a statement of faith and it’s a statement of faith that Jesus asks us to reconsider.
“Her whole life.” That’s what she gave, friends. The Greek is certain. Clear. Little room for wiggle room. Not a portion. Not a tithe. Not a percentage. But her whole living.
Her whole living? That should be a moment for pause. None of us can give that to the church, or to anyone or anything, for that matter. So we cannot reduce her donation to a percentage or a portion. We cannot rationalize her offering for the sake of dedication to some calculated stewardship campaign. She gave her whole life to God. If we turn this into a stewardship sermon, we have most certainly succeeded in undermining this widow’s gift at best and making it an example at worst.
Her whole life. Why? Out of obligation? Respect? Demand? Expectation? Religiosity? Piety? All of the above? She gave her whole life because there were no other options. She gave her whole life because that’s what was expected of her. She gave her whole life because her life depended on it. Caught in a system of quid pro quo, trapped in expectations that demanded more from her than she could practically give, knowing that her future depended on her present, she had to do what she did. She acted out of assumptions and assertions and assessments that located her, managed her, and determined her life. There was no other recourse than to give her whole life.
To be clear, very clear. This is not an indictment against Judaism. No way and no how. This was the system. This was reality. And yet Jesus makes an important observation about this reality. Jesus risks speaking the truth, or at least he does according to Mark. At its heart, this was the Jesus movement. And that is something to consider and ponder as preachers over and over again. The Jesus movement claimed that God was up to something new — not a new doctrine, not a new faith, not a new God, but God committed to a continued way of being in relationship with God, with the world, for the sake of the world, and for the sake of every believer’s identity in the world that might incarnate God’s love.
Jesus sought to inject ways of thinking about God that might have been experienced as resistant to the status quo. There is no way the Jesus movement could have ever gotten off the ground were it not for a persistent diversity in Jewish thought, belief, and praxis in the first century. The ministry of Jesus was meant to be counter, could be counter, and countered everything in part because the ways of imagining God in the world had already been called into question and had exceeded expectations. The more we remember this the better.
If we reduce the widow’s giving to our giving to the church, we have missed the point of this story entirely. This is what we are prone to do as preachers — taking characters to serve as our “better than thous.” Using characters to make as foils for our betterment. This is a story that calls our bluff. You, dear preacher, need to respond, react, even reimagine her for the sake of your context and for yourself.
The Bible says, the Scriptures insist, and God needs that the characters we meet cannot simply be examples. They cannot be always those about whom we say, “wow, I need to be more like” or “if I were more like…” They have to be invitations to embody how we will follow Jesus. They have to be those that allow us to imagine what the kingdom of God looks like. And that kingdom starts with whole life living.
We cannot miss that her offering of her life foreshadows Jesus’ own act for us.
To what extent Jesus points her out, not to give us justification for a stewardship sermon, or to call attention to our own lives of service, but that in her he sees what he must do.
Jesus will have to give his whole life, his entire life. He already did, in fact, prior to the cross. He constantly embraced rejection. He consistently accepted the questioning of his followers. He confirmed over and over again that following him would mean whole life giving and whole life living. The widow’s example should be nothing new and at the same time should be everything new.
She embodies Jesus’ own ministry. She acts out Jesus’ own call. She believes that what she does will manifest itself in something beyond herself. In the end, that is truly discipleship according to Mark, that is truly salvific according to Mark, and it is what Jesus portrays according to Mark. But more so, according to Mark, this is the essence of God.
God knows nothing else than to give God’s whole life. God has shown that time and time again to God’s people in the Hebrew Scriptures and we should expect no different now. This is the essence of God — to give God’s whole self. And here, now, in this unnamed widow, God is doing it again.
God calls us to whole life living. That’s what discipleship is all about.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is a fitting text for both a Sunday after Pentecost and All Saints Sunday.
According to Jesus, a mark of discipleship is this very act — loving your neighbor as yourself. While All Saints Sunday reminds us of and remembers those who have died, it is also a call to present day saintly behavior. I make no claims to be a saint. But I think we come pretty close when we act out this commandment. To be a saint, to sanctify, to be sanctified, to have in mind sanctification is to embody God’s way of life that sets us apart — not for the sake of proving ourselves to be better, not for the sake of one-upmanship, not for the sake of power, but for the sake of example, of model, of witness.
Why? So that those who observe how we choose to live and be in the world will catch a glimpse of the sanctity of God’s love, the holiness of God, and that a life of sainthood does not mean perfection or having your own feast day. So that there can be another way of being in the world besides self-service, self-aggrandizement, autonomy, and narcissism. When loving your neighbor becomes the first way to be in the world, the primary lens through which to view the world, the choice that you consciously make to live your life in your world, that is a radically different way to be than what our world lifts up.
While our world professes and wants to confess an orientation to the other, its behavior proves otherwise. We still can’t seem to get this right, as simple as it seems to be. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a false claim when poverty still exists, when people still go hungry, when shelter/safety is only known temporarily, when discrimination remains.
And loving your neighbor as yourself is a blatant untruth when the church continues to exclude, to rationalize selected and chosen participation, or to insist that Jesus and God didn’t really mean what they said. That neighbor refers only to those we deem worthy of God’s love. That neighbor means only those we have ascertained as acceptable. That neighbor represents a selected few who have manifested beliefs and lifestyles that match ideal Christian behavior.
This past week I was in Maine with pastors of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ thinking together about the question, “why preach?” These opportunities are essential, even life-giving times for me, a teacher of preachers and one who offers preaching advice when not preaching regularly or called to a congregation. I hear the daily challenges of parish life. I hear the challenges of serving with others who want the church to serve them. I hear the challenges of preaching in moments when a congregation seems to have lost the centrality of “love your neighbor as yourself” and when the pastor has become the least loved of the neighbors. Having been a parish pastor, I know these things, but they are all too easily forgotten once you find yourself surrounded by academia, the demands of theological education, and the pressing issues of seminary survival.
So, this week, I was struck by this very challenge as a preacher — to love those whom you serve as yourself. And how very hard that can be sometimes, let alone loving others outside of your flock as well. That’s a lot of love, and often we don’t have enough to go around. Not to mention how difficult it is to love ourselves. That presents its own massive challenges and is worthy of a column, or two or three, all on its own.
Loving your neighbor is a saintly activity. The choice to love the neighbor does indeed set us apart from those who know only what it means to love their own selves and stop there. Others will know what sainthood looks like, not because we are better or holier than thou, but because we have been called to see outside of ourselves for the sake of seeing the world as God does.
In part, that is exactly the surprise of this scribe’s response to Jesus in the reading from Mark. We expect him to be self-righteous, self-centered. Yet, he demonstrates the capacity to choose for himself, to choose God’s way instead of the way of the establishment, the hierarchy, the status quo.
Poet Mary Oliver says this about “love your neighbor as yourself”: “Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive — ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ — which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”
That is, in part, our problem. The glamorization of a commandment that should be exceedingly difficult. The declaration of a truth of the Christian life that is a rather feigned claim when we obey it only half-heartedly. The confidence in our ability to live this mark of faith when, if we are honest, we are consistently less than successful.
This commandment rings all too true for those of us called to love for a living. That’s a lot of loving and sometimes that love is very hard to come by. Whether it’s a council meeting that challenges your leadership, an email that questions your decisions, or an encounter that calls you out for not living up to pastoral expectations, loving your neighbor takes on a whole different meaning in parish ministry.
It’s funny, perhaps even ironic. This time around, we wish we could be more like the Jewish official. We rarely want to be that character when it comes to reading the Gospels. But this passage from Mark, this Sunday, whether you celebrate All Saints or not, invites us to get outside of ourselves so as to sense what it feels like, what it means, actually to love the neighbor.
I am thankful for this moment in Mark’s Gospel. While still dim, I am able to see some of what saintly activity looks like. I know I am not capable of this “superhuman feat.” But, at least I can try.
“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly.” Thank God. Literally. Bartimaeus won’t be told to shut up. Good for him. I like this guy.
Because, how often do we feel like we are required to keep silent? How often are we asked to keep our voices down, lest there is some offense that would cause a disruption in our very controlled and contrived world? Lest there be an utterance that might tear apart that which we’ve constructed to keep out what, or who, we don’t want to see, or hear, or acknowledge? Or, how often do we silence others, convinced that their cries for mercy are not worthy of God’s attention?
I get this. Why? Because this is what we do. We keep silent. We urge others to do the same. Speaking out? That’s risk. Stating your opinion? That is cause for rejection. Saying what you think is true about the Gospel? Get ready for rejection. But, as Jesus says, the truth will set you free (John 8:32). The reformers knew this truth. Truth quieted results in captivity. Truth silenced will end up in imprisonment. Truth shushed leads to bondage. At some point, at some time, someone needs to speak truth.
At the end of the day, there is only so much you can take. There is only so many times that someone can say, “be quiet” before you say “no. I cannot be quiet. I will not be silent. And don’t you dare try to silence me, to shut me up.” What is your breaking point? When will you find yourself standing with Bartimaeus, for the sake of Bartimaeus? When do you choose to come alongside another so that silence can be broken, so that truth can be told? When can you confess, “The Lord has done great things. The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced” (Psalm 126:2-3) even when others cannot? When have you needed to utter, because you cannot do otherwise, either for yourself or for your neighbor, “Save, O Lord, your people,” (Jeremiah 31:7) only to be muzzled, hushed?
I don’t know about you, but I am growing weary of biting my tongue. I am getting tired of self-censoring. I am impatient with the compulsion and coercion to perpetuate the system or systems that seem to demand my loyalty. I am less than pleased when I find myself making excuses, falling back on doctrine, or feeling that I have become beholden to a prescribed dogmatic default button so as to maintain the status quo, convince all others of my credentials, or make certain acceptable creedal statements when I believe in my heart that God is so much bigger than my utterings.
Yes, I know. There is only so much you can say. There are things you cannot say. Things you wish you could say. This is the truth of the call of a preacher. Of a pastor. It’s a hard place to live, to be, to work, isn’t it? It seems that you are always walking that very fine line — the line between truth-telling and putting your hand over your mouth. That line between what you want to say and what you have to say. That line between knowing when the truth can be told and when the truth can’t be heard.
Yet we are called to proclaim the truth, when the truth will be rejected. We are called to preach the truth when no one wants to hear it. We are called to call out when those who need to cry cannot. I don’t know the truth you need to speak in your context. I don’t know the persons who need you to come alongside them and say, “It’s okay. Say it. Jesus, have mercy on me.” I don’t know those who need you to urge, “I want to hear your voice.” But I do know that Jesus would want us to say, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Over and over and over again.
If there ever a time for bold witness, for bold proclamation, for bold statements of faith, this is it, or at least this is it for the Gospel of Mark and for Jesus. Why? Because the entry into Jerusalem is just around the corner. Because the time for safe speech and secure statements is over. Because our people need to hear what it sounds like when you say something on which your life depends. They don’t have to agree, but at least they then have a sense of the language, the tone, the urgency behind avowals that matter verses assertions that only serve the self or the world. They will have a sense of the passion, the immediacy, the resolve that lies behind what you say and what you do.
If our proclamation is just bland claims, where’s the truth of the Gospel? If our preaching is just standard, on-the-fence, mediocre, don’t-take-a-side, generic theology, then what is really at stake at the end of the day? If our witness is simply platitudes meant only to persuade, then why would Bartimaeus think he could ever, ever say, “Jesus, have mercy on me?”
The truth sets us all free to be free indeed.
“We are able.” Wow. We are so certain, aren’t we? We think we are capable of so much. We really do. And why? What is it about us that we locate our ableness in our own efforts? What is it about us that we insist that autonomous assertions will absolutely secure our future? What is it about us that we determine any and all capabilities to our own works?
While ability is a synonym for ableness, I want to make a slight distinction for the purpose of preaching this passage from Mark. The disciples make a claim of certainty, “we can” which is different, I think, than a confidence in a perceived ability. A slight distinction, but an important one.
Let’s start with the call of this text to you. We will get to the possibilities of how to preach it in a bit, but I wonder if this is our entry point. “I am able. I can!” Have you ever said that? Admitted it? Does your leadership live by it? Are you a pastor because you believe it?
And thus we have entered the land of not being able to say no, of not trusting in our own gifts, of acquiescing to demands rather than standing up for what is essential in our ministry. This is such an easy place to enter, to be a part of. So easy to slip into.
This may be a call to you, preachers. How much you say “I am able” when really you are not. Not because of your own faults. Not because of your inabilities. But because what is being asked of you is not who you are. But because your willingness to say “yes” betrays that which you have said you will not do.
I am writing this, in bits and pieces, as I am one of the presenters and preachers at our Celebration of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, along with Otis Moss III, Luke Powery, Barbara Lundblad, Michael Brown. Thank God, literally, I was first of the plenary sessions. Why do I think that? Because our claim to ableness is always couched in our disbelief that we are.
I want to be able. I think, for the most part I “can.” But put up against “awesome preachers”, am I?
This is at the heart of “we are able.” Rather than an indictment, to what extent we have to hear this as what the disciples are capable of saying in that moment. We say we are able in the moment. And maybe that’s all we can do. And what is wrong with that?
Ableness is contextual. Ableness is reactionary. Ableness is responsive. Ableness is not that which determines your ministry skills for the rest of your life, for all times and places. “I can” is a response to a moment in time. “I am able.” And why? Because there is an intersection of my time, the world’s time, and God’s time which points to my ability. Right here and right now. And I have to believe that. And so do you. That is the essence of pastoral ministry — that there is a constant convergence of people, place, and purpose — and you.
Trust this. Believe this, preachers.
So now, how to preach this text? You’ve probably already figured it out. Our parishioners need to hear that ableness when it comes discipleship is full of complexity and contextuality. They need to hear that ableness when it comes to following Jesus is not a pre-determined category but that which embodies, in all of human particularity, the ability to follow perceived in the moment.
But they also need to hear the vulnerability in that statement. And that their best intentions will not come to fruition.
Neither do ours. We try. We try desperately. But when it comes to following Jesus it seems that our failings seem all the more acute. Why is that? We fail constantly, if we are truthful. We fail at work, at parenting, at relationships, all situations that seem easier to admit our shortcomings than when it comes to living up to God’s expectations.
So, we need to stop it. Just stop it. Really. Why? So that we might claim anew, we are able. And we are. Why? Do you need me to answer this question? The Word, the Spirit, God’s commitment to you? All there. Really. Truly. Believe it.
Dear Working Preachers, here is a moment, if only to yourself, to admit when you are able, and when you are not. If discipleship is always certainty from the pulpit, from your pulpit, then your preaching is no more than statements of feigned and false faith, rather than an invitation to newness of belief.
Herein lies the promise of this passage from Mark — the ability of ableness, if but only for a moment.
I will close with this new poem from Mary Oliver:
I have refused to live locked in the orderly rooms of reasons and proofs
The world I live in and believe in is wider than that.
And anyway, what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I’ve seen.
I’ll just tell you this: only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.
“You lack one thing.” Ouch. I fear I lack much more than one thing, do you?
But what does this fellow lack, exactly? Of course, there’s all kinds of irony here, because in the end, by material standards, by society’s standards, by the measures of the world that have determined the criteria for abundance and blessing, he lacks nothing — nothing at all.
Does he lack an ability to care for the poor? Does he lack a consciousness of another’s scarcity? Does he lack the ability to appreciate his abundance?
The story is frustratingly ambiguous and rather ambivalent which make for an interpretive temptation to reduce this text to a message that is far too simplistic, but theologically easy. Let’s just take Jesus literally. We dohave too much. We need to give it away. We have not given out of our abundance. So we are eager to stand behind Jesus’ injunctions against rich people. We readily chide those who hoard their wealth. We are quick to say to another, “With all you have? Good luck getting through the eye of a needle, friend.” Yet all the while, we secretly wish we had wealth to hoard. Or at least more than we have. And then we have succeeded in wiggling out of Jesus’ charge. “I don’t have money like this guy, so Jesus isn’t talking to me.” And all of a sudden we’ve managed to escape Jesus’ words to us, “you lack one thing.”
I spent this past week in the mountains of North Carolina as the retreat leader for the Southern Province of the Moravian Church. The last worship service was an informal Lovefeast. The history and meaning of the Lovefeast is fascinating. If you are not familiar with its history and meaning, spend a little time this week looking it up. Over time, it has come to signify a “real means of grace.” And it was. It was an experience of abundance: much hymn singing, an invitation to partake of the traditional cup and bun, twice extending the right hand of fellowship, and Holy Communion. You left filled. Not just because the bun was DELICIOUS, but because you had so clearly known God’s abundant grace provided in and by the community of believers. And then, and then! — they sang this song to me, a sending hymn which is also used as a birthday hymn in the Moravian tradition:
With your presence, Lord, our Head and Savior,
Bless her now, we humbly pray;
Our dear heavenly Father’s love and favor
Be her comfort every day.
May God’s Spirit now in each proceeding
Favor her with his most gracious leading;
Thus shall she be truly blessed
Both in labor and in rest.
It is a rare thing in life to feel so cared for, to sense the gift of attention and abundance by even those with whom you are the closest let alone people you met just days before. I was deeply touched by the ways in which a community of believers so clearly and demonstratively knew God’s abundant grace. It was a feeling that will stay with me for quite some time — and it made me ask, what is it that I lack that an experience like this could provide so much meaning?
It is so easy for us to view the concept of lack in only material things, material categories, as if lack is only determined by an absence of wealth. This is not to say that this text is not about money, about wealth, and what you do with it. There is a clear message that wealth does something to us and that something is usually not viewed as having a positive effect. Riches seem to steer our glance inward, to stoke our individuality, to set our sights on our own abundance with nary a thought about securing someone else’s.
Beyond the fact that the rich man has too much, there’s another part to the rich man’s problem. He knows only to ask about safeguarding his eternal life without concern for that of others. “What must I do,” he asks. He is unable to see that the potential to experience eternal life might very well lie outside of his own doing. He is incapable of recognizing that abundance may very well be found outside of the wealth and riches he has stored up. He insists that what he has procured is irrelevant to who he is or who he thinks he wants to be.
Where do you locate your abundance? Where does your abundance come from? Do you trust only yourself to make it possible? Lack takes on many forms in our life. This story asks us to ponder how we might complete the sentence, “I lack _________.”
There is one thing you lack. And you need to figure that out.
But the issue of lack takes on a particular meaning in this story — it is that which prevents you from a full expression of faith. What is the one thing that is at the core of who you are, what keeps you from being the follower, the disciple, the believer, the witness God wants and needs you to be? This is a terribly hard question to answer, I know.
And so we ask it among the community of the faithful, hearing the truth from another so that perhaps we can then tell the truth to ourselves, with the sure hope that the places and spaces of lack might be filled once again.
This is one of those texts.
Call it difficult, challenging, or even a text of terror, there is simply no way you can read aloud Mark 10:2-16, or Genesis 2:18-24 for that matter, without preaching on either. And if you read the Gospel lesson and only preach about children, well, you can’t. Divorce knows too many to pass on this text as just another teaching from Jesus.
Yet, the difficulties surrounding divorce in the ancient world and those today are less than compatible. Ask any person who’s been divorced, ask any child of divorce, and you will hear a story that eschews any generalizations when it comes to divorce decrees. The specifics of each situation must always be recognized, regardless of your agreement or experience. Any blanket statement about the perils of divorce without sensitivity to the complexities will fall on resistant ears that will then, and once again, discern that the Bible has little to say about real life now.
At the same time, this text, the following story about children, and the lesson from Genesis point to some subterranean themes when it comes to relationships. The commentary on the website noted the theme of vulnerability. This is certainly something to address, in that divorce exposes vulnerability — on many levels. Case in point, children have no life or livelihood, no means of survival, without relying on a parent or adult. Yet this week, this time around, I am struck by the theme of dependence. Another aspect of divorce is how it brings to the surface our dependence — or lack there of, or radical need of — when it comes to relationships. This is not to dodge the issue of divorce, but to suggest that the relational issues raised by divorce are a way to preach about it –- and in a meaningful way.
The loss of dependence is one of the heartaches of divorce. The one on whom you thought you could depend you no longer can, whether that be on a spouse or that of children on parents, even on the in-law and friend relationships. A critical aspect of how relational life has been structured has fallen apart so that one measure of grief is to think about on whom dependence can be found again.
Putting the Mark texts (divorce and children) and the Genesis text side by side reveals how essential dependence really is. One reason for divorce, for the separation of relationships, is when that dependence has crumbled and is beyond repair. The fundamental need for dependence is met with resistance by the other so that the lack of dependence turns into a breakdown of trust. If the one on whom you could depend now rejects that essential human instinct, the erosion of trust is just around the corner.
While we would, and our culture does, like to assert that independence is the highest form of individuality, autonomy, and a pinnacled mark of leadership, God tells us it’s the opposite. We think that we are capable of a kind of independence that presupposes a selective dependence. We pretend that we don’t really “need” anyone, we can do this on our own. Dear preachers isn’t this true? Come one, be honest. Tell the truth to yourself — and start there. We convince ourselves of the need for dependency, but only if absolutely necessary, and if we can pick and choose the situations in which it really matters.
At stake in the Mark text is not only dependence but the mutuality of dependence. What Jesus points out is that dependence is a two way street, as does Genesis. We are dependent on the other, but in part, that dependence depends on the knowledge that the other needs us too. When the reciprocity of dependence is askew, therein enters all kinds of dysfunction, of which we are fully aware.
This is an opportunity to preach the absolute necessity of dependence, which the Genesis text suggests is a fundamental characteristic of God. Relationships need it, long for it when it is absent, and break up when it seems beyond the imagination of return. Divorce doesn’t always occur because of major issues. The fracturing of relationships happens when dependence is taken for granted, when dependence cannot be counted on, when dependence is abandoned for the sake of a misconceived autonomy or an idealized picture of self.
God exists in and on dependence. Ministry demands and is determined by dependence. But it is so easy to assure ourselves that dependence is weakness; that dependence assumes an absence of assuredness. It is also tempting to misuse dependence, to ask for it when it’s not returned, to think you are owed it when you yourself have let it go, to manipulate it for your own gain. That’s what Jesus is, in part, naming — the ways in which the expectation of dependence is supposed, taken for granted, or not appreciated — and that the Kingdom of God expects it to be different.
Therein lies the promise. The in-breaking of the Kingdom of God signaled by the presence of Jesus in our midst insists on something different, something more. God imagines for us that our relationships have dependence at their core. Why? So that you might know that dependence on another is but only a foretaste of the promise of the dependence you can entrust to God. God asks you to be dependent, needs you to be dependent, on God. Why? So that you can be you and so that God can be God.
“We saw someone….” That’s how a lot of judgment starts, doesn’t it? “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” As Micah Kiel noted in the Preaching This Week commentary this sounds a lot like tattle-taling. I have two boys, 13 and 15, and it still happens. And I remember all too well the same scenario with my sisters. “I saw!”
But Jesus says, “Umm, no. That’s not how this works. That’s not how discipleship works.” And then he says further, “And, I know what you want to do next! Now you want to put a stumbling block in their way. Not only do you want to call them out, you want to make sure they fall. Seal the deal.” Yep. That’s exactly what we want to do.
It seems that when preachers get started with the new program year, that’s a lot of what it’s about rather than Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” No one is against you. We are all in this together. And we rely on the radical individuality of our congregations to know that this is true. What works for one will not work for another.
We forget that we are all in the same proverbial boat, or pond, depending on your preferred metaphor. And we need to stick together, not for the sake of an affront against, a battle lodged, or a fight for, but for the sake of camaraderie and collegiality. As soon as our denominations, our church, our faith, becomes that which we need to defend, we’ve given up on true dialogue and openness to conversation. We’ve shut the doors and decided that our confessions are better than others. As I said last week, faith is not about competition. Faith is about conversation. It is about support and community. We need a lot of reminders about that. Which is why this story again from Mark, and these words again from Jesus.
At my church, I lead a Bible Study called “Women at the Well.” For various reasons, we will not meet in September but this past weekend, I had so many women come up to me and say, “when are we meeting?” What is that question all about? It’s about a deep sense of how critical it is that we experience Christian life with each other.
They need each other, not to prove themselves right to but realize the right in so many others.
How we nurture that as preachers is so important. But how we remember that about ourselves is also critical. This is a competitive world, the church. I know it. I know it very well. “So and so has written more books than I. This person gets more speaking gigs than I.” At the end of the day, I am a preaching professor yet there are so many better preachers than I. My take on the text is “less than” compared to others. It is so very hard to resist saying, “I saw someone.”
This weekend, I will attend my 30th high school reunion. Long, long, ago, back in a former life, when I thought that being a professional violinist was my future, I had a rather difficult violin lesson with my teacher. I was trying to play like those around me, those who were getting accolades, who were moving ahead, or so I thought, who sounded better than I, or so it seemed. Mr. Meacham, my violin teacher, said, “What’s going on?” I told him I want to sound like, play like…. He said to me, “Karoline, never compare yourself to anyone but yourself.” At the time? To be honest? I didn’t get it. It didn’t make sense. Now it does. Or a little more, anyway. He was trying to say, “Karoline, you are you. There is no one else like you. Let go of all judgment, competition, and expectation.”
So now, put that to your preaching. But more so, put it to your parishioners. They need to know that the goal of faith is not winning, unlike our culture. They need to know that the goal of believing is not who can be better, whatever that means. They need to know that being a Christian is not about comparison but individual expression, as individual as the incarnation. Good grief, if we all believed the same way, how boring would that be? Not even our Scriptures propose that. The reassurance of particularity is grace itself, so says God’s commitment to the incarnation. Our penchant for “we saw someone” needs to be replaced by faith’s “we see Jesus.” And in Jesus, we see God. Our God is here.
And therein lies the irony of the statement, “We saw someone” because the point is, do you see God? Do you see God in the acts you saw? Do you see God in the persons who do deeds in God’s name? Often we don’t. And why is that? That is the question we need to ask. Why do we reject or accept God in the acts of some and not others? We might have justification, Kim Davis points to this, but you at least have to know why you say no to her or yes to another. When we say, “we saw someone” it’s a simultaneous judgment — on the other and also on ourselves.
If you are getting weary of being called out these past weeks, well, that’s Mark. That’s Jesus. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. But getting called out is not always a bad thing. It gets you to see something aboutyourself and in doing so, maybe you can then see beyond yourself. And what will you see? So says Mark, God is truly here. And that is something to see.
What is the nature of faith? That’s kind of what Jesus is asking the disciples with his unassuming question, “soooooo, what were you chatting about back there?” The NRSV translates the verb “argue” but it can also be translated, “discuss, consider, reason, ponder.” In this simple question, Jesus points out to his disciples, albeit with significant subtlety, the truth of faith — that faith is not about certainty but wonder. Not about answers but questions. Not about compulsion but conversation. What a great way to start a new church year.
A new program year, a re-gathering of the faithful, perhaps calls for a re-examination of what faith can be. A reminder, a remembrance, a rejoinder that the first question of faith should be that which Jesus asks the disciples, “so, what are you talking about?”
What are you talking about? What have you been talking about? What should we be talking about when it comes to faith? Let’s begin the new church year, everyone gathering back to together again, with a spirit of inquisitiveness and imagination; dialogue and discovery; a community willing to ask one another, what do you think? Okay, granted, the subject matter that the disciples decide to discuss could be a sermon all its own. “Who’s the greatest?” “Who is greater?” as if faith is a competition — and a lot of people think that’s true. Maybe that’s why Jesus asks a question rather than making a statement. Maybe that’s the point. He says, “what were you discussing?” not “I know what you were talking about.” There’s a lot of “I know what you are thinking” when it comes to faith conversations these days rather than, “tell me, what are you thinking?” and really coming from a place of true interest. How do you communicate what faith is to your parishioners?
People assume from you and about you a knowledge of faith, on many levels, that they themselves do not have. You went to seminary or divinity school. You took Bible classes. You have skills in the area of biblical interpretation. You are, by the very nature of your role, an authority when it comes to doctrine. People will look to you for a range of possibilities when it comes to their own understanding of faith. They will want the answers toward which you can point, although it will be up to you to note that when faith is about answers, then you have already defined what faith is. They want help in making sense of what faith is all about.
A significant aspect of what it means to preach is to realize that you are entrusted with helping your parishioners have an imagination for faith. How you engage the Bible, talk about God, teach your denominational confessions, will communicate not only what your faith means to you, but also what faith is and what it could mean for them. None of your statements about, or references to, faith is a throw away line. Your language about faith is critical to your effectiveness in ministry and to the influence of your preaching.
We relinquish a considerable amount of our power in preaching and in our ministry if we keep silent about the nature of faith, because what happens is that we then allow other sources to shape the faith imagination of those we accompany in ministry. There is certainly no dearth of opinions about faith — which faith is greater, whose is greater, what’s the right faith — nor is there a lack of very vocal presenters about the Christian faith who know how to get heard. If you do not talk about your faith and what it means to you; if you do not help those to whom you minister to think about it, discuss it, wonder about it, ask each other questions, then they will listen to others who do. They will go elsewhere for resources to assist them in understanding what faith is all about, and you might not like where they end up. Where you could have been offering ways of imagining the Christian faith that are generative and creative, instead you end up having to offer correctives…and even bringing some back from despair.
As a result, one of the issues for preaching these days is to present a posture about faith that may run counter to what your people are witnessing in their lives. In the end, your goal is not to convince or coerce but to invite conversation. It is to help people trust the uncertainty of conversation rather than bank on the self-assurance of solutions. It is to affirm that questions and dialogue are essential to faith. It is to insist that agreement is not a necessary ingredient to live in community. It is to encourage their own abilities and intuitions as interpreters of the faith and as ones empowered to express the meaning of faith — on their own terms and yet aware of the other.
And speaking of faith, who are your conversation partners? Do you have any when it comes to sharing what your faith means to you? Yes, I know you get together with colleagues about the biblical texts for preaching. But, when was the last time you sat around and talked about faith? Maybe something to put on the fall calendar along with committee meetings, text studies, confirmation…because you need opportunities to talk about your faith as well.
Jesus’ question is easily overlooked. A rather simple inquiry. But therein lies the depths of faith we have yet to plumb.