Faithful Like

a sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24B/Lectionary 29]

Mark 10:35-45

This morning in our gospel reading from Mark we hear what might actually be the first ever church conflict. There has been a lot of conflict in the church over the millennia. There have been conflicts surrounding religious practices and conflicts dealing with biblical interpretation and conflicts dealing with issues of race and ethnicity. There have been personality conflicts and arguments over the spending of money, and brawls over what color the sanctuary carpet is going to be. The Bible records much of this and, to get right down to it, probably half of the New Testament is written in response to some kind of conflict that the different early Christian communities were experiencing.

Out of a great many of these conflicts arose lots of resurrection moments where the story of Jesus was heard afresh and the community was strengthened. There was a big brou-haha early on, for example, recorded in Acts, chapter 6, between two groups of widows in the church, each of whom thought the other was getting more financial aid. That led to the creation of church ministers, like deacons, who worked specifically within the internal life of the church and distributed resources fairly.

But all that having been said, the argument that erupts between the ten disciples and brothers James and John on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus is the first conflict we have recorded. It is a conflict about the nature of God’s kingdom. It is an argument about what shape Jesus’ mission is to take. It is a debate about leadership and glory and the basics about how to go about in the world as a follower of Christ.

The argument centers around a request made by these two brothers, James and John, two of Jesus’ first disciples. The request they make is that they want to special powers and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. They are all heading to Jerusalem at this point, and James and John are fully expecting that Jesus’ kingdom will soon conquer all of the forces of oppression and injustice. They want to have special recognition and stature in that new constellation of leadership. Right and left hand. Can we blame them? Isn’t this how politics, as we know it, works? You put your money and your reputation and your faith behind a candidate with the hopes that if that person wins or claims power somehow, they will at least listen to close supporters a little more closely, if not place them in key roles of power.

James and John find out the hard way that, when it comes to requests of God, we don’t always get what we ask for. We don’t always get what we ask for because, as Jesus points out, we often don’t know what we’re asking. If James and John really knew what was in store for Jesus’ followers, if they really grasped what was going to befall Jesus once he reaches Jerusalem, they wouldn’t have asked it. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard says in one of her essays that if we really were aware of what we were doing when we worship and pray to God we should wear crash helmets. “Ushers,” she says, “should issue life preservers and signal flares.” The God at which we toss our requests is full of an awesome power, and he “may wake someday and take offense or,” she goes adds, “the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[1]

That’s the God who James and John approach that day. And God draws them close in Jesus to a place where they will never return. A place of suffering and servitude. A place of humility and heartache. A world that is turned completely upside down where the folks at the bottom are really the greatest.  “You do not know what you are asking, fellas.” They don’t know what they’re asking because they still aren’t grasping what the nature of Jesus’ kingdom is going to be.

And then Jesus asks if they can drink the cup that he drinks, and if they can submit to the same baptism he will undertake, an immersion in a life lived for others, not for themselves. On the one hand, the part about the cup is probably a tip of the hat to Holy Communion, the new covenant of love that Jesus will share with his disciples on the night before his death. It’s like Jesus is asking if they’ll stay at the table with him in their life ahead.

But on the other hand, the act of drinking itself involves a bit of commitment and risk. Once something goes down you can’t really cough it back up again, no matter how bad it tastes and what it may do to you. Currently our five-year-old will drink anything he finds around the house. We actually have to be really careful about leaving cups and glasses out on the counter or on the tables because he will just pick them up and drink them. The dregs of someone’s cold coffee. Pale juicy liquids that have been diluted by melted ice. He’ll twist the lid off his sister’s kombucha and chug it in one sitting. We’re always a little worried if he’ll end up getting sick later. So far he seems to have a stomach of steel.

Jesus has a bitter cup to offer his followers, a cup of hardship, and even if they are able to chug it down, even if they have a stomach of steel, he still cannot promise them the kind of glory and fame they are wanting. They want standard worldly power. That’s not his to grant. And they may get sick on what comes with following him. They may, in fact, die.

Are we ever ready to take that kind of commitment on, to drink that cup? Do we realize that today we are actually immersing little Blair here into a life of strange glory that will promise her some suffering? A life that, if we model it right, will teach her to shelve many of her own needs or at least see them as less important than the needs of those around her? She’s in a nice baptismal gown, but maybe we need to make her one of Annie Dillard’s little crash helmets, because God is going to come down and send her out to do some amazing good in the world that will bump her up against some hard injustice.

Jesus eventually calls the disciples all together because their arguing is getting out of hand. It’s not clear what specifically they’re angry about, but Jesus sees this as the time to spell out what his glory looks like. Glory with him looks like serving. It looks like the opposite of most worldly systems, which place the glory and the greatest people on the top of the pyramid. Glory, for now, looks like handing one’s desires for power over. Glory, for now, looks like hanging on a cross. The Son of Man, after all, comes not to sit at the top of the ladder and have people serve his every need, but to climb down and serve the needs of those at the bottom. And that is really where we are. We are there among the many that Jesus come to ransom. We are there among the many who are enslaved to our sin and the ways of evil, And he comes to offer himself at great cost, even as they make foolish demands and run from him and deny him and betray him. He pulls them and pulls us all together to remind us of his great love, a love that turns the world on its head.

There was a national news story this week right out of our own Chesterfield County of a retired top FBI official and Fortune 500 Executive who is now driving a bus for the public school system in response to their acute need. Michael Mason, who has debriefed presidents and commanded platoons and boardrooms of powerful people has now come out of retirement to drive a school bus for special needs students. He is donating his entire salary to charity. The report on CBS news that covered his story juxtaposes shots of him in White House Press conferences with footage of him lifting a child in a wheelchair onto a bus and strapping him in. “Whoever wants to be greatest must be servant of all.”

This conflict between the disciples about the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom and mission may or may not be the first church conflict. But it is definitely its longest-running. We are still having this argument, even as many of the other arguments have found resolution. This conflict rages daily. It simmers beneath the surface (and should simmer beneath the surface) within our congregations whenever we think about the ministries we undertake and how we allot resources. Are we making ourselves servants to our community? This conflict rages within our culture when we consider which people and groups we tend to adore and which ones we ignore. And the conflict about Jesus’ true mission and kingdom rages within the hearts of each of us, especially when we start to talk about freedom and rights, which are directly related to power, and are really being discussed a lot right now because of the pandemic. For the follower of Jesus, freedom is not the liberty to do whatever I want. It is not even the liberty to do what is best for me. It is the liberty to do what is best for my neighbor. As Martin Luther once famously said 501 years ago next month, “A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

I’ve really gotten a kick out of the song by country music artist Walker Hayes that came out this summer called “Fancy Like.” It’s a bit corny, but it’s got a good groove to it, and the message is as straightforward as you can get. As you listen to it, you realize he is redefining the term fancy as he describes his relationship with his sweetheart. Other people may consider a fancy night out something expensive and high-brow, but he and his girl are fancy like simple ordinary Applebee’s on a date night, and splurging is sharing the same Oreo shake. I like country music because it puts a lot of things in real plain terms, and that’s what I see Jesus doing today with us, his disciples, as he tries once again to settle this dispute about the nature of his kingdom and remind them what glory and faithfulness is like with a God who gives his life as a ransom for many. Jesus might just draw us close and, pointing to the Gentiles over there, whose leaders like to lord it over them, would say, friends, remember…

Yeah, we faithful like Son of God on betrayal night
Got that common loaf of bread with his body we are fed
And he’s whipped mean, hung on the cross too.
Three persons, one God, child, he got you.
Power like forgiveness in a wine cup
Seek-seeking out his lost sheep, loving them up
Some suffering Messiah, he’s our Savior, He’s our Light, (hey!)
That’s how he do what he do, he faithful like.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “An Expedition to the Pole,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper Perennial, 1982, p 52

How the Pastor Writes the Funeral Sermon

She prays then
starts in the
She puts down a thought.
She gets up and wipes her eyes.
She takes into consideration
the ways faces looked
at the hospital, their eyebrows,
the homemade picture board.
She re-reads the obituary,
finds a date, a place,
glances back at the Bible
and then to the screen.
Three strands—
A weaving class would have helped.
Or pointillism.
This is not linear.
Dot of grief goes next to dot of hope.
She spills some paint
and risk
until an image emerges.
It takes her by surprise.
Again she wipes her eyes.
In her mind
she puts herself in the front pew
where the widow sits
waiting, listening, faltering,
at the pallbearers coming down the aisle.
She hears in her head that line in that hymn.
Now she knows the beginning.
She types amen.

Getting Named

a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22B/Lectionary 27]

Genesis 2:18-24 and Mark 10:2-16

I hear this Genesis reading about Adam naming the animals in the garden one by one and I think immediately about our own house. Right now we’ve got a lot of stuffed animals at home. It’s bit embarrassing. They litter the flat surfaces in every room. I feel like we live in one of those crane machines at Chuck E. Cheese. The main reason why is because my wife and I have discovered that they make really effective rewards for our son, who is five. He makes a good choice, or he achieves an important milestone, and he gets the next stuffed animal he wants. The ones he likes are the ones that are as realistic as possible.

One of the first things he does when he gets his new stuffed animal is to give it a name. The sloth he got for something a while ago is affectionately known as “Slothy.” The bat he got when we were out west this summer is “Batty.” When he got a stuffed chicken that he really wanted he named it “Chickeny.” The mouse is “Mousey.” The owl is—you guessed it—“Owly.” And the shark is… “Bruce.”

To some degree these are real beings in our house. We spend an awful lot of time looking for them when they’re lost and repairing them when their eyes get chewed off by the dog. And a large part of their realness and closeness is in the naming. Naming things becomes the way the world makes more sense to us and becomes less frightening and bewildering. God does not want creation to be frightening and bewildering. God intends creation to involve intimacy, respect, and healing.

And there sits Man at the very beginning, naming all of God’s creatures, one by one. The creation stories in Genesis are unique in this aspect—unique from all other early civilizations’ creations stories. Creation is supposed to be our haven, a place of wonder and beauty, something that supports our life and enriches us. Living amidst creation in all its diversity is kind of like a reward for being human, for being God’s first and prized creation. God places his first human in the middle as a way to provide him shelter and intimacy. The point of this creating and naming all the Batties and Slothiess and Owliess and Chickenies  is to help solve the issue of his human loneliness.

We are still naming living and nonliving that we discover, carrying out Man’s first job, making sense of them and ourselves as we do so, and how we’re supposed to tend to this beauty that God gave us. That’s why we’re a bit lonelier when a species we’ve named and therefore grown to love disappears from the face of the planet due to extinction. This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that twenty-three American species no longer in existence, including the incomparable Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a reminder that we still exploit and misuse God’s creation.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker (John James Audubon)

But even if we had the woodpecker back, and all the species we’ve ever lost somehow returned, none of them would form real community for the human being. For that, the first man needs another human, and that’s how woman comes to be. The way the ancient Hebrews, who gave us this story, would have understood all of this is that Woman, by coming from Man, is equal to him, not subservient to him. It’s like Man and Woman are two ends of a horizontal line that then are looped together to created a circle, with all the creatures of earth descending beneath them but still connected.

And the method of their creation is not supposed to be read as literal science as we understand science now. Rather, when the writers of Genesis say she is taken from the Man’s ribs it is a way of expressing the mysterious, inexplicably beautiful partnership which men and women can have and how they go through life as equals, beside each other. She is called a ‘helper’ to Man, but that is not a demeaning term. Throughout Scripture, in fact, the same word is used to describe God’s relationship to humankind. Woman is a helper to Man in the way that God is a helper to those he creates and guides through life. The bottom line of the story of our creation is that humans are meant for intimacy and connection. For some that pull of community leads to a call of marriage, to join together as one. But even those who are not married know that there is something about their human friendships that is life-giving.

Adam and Eve in the Garden (Peter Wenzel)

So when our relationships are torn by our sin and selfishness, life can become difficult. The worship service for marriage in our previous hymnal had this wonderful line in the declaration of intent that went “Because of sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast, and the gift of family can become a burden.” I think all families and all marriages and all individuals know this. I know life with me is a burden for my family, especially when it comes to the kitchen sink and laundry. In reality, those who are most intimate with us have the ability to do us the most harm. I would suspect those who’ve been through a divorce might tell us about that, and those who haven’t should listen non-judgmentally.

The Pharisees try to force Jesus into a judgmental position in this morning’s gospel lesson. They come at him with a question that is not really honest because they are hoping to test him or trap him. I’m not sure the Pharisees really care about divorce or what it does to families, or how it’s a complex issue that, as we know it, involves deep pain and all kinds of emotion. They seem to view it purely as an issue of law and technicalities. And Jesus just throws the question right back at them. It is clear, he admits, all the way back to Moses that God allowed a legal possibility for divorce. Our hardness of heart, our inability to be as totally gracious and loving as God is in every circumstance, is something God lovingly takes into consideration. Sometimes marriages must come to an end so that life for both can move on.

This particular gospel reading can often be a bit of a hand grenade. It gets lobbed in here on a Sunday morning, landing on our bulletin page, making so many people uncomfortable and hurt. I wish that weren’t so. Marriage in Jesus’ time was almost nothing like marriage of today. Women, in particular, were treated in marriage agreements like little more than property traded between families trying to consolidate power. Women were usually prohibited from writing letters of divorce, and so they lived very precariously at the desires of their husbands, and a divorced woman even more precariously in society. Men would easily file for one divorce just so they could take up with another woman, and in many cases everyone knew they were already doing that.

That is the issue Jesus is addressing here—this rampant abuse of divorce laws to cover for infidelity that promoted the patriarchal system and put women’s lives at risk. In one simple discussion with his disciples after-the-fact, Jesus instantly puts women and men back on the same level. What good for the gander is good for the goose. Women and men can both write letters of divorce and should both be held accountable in the same way. Because, as God initially designed it, marriage is about mutuality and respect, about intimacy and love, not exploitation.

Suffice it to say, marriage and divorce is most often so different these days, and I’d have a hard time believing Jesus would not be in support of people getting remarried in most of the cases we encounter. Some of the most blessed unions I have officiated have been people’s second marriages, and some of the most harmonious and wholesome families I’ve seen have been blended families—ones with siblings from parents’ previous marriages.

I think most religious debates and riddle problems, like this ones the Pharisees offer, even when they have good intentions and decent outcomes, are a bit like hand grenades. They leave people feeling let down or confused or in need of grace and in the end, no one escapes unscathed at the damage they do. Try getting involved in a religious disagreement on social media. Everyone ends up looking and sounding bad. And so immediately Jesus looks for an opportunity to set things right again, to clear the air, to remind his people of God’s grace—to remind us that in spite of all the laws and rules, God always desires intimacy for his beloved humans. God always wants the lonely to be given companionship, the marginalized to be brought close, the unnamed people among us to be bestowed with dignity and honor.

And so when people start bringing him children—which they do, right after this—he starts to pay attention to them. My guess is they are women doing this. They know. They’ve heard about Jesus by now and how he reminds people of their blessing. And when his disciples try to stop the people from bringing the children, he rebukes them. He is indignant, the Bible says. It’s the same word for “angry.” Jesus doesn’t get described with that word many times at all, but one of them is when people try to prevent children from coming to him.

And then he goes a step farther, as if patting them on the head isn’t clear enough. He picks them up in his arms. Children!—those who are considered non-people, or not-yet people. Who have stuffy noses all the time and don’t appreciate fine food and who laugh at inappropriate things like fart noises. Those who feel little and left out. Those who can’t follow rules very well. Those who are usually exploited for their labor or trafficked for their youth. These are the ones Jesus takes in his arms, as if to make it clear: no more trying to come to God through religious riddles and debates. No more trying to impress others with your legalism or do-goodism, your grasp of the Bible and theology. Just trust and be curious and rejoice in the world around you.

One Sunday in my internship in Cairo, Egypt, we were doing a big group baptism for one of the African refugee congregations. There were a bunch of them all lined up at the font in our church—men, women, old and young. And it was about 100 degrees. We baptized one little boy—I’d guess he was five or six. The pastor poured the water over his head and instead of getting out of the way, the boy stood there at the font and took his hands and spread the cool water all over his head and face. And he did it again. The adults behind him saw it and started to laugh a bit, but tried to move him out of the way The boy was feeling that cool. He was in the moment, and it’s a baptismal image I’ve never forgotten.

In that moment, I’d bet Jesus would keep spraying water on him, laughing as he did it. And then probably he would have splashed all the grown-ups too. “Don’t be bewildered or frightened anymore, little boy,” he’d say. “Don’t be bewildered or frightened, kids, any of you. Enjoy this place every once in a while. And trust me all the time, especially when you mess up,” he’d say, with the compassion he showed on the cross. “God knows your name”.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.