Thursday, October 1, 2015

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday Sept. 27 at St.Timothy Lutheran Church. The text is Mark 9:38-50.

Today's gospel continues where last week's left off. The theme is still that of discipleship. Jesus teaches his disciples that ministry involves service and sacrifice and illustrates this by the disciples' wrong attitude.

There are a couple of things going on as background to the disciples' desire to control how God works. Earlier, the disciples were unable to cast a demon out of someone. Then along comes this person whom they do not know. What does he do? He successfully casts out a demon.

How do Jesus' disciples respond to this? For one thing, they're jealous. Then just like little children, they go running to Jesus to tell him how this man was not following them. Does the disciples' verbiage strike you as odd? Wouldn't you think that their concern would be whether or not he was following Jesus?

The man was not part of their group! The twelve felt threatened and seemed to claim a monopoly on the authority given them by Jesus. And yet, the man was casting out demons in Jesus' name. Jesus was given the glory and getting the credit for the work that was done. The man was not exalting himself as anyone special. The disciples needed to learn to work and play well with others.
The issue continues to be how Jesus' authority is mediated in the community of faith.

What does it mean to do something in Jesus' name? It is not the doing of miracles that keeps one from speaking against Jesus, but the doing of them "in Jesus' name." In this chapter of Mark, the phrase is used repeatedly: welcoming a child in his name (v. 37), casting out demons in his name (v. 38), doing deeds of power in his name (v. 39) and giving a cup of water to drink because one bears the name of Christ  (v. 41).

"In Jesus' name" indicates the motivation by which something is done. Bearing the name of Christ and acting in his name signify belonging to Christ or acting as a representative of Christ or perhaps even being Christ's presence.

The main point of this entire passage is the importance of wholehearted commitment to the divine reign of God, which involves being inclusive rather than exclusive. Do you remember in last week's gospel how Jesus held a child and taught the disciples that even those who are regarded as little and of no status were beloved by God? The disciples still didn't get it. They are still concerned about the pecking order of power. Someone doing works in Jesus' name, that weren't part of their group was an outsider who should be reprimanded instead of being included.

In the second part of the gospel, the issue of making others fall away from following Jesus is raised.Basically, putting a stumbling block in front of someone is causing someone to abandon the faith. This may be done with very good intentions. People want to protect what they know, namely the good name of Jesus. We want to preserve our heritage and traditions at a time when everything seems up for grabs.

The extreme metaphors used here would have been easily understood by the audience as Jesus speaking metaphorically and not literally regarding removing the offending body part. The matter is so serious that Jesus uses the language of extreme measures to show how important this is. To amputate one's hand, foot or take out one's eye is to avoid the unimaginable worse fate of the condemned. The disciples are to reflect on their own style of life and ministry in the light of such metaphors. They are to examine themselves and determine if there are specific features of their lives that prevent service to God (vv. 43-48).

Rather than erecting false barriers made by humans to keep people out, Jesus wants his disciples to feed the hungry, love our enemies and to forgive our brothers and sisters repeatedly. We are called to have open hands and open hearts toward those on the outside.

A lot of people have struggled with the meaning of the salt and fire of the last two verses of this passage from Mark. Basically, it is a warning about persecution and the trials Jesus' followers will experience. They are being urged to retain their distinctiveness. The disciples are not to cave in to the pressures of adopting the standards of the dominant society in which they live. No one can escape. Such trials are necessary salt that preserves and strengthens integrity and faith.

"Be at peace with one another" (v. 50). I love these final words of today's gospel because it beautifully sums up the point of how God's people are to live in harmony with one another. If the future brings persecution, being salted with fire, then Jesus' disciples can be at peace.

How do we strengthen one another to "maintain salt" and be at peace instead of trying to outdo one another (v. 34) or to exclude one another (vv. 38-41)? How we preserve the community is by caring for the least of these and strengthening each other--including those outside our community.

Who are the "exorcists" in our community who are casting out proverbial demons in the spirit or name of Jesus? Do we work with them or are we threatened by them?

We too need to exercise inclusivity rather than exclusivity. There may be certain outsiders that we are uncomfortable with. Yes, they are God's beloved children, but they don't do things the way we think they should be done.

God calls his children to work together for the sake of the gospel. Churches do not need to duplicate each other's services to the larger community. A great example of non-duplication is the work we do with other churches on behalf of the Honduras mission. No one person or church is taking the credit, lives are changed and God is receiving the glory.

God is issuing us a challenge. Listen to the way Bible scholar Pheme Perkins expresses it:

           Is following Jesus at the core of our being, something too precious to be 
surrendered lightly? Or is our Christianity merely a matter of taste and convenience,something we shelve at the slightest difficulty or inconvenience? Belief that is easily set aside cannot be the faith that Jesus calls for among his disciples.

How will we respond to Jesus' call to us?



M. Eugene Boring, The New Testament Library: Mark, a Commentary

Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume VIII, Matthew and Mark

Brian Stoffregen,


Friday, September 25, 2015

Extreme Measures

Here are a few thoughts on this coming Sunday's gospel. The text is Mark 9:38-50. 

I cannot tell you how many times I looked at this passage from Mark before I could make some sense of it. The second paragraph is hyperbole on steroids! But what really made me read and pray and wrestle with the text is the last few words, "...and be at peace with one another." That seems to summarize everything that precedes it.

Just before this passage, the disciples were out ministering to people, but they were unable to exorcise a demon. Then, here comes some outsider who successfully exorcises a demon. Look at these words in verse 38, "because he was not following us." There's something wrong with the pronoun us. It says nothing about this man believing in and following Jesus, but the problem was he did not follow the disciples. He was not part of their group! They were jealous! This unknown person did what they could not.

Jesus then continues the dialogue, talking about not putting a stumbling block in the way of "little ones who believe" in him. Aren't we sometimes just a little jealous when we see a church whose parking lot is packed? Isn't it sometimes tempting to speak poorly of another ministry? Can we "be at peace with one another" (v. 50) and give thanks for the way God is using others to help people grow in Christ? There are enough people who need to hear the gospel and need to grow in faith for all of us. Let us especially give thanks for our ecumenical partners and the work we do together in Christ's name.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Jesus Loves the Little Children

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church on Sunday, 9/20. The text is Mark 9:30-37. 

"Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow black and white they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world." Don't we get all mushy gushy when we read of Jesus' interaction with little ones? They're so cute and innocent. How we wish we had more of them here at church.

Today, our gospel is about the second of Jesus' three predictions about his approaching suffering and death. There is an identical pattern in each of the three predictions. First, Jesus teaches that he will suffer and die. Second, the disciples are confused and misunderstand Jesus' meaning. Third, Jesus spends more time  teaching his disciples.

In today's gospel, the whole point of the secrecy about Jesus and the disciples passing through Galilee until they got to Capernaum, was so that Jesus could spend some uninterrupted time teaching the disciples. Along the way Jesus taught about his betrayal, death and resurrection.

The disciples once again don't get it and they really mess up. They don't understand what Jesus was saying and they were too scared to ask him. Haven't we found ourselves in this position? We hear what God is teaching us, but we don't understand and we don't ask for clarification. What should we do?

We should quiet ourselves so we can hear God's voice through scripture. We should spend time in prayer. We should study scripture and read commentaries and books on the particular topic we're having trouble with. After that we may want to speak with other Christians to confirm if we are on the right path or even meet with our pastor.

Isn't it the supreme irony that after Jesus tells the disciples about his approaching passion, the disciples argued about what the pecking order would be? We can identify with the disciples. Probably we wouldn't do any better.

Sometimes we are too hard on the disciples. The disciples' discussion of rank was not an ego trip, but reflected the society in which they lived. Status and honor were very important. It was assumed that people would be concerned about their rank on the social ladder. They may have heard the resurrection part and figured there would be a happy ending. They anticipated the beginning of the reign of Jesus and couldn't help but imagine what their roles would be in the new age. Which of them would be the representative of Jesus in his absence? The disciples were not going to volunteer the contents of their argument, so Jesus asked them point blank. It was painfully obvious that they didn't understand the implications of Jesus' crucifixion.

Words did not seem to get through, so Jesus illustrates his point by acting out a parable with a living example--a child. We often think that Jesus' use of the child as his illustration is because of their innocence and how trusting children are. However, in Jesus' day, children were considered lower in status than than animals. A farm animal could at least give you something, but what good was a child until he or she was old enough to help out with chores? Children were not even considered people until they were old enough to work. Children should have been with the women, not hanging around the teacher and his students. In this illustration, Jesus was not teaching about being childlike, but speaking to the issue of status.

Jesus did not use the child as a prop or visual aid. Jesus put the child in the midst of the disciples because children belong in the middle of the gathering and in the middle of the congregation.

If the disciples receive the child, they receive Jesus. If they receive Jesus, then they receive the One who sent him. The child was to be received not only because of its inherent value, but for the sake of Jesus himself, whose presence and representative is recognized in the child. The disciples had argued about greatness and power and Jesus directs them to open their arms to the powerless.

Embracing children, even though they were considered non-persons with no rights was characteristic of Jesus and the early Christians. They accepted the least and the lowly without asking what they could get from them.

The early Christian communities identified children as the "little people" of the church. Jesus was represented by the official apostles, but also by the most vulnerable, insignificant members of the community of faith. They too mediate the presence of Christ.

How does this apply to today's church? We love having children around. Our society is completely different from that of Jesus' time. We care for our children, sometimes putting them on a pedestal so that our lives and family revolve around the wants of the children. Sometimes we get carried away with putting our kids on a pedestal.

But at the same time, we hear of awful things that are done to children-­­beatings, death, being left alone in a car that's like an oven. Ideally, we need to strike a balance between treating our children like royalty and treating them like rugs.

The point is that we are not so different from those who were a part of the early church. We have issues too. Rather than serving in Jesus' name, don't we sometimes get annoyed at yet another phone call from a particular person? There are some people we try to avoid. Seeing them in a store--we duck down a different aisle.

Who are those that are invisible to us? For some, it may be the refugees fleeing Syria. For some it may be the homeless. For some it may be the elderly and for some it may be the disabled. For some it may be people of a different race. What would we do if they settle near us?

Perhaps, a little closer to home, it is those who are unable to attend worship because they're experiencing physical limitations, like those living in nursing homes. We are not purposely avoiding them, but we might as well be. We do not make the effort to visit, even if we drive by their residence numerous times during the week. They might as well be invisible. I am as guilty as anyone else in this room.

We are all so busy. What if we scheduled just one half hour a month to visit with one person who is homebound? Of course there are those who faithfully visit with our shut-ins on a regular basis, for which we give thanks.

Who would Jesus put in our midst to illustrate the point of humble service in his name? We don't know who God will bring our way that may be outside of our comfort zone. Whoever God brings us, it is done out of love and for the sake of his kingdom. God is calling us to more than niceness, but to radical God-centered hospitality.

One of my favorite contemporary Christian groups is Casting Crowns. Their lyrics are always powerful.  Listen to the words of the refrain of "Does Anybody Hear Her?"

Does anybody hear her?
Does anybody see?
Does anybody even know she's going down today?
Under the shadow of our steeples
With all the lost and lonely people
Searching for the hope that's tucked away in you and me
Does anybody hear her?
Does anybody see?

If judgment  looms under every steeple
If lofty glances from lofty people
can't see past her scarlet letter
and we never even met her.

Ray loves to discuss bumper stickers. This gospel text could have a bumper sticker all its own. It would be, "Start seeing the invisible." Start seeing the invisible, not so that we can feel good about ourselves and pat ourselves on the back. Start seeing the invisible because to receive the invisible one is to receive Jesus and to receive Jesus is to receive the One who sent him. (Mary Hinkle Shore).