Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 16:1-8 The Resurrection of Jesus
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That is a quite a way to end a Gospel. Jesus had died and his most loyal followers, the women who stayed and witnessed as he died on the cross when the other disciples ran away, went to the tomb where his body was laid, to tend to him out of love and according to Jewish tradition. When they arrived at the tomb, they found not his body, but a living young man, dressed in dazzling clothes, who told them something incredible and awe-inspiring and terrifying. He said, “Do not be alarmed”... now where have I heard that before? Yes. The Bible. Emissaries of God tell people not to be afraid all of the time. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” This part seems like good news but also very weird news and also kind of unreal news.
The young man goes on: “But, go tell his disciples and Peter that he was going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Back in chapter 14, Jesus had said that he would meet them in Galilee once he was raised up. Maybe this shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But, it sure seems like it was. The women, loyal to the end, fled from the tomb “for terror and amazement had seized them.” This Gospel tells us that, unlike the other three, the women tell no one because they were afraid. The Resurrection, the New Life, the Good News, we have been waiting on has finally happened. Some trusted people even saw it and would likely be trusted as witnesses if they shared what they saw. But, they had, only days before, watched their friend be murdered. And, Resurrection seemed too good to be true.
Fear is a reasonable response to this event. Overwhelm is a reasonable response to this even. As a human who knows other humans, I can empathize with the fear and understand why they might not tell anybody what they saw. But, I also like to tell stories. It’s part of my job and it’s also a thing I just like to do. And, I’ve learned a few things about telling stories over the years. One of the most important ones is that people don’t usually like them to be as open-ended as this version of the resurrection story is. A lot of people want to have clear and tidy answers to all the questions that came up earlier in the story. Running away in fear is not tidy. Choosing not to tell people about the miraculous thing you witnessed is not neat. Having a Resurrection without anyone talking about the resurrection feels incomplete. The story feels unfinished, like the News isn’t Good yet.
To be fair, there is very little about death and resurrection that is neat and tidy. Perhaps that's part of why the author of Mark stops telling the story right here. As I said, fear and uncertainty are reasonable responses to the dangerous and miraculous events they have witnessed. It makes sense that this story has loose ends. State-sponsored violence often leaves people with loose ends. Ruptures in friend groups and religious communities often leave loose ends. But, it is hard to tell a story about the Good News with loose ends. And, this is a complicated resurrection account where we, the readers, never see Jesus again, and, the women, the first ones to hear that he is risen, are too afraid to tell someone else. As I said before, this is quite a way to end a Gospel.
As it turns out, I am merely one more in a long line of readers and preachers to wonder about the ending of this resurrection account. If you were to open your Bible to Mark 16 right now, you would see two more endings that some unsatisfied readers added after what is most likely the oldest version of the story, that is, the part that Kate read at the beginning of worship today. Scholars are pretty sure that starting sometime around the second century, readers and hearers of this Gospel get increasingly nervous about the ending where the women don’t share what they have witnessed. It looks like two possible more clear and more tidy endings have been added. First, somebody added a part where the women stopped being scared and told Peter like they were supposed to. And, then another scribe, maybe having read the versions of the resurrection story in Matthew, Luke, and John, where a resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, added some stories where Jesus appears to his followers, preaches a little more, and then ascends into heaven. This author also adds a little bit about how Jesus’ followers went on to preach the Gospel, offering a final vision of the disciples being unafraid and Jesus continuing to work through them. These new endings sound far more like a victorious resurrection in the face of death than three terrified women running out of a tomb.
As someone who tells stories for a living, I can't really blame the scribes who added these new endings to the Gospel story. I understand this impulse to improve on a story by tying up loose ends and providing satisfying ends to the stories of the main characters. I also understand the impulse to try to finish the story on an optimistic note. After such a grueling and tragedy-filled story, in the midst of real-world tragedy in our own lives and the broader world we live in, we could use a happy ending and some new life and a story about renewed hope for people who thought that they had lost everything. I mean, don't many of us hope that something good will happen once these women set out for the tomb? Especially if we have heard Easter stories before. We know that something wonderful can happen. It can be jarring when we read this gospel account carefully and realize that it ends in fear and trembling instead of confidence and joy.
I have told you this before but I think about it whenever I return to Mark’s account of the Resurrection. When I was in seminary, we spent some time comparing the resurrection stories in the Gospels in my New Testament class. When we read the part where the women were so afraid that they said nothing to anyone, my professor said, "Well, they must have told someone. Or else we wouldn't be reading it." Remember, the Gospel of Mark is probably the oldest gospel. Other Gospel writers used Mark as a source for their own story-telling. If the women were the only witnesses to the Resurrection as the author of Mark claims and they didn't tell anybody what they saw, how did the author of Mark know about it in order to write it down? I was reading a commentary by Ira Driggers and he talked about how Paul knew about the Resurrection when he wrote the letter that we know as 1st Corinthians. 1st Corinthians was written before the Gospel of Mark was even compiled. If the women never told anybody about the resurrection, how did Paul know about it to talk about it in his letter to Corinth? If the women were so scared that they never told anybody, how are you and I sitting here, singing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," working to follow Christ in our time as they did during theirs? The women must have told someone. Or else we wouldn't be hearing about it today.
I have learned in my life that some truth takes a while to tell. Sometimes you have to sit with the fear and the amazement for a while. Sometimes you have to make a plan and figure out how to tell the people you know need to know the truth. Even if the truth is beautiful and powerful and world-changing in the best possible ways, that doesn’t mean you know how to share it. At least not at first… and especially if there is a risk to your safety or you worry about your ability to continue to be a part of a community that might doubt the truth you are telling them. Some truth takes a while to tell. But, you can’t let that fact alone keep you from telling it. They must have told somebody and we are here, right now, because they figure out how to talk about the powerful thing they witnessed.
And, we are called to continue to share the story that we have inherited from them. We, too, will preach the Good News of love and justice. We, too, will love our neighbor and seek reconciliation. We, too, will live like we are God’s beloved and make sure that the rest of the world knows they are beloved, too. Mark’s Gospel is open-ended because the story is not yet finished. Christ is still walking and working in this world. It’s just now up to us to step into the story and speak of a love that conquers death and a hope that lives in justice. And, like the disciples, we may be afraid. Like the women witnesses, we may take a while to figure out how to tell the truth. Thank God for this Gospel that shows us that we can be afraid and misunderstand and still have a place with Jesus. These women must have told someone. Now we can, too.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mark 11:1-11 Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
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.
Jesus wasn’t a king. I said that in my sermon last week. Jesus in his role as messiah wasn’t going to be a king. In Mark 12, Jesus said that the Messiah wasn’t a son of David, that is, wasn’t a descendant of a king who could argue that he deserved to because of that royal lineage. I said, to your very faces, across your phone and internet lines, that Jesus wasn’t a king and that I think that Jesus wanted to make sure that the people following him didn’t think he was going to be a king. The Messiah was not going to be a new monarch to restore their people to the Good Old Days of King David. I still believe that. And, yet, here where are today, back a chapter or so from what I preached on last week, with Jesus entering Jerusalem kind of like a king in a royal procession. Great. Thanks, Jesus for messing up my point from last week. I hope you’re happy. Because that’s what this strange little parade is supposed to remind us of: A king entering the city. And, Jesus is set up to be the king in this parade, but none of it looks quite right.
The book of Zechariah has a prophecy about a king on a donkey. It reads: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” When we read that Jesus asked the disciples to borrow a donkey for him and that he rode that donkey into Jerusalem during Passover, we’re supposed to remember that prophecy and think of Jesus like a king. Bonnie Bowman Thurston reminds us, in her commentary, that kings usually had the right to use whatever they wanted. Jesus wanted the donkey and he got it. Whenever people do what Jesus tells them to, things work out well.
The city of Jerusalem would have been packed. It was the festival of Passover, one of the most important Jewish festivals, and Jewish and God-fearing non-Jewish pilgrims from all over would have been traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate. The streets would have been full of money changers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. People who were sick and impoverished would likely be in the streets, asking strangers for help, especially for food and money. You remember the story of Bartimaeus? The streets of Jerusalem would have been full of people just like him. Children would have been running wild, too, enjoying the exciting trip to the city, and probably driving their parents to exhaustion.
The city would have also been tense. Passover is a celebration of God rescuing Israel from slavery, a celebration of God taking down a tyrant to save the people. Another tyrant was ruling Israel, this time Rome. Rome was quick to violence if they thought a people they conquered were going to revolt. A festival celebrating liberation seemed ripe for rebellion. Fred Craddock, in a sermon titled “If Only We Didn’t Know,” said that Rome increased the size of their military presence in the city by three times during this festival. The presence of the soldiers was intended to be threatening. So was the presence of Pontius Pilate. He was always ready to enact violence to protect Rome. Pilgrims remembering liberation while under the watchful eye of a violent army. The city would have been tense. If all we think about is the Hosannas, we can forget the tension that would have been all around them. Into this tension, this ruckus of pilgrims, vendors, sick people, and soldiers, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, riding on a borrowed donkey, carrying the weight of Zechariah’s messianic prophecy and almost looking like a king... or at least a man who might want to be a king.
As he rides into town on a donkey, people see him coming and they make a path for him. You don’t just make a path for any old pilgrim coming into the city. You clear a path, especially in this way, for someone special, maybe even someone royal. Mark doesn’t call the branches palms. That happens in John. But, they are leafy branches of some kind that people take the time to cut down. Dr. Thurston points out in her commentary that in the book of Isaiah, one way you welcome a king is by smoothing out the road ahead of him and in the book of 2 Kings, when Jehu is proclaimed the king, some military officers spread their cloaks out in front of him to acknowledge his kingship. At Passover, parts of Psalm 118, were sung: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.” The word “hosanna” comes from that text. Hosanna means “save us.” Importantly, you don’t just yell save us at any random pilgrim who comes riding by on a donkey. You yell “save us” it to the King. You yell “save us” to God.
I once read a dramatized account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem written by Doyle Burbank-Williams. Rev. Burbank-Williams imagined that the people who watched and joined the procession would have had all manner of responses to it. I was particularly struck by a couple of crowd members he imagined:
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: Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna! Hosanna!
Unfortunately, we don’t have any accounts from the actual crowd members, just the story of the crowd’s behavior as curated by the author of Mark years after the fact. I could believe that the two members of the crowd gathered might respond like that, one in delight over anything that might knock Pilate down a peg and another with an uncertain hope. Also, though, I’ve read the stories after this one. Even as Jesus is greeted like a king and a savior in today’s reading, the rest of the week will not feel triumphal. I know that by Thursday, Jesus will be betrayed, and by Friday, Jesus will be dead. Crowds will shift from yelling “save us” to yelling "Crucify him!" By Saturday, his followers will believe that all hope has been lost.
I mentioned Dr. Craddock’s sermon “If Only We Didn’t Know” earlier. In that sermon, Craddock points out that if we’d paid attention to Jesus at all in Mark, even as he looks like a triumphal king in this story, he has already told us three times that this royal parade will end up on the cross. Roman soldiers will call Jesus “King of the Jews” while they torture and mock him. If Jesus was supposed to look like a victorious king entering the city, if he was supposed to be fulfilling the prophecy of a Davidic heir entering David’s city and would be returning their people to glory, why on earth would he later be betrayed and killed? What kind of king is this?
For all the trappings of royalty and allusions to heroic kings of the past, the events of this story and the rest of Holy Week, will show us that Jesus was no king. Or, at least not the leader everyone thought he would be. Yes, in some ways, if Jesus is “kingly,” he shows us a vision of God’s kingdom, a kingdom of love and justice, which stands in opposition to the cruel Empire of Rome. In his commentary on this passage, Ira Driggers wonders if even the use of the donkey colt as his mode of entry into the city is intended to show us that Jesus will lead not like Pilate, charging into the city on a warhorse, but on a humble donkey, a mount fit for leader rooted in healing and care for stranger and neighbor alike.
Driggers argues that if we are to understand Jesus as a king, it is a king unlike any other. From his baptism to his death, Jesus demonstrates his deep commitment to his mission to restore humanity to covenant with God. This commitment to restoration and wholeness will put him in opposition with people of good will who disagree with him, powerful people who are invested in the structures that oppose wholeness, and Rome, who wants nothing to do with a rabble-rouser. Jesus knows that means his life will be cut short if he remains this committed to his mission. As Driggers puts it, “Jesus chooses death because toning down God’s healing love - to avoid death - is not an option for the Messiah. Jesus can only love at full speed. And Jesus knows that this same love will overcome death itself.” So, shout your hosannas today. Jesus will hear them. The next week is going to be hard. But these moments of celebration are pointing us to the greatest celebration yet to come.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The First Commandment
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”, - this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
The Question about David’s Son
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ” David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
Jesus Denounces the Scribes
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
The Widow’s Offering
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
The Jesus we meet in scripture is an interesting teacher. He seems to understand that sometimes you need can hear an explanation and immediately understand it. He also seems to understand that sometimes you need some examples to make the meaning clear. While he rarely wants to clarify himself to people who are questioning him in bad faith, he will clarify for his disciples and for people who genuinely seem interested in growing closer to God. Last week, we heard some of Jesus’ most contentious arguments with the religious elite of his community. This week, we shift into the final session of those “interrogations,” as some scholars call them. This one is not nearly so contentious. In fact, this one shows us how Jesus is clearly situated in the best of his tradition and this scribe is right there with him.
Pastor Intern Becky already gave us a good introduction to the text, so I’ll only talk about it a little. Jesus is clear about what he thinks is the heart of Jewish law. Love God and Love your neighbor. I’ve even heard of the 10 Commandments being lumped together, with the first tablet the “love God” tablet and the second tablet being the “love your neighbor” tablet. It probably doesn’t surprise those of us who have been hearing and reading Jesus’ words for a long time. We know that he is the foundation of the covenant between Israel and God. What might surprise us, if we’ve heard lots of sermons about how terrible scribes and pharisees are, is to hear this scribe agree with him.
The scholar Sarah Henlicky Wilson is the one who reminded me what a gift this wise scribe is to Christian readers. Too many sermons, probably even ones I’ve preached, have developed interpretations that put our Jewish neighbors in a bad light, misunderstanding their traditions of interpretation and the culture both of ancient Jewish people and our contemporary Jewish neighbors. Given how often Jesus is arguing with Pharisees and the fact that Pharisees were Jewish religious authorities, people will shortcut the arguments into Jesus disagreed with Jewish people. That is a poor reading. The stronger reading, according to Wilson, and I agree with her, is to say that Jesus is a Jewish teacher who argued with Jewish authorities. And, sometimes, we see those same authorities agree with Jesus’ interpretation of their shared religious tradition.
This scribe sees Jesus’ wisdom and Jesus sees his. This affirmation of sound, shared teaching is enough to make the most contentious interrogations of Jesus’ teaching stop, at least for the moment. As Bonnie Bowman Thurston says, this portion of story shows us that Jesus and the scribe alike know that the Law is intended to be a gift from God to the people, a gift that shows the people how to relate to God and, frankly, to other people. If your behavior is rooted in the covenant, it consistently demonstrates these two commitments. The rest of today’s reading shows how hard it can be to consistently demonstrate love of God and love of neighbor. Those priorities can get lost in love of self.
The story has shifted. Jesus is teaching a large crowd in the temple. And, he begins with a question about the Messiah. How can the Messiah be the son of David? Richard Horsley, in his commentary on this portion, says we should read this question as being directed to the people who thought the Messiah would restore a true king to Israel through a leader from the line of King David. Jesus didn’t believe the Messiah, or his role as Messiah, was to be a military or royal leader who brought back the Good Old Days. Instead, the Messiah will harken back to the root of the covenant, love and justice, and reorient the people back towards God. You remember that cornerstone image? Jesus said the Messiah isn’t a king but a foundation for building covenant with God and with other people.
With that in mind, Jesus looks towards current leaders who should be pointing towards God and neighbor, and, instead, are just shining a big ol’ light on their own holiness. Jesus has little patience for hypocrites, who want to look good before other people but fall down in their adherence to the covenant. In this last part of Mark 12, it seems like there are few things that anger Jesus more than hypocrisy. I think it’s because the hypocrite loses sight of both God and neighbor while being concerned about their reputation and image.
What exactly makes one a hypocrite? Jesus' gives a pretty succinct run-down in verses 38-40. You wear your nicest ritual garments around town to show off how holy you are. You use your education and privileged position to get positions of honor and the best seats in the synagogue. You make a show of your faith without actually living out the core tenets of that faith. And, most damningly, you take advantage of the poor. Debie Thomas, in her commentary on this scripture, points out that some of the people in the greatest need in Jesus’ community were the widows, that is, women who had not simply lost their husbands, but who likely had no family at all to call upon for help. Care for the widow and the orphan was embedded in scripture and in the practice of the law. In her commentary, Thomas reminds us that when the Psalmist wanted to describe God's capacity for grace, they called God the parent to the orphans and the protector of widows. The law even made allowances for poor people to avoid giving to the temple if they could not afford it, a fact that the scribes in this story seem to have forgotten.
The scholars that I have read this week argue that what Jesus is really doing in this text is calling out his religious community for forgetting God's priorities. He is not using a poor woman to guilt people into giving more. He is calling out a temple system that consumed every last dime of the poor but does not seem to be offering the support for them that was demanded by the law. Remember, Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. God and neighbor are a package deal. If you missed either one of these things, you missed out on living the life God called you to.
Thomas argues that Jesus may actually believe that it is an actual shame that she has so little. Her faith leaders should be bound by their faith to help her and make sure that she has something beyond her last coins that she tithes out of faith. What Jesus finds galling is that it seems as though caring for her has been forgotten in favor with fancy clothes and fancy dinners and keeping up the system that gives them power. Jesus is clear. If we have any concern for the covenant, for building a relationship with God, we should not be like these religious leaders who care more for their reputation and institution than for the people whom God loves.
The next part of the scripture, just after today’s reading, is ominous. But, I think it needs to be noted. After noting that some scribes are wise and upholding the covenant well and after noting that too many powerful religious people are disregarding love of neighbor for love of power, Jesus says that the institution that they are investing in will fall. In chapter 13, vs 2, Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here up on another; all will be thrown down.” A few decades after Mark was compiled as a Gospel, the temple would be destroyed by Rome. I don’t think that’s what Jesus was predicting though. He never preached as though God was using Rome to punish Israel. But, I do think he was critical of the religious institution built up around the use of the temple, an institution, that several times before this, he preached lost sight of the heart of scripture, which was love and justice, in favor of rigid and sometimes hypocritical practices that harmed actual people.
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, wonders if this is actually the hardest and most important question this Gospel asks of modern readers. We are long disconnected from the temple practices that Jesus critiqued. But, we, being humans, can build up our own version of the hypocritical practices in our time. Part of being the body of Christ means being willing to look inward to see if our outward manifestation of Church is really about love of God and neighbor or has morphed in something more selfish or self-aggrandizing or self-protective. Jesus warns us that any institution that claims to be built on love of God and neighbor but doesn’t actually practice that love can crumble long before it helps to enact the kindom of God in this world. As we consider a return, hopefully in the next few months, to our building and our more typical gatherings as a community, we would do well to make sure that all that we have and all that we are points to love of God and neighbor. For, this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Mark 12:1-17 The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
Then he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”?’ When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
The Question about Paying Taxes
Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
I have talked about how we will be traveling through the book of Mark during Lent until Easter. At this point, we’ve mostly been traveling in the order of the story, ever closer to Jerusalem. Today, though, we’ve skipped ahead of the story a bit. The two parts of this reading take place after Jesus has made it to Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry we celebrate on Palm Sunday and after flipping tables in the temple. This is a story about the height of the conflict between Jesus and the religious rulers in his community. As several scholars I read this week noted, it is common to hear the stories of the triumphal entry and the resurrection during Holy Week. We don’t always get the stories of the most intense conflict, the stories that show us how someone could come to the conclusion that Jesus needed to be harmed. Remember, he taught as one with authority. And, he challenged the people in authority. These are stories that tell us something about power- what power Jesus had, whose power is threatened, and, ultimately the power of God. Jesus teaches about power by talking about a vineyard and a coin.
Vineyards are all over the place in the Bible. They were an integral part of the culture and community. It makes sense that, when trying to find a metaphor that people connected to, prophets and teachers would look towards vineyards, places of deep roots, hard work, and daily cultivation, to help teach something about the people’s covenant with God. In the book of Isaiah chapter 5: 1-7, the prophet calls Israel God’s vineyard. It was on a fertile hill, set up for success, and lovingly tended by God. Unfortunately, where God hoped to reap justice, God found violence. This vineyard produced unusable and bitter grapes. The people did not live into their call to love and justice. In Isaiah, God was going to raze the vineyard, starting something new, to get to fields of righteousness, where, as 5:17 states, “lambs shall graze as in their pasture, young animals and kids shall feed among the ruins.” Sometimes, you need to start over to get to the end you desire.
The scholar Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, believes that the religious leaders would have understood that Jesus’ parable of the vineyard to be labeling them as the wicked, violent tenants. They realize that Jesus believes that they have so fully fallen short of their covenant, that they have sown violence where they should have sown justice, that they have become what the prophet decried in Isaiah. The metaphor isn’t exactly the same in this story, but it’s close enough to feel like an indictment. The leaders in his community would have heard the echoes of the earlier vineyard story in this one. They would have realized that the way that they wielded their power was being questioned. And, powerful people rarely want to be questioned, especially if they feel like they are doing the right thing.
Power is a slippery concept in this story, to be sure. While we are probably intended to understand that God is the vineyard owner in this part of Mark, as God was in Isaiah. This vineyard owner owns other humans, which is not just, and keeps sending the humans he owns into a dangerous situation, which is not just. A scholar I read named Angela Dienhart Hancock says she finds this scripture particularly hard to preach on because of the violent and complicated layers of ownership and relationship. She thinks the key here is that bit about the cornerstone. There is a strong, usable stone that will first be rejected but will end up being key to the construction of the new building. Just as with the first vineyard story, where the vineyard becomes something new, a pasture, this vineyard will be changed, too. The cornerstone will reshape the space back towards justice. That is the power that Jesus, and God through Jesus, will wield here; the power to shape the people into the Kin-dom of God, the sweet pastures where love and justice are cultivated. This is why the people in power were threatened by Jesus. He said they were doing it wrong and that they needed to be corrected to be put more in line with what God wanted from them. Now, if you have been in power and someone tells you he’s pretty sure you’ve messed up so badly that you must be removed, you might end up wanting to get rid of him, too. And, you would definitely want to know who the heck he thought he was to be telling you how you were doing wrong by God.
There is an additional entity exerting power on Jesus and his people that the second part of our reading addresses: Rome. Rome has taken over Israel and is a cruel colonizer, extracting goods and people for Rome’s own gain. Even as Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are having intense arguments about what it means to be Jewish and adhere to the covenant, Rome is a constant threat looming in the background. Someone who is crafty might be able to use the power of Rome against Jesus in order to bolster their own authority without taking the blame for violence enacted against him. That’s what this bit about the coin is here for. To show us how people threatened by Jesus hoped to get him in trouble with either the people who had trusted him or with Rome, who had the power to do him harm. Jesus, again, has the power to change the direction of the conversation away from what his questioners intend and back towards God.
Clayton Croy, in his commentary on this text, reminds us that Jesus’ community hated paying taxes to Rome, not because there is something wrong with taxes, but because the taxes ultimately supported the Empire that had conquered the local people. If Jesus seemed to side with the Empire, the regular people would stop listening to his teaching. If Jesus was too anti-Rome in his response, Rome would come after him for threatening the empire. Remember, this is during Passover and Roman soldiers were everywhere. They had a low tolerance for any talk that sounded like Revolution.
Jesus, though, did not answer the question on their terms. He almost never does. Instead, he makes this a question of taxes into a question about who has power of what. Caesar, who has money printed up with his face on it, has power over what is done with that money. But, God has a different power. God’s power should be their first concern. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But, give to God what belongs to God. Croy, in his commentary, said that Jesus argued that what you owe Caesar is actually pretty limited. What you owe God is a much bigger question.
I’ve read before that we should remember that if the image of Caesar on the coin shows us whom the coin belongs to, perhaps we should consider where we see the image of God to figure out what belongs to God. You might remember that humanity is said to bear the image of God at creation in the book of Genesis. “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” That means that our whole selves and our neighbors’ whole selves belong to God. So, as we consider our actions, we act in such a way that we are rededicating ourselves to God and tend to our neighbors’ well-being as they are reflections of God. And, look at that. Jesus, in reminding the people that what is owed to God is our first concern, has realigned his people with the covenant. This is him using the power of the cornerstone that he talked about, directing the shape of the kindom we can build with God. As we move ever closer to the crucifixion and, ultimately, resurrection, remember this. Remember that Jesus is ultimately directing us towards God and all that is God’s. Even when things get scary and complicated, Jesus is answering the question: What is God’s? Jesus says we are. Now, let’s make sure the vineyard we are working in reflects that.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
This Sunday was an intentional intergenerational Sunday, which includes liturgy that is written specifically for children’s developmental levels and a sermon that is written with the children’s developmental levels in mind. Before Ann, our lay reader, read our Scripture, I told everyone that there was more than one story in our reading and asked them to pay attention to how many different stories they heard. As you read our scripture for the week, I invite you to do the same. How many stories are in this one story?
Mark 10: 32-52
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Sometimes our readings for Sunday morning have more than one story. Before our reading today, I asked you to listen to see how many stories this chunk of Mark is telling. When you were listening, how many stories did you hear? (listen to their guesses) Those are all good guesses. Becky and I figured that there were three: the first part, where Jesus predicted that something bad was going to happen to him in Jerusalem, the second part, where James and John want to have the best seats alongside Jesus, and the part where Jesus heals a man named Bartimaeus. And, these three stories work together to tell us something about what it means to follow Jesus.
The first story in this reading, the one where Jesus made a prediction about what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. Remember, Jesus and the disciples are walking together and he is teaching and healing people along the way. In this part of the story, when it says that people are following Jesus, it means that they are literally walking with him towards Jerusalem. And, some people who were mad at Jesus and were in the city of Jerusalem had already sent spies to check on what he was teaching. We haven’t read that story together recently, but they did. So, as the group of people were walking with Jesus towards Jerusalem, they got nervous. They knew that people who didn’t trust Jesus lived there.
If you are doing something scary and your friends are coming with you, it is good to let them know that the thing you will be doing together is scary, especially if the thing you all are doing is important. And, what Jesus was going to do in Jerusalem was important. He had to make sure that everyone who followed him knew that it would likely be dangerous and also make sure that they were willing to risk going there with him even if it were dangerous. Sometimes being brave means knowing something is scary, feeling scared, and doing the hard thing anyway. The first part of the story is where Jesus makes sure that the disciples know that not everyone likes what he’s teaching and some people are really mad about it. But, even if people are mad and will hurt him, in the end, they cannot stop him from rising. A couple of the disciples then go on to ask some questions about what it means to follow Jesus and if they could have a special place with him. Intern Pastor Becky is going to tell you more about that.
This morning you heard a story during the scripture reading about James and John, two of Jesus’ 12 disciples. They both asked Jesus to grant them the right to sit one at the right hand and one at the left hand in Jesus’ glory. They wanted to have special seating in front of the 10 other disciples. Do you think the disciples were shocked at John and James’ request or mad that they didn’t think to ask first?
Think about this for a minute: When you go to your Grandparent’s house for Thanksgiving dinner or another special occasion, do you rush to sit at the table beside one of your grandparents, or do you have to sit away from them or even at a different table? What about when you were having your lunch in the school cafeteria before Covid? Was there a special person that you felt you needed to sit beside to eat lunch or lunch wouldn’t taste the same if there wasn’t space available??
Jesus agrees that it is good to be a leader, but says that a leader is a person who puts the needs and wants of others before his or her own. Think about being part of a team, like the 12 disciples were. I know many of you have been part of a sports team or played music with other people, so you know what it is like learning to work together. It can be difficult at first to learn to pass the ball so someone else can score, instead of keeping it to score yourself. Or being one of the members of a relay team and learning that everyone working together can make you all winners, not just the one crossing the finish line. Leaders are people who give up their own glory for the good of the team. A few leaders that come to my mind are Rev. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
James and John had asked Jesus the question because they believed it would be a privilege and they would sit in greatness besides Jesus. But Jesus’ lesson was about servanthood, helping others before helping ourselves. When we follow Jesus’ teachings, we stay close to him, by serving others before ourselves.
So, the first story is Jesus warning his friends of the danger that awaits them in the city. The second story shows us that the disciples want to follow Jesus, even if it’s dangerous, but that they misunderstand what will happen if they follow him. James and John think that they might have a special honor if they follow him. Jesus has to tell them and all the disciples that following him isn’t about making yourself special but about serving the people around you. And, then we have the third story, a story where Jesus heals someone and that person immediately begins to follow him. I read an article by a teacher named Mark Vitalis Hoffman who said that this story is pretty special. There are lots of stories where Jesus heals people. There are lots of stories where people decide to follow Jesus. There aren’t as many where someone is healed and also starts following Jesus down the road. Bartimaeus is special. He has a great gift, and this gift allows him to come closer to Jesus than many people could have imagined. Thank goodness that he realized he had such a gift, or he might never have approached Jesus and he might never have been healed. And, what is Bartimaeus’ great gift? His faith. As you may remember, Jesus said that it was his faith that made him well. And, we can all learn an important lesson from Bartimaeus about how to use the gifts that we have to follow Jesus.
Bartimaeus didn't have much money. Notice that we first see him, he was asking for money from strangers when he encountered Jesus. Sometimes people have so little that they have to ask strangers for help so they can have food and a safe place to stay. Sometimes people call our church and ask for help like Bartimaeus did. And, since he is asking strangers for help, it probably means that he doesn’t have family or friends who are helping take care of him. Sometimes people aren’t nice to people like Bartimaeus, very poor people who are sick and have to ask strangers for help. When Bartimaeus realized that Jesus was coming close to him, he started shouting out for his help. He must have already learned that Jesus could heal people and hoped that Jesus could heal him. Some of the people with Jesus told Bartimaeus to be quiet… to leave Jesus alone… it’s like they thought Jesus had more important things to do than deal with the likes of Bartimaeus.
Luckily for him, Bartimaeus wouldn’t be shushed when help was so close to him. He kept yelling and asking for help. He did something else special, too. He realized, way before other people, that Jesus was the Messiah. That’s what he was saying when he called Jesus the Son of David. Few other people realized so quickly who Jesus was. When Jesus heard Bartimaeus cry out, he had compassion for this man with the great gifts of faith and bravery. Jesus asked his friends to go get him. Jesus' disciples said to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Has anyone ever told you to take heart? That means, “Hey! Something good is getting ready to happen. I hope you feel good about it.”
In the last couple weeks, we’ve heard stories about different people approaching Jesus. A teacher named Bonnie Bowman Thurston noticed something interesting while comparing Bartimaeus to the rich young man who approached Jesus. When Jesus told the rich young man that he needed to give away everything he had to the poor and follow Jesus, the rich man got very sad and didn’t immediately follow Jesus down the road. He walked away. Bartimaeus was different. He was willing to give up all he had to come to Jesus. Did you hear that part that said he “threw off his cloak, and sprang up, and came to Jesus.” His cloak was probably the only thing he owned. He was ready to drop all that he had to get to Jesus quickly.
Jesus asked Bartimaeus the same question that he had asked James and John in the second story. He said, “What do you want me to do for you?” Rather than ask for a place of honor, as James and John did, Bartimaeus, asked to be able to see. Jesus does it. He heals his eyes so he can see. Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” This sounds like he’s telling him that he can leave and go somewhere else. But rather than run off to go celebrate, Bartimaeus chose to follow Jesus, joining the disciples and others who were walking with Jesus to Jerusalem.
Wow! That was a lot to learn in three short stories. What do you think we learned about following Jesus today? Here's some that I came up with: Something scary may happen in Jerusalem. Sometimes you have to do hard things even if you are scared. It is good to take people with you when you do something important. We follow Jesus not because we want to get fancy things or be in charge but because we want to be servants like he was. Be kind when someone with no money asks for help. Be willing to give up something if you are going to follow Jesus. Following him and being a servant is more important than having lots of money. Ask Jesus when you need help. These are all good lessons! Do you think you’ll be able to put any of these lessons into action this week? Next week, will you let me know if you did?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2642
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Carolyn Brown: http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/09/year-b-proper-24-29th-sunday-in.html
Seasons of the Spirit
Mark 10:17-31 The Rich Man
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
I have been trying to remember how many times I’ve heard conversations about this reading get bogged down in one particular part of the reading: that business about a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. It is such a powerful metaphor that people seem to have this impulse to figure out if Jesus really meant to say that it was easier for a camel, which the internet tells me is, on average, a little taller and heavier than your average moose, to fit through the hole in a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God. Really, Jesus? That sounds a little harsh. What if it’s a really nice rich person, like the kind that donates money to vaccine research? They can get into the kingdom of God, right?
And, maybe Jesus doesn’t mean a whole, giant camel and the teeny, tiny eye of a sewing needle. Maybe Jesus is not talking about a sewing needle. Maybe he’s talking a gate in the wall around the city of Jerusalem. It’s a really small gate and the camels have a hard time slipping through. But, they can do it, if you don’t overload them. It’s not impossible, like fitting a camel-sized animal through a miniscule hole. Surely Jesus isn’t insinuating that wealth and the kingdom of God are so incompatible as to be impossible to mix. Some scholars have suggested this story has an ancient typo. The word for camel and for cable, like a big rope, that kind of cable, are very similar. Maybe Jesus was talking about a string too big for your average needle. At least cables, which are made out of thread, are kind of related to needles, which use thread to sew. It is not an easy fit, but, not totally out of the realm of possibility. Maybe you could unravel the cable down to its smallest parts? Then, they would fit! See, not exactly impossible, just, like super hard. He couldn’t have meant that it is literally impossible, could he? I’m starting to think that he meant it was just about impossible. And, I don’t quite know what to do with that.
To be fair, Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her commentary on the text, says that Jesus says it’s not impossible but it is very hard. Maybe that’s why the gate or cable interpretations could make more sense. And, maybe she’s right. But, even if this is a metaphor about a cramped door and a camel or a big cable and a little needle, this is still a story about Jesus telling a wealthy person that their money is a spiritual impediment. And, that it is a hard word to hear, for us and for the devout young man. How on earth did we get to this place where someone who has been keeping the law, with great faith, is suddenly so sorrow-filled about his relationship to God? I think we got here because Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem, teaching about God on the way. If you want to follow him on that journey, you have to be clear about the cost of being on the journey with him.
The young man who approaches Jesus seems legitimately interested in his teaching. Mark Vitalis Hoffman argues that the fact that he is kneeling is best read as a sign of his sincerity. And, he calls Jesus good, also, a sign of his sincerity. What a surprise it must have been when Jesus said, “why do you call me good? Only God can be called Good.” I am convinced by Thurston’s argument that Jesus responded this way to draw attention away from himself and back to God. Because, the next thing Jesus says is about God’s law. And, remember the law is intended to keep humanity in covenant with God. When asking specifically about this man’s relationship to the covenant, Jesus asks him if he’s kept all the commandments related to caring for other people. Hoffman calls them the second tablet commandments. I’d call them the “Love Your Neighbor” commandments.
The man said he had been following these commandments his whole life and Jesus seems to believe him. Jesus took him at his word, understanding that that commandments are not some list of impossible tasks, but actions that every day people can do in order to better follow God. Jesus believed him, looked at him, and loved him. I think we’re being invited to believe him, too. According to Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, he’s the only person in the Gospel of Mark who is said to be loved by Jesus. Jesus loved him and we can be generous to him because he’s devout and trying hard, but also still really wealthy.
Even though this man had followed the law, Jesus asked him for more. We often ask more from the ones whom we love. He told this man to sell everything that he owned and give the money to the poor. Then, Jesus invited the man to leave everything else behind and follow him. While the man had found God's commandments to be manageable and while his wealth had helped him be able to follow ritual purity rules, he found Jesus' invitation to be much more challenging. He looked at his life, a life that was, by all accounts, blessed and well-lived, and began to grieve. He was accustomed to the sacrifice of following the covenant. This was a sacrifice he didn’t know how to make yet. So, he leaves in sorrow.
The disciples, who have already left behind all they had, still get confused when Jesus starts talking about camels and needles. First of all, when Jesus says that it will be hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is likely shocking to his disciples, who may have been accustomed to thinking of wealthy people having been blessed by God. Then, as now, there is some common and problematic theology that equates being beloved by God with having lots of money. They knew the man had followed the law and they knew he was rich, which means they suspected that he was already blessed by God. But, Jesus said that wealth could be an impediment to joining the reign of God. The disciples wonder, “Then who can be saved?” I think this is a reasonable question.
Just like he did with the man who called him good, he wanted to point the disciples back to God. He said that humans can't do something impossible, like squish a camel through a needle. But, we're not talking about human powers here. We're talking about God. And, God regularly deals with the impossible. Peter is still caught up in what humans can do, and, specifically, what the disciples have done. “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Peter echoes the young man this way: “I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, responding similarly to his disciples as his did the young man, acknowledges that it is possible to make choices to follow him, and that following him and sacrificing for the Gospel will bring reward, but it will bring as much persecution as it does gain. And, just because they were the first to follow him, that doesn’t mean that they will have a particular standing in God’s dominion. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Even if you give up all you have, you still can earn your way into Grace.
In his commentary on the text, Hoffman points us back to the young man’s original question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Well, some things must clearly be done. The Love your neighbor parts of the commandments, for one. Something else must be done, too. You must be willing to give up the rewards you expected, be it the wealth you’ve accumulated or your status as an early adopter of the Gospel. This journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem is too turbulent to hold tight to too many expectations and following the Gospel is meaningless if you are only doing it for the treasure. In Mark, chapter 8, Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” In the end, though, inheritance isn’t only about what you do. It’s also about who you’re connected to... who’s your family. You are a child of God. That feels impossible. But, with God, all things are possible.
In her commentary on this passage, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson noted that we don’t actually now what ended up happening to the young man in the long run. We just know that he leaves this moment, bereft, because he has many possession and Jesus told him to give them all away and follow him. She also reminded us that later in this story, at the empty tomb, the women who are the first witnesses to the Resurrection run away in fear, and tell no one. And, yet, we are here, evidence that they must have told someone. Maybe the young man went away, sad, but ultimately unchanged. But, maybe he gave away everything. Maybe he caught up with Jesus in Jerusalem. Maybe he went on to preach about how he had been changed, about how he learned the good news. Maybe he told stories about camels and needles and impossible things made possible with God. We don’t know what happened to him but we know that Jesus loved him. Jesus loves us, too. Now, we just have to trust that love enough to let go of the things that are keeping us from following Jesus to Jerusalem. Because, it won’t ultimately matter if we are first or last, as long as we go. I pray that we can go.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mark 7:1-23 The Tradition of the Elders
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
As I read this week’s scripture about food and traditions, I remembered another story that I read once. I don’t know if it is a story that actually happened in somebody’s family or just a good story that seems true, but, I think it’s worth telling. I read it first in Reader’s Digest. More recently, I’ve found a version of the story shared by a writer named Madora Kibbe. You may have heard this story before, too. The story begins with a child watching their mother cook a roast for dinner. This family seems to be one where the moms have the responsibility doing the big cooking and passing along recipes. The child sees their mom cutting off the ends of the pot roast before putting it in the pot and putting it in the oven. The child asks their mom why she is cutting the ends off the pot roast. The mother, "I don't know why I cut the ends off, but it’s what my mom always did. Why don't you ask your Grandma?"
So, the inquisitive kid called their grandmother. They said, “Granny, mom is making a pot roast and cutting off the ends. She said she is cutting off the ends because that’s what you did when you made one. Why do you cut the ends off the pot roast before cooking it?" Her granny replied, "I don't know. That's just the way my mom always cooked it. Why don't you call your great-grandmother and ask her why she did it?" What a gift this child had having so many generations of family still living! The child then called their great-grandmother.
Great Grandmother answered her phone on the seventh ring (it was on the other side of the room and she had to get to it). The beloved great-grandchild asked her the question. "Mom is making a pot roast and cut the two ends off before putting it in the oven. She doesn’t know why. She said she learned it from granny. And, Granny said she didn’t know why she did it either. She just learned to do it from you and you were a very good cook, so she just did what you did. So, why did you cut the ends off the pot roast before cooking it? Great-grandmother said, "When I was first married, we had a very small oven, too small for a standard pot roast. If I wanted to make one, I had to cut the ends off to make it fit.”
This activity, cutting the ends of the pot roast, began out of necessity. You can’t cook a roast in your oven if it’s bigger than the oven. It ended up becoming a practice that some people thought was necessary in order to cook well. Then, it became a tradition that one passes on to the next generation. How many traditions in our lives began out of practices passed along with no sense of their root, rhyme, or reason? How often do we do a thing mostly because it is because it’s how we learned to do the thing, not because we actually need to do it that way and only that way? These kinds of actions, traditions passed along and strictly adhered to, unexamined for their relevance to the present moment, are the target of Jesus’ critique in our reading for the day. Jesus wasn’t against tradition, especially religious traditions. What he was against was following the letter of law, and even making more restrictive rules around it, and ignoring the Spirit of the Law God gave the Jewish people.
The tradition that is at the center of the conflict between the Pharisees, scribes, and Jesus is related to questions of ritual purity. The first few verses in the translation we are reading make it sound like it’s just about washing their hands... like their hands are muddy or dirty. But, that’s not what this is about. That word translated as “defiled” shows us that is a question about eating after having done a certain kind of religious ritual. Scholars I read this week indicate that the practices around ritual purity, that is the practices around ritually purifying hands, foods, pots, and pans, were traditions developed around the core of the Law that God gave Moses, like a level of padding around the initial commandments. You don’t want to go against the commandments. So, we will add and add and add practices to our community just to try to cover every part of our lives, doing the best we can to make sure all we do is in accordance with God’s Law.
Dr. Elizabeth Shively, in her commentary on this passage, also noted that the elders saw these purity rituals as a way that their people set themselves apart for their God, preserving both their covenant with God and their particular culture in the midst of the Roman Empire that would happily destroy them. We are being generous interpreters when we acknowledge that these traditions developed out of both a deep faith and important necessity. To be fair, these traditions were not exactly as low stakes as cutting ends of your pot roast just because your mother did. But there is some similarity to the trajectory of a practice becoming a tradition that got passed along in a community. But, in this case, we have Jesus, who felt as though he had the authority to state that those traditions were made by humans, and not by God. And, according to scholar Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Jesus understood that every other teaching offered by the prophets and the community were interpretations that could be interrogated and, maybe even discarded if they were not sufficiently adherent to Love of God and Love of Neighbor, the heart of the Law.
In today’s reading, Jesus uses somewhat of a crude analogy about eating and what happens to food once it has been eaten to make a point about how one can evaluate their actions to see if they are aligned with love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus said that the things you touch and eat are probably not what separate you from the covenant with God. That’s what impurity means here: Separating yourself from the calls to love and justice that are the people’s responsibilities in the covenant with God. It is not the things that go in your body or touch your body that draw you away from God. Instead, it is that which emanates out of you... your slanderous words, your unkind acts, your lies, and your bigotry, that draw you away from God. Most people Jesus knew weren’t able to consistently maintain ritual purity. But, all people could turn their hearts towards God and act out of love of neighbor.
In my world, “coming out” is a good thing. Coming out is a phrase that signifies a knowledge of self and clarity about one’s identity, community, desire and love. When we come out, we say clearly something deeply true about ourselves, reflecting our values into the broader world, though this truth telling is not without risk. I thought about this as I read Jesus’ teaching about the things we take in from the world and the things that come out from us. The goal of our faith is to have what comes out of us be an expression of the knowledge that we, ourselves, are beloved by God through creation and welcomed into a community of faith through our baptism. We best express, then, our desire to follow Jesus when we re-examine our traditions and see if they are actually meeting the demands of love and justice present in that very moment. If they aren’t, Jesus is telling us that we don’t prioritize maintaining those traditions over loving our neighbor. Or, put this way, we don’t just keep cutting the ends off the pot roast. We find a new recipe... one that allows us to cook something good using the full size of the oven that is at our disposal. It is a risk to examine our traditions. We may find ourselves at odds with what our elders have taught us. Jesus sure did. But, Jesus argues that the risk is worth it because it can bring us closer to God and to each other. I pray that this Lent can be a time examining the faith that is coming out of us and of cooking the full roast when necessary.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
The Coming of Elijah
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
I was listening to a Bible podcast this week called Sermon Brainwave and one of the scholars, Rolf Jacobson, I think, said he once heard a really good sermon about the transfiguration. That preacher pointed out that there is a mountaintop at the beginning and the end of Lent. Today, the day we call Transfiguration Sunday, the final Sunday of Epiphany, the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, finds us up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, astonished by how they are seeing Jesus, astounded by seeing Moses and Elijah. God will tell them clearly to listen to Jesus. Near the end of Lent, we will be drawn up a mountain again, this one Calvary. Peter, James, and John will not be there, but the women disciples will be watching from a distance. They, too, will be astonished by how they are seeing Jesus, but that astonishment will be shaped by a deep grief and fear. Bystanders will think they hear Jesus call for Elijah when he is calling out, in anguish, to God. We won’t hear God speak on Calvary, even as Jesus dies and the temple curtain tears. Lent begins and ends on a mountain. It is said that you can see clearly from a mountaintop. What can you see clearly of Christ on these two mountains?
Important things happen on Mountains. Dr. Bonne Bowman Thurston talks about that in her commentary on Mark. In Exodus 19, speaking to Moses, God consecrates the newly liberated Hebrews, covenanting to protect them. In 1st Kings 19:11-18, Elijah hears the voice of God on Mt. Horeb, receiving a divine mission. When the city of Jerusalem is invited to serve as a prophet to the cities of Judah in Isaiah 40:9, Jerusalem will go up the mountain to point towards God. Ezekiel encountered God up on a mountain, too, in Ezekiel 40:2. Scripture tells us that you see God more clearly up on a mountain. Even knowing that important things can happen on mountain tops, James, Peter, and John still seem surprised at their own holy epiphany.
The scholar Melina Quivik, in her commentary on this passage, encourages us not to rush to try to explain, with modern, scientific inquiry, just what is going on up on the mountain. It’s not that science is bad or contrary to Christian faith. It’s that science is not the right language to translate this story. It’s like trying to write a love poem in algebra. The Transfiguration is more art than science, pointing us towards something that is beyond what we normally understand. It is wild and weird and incomprehensible and unnatural. And, importantly, this wild, unnatural, incomprehensible event is similar to other wild, unnatural, incomprehensible events. When it happens to Jesus, according to Thurston, it places him into the prophetic lineage of Moses and Elijah, who also encountered that which is beyond natural up on a mountain.
It's no wonder that Peter wanted to build a structure to commemorate the event. I mean, you have to do something to honor what you saw when you see something as wild as this. Stack up a pile of rocks or put up a memorial marker or take a selfie with the incredible thing that is before you. It’s like Peter thinks there should be a signpost that says, “On this day, Jesus blew Peter, John, and James’ minds.” That may actually be what he’s doing with the dwellings he offered to build: making a signpost. Scholar Ched Myers, in his commentary on this scripture, said that these tents or dwellings were structures built to mark the presence of the Divine, like the tabernacles built in Leviticus 23. Terrified and awestruck, he couldn't figure out any other way to respond to what was happening. But, God wasn’t looking for memorials or markers. God was looking for a commitment to follow Christ.
A cloud overshadows them. Peter, James, and John could see nothing in the divine darkness. Remember, in Exodus, God appeared in the dense cloud up on the mountain when talking to Moses. This story is supposed to remind us of that and also to foreshadow something important: These disciples will often not see things clearly. They will misunderstand regularly, and they are his closest companions. Jesus will need people to see and understand. So many times, they won’t. As the cloud overcomes them and Jesus, and Moses and Elijah disappear, the disciples hear something that they seem to understand. God speaks, much like when Jesus was baptized, but, instead of speaking to Jesus, God speaks to the three disciples, saying two things to help the disciples figure out how to respond to what they have witnessed. First, God says, "This is my Son" and calls Jesus “Beloved.” The next thing God does is tell the disciples to listen to Jesus. Again, all that is happening is weird and unnatural but also fits alongside the other prophet stories I mentioned earlier. This is yet one more example of God making sure that the people God's sends are listened to. Then, poof, just as quickly as this fog shows up, it clears, leaving the three a little stunned and still confused, but clearer, at least, that they should be listening to Jesus.
After the cloud clears, Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone what they saw. I’ve talked about this a couple times recently. Mark has Jesus asking for a certain level of secrecy throughout this Gospel. For some people, this might have been a relief. This story is so wild. If they were supposed to tell other people about it, surely they would have faced disbelief and dismissal at best, ridicule and mistrust at worst. Imagine what would happen if you started talking about seeing long dead prophets and Jesus. For some people, though, it would be a challenge to not tell everyone, or at least the other disciples, about the about what they had seen. It was so incredible that Peter wanted to make memorials of it. I don’t think you make a memorial about something you want to hide from people. It would have been such an incredible sight. I can imagine that at least Peter would have a hard time not telling people what they saw and heard. But, Jesus said, now is not the time to share this story. So, they do what God said. They listen to Jesus. They tell no one... at least until after the Resurrection.
The scholar Fred Craddock has a sermon about this passage that I find helpful. He said that he wondered if Jesus asked them to wait because there was no way they understood the miraculous thing they just saw mere moments after they saw it. To go around telling everyone about it before they understood it was to risk missing the point of the event. To truly understand what they saw, maybe they needed some more experiences, some more stories, some more mysterious clouds. Jesus knew that and asked them, for now, to hold this piece of information close. Pray about it. Listen to some more teaching, and follow Jesus’ guidance. Dr. Craddock thinks Jesus was saying “Take some time to tell this story right. It's ok to not understand everything immediately. Stick around and keep learning.”
The pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi said about the season of Epiphany that is it really a season of many little epiphanies, small moments when it becomes clearer and clearer who Jesus is and what he has come to do. The Transfiguration, the account that ends the season of Epiphany and points us towards the season of Lent, is perhaps that fanciest of the small epiphanies. But, we should remember that it doesn’t complete the story. The transfiguration is but one shining moment that helped his disciples figure one part of the mystery of Jesus. It is but one mountain top from which they can see Christ. They will have to continue the journey, even to that sorrowful mountain of Calvary, to learn more. They can’t get stuck, here, on this mountain, because they feel like this event was miracle enough. Maybe that’s why they couldn’t build dwellings there. Jesus’ mission was never going to be enacted in the isolation of the mountain top. They would have to return to the people to live out God's vision of love and justice.
In her commentary on this passage, Melinda Quivik made a distinction between transfiguration and transformation that I think is helpful. Transformation indicates a change of substance. Transfiguration is to be changed in outward form, but not substance. The disciples saw Jesus differently, with the glowing form allowing them to see and understand something about his essence that was always there. But, there is promise of transformation: transformation of the disciples and the world. The nature of that transformation will become clearer in the stories between the mountaintops of Transfiguration and Crucifixion. Because the crucifixion won’t change Jesus’ essence, any more than the transfiguration did. Calvary will simply allow those who are watching to understand something about Christ’s essence that was always there. The fierce love was always there. The deep loyalty was always there. The willingness to serve and to speak truth, even in the face of great danger was always there. But, some won’t be transformed by that knowledge until that final mountaintop and the events of the days to follow.
We are living the days after the resurrection, when the disciples are free to tell what they have seen and how it changed them. We are living in a time that feels a bit like we are struggling our way between two mountains. May we pay attention to the Christ that is before us, in our neighbors, in the stranger, in the prisoner, in the hungry, in the foreigner, and listen to him. That is the only way that we can be changed.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
· Melinda Quivick: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-92-9-5
· Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/768-transfiguration-of-our-lord-b-feb-14-2021
· Maren Tirabassi: https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2021/01/29/strongholy-communion-liturgy-for-february-7-2021/
· Ched Myers, "Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday after Epiphany), Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
· Fred Craddock, "Tell No One Before Easter: Mark 9:2-9,"The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
In our scripture today, we are still early in Jesus’ ministry, but he is on the move. The scholars I read this week suggest that we should pay attention to these moves... moves between public spaces and private space, and to his movement into isolation, to learn about how the author of Mark thought Jesus worked in the world. This reading begins where many of our journeys of faith began, within a family home, among people who love and care for one another. In her commentary on this passage, Dr. Bonnie Bowman Thurston reminds us that, in this time and in this culture, several generations lived with each other and, many times, branches of extended families lived together. This home is Simon and Andrew's, two brothers who were among the first disciples, but they weren’t the only ones who lived in the home. Simon's mother-in-law lived there, too, and likely several others. And, this family is well known by James and John, the other two brothers who were early disciples of Jesus.
The first part of the story is in a family home and “family” can be a contentious concept in Mark. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, reminds us that, in chapter three, just a couple verses after this one, when Jesus’ own family comes looking for him, he says his real family isn't necessarily them, but anybody who does the will of God. We should be prepared for Jesus to challenge traditional ideas about what family is and does. And, yet, among the first things he does in his public ministry is travel to his disciples’ family home and meet their extended family. And, the second healing we see him perform is healing one of the family members of his disciples. Even as Jesus will suggest an expansion of what “family” means, Dr. Kittredge reminds us that friends and family will continue to be drivers of compassion and care through the rest of this Gospel. Parents will ask Jesus to heal their children several more times in this book. These two sets of brothers, James and John and Simon and Andrew, will continue to care for one another even as they follow Jesus. Faith in Christ will consistently be situated inside the family, with family members encouraging one another to believe and to be healed. And, Jesus will consistently respond with compassion to those who advocate for the people they love.
James and John become some of the first people to show us how the community members will advocate with Jesus for the people they love. They tell Jesus that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick. Jesus responds by healing her. Dr. Thurston notes that Jesus touches her to heal her, a risk for a couple reasons, first because touching a sick person risked ritual uncleanliness and second because touching a woman risked a different kind of ritual uncleanliness. Jesus, knowing the risk of being excluded from fellowship for ritual uncleanliness, still chose to touch this woman and heal her, restoring her to full life and fellowship with the people in her family. When she has been restored to health, she begins to serve.
This word “serve: is a little difficult to parse out. Are we to believe she was healed just so she could feed Jesus and his buddies supper? That is certainly how some have interpreted this verse according to Dr. Osvaldo Veno, even using it to assert that the proper place of present-day women is only in support roles of the Gospel, not in proclamation. Dr. Veno thinks that kind of interpretation is unwise. In her commentary on this text, Dr. Kittredge notes that Greek word for service is used throughout the book of Mark to mean both serve at a table and also to do ministry. Much of the time, it is used to describe discipleship or work that is divine in nature. The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word for “serve.” The angels served Jesus in the wilderness. The scholar Karoline Lewis notes that, in Mark 10, Jesus will describe his own ministry as service: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Both Dr. Kittredge and Thurston suggest that given the expansive meaning of “serve” in this Gospel, it would be fair to interpret this passage as Simon’s mother being healed and serving them by welcoming them into her home but also, in response to her healing, she began a life of service, that is discipleship, with Jesus. Her discipleship would not have been possible had her friends and family not advocated for her.
As this woman shifts into discipleship, the story shifts from the private sphere of the home and family to the public sphere of a crowd of people who have gathered outside of the mother-in-law's home. Once Jesus healed the possessed man with his words and the sick woman with his touch, he went from one who was relatively unknown to someone the whole town would talking about. Seeking healing, people came to him in droves. And, Jesus healed them, one by one, from their various diseases and possessions. Interestingly, for the second time in just a few verses, we see Jesus communicating with the demons as he draws them out. The first healing was in our verse from last week. Remember the demon who tried to say out loud who Jesus was, and Jesus stopped him. In today's reading, he does the same thing, forcing them to be silent because "they knew him."
This theme of secrecy is unique to the book of Mark. Why would Jesus not want the demons to say clearly who he was? Dr. Thurston thinks this has something to do with how Jesus prefers that people come to know him in the book of Mark. It is one thing for people to observe him themselves and choose to follow. It is another thing for people to be convinced of his power by the word of supernatural beings. According to Thurston, for Jesus, it is most important that people observe him themselves and then choose to follow him. Faith can’t just come through word of mouth. It is best for people to see and believe. I mean, at one point in Mark, Jesus will even tell Peter not to tell people he was the Messiah. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact, that during this era, it was understood that any kind of magician could perform miracles. Jesus wasn’t any old magician. Maybe he didn’t want the public spectacle of the healings to overshadow the grace and compassion that was the reason why he was healing people in the first place.
As the story shifts into the third part, we see yet another shift in location... into a deserted place. When Jesus needs to reconnect with God, this is what he does. God is the source of his power and the foundation of his identity and this time in the wilderness in prayer is how he rebalances his life after intense bouts of teaching and healing. Thurston asserts that periods like this, where he is in the desert praying, remind us that all of his authority is rooted in his dependence on God, not in flashy feats of magic. They are necessary times of respite and reconnection in the midst of his hectic ministry. But, his disciples didn't seem to understand that. He is so far out of the way that the scripture says his followers have to "hunt" for him, as though he was lost. Their hunt isn't necessarily described as a good thing.
We should remember that Jesus was not interested in popularity. He would have directed everyone, human and demon alike, to spread word of his miracles if he was. But, he wasn’t. His ministry was grounded and compassionate, not flashy and theatrical. In his time in prayer, Jesus came to some clarity about their next steps. As Dr. Thurston put it, “[his] task was not to be a wonderworker but to ‘proclaim the message’ in the towns around Capernaum.” And, that’s what he tells the disciples that they will do. So, they began the Galilean mission in earnest, bolstered by prayer and reconnection with God.
Covid is strange. It has disrupted so many ways that we think about public and private life, about isolation and connection, and this change has affected how I read this portion of scripture. I have new questions after reading this story of a Jesus functioning in three spheres, in public, in private, and in isolation, particularly in this era where we are trying to live out our faith when our private homes have become many of our offices and classrooms, and when we are navigating crowds and public spaces while managing two important necessities: public health and social connection. When work is home and home is work, how do we find space for prayer and reconnection? How can we shift the aloneness that this era requires away from a kind of harmful isolation and into the something that is more like the prayerful connectedness that Jesus found in deserted places? And, how do we continue to be drivers of compassion and care, like James and John, who helped Simon’s mother be healed and begin her own discipleship, an act which is the foundation of discipleship? I don’t have good answers for all of these questions yet. But, I can see that Mark, a Gospel where Jesus moves through public and private and into isolation, will be a good companion through the rest of the lectionary year. May what we see in this scripture point us to Christ the healer and helps us follow him in healing this world.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39-5
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3547
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5052
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Mark 1:21-28 The Man with an Unclean Spirit
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
It has been not at all the year that I expected at last January’s annual meeting. It is hard to even begin to sum up a year marked by pandemic, isolation, and world-wide disruptions of systems that most of us count on for daily life. So much of this year has been dominated by questions of authority: who has it, how is it appropriate to wield it, how do we, as a nation, recognize it? While these questions are often on our minds, particularly as a country that describes some of our cultural divisions in terms relating to responsibility, both individual and communal, and freedom, both individual and communal, the stress of the pandemic put these questions of authority in sharp relief.
How much time have we spent since last March trying to figure out who is a trustworthy authority about Covid-19? So much time! The sharpest divisions among neighbors and family members right now, in January of 2021, are very much shaped by decisions we made about who was the most trustworthy source of public health information way back in March and April of 2020. As you know from worshiping with us over the last year or from even just glancing at our annual report, as a church, we chose to trust public health professionals as the one’s with the greatest authority in regards to Covid-19. Our decision to do so shaped and reshaped our church in some significant ways. We have never stopped being church, but we had to be church in ways we never had before.
Some things we were able to make feel pretty close to right quickly. Digital worship, which we shifted to on March 15th, 2020, feels like worship to me and has for a while. It is certainly different from worship in the sanctuary and, we will be glad to return to worship in the building. But, people continue to show up, this time on the internet, and pray, sing, and listen to one another. I don't know that I could have imagined digital worship services could feel as holy as Marie Hatfield’s funeral service and Christmas Eve did. I’ve also participated in some anti-racism programming with Wabanaki REACH that has been intimate, connected, and more holy than I could have anticipated. I am deeply thankful for that.
I’ve learned so much this year. Some of what I’ve learned has been disappointing. Watching our government's lack of leadership and coordination and care in response to the global pandemic and hundreds of thousands of deaths has been deeply disheartening. As someone who used to work in healthcare, I have been concerned in particular for the amount of strain on healthcare workers who have often been understaffed and ill-supported. They have been putting their lives on the line for months to care for the sick and the dying. They aren’t the only ones who have been put in harm’s way by poor leadership (janitors, teachers, grocery store employees, restaurant employees have all been at risk), but, they were some of the first ones I truly worried about.
Other things I have learned are just handy. I can produce more and better media than before the pandemic. It wasn’t always easy, and some things, like music mixing, I was never able to get the hang of. I’m really grateful that Connie Mayette took on so much of that work during Advent. I couldn’t have done that work and it made Advent richer. But, some kinds of media, like the Psalms in the Woods videos, turned out to be just what we needed to stay grounded and connected. I’ve appreciated both the weekly process of looking through the Psalms to see what feels like the right one for the week and the walks through the woods and our gardens to find a place to record. I’m grateful to Becky Walker and Rev. Susan Reisert from Old South in Hallowell for joining me in making the recordings. The pictures of the altars I make for Sunday have been surprisingly meaningful to me, too. I’m in the process of collecting them all on a website as a way to remember what the visual aspect of worship was like when I didn’t have deacons and New Directions to help me set up our worship space.
I’ve been learning how to be a mentor, too. Before Coronatide, I had approached the Maine School of Ministry about our church being an internship site to help people learn how to be a pastor with the support of a solid congregation. I’m grateful that Becky Walker, our intern, has been learning how to do this with me. We were even able to secure some funding that functions as an intern stipend for her during this time. Thanks, in particular, to the Teaching Church Team (Kristin McLaren, Ann Mitchell, and Doug Whittier) for supporting Becky as she has been learning to be a pastor, too.
There were some things that weren’t exactly new learnings, but on-going confirmation that the strength of this particular church lies in its commitment to hospitality and service. For as hard as things have been, the church continued to do the work of the church. A little later in the service, Wendy is going to share more about ways that we shared our funds with folks and institutions in need. I won’t go into all that. But, it was great. Also though, people kept showing up for board meetings. That is also great. People in elected positions in this congregation worked hard to fulfill the responsibilities they took on. People were flexible and grace-filled towards each other, letting go things that were not priorities and keeping up the most necessary parts of our communal life. Particularly in regards to public health directions on how to most safely meet, the church leadership has taken good advice from trustworthy sources. As I said in my report, I know pastors who left congregations during this pandemic season because the churches were pushing to disregard public health recommendations. I am glad that is not our situation.
For a small church, we have so many resources, mostly because we have committed people who are both realistic about what we have capacity for and willing to use the tools we follow through on promises we made. Kristin is going to share more about how Christian Education was affected by changes we made in response to Covid-19. The changes wouldn’t have been possible without clear assessments of what we were committed to do and investments of both time and money in order to do it. We’ll need to keep doing this in the months and weeks to come as we continued to learn to live out our ministry during Covid.
There is certainly so much we’ve lost this year. We miss seeing each other in person. We miss worshipping in the same space in our warm and welcoming building. We miss singing together and coffee hour and working together at food pantry and organizing the church fairs. I haven’t been able to visit you in the hospital or hug you in the greeting line after church. Visits to your homes have had to be short, when I could visit at all. Not everyone in our church has the internet and not everyone likes zoom worship, even if we’ve managed to make a pretty meaningful version of it. While I feel like we’ve made more good decisions than bad, I know that we have lost so much this year. We can’t fix that so much as mourn the loss, and try hard to continue to make choices that prioritize care for those most vulnerable, apologize for the mistakes we’ve made, and try to do better in the future.
In our scripture for today, Jesus surprises people with his teaching... not just the content of his teaching but the demeanor and manner in which he teaches. He teaches as one having authority, as the one who has the right to teach. The people observing him are most convinced by his teaching when they observe it in light of his ability to heal someone who is deeply, spiritually ill. His authority isn’t just about confidence, it’s about compassion. The healing, an act of compassion, is what ultimately convinces the people that his authority is worth trusting.
As we look towards the next year, with more hard decisions coming down the pike and a pressing and need for leaders who express their authority through compassion and healing, I hope that we can remember Christ’s example here and model our actions on it. When I look at the last year of our life together, I think, more often than not, we’ve used our authority to offer compassion. If we want to continue to live out our mission and visit as a church, we can’t lose track of the compassion that got us this far. Indeed, it will be the thing that will carry us, with Christ, into the future that is so uncertain. May we never mistake authority for privilege and never lose Christ’s compassion as our guide.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
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.