Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24

Mark 8:31-37

In Denial

My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt about preaching today. I’ve come to this moment kind of dragging my feet, for a variety of reasons. And one of them was that I just did not want to preach on this text. Of course, I didn’t have to - we don’t demand lectionary preaching in chapel. But I just felt like I wanted to preach from the lectionary during Lent. The other texts for today are all about Abraham and Paul’s take on Abraham, and let’s just say those passages were not filling me with inspiration. Briefly, I was imagining a sermon on the Transfiguration text - it is an alternate text for today. But then our wise friend Leah Wandera chose that, appropriately, for Transfiguration last week when it is the primary lectionary choice, and preached a powerful message - you should give it a listen if you missed our online service last week. So here I am, and here we are.   

Truthfully, I’ve always liked this text, and specifically, what I consider the heart of this passage - “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Please don’t tell this to my dissertation committee and give them encouragement to come up with more questions to ask me about my prospectus draft, but I’ve always liked it when things are challenging rather than easy. I mean, easy things have their place, for sure. But I like a challenge, and Jesus’s words are certainly that. Whenever Jesus describes discipleship in ways that seem demanding, I’ve found them motivating rather than discouraging. I like to think that rather than setting the discipleship bar low so we can all just step over it, Jesus sets the bar high and then helps us reach high enough. So, this call to deny one’s self and take up a cross is a challenge I want to rise to meet. What good is easy discipleship? 

But my dear friend Heather, another clergywoman, and now also a Drewid, a DMin student here, has always hated this text. It raises her feminist hackles. Women, she says, are always being asked to deny parts of themselves already. They are always being asked to give up pieces of themselves, to give up parts of themselves for the good of others. She doesn’t need Jesus asking her to do it too, making women denying themselves into an act of religious faithfulness. 

Is that what Jesus means when he asks for self-denial? Sacrificing parts of ourselves? Our contemporary culture, at least in the United States, has tended to interpret self-denial like a second opportunity to make good on New Year’s Resolutions that have failed shortly after January 1st. Lent becomes a kind of season of self-improvement. We can deny ourselves chocolate for Lent and get a two-for-one deal: obeying Jesus, and trimming some excess from our diets and our bodies. Our Lenten journeys become disordered reflections of our disordered views of ourselves. If we don’t love ourselves very much already, and we don’t love our bodies, and we don’t love the skin that we’re in, and we don’t love who we are, perhaps we welcome a chance to deny ourselves - we’re ready to shed the person we are that we’re so ready to and so easily able to find fault with anyway. Deny myself? Yes please! Lent in this way becomes just another promise of new and improved selves that can never meet our hopes. 

If not that, what, then, does Jesus want from us? What is it, exactly, that we need to deny of ourselves, about ourselves? Does self-denial mean stripping ourselves of our individual identities? We’re all one in Christ - we’re disciples, united in cause and purpose - and identity? Is this the self-denial of the way of the cross? This doesn’t fit right either. One of the things I’ve learned at Drew is that denying myself, denying pieces of myself, can actually be a privilege that gives me power over others. I am, to draw on a favorite essay by Donna Haraway, situated. (1) I have a particular perspective. I am White. I am a citizen of the United States. I am a cisgender straight woman. I am a Christian in a Christian-majority nation. I am a middle-class person, even if I’m also taking on the role of broke grad student for a few years. I’ve had access to - let’s be honest - excessive amounts of schooling. I am situated. Is self-denial about denying all the particulars of who we are? Haraway likens that to what she calls the “god trick” - pretending that we have the same all-seeing and all-knowing perspective of the divine being, looking down from on high. Jesus does say we should set our minds on divine things, doesn’t he? Is self-denial about striving for God’s point of view instead of our own? Can we accomplish that through self-denial, and trying to shrug off labels of our particularities? 

In the midst of all of these unappealing ways of denying ourselves before we’ve even gotten to the part about taking up a cross, is there any chance for saving our lives here? I’m pretty sure I remember that in the text somewhere. Losing our lives, yes. But saving them too. That’s in there, right? How do we deny ourselves, lose our lives, and save them all at once? Are there ways that we can understand the call to self-denial that lead to life

As Yeongrok and I were talking about music for chapel today, he said my sermon text made him think of the song The Summons. I almost didn’t include it, but I had been thinking about it too, and the words from John Bell in one of the verses. It’s a question from God to us: “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name?” What is the “you” that you’re hiding? 

I think when Jesus talks about self-denial with the disciples - in the particular context of the oppressive state violence that Jesus believed was in his future as a person who kept relentlessing prodding at systems of injustice - I think he’s telling his disciples that they need to lay down their clinging to self-protection, to safety and security, so that they can take on the cross - rather than the sword - with courage, as they face off against Empire. Our particular context is different, of course. But these words call to us all the same. 

What if denying ourselves looks like denying our obsession with individualism? Not as in denying that we are situated, and acknowledging the positionings that sometimes give some of us extraordinary power and place. Rather, maybe denying ourselves looks more like putting away the misguided notion that we are somehow self-contained. Putting away a notion that we are in control, and a contained, boxed-in self that stands alone. Thinking again of our music for today, I’m amazed at the number of Lenten songs that put us in isolation - it’s just me and Jesus in the lonesome valley, doing it all by ourselves. I’m always wary of anything that suggests that it’s just between us and God, when Jesus so firmly and frequently reminds us that all of our neighbors fill the spaces between us and God. Maybe denying ourselves actually means we can deny this privatized notion that we have that we are solo, contained, doing it on our own, so “unique” that we cannot be in solidarity and in community.

Taking up a cross and confronting injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves isn’t the work of an individual. I think maybe taking up the cross is always the work of a community. In fact, the image of Simon of Cyrene being called on in the gospel to help Jesus carry the cross comes to my mind. Jesus needs help carrying the cross too. Denying ourselves is the ongoing, difficult work of shedding the beliefs that we can or should do it on our own, that we are on our own in our pain and struggles, on our own in confronting the powers and principalities, that we’ve got it figured out on our own, that we only need our own perspective, that we can box ourselves in. Deny this understanding of what self means. Take up the cross, the work of a community - the work of solidarity, of kinship, of working for justice. The work of carrying the cross, together. 

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. Amen. 

  1. Haraway, Donna. "‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective'." (1988) In Space, gender, knowledge: Feminist readings, pp. 53-72. Routledge, 2016.

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, "All Things," 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

 Sermon 2/4/24

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

All Things

“You can’t please everyone.” “You can’t make everyone happy.” “You can’t do everything.” “Know your limits.” “Don’t try to do it all.” “You can’t be all things to all people.” Have you heard these words? Said them? Felt them? I know I have. I’ve been having a busy semester this Spring, and my mother frequently says something like this to me. And I’ve certainly doled out these words more than once. “You can’t make everyone happy.” Being a people-pleaser can be exhausting. Now, I’m not saying we can’t try to be kind and loving - I think we absolutely should do that! But trying to make everyone happy all the time usually leads us to exhaustion, which is bad enough, but it also means we end up compromising ourselves, our values, our integrity, because we’re working so hard to make sure everyone else is happy with us, that everyone likes us. There are limits to what we can do, right? We can’t be all things to all people. 

And yet, what springs to mind is a scene from one of the best movies I’ve seen, a movie that’s on many people’s lists of best movies: the 1993 film Schindler’s List, the Steven Spielberg film about a man named Oskar Schindler, who worked to rescue Jews from being sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust by employing over a thousand workers in his factory. His motives begin with profit for himself, but eventually his mission becomes one of compassion and urgency. In the end, in one of the most moving scenes from the film, Schindler expresses his deep despair that he could have done more but did not. He says: 

“I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just... I could have got more.” Stern, the man to whom he’s speaking, replies: “Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.” But Schindler goes on: “If I'd made more money... I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I'd just...I didn't do enough! This car. [He] would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't! And I... I didn't!”

There’s a tension that Schindler’s dilemma exposes. Was he solely responsible for every life saved or lost in his sphere of influence? That’s a lot of weight to put on one person. He did so much! But could he have done more? Should he have? What kind of expectations are reasonable for him to place on himself? Must we try to be all things to all people, as much as it is in our power? And if we’re thinking about how hard we’re working to make sure others know of God’s love and grace, if we do less than we could, if we are not all things to all people, are we at fault?

That’s a question that our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seems to answer, and in Paul’s usual definitive way, he seems to have a clear and bold answer for us. “An obligation is laid on me,” Paul says, “and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! . . . I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some.” Paul’s words come in a chapter when Paul is trying to show the Corinthians who he is as an apostle of Christ. When I read Paul’s words, I am struck by two feelings. First, I’m filled with a deep level of exhaustion. Trying to be all things to all people sounds like an impossible task with ridiculously unreasonable expectations. Have you ever tried to be all things to all people? How did it work out? How long could you sustain it? It comes with a cost, trying to be all things, and I think in the long run, we cannot sustain it. No matter what we try to do, it seems it is never enough, and that we always carry the burden of knowing that we should be doing more. This burden is a tremendous weight to bear, a sometimes immobilizing weight. We could be giving more. We could be feeding more people. We could be volunteering more, serving more. We could be, we could be… We know we should be doing more that we aren’t doing, and so we do nothing at all. 

Was Paul actually doing everything he said he was? Was he all things to all people? I think we need a bit more context to his words. See, there is a bit of tension in the New Testament between Paul and the other apostles, Peter and James and the rest of the twelve who were Jesus’ first followers. And the tension comes from a couple of sources. First, Paul never met Jesus in person. Yes, he had a powerful encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus where he heard Jesus’s voice and turned from persecuting Jesus-followers to inspiring others to become Jesus-followers. But he did not follow Jesus during his earthly life for years like the other disciples. And at first, that’s a source of tension. Does Paul have equal claim to leadership and authority with the twelve? Should he? Does it matter? So Paul is out to prove himself, a bit. Earlier in the chapter, he compares himself not so subtly with other disciples, noting that he does not take advantage of all the privileges that some of the other apostles do. Paul wants to be in it for serving Jesus, and he wants his purpose and integrity to be above question.

The other source of tension is that while some of the other apostles wanted to focus on sharing the gospel of Jesus with other Jewish people - after all, Jesus was Jewish, and the twelve were Jewish, and Jesus himself mostly taught and worked and healed among Jewish communities - Paul wants to share the gospel with Gentiles, who might be eager to hear about Jesus and God’s grace even though they have no intentions of converting to Judaism. So, in his words to the Corinthians - a community of Gentile Christians - Paul is trying to tell them that his only interest is in sharing the gospel, and he’ll share it with anyone and everyone. He’s ready to be in community with anyone so he can share the good news. 

That brings me to my second feeling I’m struck with when I first read this text. Being all things to all people? I am not sure being all things to all people is really desirable even if we could somehow pull it off. My first read of this passage makes Paul seem like a chameleon, generously described, and manipulative and inauthentic, if I’m going with my gut. Do I want to be in relationship with someone who is going to pretend to be more like me in order to have an “in” with me? I don’t think I really want someone in my life who is going to pretend that they think like I do, so that they can better persuade me to whatever end they have in mind. “To the Jews I became as a Jew in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law … so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law … so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.” Do we want to hear good news from someone who is just pretending to share an identity with us? 

Fortunately, I’ve had some help in thinking beyond my gut reactions to Paul’s words. This week at one of Drew’s weekly chapel services, professor of Christian history and Methodist Studies at Drew Rev. Dr. Kevin Newburg preached on this text from 1 Corinthians, and I found his sermon both challenging and inspiring. He summed up both Paul’s message and his own approach to pastoring as “Love people and preach the gospel.” I like his way of interpreting Paul’s words. What if, instead of Paul trying to deceive people into believing he’s just like they are in order to convince them to follow Jesus, Paul is trying to tell us that he’s committed to building relationships with anyone and everyone so that they can all share in Christ? What if we think about Paul as modeling for us that we can be in deep, authentic, meaningful relationship with all kinds of people. 

When we think over our lives, we might find that we spend a lot of time with people who are just like us. Sure, they might have different hobbies, or like a different sports team than we do. But we tent to spend most of our time with people who are in the same economic class as we are, who have the same amounts of education as we do, who are in the same racial or ethnic group as we are, who share our religious identity already. Studies even show that our social media pages tend to reflect our own perspectives back at us. We develop cultivated facebook feeds, for example, where we see people supporting the political candidates as we do, and holding the same point of view on social issues.  

Paul is committed to something different. When I hear Paul saying that he’s become all things to all people, I’d like to think that he means that he is always crossing boundaries and spending his time not with people just like him, who think like him, and worship like him, and act like him, but with all kinds of people, building relationships that are built on his openness to the other. It is hard work. It is indeed costly for Paul, the amount of work he puts into fulfilling his commission, his calling, his commitment to the good news of Jesus. But I don’t think he means it to be the recipe for exhaustion that it seems at first glance. 

Instead, I think about it like this: When we are our whole selves, and we allow others to be their whole selves, I think the gospel can flourish so much more easily. Because we believe, I hope, that the gospel, the love and grace and forgiveness and reconciliation that we’ve experienced in Christ - that’s news that is so good that it is for all people, in all places. Paul’s vision of God’s work in the world is expansive, and inclusive, and I hope ours is too.  

All things to all people? I’m not sure we’re up to that task. But I believe we serve a God who is all things for all people. And we’re called to be messengers of that most excellent news, crossing boundaries, building relationships, and loving people, all people, in the name of Christ whom we serve. Amen. 

Sunday, December 10, 2023

A Sung Communion for the Season of Advent - Updated - Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

Note: I recently updated my "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" text from Singing at the Table for our Advent Lessons and Carols service at Drew Theological School. (You can hear the liturgy at the end of our service here.)

A Sung Communion Liturgy 

for the Season of Advent/Lessons and Carols

(Tune: HYFRYDOL, 87.87 D, UMH #196)

Text: Beth Quick, 2019, 2023. 

Incorporating phrases from “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” Charles Wesley, 1744,

and “Comfort, Comfort, O My People,” Johann Olearius, 1671, Catherine Winkworth, trans. 

To the table, you’re invited. 

Lift your hearts to God and sing. 

Praise to God, who has created 

All the earth, each living thing. 

God, we lift our hearts in longing

as we trek the Advent road.

Seeking peace, yet still we struggle. 

Crumbling under sorrow’s load. 

Holy, Holy, you are Holy!

Blessed is the One who comes. 

All your works are full of glory.

Join in the unending hymn:

Sing Hosanna! Sing Hosanna! 

Now your gracious kin-dom bring. 

Child of Peace shall come among us.

Let the earth with praises ring!

Come, oh long-expected Jesus. 

Teach us how to work for peace. 

From our fears and wars release us. 

Let us now your justice seek. 

You’re our strength and consolation;

Hope of all the earth you are. 

Source of goodness, well of wisdom:

You’re the joy of every heart.  

On the night he was arrested, 

Jesus shared some bread and wine. 

Thanking God, he blessed and gave it:

Grace for all of humankind. 

“Bread - this is my body given. 

Wine - My life, poured out for you. 

Eat and remember that you are forgiven. 

Reconciled, you are made new.” 

Come, O Spirit, we call on you:

Be poured out upon these gifts 

Take these signs and make them into 

Body, spirit, life of Christ. 

Send us out now to serve your people 

Sharing in Christ’s gracious ways.  

By your strength we work for justice,

God of peace, lead us always. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Laughing at God," Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 (Proper 6, Ordinary 11)

 Sermon 6/18/23

Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

Laughing at God

I had the opportunity to see again recently a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of my favorites of his works. Some of you might remember that my brother Todd specializes in classical acting (although he now is a professor of acting and teaches and directs more than he acts) - his focus and love is the work of Shakespeare, and so I’ve seen him in a number of productions over the years, including more than one production of Macbeth. I’ve always loved it. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the plot, but the gist is this (and sorry for the spoiler alert if you haven’t seen or read it yet, but it’s been out for a while now!): Macbeth is a leader who is given more power and authority by his king. His wife, creatively named Lady Macbeth, is eager for him to get even more power and position. Macbeth happens upon some witches who give him a prophecy that Macbeth will in fact become king, though his friend Banquo will be the father of kings. And on receiving this prophecy, rather than waiting to see how things will unfold, Macbeth and his wife scheme to make the part of the prophecy they want to come true come true faster - like right now - and scheme to avoid the parts of the prophecy they don’t like - even if they must murder friends and allies to make it so. They manipulate, they scheme, they plan, in order to claim what was told to them. Of course, Macbeth is a tragedy, so suffice it to say it doesn’t end well for the Macbeths. 

Maybe the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Bible isn’t quite the tragedy of Macbeth, but I couldn’t help but have Macbeth on my mind this week as I was reading our text from Genesis. Our reading this week begins with God appearing to Abraham in the form of three visitors who come to the tents of Abraham and his family. In Abraham’s culture, hospitality and God’s presence are closely tied together, and so we see Abraham going out of his way to welcome these unexpected guests. They are given water, bread made with choice flour, a meal of meat and curds and milk, food washing, rest. 

After a bit, the visitors ask after Sarah, and one of them says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Now, Sarah and Abraham are advanced in years by this time, and Sarah being pregnant seems impossible - she’s reached menopause already. Sarah, who is just outside the tent listening when the visitors make their pronouncement, laughs at the ridiculousness of such a claim. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” God - in the form of one of these visitors - the details get a little blurry here - seems a bit taken aback that Sarah would laugh. “Why would she laugh?” God wonders. “Is anything too wonderful for God? I’ll return at the right time, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah, now anxious and afraid  that she’s offended God, denies laughing, but in a strange back and forth, God insists that she did. The end of our reading skips forward in time. We read that God dealt with Sarah just as God had said. Sarah has a child, named Isaac - meaning, “one of laughs.” And Sarah reflects, “God has brought laughter for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 

Ok, maybe this doesn’t sound a lot like Macbeth. But there’s a connection, I promise. In our passage today, we get plopped into the middle of a larger story. Way back in Chapter 12 of Genesis, God first calls Abraham, then known as Abram. We actually looked at this passage together back in early spring. God says, “Go to this new place I’m leading you to, and I will make you a great nation. I will bless you, and make your name great.” Abraham goes, but the journey is meandering, with years long detours. Along the way, though, God repeats the promise: I will give you this land, you and your offspring, and your offspring will be as numerous as the specks of dust that make up the earth. 

Eventually, though, Abraham gets impatient. God says Abraham will have a great reward, but Abraham is skeptical: “God, what will you give me? For I continue childless. I have no heir, no offspring. One of my slaves will inherit all I have.” But God repeats the promises already made: “Look at the stars - your descendents will be just as numerous.” And still more time passes. 

Finally, Sarah is out of patience. God’s made a promise, and Sarah is ready to make the promise happen. She does not seem to be getting pregnant, so she will find another way to make sure Abraham has an heir. She gives Abraham her slave, Hagar, an Egyptian woman, and says he should have a child by her. (Hagar, enslaved, has no say here.) Sarah’s plan works, and Hagar becomes pregnant. But Sarah seems to immediately regret her decision, because Hagar is now looking at Sarah with contempt. Sarah complains to Abraham, she treats Hagar badly, Hagar runs away, and in the wilderness Hagar encounters God and is folded into God’s promises. Hagar’s child Ishmael is born. 

Again though, God reminds Abraham of God’s promises to him and his family, this time specifically naming Sarah: “Sarah will give rise to nations” God says. Abraham is skeptical, but God says that within a year, Sarah will deliver a son named Issac. It is after all of this that we finally get to chapter 18, where our text from today begins. 

So, maybe now you see a bit of the Macbeth connection. No, Sarah and Abraham don’t set out on a murderous rampage to receive what they’ve been promised. But they do engage in attempts to bring about God’s plans and promises in a way and on a schedule that works better for them than it seems to for God. And whenever they try to control the path of God’s promises, things do not go as they’ve anticipated, causing sometimes more harm than good. 

It could be easy for us to blame Sarah and Abraham for their lack of trust in God’s promises, for their constant need for reassurance and reiteration, for Sarah’s plans to get Abraham the heirs he needs. But I can’t help but especially feel some pity for Sarah, and the ways in which she’s been kind of a pawn in all the events that unfold. For example, along the way to receiving God’s promises, Abraham twice denies that Sarah is his wife when they’re visiting other communities. Abraham is worried that because of Sarah’s beauty, he’ll be killed by the leaders of the foreign lands he visits, so that they can take his wife. So instead, he just kinds of hands her over, calling her his sister. (She is, in fact, his half sister - an allowable relationship for marriage at the time.) So Sarah has to endure being given over to strange men in strange places, separated from her husband, without any voice in the matter. She also has to bear the burden of her seeming infertility, something that was considered entirely the woman’s fault in ancient culture. She treats Hagar with cruelty - but Sarah has learned that women have few or no choices about their own lives, and so it is perhaps not surprising that she treats Hagar this way - the only person over whom Sarah has any power. No wonder Sarah tries to shape God’s promises into her own timeline, by her own methods! And no wonder she laughs at God’s outrageous plans. Wouldn’t you laugh at the sheer impossibility? 

Here’s the thing though - even though God seems confused by Sarah’s laughter, God isn’t angry. Instead, God is just faithful. God deals with Sarah just as God said, just as God promised. That’s what God does. And Sarah is still laughing - but the laughter of skepticism, discomfort, and doubt has turned into the laughter of joy. 

Friends, I think we are all like Sarah sometimes. Hopefully not like the Macbeths, but definitely a little like Sarah. Skeptical that the joy God promises could be for us. Impatient with God’s timing. Trying so hard to force outcomes that we’re sure will bring us happiness. Frustrated when things don’t unfold according to our plans yet again. Laughing that God has the audacity to promise us such impossible things. 

But here’s the good news. When we doubt, God reminds. From God’s initial call to Abraham, to the time Isaac is born, God repeatedly demonstrates to Abraham and Sarah that the promise still stands, that God remembers, that they are still God’s people, that God still has blessings in store. God is so patient with them. God is so patient with us. And maybe we can learn to be patient with God, letting ourselves laugh in wonder at the amazing ideas God comes up with, and laughing some more when God’s dreams bear fruit. 

“God has brought laughter for me,” Sarah says, “and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” May God bring laughter to us, too, as God’s faithfulness fills our hearts with joy. Amen. 

Monday, June 12, 2023

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Mercy and Sacrifice," Psalm 50:7-15, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26 (Proper 5/Ordinary 10)

Sermon 6/11/23

Psalm 50:7-15, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Mercy and Sacrifice

A few weeks ago, just before I came to Central New York for the summer, I packed up my apartment in New Jersey and moved from one town to another. Not a huge move - just about 15 minutes away. And not a huge amount of things - I moved in with other PhD students, so other than my bedroom furniture, I didn’t have much I needed to bring. As far as moves go, since I have moved so many times as an itinerant pastor and often moved from one five bedroom parsonage to another, this one was pretty simple. Except… as a PhD student, I have to move “student-style,” finding a truck and getting some friends who are willing to help for the reward of my thanks and some pizza for lunch. And, except - I was moving from a second floor apartment, requiring a lot of up and down stairs. And, except this: both of my knees need replacing. They’ve been deteriorating for years, and now they’re down to bone on bone, and walking is painful enough but stairs are even harder, and stairs while carrying heavy things are near impossible. Thankfully, I have good friends. But on moving day, I had to basically sit and watch while they did all of the work of loading and unloading my things, taking trip after trip up and down the stairs at my old place, on what was of course the hottest day of that week. And while that might sound great - sitting back and watching others do the hard work - I suspect for most of us, actually, being helped, while we can’t contribute anything, is more stressful than not. I spent a lot of the day feeling guilty, frustrated, and helpless, wishing I could help, wishing things were different. My helpers? They weren’t doing anything to make me feel guilty. They were thoughtful, appreciative of the lunch I bought, efficient, and done and moved on, while I was still wrestling with how much I hated having to rely on them to get the job done. 

You’ve probably heard the expression: it’s more blessed to give than receive. And I think most of us find that to be the case. We love giving to others. It brings us a lot of joy, doesn’t it, giving? Being able to lift others up through our actions? But being able to receive, graciously, thankfully, when we’re in a place of need and someone else can meet our need that we can’t do ourselves? I think receiving is actually harder than it looks. Maybe it’s fine on Christmas, on birthdays, on occasions where being the recipient of gifts is expected. But outside of that? Where we are receiving not even gifts but “help”? Mostly, I think we really chafe against needing help. I think many of us would do just about anything to avoid appearing helpless, being helpless. 

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week as I read our gospel lesson. Our gospel lesson from Mathew is really three stories in one. In the first part, Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him. Matthew does, immediately. Jesus is then eating dinner - perhaps at Matthew’s house? - and there are many other “tax-collectors and sinners” joining in the meal. Then the Pharisees - the religious leaders of the community - discover who has been at this gathering, they criticize Jesus to his disciples, that he eats with what they consider unfit company. Jesus overhears and says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,”” paraphrasing from the prophet Hosea. He continues, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Then we skip ahead a bit into what might seem to be two unrelated healing stories, both of which you might be familiar with. First, Jesus gets a message from a leader of the community that his daughter has died, but asking Jesus to come and lay hands on her, trusting that the girl will live. On the way to the leader’s house, Jesus is approached by a woman who has been suffering with hemorrhages for over a decade. And she’s confident that if she can just touch Jesus, even his cloak, she will be healed. Jesus takes notice of her right away, saying to her, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well,” and indeed, she has been made well. Finally, Jesus gets to the leader’s house and finds everyone in the household already in mourning over the daughter who has died. Jesus sends them all away, insisting the girl is only sleeping. Everyone laughs - the girl is clearly dead! But when the crowd of mourners leave, Jesus takes the girl by the hand, and she gets up, alive and well. Our text closes with Matthew reporting that news of these events spread quickly throughout the region. 

I desire mercy, not sacrifice, Jesus says. I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners. What does Jesus mean? Righteousness, after all, means something like being in “right relationship” with God and one another. And it seems, throughout the scriptures, that God very much does long for us to be in right relationships, just relationships. Isn’t that what God wants? isn’t our journey of discipleship about just that - learning how to set right our relationships with God and one another? And, what does it mean that God desires mercy? I understand that God is merciful - compassionate and forgiving. But how do mercy, sacrifice, righteousness, and sinfulness relate? I can’t think Jesus means that we have to relish our sinfulness so that God has more opportunity to show us mercy. I don’t think that Jesus wants us to pretend to be in need of help so that God can get the joy of rescuing us. So what does Jesus mean? 

I think first - and this is a hard one - first, God’s primary audience is not always us. Sometimes we’re like the lost sheep - but sometimes, especially if we’ve been on the path of discipleship for a long time, seeking to grow deeper and deeper in our faith - we’re just one of the sheep who is safe in the pasture. God’s priority is the sheep who is lost. And we can be jealous that God is tending to the lost sheep, or we can be thankful that we’re already safe and sound. 

As for righteousness? Well: like everything else we might come to have, it is a gift of God. If we learn to grow in discipleship, and set right all our relationships, it is through drawing on God’s strength, embracing God’s grace, and imitating God’s love. When we start believing righteousness is something we’ve achieved by our own efforts, that’s self-righteousness, and self-righteousness is pretty far from God’s intent for us. Being in right relationship with God and others isn’t a destination we can reach and just settle at. It’s a practice, a discipline, something that we grow in with God’s help. 

And there it is: God’s help. Friends - we need God’s help, always. We stand in need of God’s mercy, always. Rather than this gospel being some strange suggestion that we have make ourselves appear to be in a position of needing mercy in order for us to get God’s attention, we need to recognize that we’re already there. We are in need of God’s help. We need God’s mercy. We do sin. We are broken. We do turn away from God. We do fail to live in right relationships. We can’t do it by ourselves. We need God’s help. Unfortunately, our culture is full of really destructive messages about being in need of mercy, about needing help. Our society implies that if you need help, especially too much help, or for too often, or for too long, you are weak, you’re wrong, you’re less than. Instead, we cultivate this myth of self-made people who’ve pulled themselves up by their own power and strength, no help needed. 

When I look at the vignettes in our scripture today, I see stories of people who knew that they needed help/ Matthew, the unnamed sinners and tax collectors, the leader seeking help for his daughter, the woman Jesus healed - they needed help, and they knew it, and they weren’t afraid to accept the help Jesus offered them. Can we be vulnerable enough to know that we need help, and to accept the help that Jesus offers? Can we recognize our own failings, and receive mercy from God who is ever-ready to offer it to us? It’s not that God isn’t interested in righteousness. I think, rather, it’s that our ability to claim the label “righteous” isn’t the standard for entry into God’s reign that we think it is. Rather, God wonders, how receptive are we to receiving God’s grace and mercy? How ready are we to receive all that God wants to give us? I think, friends, that part of our readiness to receive from God includes letting others receive mercy and grace without judgment from us. Those who received healing, welcome, and a calling from Jesus in our text from today: they demonstrate to us the incredible vulnerability of being able accept God’s mercy. God wants to be merciful to us too. God wants to help us, because we need it. May we open our hands and our hearts, ready to receive what we need. Amen. 

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...