Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
And, Sometimes, You End Up Riding a Donkey: Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
All week long, I've been trying to imagine what it would have been like to be in Jerusalem during Passover. The first image that comes to my mind is a huge festival, which it was. When I think of the biggest festival I have ever been to, I remember the summers that I lived in Washington, D.C. and went to the July 4th celebration at the Capital. It was the biggest crowd that I had ever been in. The celebrations regularly topped 25,000 people. I always felt like there were people spilling out of every nook and cranny of this part of the city. People climbed on the statue of Einstein and crowded the Vietnam Memorial, looking for the names of loved ones. There were vendors everywhere, selling hot dogs and over-priced red-white-and-blue slurpees or American flag-themed hats and t-shirts. Everything cost too much money but the tourists paid it so that they could take home souvenir that said "I was there. July 4th, 2001."
We all tried to find good spots to sit... some place that was at least a little shaded but where you also had a good view of the giant screens on which the entertainment was broadcast. It was almost always a sticky hot day, but most people didn't mind. The police and service members that were present for crowd-control always looked hot in their dark uniforms. The crowd was typically an interesting mix of locals who knew where the best seats were, people who lived in the suburbs and never came to the city except for big events like this, tourists in shiny new t-shirts, and people who had no homes, but would come to the festivities anyway, sometimes because it was genuinely fun, sometimes because they knew they could count on the festive atmosphere creating a greater sense of generosity among their fellow Americans. They figured they could get a free meal and maybe a clean t-shirt out of the deal.
All 25,000 of us would pack ourselves onto the National Lawn and listen to patriotic songs and speeches, and the National Fireworks extravaganza. Then, we would all try to leave at the same time, leaving piles of trash in our wake for someone else to clean up. In the dark, we would make our way to the closest subway stops. Once we made it to the tracks to wait for a train, we would push and pull and sometimes swear as we squeezed ourselves into each over-stuffed car. People would try not to lose track of their friends and their children. Tempers would flair. Train after train would go by, too full to take on more passengers, and you would wonder just how late it would be before you got home and if the several blocks you had to walk, blocks that were very safe in the daylight, would be as safe on a day when so many of the neighbors had had the day off and maybe got a little too celebratory as the evening wore on.
Sometimes those people that you were smooshed into the train with would get a little handsy on the ride home, or get up in someone's face, threatening them over a perceived slight. Everyone would be hot and tired and want to go home. You see, even among the festivities, there would always be tension. Even within the celebration, there would be conflict. As I walked the streets of this city that I really loved, surrounded by so many people, I realized that just about anything could happen. I think it is this paradox of celebration and tension that makes me think of the July 4th celebrations in DC. I'm pretty sure that the Passover celebrations were a mixture of celebration and tension, too.
They probably would have had vendors everywhere, too. But, instead of people selling nachos and those big cups of fresh squeezed lemonade, they had money changers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. And, rather than American flag hats, maybe they had little Moses dolls that the kids would beg their parents to buy for them. Ok, I made that last thing up. I don't think they would have had Moses dolls. But, still you get the picture. People would be everywhere. The city would pilgrims traveling from all over the Jewish diaspora: People from Alexandria in Egypt, from the great cities of Ethiopia, from Macedonia, maybe even Jews who lived in Rome would have made their way to Jerusalem for the festival. Poor peasants would have spent their very last coins to buy sacrificial birds.
People suffering from leprosy and epilepsy could have been begging in the street. Children would have been running wild. And, the soldiers. I have read that during the festival, Rome would send three times the usual number of soldiers to keep order in the city. And, Roman soldiers were not known to be particularly patient or merciful with the people whom their empire had conquered. They would have kept a close watch on the crowds, searching for even the barest hint of revolution. You never know what will happen with that many people crowded around. Freedom might just rear it's head. The Roman Empire couldn't stand for that.
Times were tense because it is always tense when you are under the thumb of an Empire. The legacy of the Passover celebration would likely have added to the tension. Passover reminded the people of when they had been enslaved and God freed them. Passover reminded them of the horrors of life under the Egyptian pharaoh. Passover reminded the people that their freedom came at a great bloody cost to their oppressors. Passover was a time when the simple faithful and the rabble-rousers alike would gather. And, tensions would flare. Fights could break out and it would almost always be over something greater than a stolen seat on a subway train. The Jewish people remembered their slavery. They knew their subjugation under Roman control. But, they also remembered freedom and would celebrate their delivery from Egypt. Maybe they would pray for delivery from Rome. Maybe they would believe it would need to be just as bloody. So, the Romans were nervous. The Jews were both tense and celebratory. And, in rides Jesus, sitting on a borrowed donkey, without even a proper saddle. See, festivals are strange times.
I know that festivals are often strange and raucous affairs, but this business with the donkey seems a little stranger than typical. At first, Jesus and his disciples probably would have looked like any other pilgrims making their way into the city. Then, Jesus tell two of his disciples to go borrow a colt or young donkey for him to ride. And, then, he tells them exactly where to find it. They realized that they didn't have a saddle, so they throw their coats over the donkey. Now, have you ever tried to ride a horse or donkey without have the thing you are sitting on tied up underneath the animal's belly? I have. I didn't do it for very long. You will slip all over the place if the animal goes at any speed at all. Jesus climbs up there anyway. I picture him slipping and sliding and constantly having to readjust as he rides into town.
And, yet, even as he rides into town on a donkey, an animal that I tend to think is more adorable than dignified, and even as he likely had to work hard not to slide off, even then, people saw him coming and they made a path for him. They even threw their own cloaks onto the road to make the way clear and took time to cut branches out of trees along the way. They saw this peasant teacher on a donkey and, rather than turn to one another, and say, "Who is that weirdo?," they cried out together with great Hosannas. The word Hosanna means something like "You can save us." You don't yell it at any guy who comes riding by on a donkey. You yell it to the King. You cry out with it to God.
If you were standing in the crowd, surrounded by vendors and soldiers and people begging in the streets and children running everywhere, why would this man have caught your attention? What would you have said when you saw him?
Voice 1: I am one of Jesus' disciples. And I have one question. Why did Jesus want a little colt? The Messiah ought to come to the throne on a mighty war horse! Didn't he know how ridiculous he looked on the back of that donkey?
Voice 2: What a great day! I haven't had this much fun in ages! Did you see that rabbi Jesus enter the city? He came in like a crazy little king. Pilate comes charging in on his chariot, leading his army. Jesus trotted in followed by a bunch of peasants. We all grabbed branches and waved them high, shouting and cheering. What a great day!
Voice 3: I waved a branch today, too. And, I laughed. But, even more, I hoped. I hoped that maybe this Jesus means to change things. I'm just like one of those peasants following him. They know how hard life is. Jesus knows, too. So, hoping that just maybe he might be a new messiah, I joined that crowds that shouted:
Crowd (shouting) Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna! Hosanna!
Voice 4: That Jesus is nothing but trouble! He came into the city today and went straight to the Temple. He started yelling and pushed over the tables where the coins are exchanged and sacrificial doves were sold. He scared people away by saying we had made the temple into a den of robbers! He said it should be a house of prayer for all nations. All nations! Are we just supposed to let anybody in?
Voice 1: That Jesus is trouble! He goes around forgiving sins and healing and teaching that everyone can know God. No one made him a priest. Nobody gave him permission. Who gave him authority to do these things?
Voice 2: That Jesus is real trouble! We tried to catch him saying something wrong. We asked him if it was legal to pay taxes to Rome. Instead of taking the bait, he asked whose image was on the coin. When we took one out and showed him that Caesar's image was on it, he looked at us as if to say that it was clear where our true allegiance lay. Then all he said was to give to Caesar was belonged to Caesar, but to give to God what is God's. He made us look like fools and sell-outs. Jesus is serious trouble!
Jesus is serious trouble. He is always doing something unexpected. He doesn't seem to like the status quo and isn't afraid to challenge people in power. He is inspirational. He is scary. He makes people nervous. Even though people greet him with Hosannas today, in just a few days, these same crowds will call for his death, yelling "Crucify him!" instead of "Save us!" The festival, which started with a triumphal, if strange, entry into the city, will end with his death on a cross. This is a hard story to tell. I can be tempted to talk about the great joy that the people greet Jesus with and then skip to the Resurrection that comes next Sunday. But, the thing is, I know what's going to happen between the triumphal entry and the triumphal resurrection. I know that there is a lot of heartache that happens over the next week. I know that by Thursday, Jesus will be betrayed, and by Friday, Jesus will be dead. By Saturday, his followers will believe that all hope has been lost. Even amid my celebrations, I know that there is great conflict to come. This tension tempers my festivities. It makes me want to wave my palms just a little less fervently.
Even with this tension, I do remember that Sunday will come around, too. I know that Resurrection is just around the corner. But, today, Palm Sunday reminds me that even within the celebration, there's some mourning that needs to happen here, too. If we don't tend to that grief, we miss something important about the Resurrection. I can no longer skip from celebratory parade to celebratory Resurrection. There's something I can learn from the mourning in the middle. I invite you to spend some time in the middle this week, too. It is not easy work, but it is worth our time. And, it is certainly easier to go through it together. I hope to see you on Thursday. The story will continue.
Work Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Fred Craddock, "If Only We didn't Know," The Collected Sermons of Fred Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 128-132.
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001).
Karoline Lewis, "No Preaching Required": https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3569
Doyle Burbank Williams, "Telling the Story: An Interactive Holy week Drama and Communion Liturgy," Before the Amen: Creative Resources for Worship, Maren C. Tirabassi and Maria I. Tirabassi, eds. (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007), pgs 69-77.
Walking in the Dark: John 12:20-36
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
When I was a college student, I always sat in one of the last few rows of the church I attended. And, most Sundays, I sat next to the same couple, Lois and Jim. They were kind, and liked to check in on me each week. Years later, after I had finished both college and seminary and had returned to that church as an ministry intern, they were some of the first people to welcome me back. They often had me over for dinner or lunch and were happy to catch up after several years of not seeing one another. They were also gracious congregants who transitioned easily from seeing me as a young college student to seeing me as their new minister, as one who would help tend to them through Jim's last living weeks and through the early months of Lois' widowhood. During our visits we would talk about many things: their long marriage and loving family, Jim's career in the military and fascination with Civil War history, Lois' early efforts to learn how to use email. On one occasion, Jim told me an amazing story about how he first saw the light.
Jim grew up in a community called Summer Shade in central Kentucky, not too far from the Tennessee border. He grew up among farmers, and, from a young age, rose early to work the land with his father. He was usually up before daybreak. His mom would have prepared a good, hardy breakfast for him and his dad so they could have enough energy to do the heavy work that they morning would call for. They would eat, and then they would head out to the fields for a morning full of plowing, planting, tending, or harvesting. It was a good life, but a hard life, made harder by the fact that they lived in a home with no electricity. At that time, during the late 1930's and early 1940's, large swaths of Southern Appalachia and the surrounding areas were without electricity. People made do largely in the same manner as their parents and grandparents... they heated their homes with wood or coal-burning stoves. They brought light into their homes with kerosene lamps and sometimes candles. During the long, steamy Kentucky summers, they opened the doors and windows and prayed for a cool wind to come by. After a long morning of farm work, they could not even count on having a box fan to sit by to cool off. But, they could count on Jim's mom having lunch ready when they got back up to the house. She always had food ready when they made their way out of the fields... well, almost always.
One day, Jim and his dad came back up to the house to see his mom just standing there. There were no biscuits. No bowls of soup beans or collard greens to dig into. No thick pieces of salty ham waiting to be cut up and be devoured by these hungry farmers. There was not even one single square of cornbread on the table to split between them. Jim's dad looked and his mom and asked what was going on. They were so hungry and had been working so hard. Where is the lunch? Now, the next bit of Jim's story is a little hazy to me. What I think I remember him saying is that his mother didn't say a word. She simply walked towards the wall, a wall that had a newly installed switch, and flipped the switch. Well, maybe she pushed a button. Sometimes they were buttons and not switches. Either way, she pushed a button and the room flooded with light. Jim and his dad whooped with joy. While they had been away working, the linemen of the Tennessee Valley Authority had come, and brought with them the electricity that would change the lives of people all across the Tennessee Valley. Jim's mom could now push a button, and fill their home with light. Who cares if lunch isn't ready? Look, just look at that light!
I thought of Jim's story when I read the last few sentences of this week's Gospel lesson. Jim's story is one of the few stories I know where someone can speak of what it is like at the literal moment when they see a new kind of light. Jim could tell me the exact moment when so many things became easier for his family. They no longer had to rely on kerosene and candles to light their homes. They could eventually warm and cool their homes with the very same electricity. Cooking would become so much easier with a refrigerator, a deep freeze, and an electric oven replacing the spring house and wood cook stove. While I take for granted the existence of light bulbs and cheap electricity, Jim never would. He remembered what it was like to be in the darkness. He rejoiced when he came into the light.
At the beginning of our scripture reading for today, we hear about a few people who could use a little light. Some Greek people, probably God-fearers, that is non-Jews who followed some Jewish teachings and regularly traveled to Jerusalem for religious festivals, came to the disciple Philip and said, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." We wish to see Jesus. Many a Christian's journey through the darkness has begun with these very same words. I wish to see Jesus. How can I see his light? How can I feel his warmth? When was the last time you asked to I the crowd? Were you surprised by what you saw? I think these folks were.
I'm not sure what the Greeks were expecting when they went looking for Jesus. I have a feeling that they hoped to hear his wise and strange parables or receive healing. That's what many people looked for when they came to see Jesus. I'm not sure that they or the disciples were prepared for Jesus to speak of his death or of his troubled soul. I'm not sure that they expected to hear God's voice like thunder or to be told that they must be hate their life in this world in order to keep it eternally. I bet they didn't expect to hear that the Messiah would have to leave them and they probably didn't know what he meant when he said the Son of Man would be lifted up. While they were still trying to figure out just exactly what he meant, he said to them simply, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light."
We have all walked in the darkness. We may know that we can get by without the light. We can adapt to many kinds of situations, even the dark. In fact, sometimes, good things happen in the dark. After all, when we look at the creation stories at the beginning of the Bible, God shaped creation out of the dark. And, plants, which need light to grow, begin their lives as seeds, buried in the dark, pushing roots ever deeper, to find the nutrients they need to survive. But, even though we may be able to survive in the dark, though we may even need the dark at certain times in our lives, we, like Jim, know that something changes when we finally see the light. We know, even as we shield our eyes from the brightness, that the light and heat will do new things in our lives, maybe things we could not have imagined. The disciples certainly couldn't have imagined that they would have ended up following a Messiah like Jesus.
I was once told that someone like me could not be a minister. In fact, I spent my whole childhood in a church that did not believe women or people in same-gender relationships were able to be pastors of churches. Women, as long as they are straight, might be able to be director's of Christian education, but certainly not preachers, and definitely not have to serve communion. For a long time, I didn't think much about this prohibition. I muddled through, participating in the church in ways that they deemed appropriate to one of my station. I survived. In fact, there were even many ways that this church was a loving and caring religious home to me. But, there came a point where I realized that I needed more light than they could give. I had seen Jesus in a new way and felt a new kind of light on my face. I knew that I had to grow beyond the soil in which I had been planted. It was not easy to leave that church. New growth is often a struggle. But, I had had seen the light. I could no longer stay in the darkness of sexism and homophobia that had enshrouded the church of my youth. Now, this isn't exactly the life I expected to be living. But, Jesus had a habit of re-setting people's expectations for a long time before I came along. That's part of the bargain. You get the light, but you must also be willing to be changed by it.
There's one more thing that Jesus said will happen when you walk in the light. If you are willing to be changed by this light, you will become a child of the light. You will carry his light with you. You will become a mirror that reflects his love and compassion. You will become a light bulb that shines hope in hopeless places. You will be the bonfire that warms a cold heart. You will become an embodiment, an extension of the light that Jesus brought into this world. And, the darkness can't defeat that light, even though we walk through shadows sometimes. I think a major way that Jesus' light continues to make it into this world is through the reflections of the people who follow him. My prayer today is that you will continue to ask to see Jesus, and that you member that his light can shine through all you do. So, be the light. Carry his hope and love to the world.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Karoline Lewis, "A Vision Checkup": https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3566
Karonline Lewis, Commentary on John 12:20-33:
Johnathan Merritt, "Barbara Brown Taylor Tells Christians to Embrace the Darkness": http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/04/14/barbara-brown-taylor-encourages-christians-embrace-darkness/
Called to Serve: Mark 9: 30-37, 2 Cor. 8:13-15
Over the past couple weeks, I've told you a few things to expect as we read through the book of Mark. First, we should expect short stories without a lot of explanation for why things happened. Jesus' baptism story was only a few lines. So were the call stories of his first disciples and the healing story of Simon's mother and the demon-possessed man. The author of Mark does not waste words. Also, as we read more of the healing stories, we'll also see that Jesus often tells the people he heals not to tell anyone else. And, he seems to rush around everywhere. He is often described as "immediately" traveling somewhere or "immediately" healing someone. There is one more thing we should remember as we read through Mark together. It's about the disciples. They almost never really know what is going on.
We heard about their confusion two weeks ago when Jesus taught them about the Son of Man, and seemed to make it clear that he would die, Peter got so scared that he yelled at Jesus and tried to make him stop telling the truth. It also comes up in Mark's version of the story of Jesus feeding hundreds of people from just a few fish and loaves of bread. The disciples didn't understand how Jesus could have done it, why he did it, or what it told them about his identity. Throughout the rest of the book, they rarely understood his parables, and he often had to take them aside and explain his teachings to them. As one scholar notes, even though these are the people who knew Jesus best, they never really seemed to understand exactly what Jesus was trying to do. Today's reading is part of that pattern of misunderstanding among the disciples.
Similar to the story we heard two weeks ago, he told them that the Son of Man will be betrayed and killed. On this occasion, rather than ask him what he means, they simply continue to walk with him. I wonder why they were so afraid? And, why that fear prevented them from talking to him about it. In order to distract themselves from their fear, they decided to argue. They were trying to figure out who was the greatest among them. I kind of wonder what the argument sounded like. Did they compare numbers of healings, tallying up miracles as though they were points in a basketball game? Did they argue about whether or not the first ones called were the most important ones or if Jesus saved the best for last? Did they jockey for position by claiming superior navigation, fishing, or demon-chasing skills? The content of their argument is not clear. What is clear is that they realized that they were being foolish.
The only clue we get that the disciples aren't completely clueless about Jesus' mission is that they have enough sense to be embarrassed when Jesus asks what they have been talking about. In response to their foolishness, he sat down and told them what it really means to be great. Back when we read about Jesus' baptism, we talked about how the story is powerful because it demonstrated his willingness to up-end the conventional wisdom regarding what makes a good leader. In that case, Jesus' baptism showed that he understood that leadership and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. In today's story, Jesus up-ends the conventional wisdom on what makes a person great.
In Jesus' time, as in ours, the people who were "first" were often people who had more of something: more money, more talent, more influential friends, more education, more charm. Being first was often a sign of power and often a sign that you had dominated someone else in order to get where you were. Being first was also often accompanied with no small about of smugness and hubris. What is different about Jesus' teaching is that he said you don't need any of those things in order to be first in God's kingdom. In fact, in order to be first, you must be willing to be last... to be a servant. Jesus said in order to be first, you don't need the greatest education or the most money or the fanciest friends. What you do need is to be willing to see the needs of the people around you and work to make their lives better. You do need to be willing to put other's needs before your own. Being first isn't most important. Being of service is.
It is important that Jesus brings up a child to illustrate his point. In Jesus' time, children were the people of least status in any household. Often, their social status was just barely above that of a slave. And, slaves were pretty dispensable. When Jesus told his disciples to welcome the children, he told them to find the people with as little status as possible and make sure that they are cared for. He told his followers that even people of low status were beloved of God and needed compassion and justice. He also said that welcoming the lowest of the low is not simply a nice thing to do. It is developing a relationship with Jesus himself, and through Jesus, with God who created us all. When we welcome the least of these, we are welcoming the presence of Christ that is found in each person we meet. And, we are being in relationship with God.
So, how have Christians followed these teachings of Christ throughout the ages? Honestly, we don't always. We get distracted by other things. But, if we return to scripture, we can find some good examples. Our reading from 2 Corinthians is one good example. At several points in his letters, the Apostle Paul indicated that service to the poor was an important part of his ministry. He spoke of it in his letter to the Galatian church and the Roman church. Here, in his letter to the Corinthian church, he is encouraging them in their efforts to take up a collection people back in Jerusalem who have been affected by famine. He made it very clear that he understood this collection to be an extension of their faith in the Gospel. He spoke of generosity as a privilege of having faith, not simply a something we are required to do as people of faith. He spoke of the Gospel, and noted that Jesus could have had all the power and wealth in the world, but he chose, instead, to be among the poor and afflicted. Paul reminded the people in Corinth that they were able to make a similar choice, and help the hungry people in Jerusalem. He said, "I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need." He compared their present situation to a situation in Exodus, where God provided for the people and, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."
Like the Corinthians, we have the choice to be a servant as Christ calls us. You all regularly choose to serve. Like the ancient Christians in Paul's letters, you took up a generous collection for Christians in need, this time, not in Jerusalem, but in Roatan, Honduras. Most Sundays, as I make my way up the stairs to enter the sanctuary, I see a grocery bag with donations for the local food pantry. In the early part of the last Advent season, you collected two carloads of donations for the domestic violence shelter. At my installation, you gave more than $300 to be split between Keep Winthrop Warm and our local food pantry. You regularly give to the Deacon's Fund, a fund that helps people in desperate need of heat, groceries, and help paying bills. You choose to give so that your abundance becomes your neighbor's need and their need becomes your abundance. In being willing to serve all, to sacrifice some of your financial needs to serve others, you are choosing to see Christ in our neighbors. And, that is a great gift.
Today, alongside your regular generous offering to the church, you are invited to also give a special offering to One Great Hour of Sharing. Here is one example of what your offering to One Great Hour of Sharing can do: Matee Kakoo is from eastern Kenya. She has lived in her village for 40 years, and during that time, they had not had regular access to clean water. When she speak of life in her village, she explains how not having enough water affected every part of their daily lives. She said that people could not bathe, and were often mocked because of their appearance. Sometimes people went hungry because they did not have water to cook with. The children even missed school because they were busy hauling water for their families. They would have to travel between four and seven miles just to have enough to drink. They would have to walk the distance, wait in line four to five hours, and then carry it back home by foot or donkey. Women were also at risk for being sexually assaulted on their long journey to get water. They had so little water that they couldn't even make the bricks they needed to build an addition to their primary school.
One Great Hour of Sharing was able to help. Combining the donations from churches all over the world with the hard work of the people in the village, the villagers were able to build a sand dam and shallow well within a month of receiving the donations. Children no longer have to miss school to cart water, and the school has been expanded to fit the community's needs. Local people have built brick kilns, which, in turn, allow people to build sturdy, permanent homes. People are able to grow healthy gardens and have enough water to cook with. And, since the women are spending so much less time gathering water, several have been able to start small businesses. Ms. Kakoo reports that one group has accumulated the equivalent of over $800 USD in their account. When asked what this project meant for her community, she said, , “It will be remembered by generations to come.”
It would be easy to ignore Ms. Kakoo and her village. As one who lives in deep poverty, she has little power to make her needs known beyond her small community. We will likely never see her need face-to-face. But, the people of Corinth were probably never going to meet the people in Jerusalem and they helped them anyway. Besides, Jesus didn't say only help the people you see everyday. He said in order to be first, you must be willing to be last. He said that in making room for people with no status, we are making room for God. One Great Hour of Sharing is one organization that can help us make more room. I'm sure the people in this room can think of other ways, too. Regardless of how we give, let's make sure to give. We're not just serving our neighbors. We are entertaining God.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted in writing this sermon
Carla Works' commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1319
Amy Oden's commentary on Mark 9: 30-37: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1356
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Matee Kakoo's story: http://onegreathourofsharing.org/story/matee/
Sometimes You Need to Flip Over A Table: John 2:13-25
Close your eyes for a minute. Now, think of Jesus. What kind of image do you see? Now, most of the images of Jesus that I see look something like this. White skin. Long, hair, often brown... sometimes though, he's blonde. He's often glowing a bit, and the picture may seem a little soft around the edges. He usually has very sad or very kind eyes. He may be hugging a lamb or a child. Sometimes he's even playing soccer. I've seen him teaching crowds, too. He usually look pretty serious when he's doing that. He's not usually smiling in those pictures. But, he may be smiling in others. He nearly always looks kinda sweet... some might even say meek or mild. Well, put those images out of your mind. Those aren't the images of Jesus we have in today's scripture. Nobody is soft-focused. Nobody is smiling. And, for sure, no one is playing soccer. Jesus is not meek and mild here. Jesus is mad and motivated. And, carrying a whip.
One of the first things we should probably note is that this story is found in all four Gospels, but the version we're reading today is from the Gospel of John. And, John's author put this story in a completely different place in this Gospel than the other three writers put it in theirs. The other three all put it towards the end of Jesus' ministry, after he has returned to Jerusalem during Passover. They show it as his last public act, the act that probably got him arrested. This author places it right at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Flipping over tables and whipping people is Jesus' second public act. That is a big change in the narrative. That means this story is important for a different reason in John.
Let's return to the version in John. It was Passover, a major Jewish festival during which people traveled to the temple in Jerusalem to give thanks and offer sacrifices to God. It is not surprising that Jesus, as a Jew, would have been present. But, what he did in the temple was very surprising. Now, remember, at this time, Jesus was a nobody. To most people he saw, he was simply one more peasant making pilgrimage to the temple. He was not important yet, or at least not important to anybody but his family and the few disciples who followed him. He would have been expected to be at the temple to worship and maybe, if his wisdom was recognized, to preach. He would not have had the communal authority to make any changes to who was present in the temple or what kind of business they were running. And, yet, here he is, messing up everybody's day, and chasing away all the customers.
Scripture tells us that he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and changing money for people. Now, this would not have been strange to see during such a festival. People were required to make sacrifices and needed to have access to animals and to the proper kinds of coins in order to make these sacrifices. If you traveled from far away, it was much easier to buy your animals once you arrived in Jerusalem. And, you could not use Roman money in the temple. You had to change your coins over to Jewish money. These animal salespeople and moneychangers were absolutely necessary to worship at the temple. In order to fulfill the requirement of the law, you would have to work with these people. They were not, generally, thought of as people who had no right to be doing what they were doing. They were in fact a necessary part of worshiping at the temple.
During Jesus' time, there is a good chance that people would have been shocked mostly by the fact that he was so mad about what was going on. It would be like somebody running into our church and chasing after the Deacon who hands out the programs or running up and knocking the offering plates out of my hands during worship. It was that common. Now, in the first the Gospels, it seems clear that the reason Jesus is mad at the salespeople and moneychangers is that they are cheating people. As he runs them off, he says that he will not allow the temple to become a den of thieves.
But, in this Gospel, Jesus doesn't call them a den of thieves. No, in John, Jesus, lays a different accusation at their feet. He says, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Now, remember, the temple had to function as a marketplace in order to actually allow people to fulfill their religious duties. To remove the marketplace would be to remove one of the most basic systems that allowed the temple to function. To remove them would be to dismantle the whole system. One scholar argues that this whole dismantling is why this story is important. Jesus was not talking about simple little changes. He was challenging people to a complete reorientation of the way they worshiped and how they would have understood God to be present with them in the world. Such a reorientation can only come through the radical change that he brings.This change can only come through flipping over tables and hearing the thunder of cattle hooves across the temple floor.
How, you may ask, is this such a radical reorientation of their understanding of God? This has to do with how the people understood God to be present in the temple. The temple was not simply the place where people went to worship, like we come to church. According to one scholar, the temple was thought to be the very resting place of God. People came to the temple not out of simple obligation, but because they had been taught that this was the primary place where they could actually encounter God. But, in the Gospel of John, the author would assure people that they could meet God somewhere else. At the beginning of John, the author tells us that the World of God became flesh and lived among us. When he says "lived among us," he meant out among the people, not only in the temple as had been their tradition. John also tells us that Jesus spoke of his body as a temple. That's in today's reading. And, remember what the people thought they would find in the temple? The presence of God. In later chapters of the book, after Jesus tells a woman that she wouldn't be able to find God to worship in the mountains, where their people once worshiped or at the temple where they now worshiped, a man sees Jesus and worships him. John wants us to understand that the very presence of God is in Jesus and that completely changes how we worship.
In John, we learn new things about God. This is not the God who can only be encountered in that place. This is a God who lives and walks in the flesh that She once knit together at creation. This is God who is Incarnate... who lives and breathes with the same bones, and joints, muscles, and blood that we share. This is no longer a God who is separate, but a God who is radically present in creation, seen most fully in the life of Jesus Christ. This God walks, and preaches, and occasionally flips over tables to teach people a new way to encounter him. It is only by being willing to overturn the tables of our comfortable religiosity that we can learn about this God. And, overturning tables is always hard and rarely comfortable. Ask the moneychangers.
I spent a portion of my day yesterday watching the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the first march from Selma, Alabama. Six hundred people marched in that first attempt. They were brutally attacked. The police and citizen posses shot tear gas and beat them with billy-clubs, washing the streets with their blood. Children as young as 9 years old were on the march. Some protesters were beaten so badly that they were left for dead on the road. Sixteen people went to the hospital that day. Some who participated in the march would later be murdered for having the gall to believe that all people were created equal and should be recognized as children of God.
After that level of brutality, I am amazed that these people were willing to march again. Perhaps it is because I have the privilege of never having lived through Jim Crow. Maybe it's because I've always had the right to vote. Maybe it's because I've never been threatened by a police officer or worried that a bomb will destroy my house of worship. And, yet, rather than be destroyed by state-sponsored brutality and legalized hatred, they did not stop. I can only imagine that, once again, as scripture tells us, the Word became Flesh. And this time the word was Freedom. This time the word was Equality. I learned yesterday that the last song they sang before they marched was, "No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you; Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.” They believed that God would take care of them on that day because they knew that God knew what it was like to walk around in these bones, with these muscles, with this flesh. They believed that even though they could be beaten, God cared because God, too, was once beaten, that God was once battered bloody by state-sponsored violence. They knew that they might die. But, God, too, once hung on a cross and was carried into a grave. But, the grave would not stop God, and it would not stop them, either. They would overturn the tables, regardless of the cost. God, through Jesus, had once risked the same thing in order to bring about a reign of love and justice. How could they not do their part?
I think we're called to do our part just as clearly as the marchers were called to do theirs. God's reign of love and justice is still making it's way into the world. We are not yet finished. This week, we have been presented with some very clear information that affirms the stories that countless black and brown citizens of our country have shared. It is increasingly clear that our justice system does not live up to the standards of our greatest values. Too many people who are poor cannot get a fair shake. Too many people who are black live in a state of constant police monitoring that I could never imagine. Too many people have learned that without the privilege of being white and being wealthy, they will never be able to live lives of freedom and equality. It sounds to me like there are still some tables that need to be overturned. Are we willing to take the steps to overturn them?
Here's one issue to examine here in Maine: Right now, there are pre-set bail limits. What that means is that bail amounts for people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial are often set without any attention to someone's ability to pay. These decisions also do not take into account whether or not someone is actually a flight risk or would be a danger to the public if they were to be able to be out of jail while they await trial. Right now, every day, hundreds of Mainers who have never been convicted of a crime sit in jail, not because they have been deemed an immediate danger to the public, but because they are unable to afford their pre-set bail. They risk losing their jobs and it puts great strain on their families, poor families that are already stressed by living in poverty. Now, does this system sound like it affords equal justice to all Maine citizens? If it doesn't, this might be one place to start.
Resources that Pastor Chrissy consuted when writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis' Commentary on John 2:13-22: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2377
Ann M. Simmons, "Memories of Selma and 'Bloody Sunday': 'They Came With Nightsticks':
"Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches": https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/07/remarks-president-50th-anniversary-selma-montgomery-marches
Grainne Dunne, "Justice for Sale: Too Poor, Too Bad": http://www.aclumaine.org/justice-sale-too-poor-too-bad
Sermon from March 1, 2015: What do You Have To Lose, Mark 8:31-38... A Sermon on the Occasion of a Baptism and Two New Adult Members Joining the Church
What Do You Have to Lose? Mark 8:31-38
This is a full and wonderful Sunday that I've been looking forward to for a while now. Today, we will be welcoming into covenant membership Mike Davenport and Susan Payne-Nelson. Mike and Susan have been nourished by other church communities, and with the help of no small amount of grace, have found their way into this small church community in Winthrop, Maine. Through a time of discernment and worship with us, they both have felt a call to join with this church in covenant. We will also celebrate the baptism of Eric Nelson. Eric has long known that he is a child of God, but, today has chosen to be baptized as a sign of his dedication to a Christian journey and his dedication to this particular church. I hear that he is already asking when he can be confirmed. I have literally never heard of someone being so excited about their confirmation class. I was never even this excited about confirmation class and I turned out to be a minister.
I do wish kinda wish that I could welcome you into the church with a little cheerier scripture reading. The first one is alright. It is a description of God's covenant with Abram and Sarai. That reading is a wonderful reminder of a vision of God as One who is actively invested in the livelihood of God's people, and of our own responsibility to live into the promises we make with God. This seems like a perfectly appropriate reading on the day when three people are making a new commitment in their Christian journey. The second reading though, the Gospel reading... that story is a bit harder to hear on a day when we plan to be celebrating.
First, Jesus told his followers that the Son of Man will be killed but will rise again, earning a rebuke from Peter. Then, Jesus quickly set Peter and all of the rest of his follower's straight on what exactly it meant to follow him. Jesus told them that they would have to deny themselves and take up their crosses, too. For these people, this was not a welcome message. Many of them hoped that Jesus had come as a warrior leader to defeat Rome. Carrying a cross was not a sign of victory in battle. It was a sign that that you were on your way to your death. Self-denial and death were not what they were looking for in a Messiah. But, death was exactly what Jesus said they must be willing to face if they followed him. When we get new members, we eat cake. When Jesus got new followers, he warned them about self-denial and death. I'm pretty sure that that's not the welcome any of us had in mind.
There are some interpretations of these verses that have helped create a world where too many people have been taught to be ashamed of themselves and to deny the value of their lived experiences. I don't think that kind of interpretation is what we need today, especially in light of our reading from Genesis. God looked at the particular experiences of Abram and Sarai and based the covenant, in part, on addressing the specific needs that arose from their life, namely that they had no children and wanted a child desperately. If God's promises are related to our personal needs, then we can't deny or be ashamed of the things that we need. I don't think God is celebrating suffering for suffering's sake.
The heart of the Gospel requires relationship. Remember that Jesus calls us to love God and to love our neighbor. When we are asked to deny ourselves, we are asked to deny that our needs always trump the needs of the neighbor. And, if we truly live into that kind of denial, we cannot help but put ourselves at risk. When we deny that our needs are the most important, that our experiences are the only ones that matter, that our experiences of the Divine are the only true ones, we risk having everything we think we know and we think we need challenged. We risk realizing that our own comfortable lifestyle is lacking, and, may, in fact, actually being doing harm. When we are asked to deny ourselves, we may learn that our expectations of God have very little to do with what God will actually do in our lives, and we may have to completely re-evaluate how we understand our calling in this world. When we deny ourselves, we deny that we can follow God alone, without a community to support, guide, and hold us accountable to the promises we have made.
Each of us is asked to take up our cross, to trust in the covenant that God has made with us through Jesus Christ. And, we are pretty much guaranteed that this cross that we carry together is going to be a struggle. We will be afraid. Our core beliefs will be shaken. We'll probably get mad at each other and be tempted to leave rather than continue the struggle of truly following Jesus together. We may even have to face death, knowing that even Jesus himself did not escape the cross. This Gospel work is not easy. But, when we deny ourselves, when we stay in relationship, even as we face death, we can see bits of the Resurrection shining in the shadow of the cross. Those pieces of the resurrection serve as reminders to us that we need God and we need each other. Susan, Eric, and Mike, we're glad you're here. Let us all work to carry this cross together.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.