Sunday, October 14, 2018

Let's Thread that Needle - Mark 10:17-31

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…ok let’s thread this needle

Today’s Gospel story is one rich in tradition.  It has been taught and preached and interpreted for centuries. I believe Jesus meant, if you can, give up everything and follow him.  Jesus means for us to be spiritually poor or “poor in spirit”.  Jesus literally meant give up everything and if you can’t… well that’s why the catholic church invented the indulgence…
“Often the Bible acts as a mirror, throwing back to us reflections of ourselves or of our culture in the characters and conversations on the page. The questions asked, the attitudes exposed, the priorities held seem amazingly modern. Certainly, this is the case with the figure traditionally called the rich young ruler (though Mark does not indicate that he was either young or a ruler). He could easily be dressed in contemporary garb and re-presented as a product of a mainline Protestant church. His religious heritage, his prosperity, and his sincerity are admirable qualities. It is interesting to observe the contrast between his noteworthy traits and the little children in the previous story, who come to Jesus as people without rights and recognition (compare Mark 10:13- 16).”[1]
This has become a story of the poor, this has become a story of the rich, this is rarely seen as the story of the loved…
“The rich man has to be taken at face value and not made into a proud, self-righteous caricature. In coming, he kneels before Jesus and raises an existential question. When Jesus asks him about the commandments, his answer ("I have kept all these since my youth") is straightforward and need not be taken as an arrogant or presumptuous reply. In no way does Jesus' treatment of the man challenge or mock his integrity.
The key is 10:21: "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." Seeing him clear through, Jesus does not rebuke or discipline him, but loves him. It is more than admiration or respect or sentimentality. It is the gut-wrenching concern one has for a loved one about to take his own life. All that is important in a moment like that is to get the gun out of his hands and help him discover a reason to live. "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." Whole­ hearted discipleship cannot take place until the ties to the man's possessions are broken, ties so intense and so enslaving that he can only hang his head and walk away grieving.”[2]
It is interesting, at least to me, when I look at this line “Jesus looked at him, loved him and said…” I often thought of Jesus as having the kind of love that is said in my head “oh bless your heart, you actually believe that this list of do’s is all there is…aren’t you sweet” well …I stand corrected.
I also just going to throw this question out there why do we assume he is rich?  Maybe he is sad because he feels he has nothing to sell or give.
One commentator sees it this way “: Mark says that “Jesus loved him” (something not repeated in Matthew or Luke). This is an echo of the greatest commandments of loving God and Neighbour. Jesus obeys in His love for the rich man and yet the rich man cannot give up all he possesses and follow Jesus. He cannot put love of man before love of things.”[3] So again I ask why do we assume that he is rich? What if this is about something else?
It is easy to take the man’s grief and inability to transform his life into something new and generalize it.  Oh, wait Did I mention this is a call to transformation.  This isn’t always about giving up wealth, this isn’t always about practicing the law.  This is about practice and change and growth.
The young man has a good spiritual start “you know the commandments do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie about someone, honor your parents…
Jesus emphasizes this as the guidelines as the beginning to a good spiritual practice and good way to live the young man has done all these.  Day in and day out…followed the commandments lived a good life…okay says Jesus I want you to go further.  If this practice is down pat, you got the commandments all lined up and done then let’s do more…. we can always do more…we can always go further
Sell everything you own, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow me
But you see the man finds it too hard to transform, to hard to change that much so drastically and he goes away sad.
Jesus did not tell him he could not get into heaven as a matter of fact if, after Jesus listed the commandments, the man could have walked away happy knowing he was set to get into heaven.  He could have just said oh ok thank you I will do that.  But the man had a beginning of something already happening for he knew there had to be more…or else why ask… the spirit was moving him to go further, to explore his call, where the spirit might be leading him…
Yet when he explores the challenge of the spirit he is resistant to the finale…selling everything and following Jesus…that’s too much he went away sad…
I wonder what if Jesus had said start a practice to minimize your possessions…prayerfully and intentionally get down to just what you need get rid of all the extra stuff that is holding you back…not all at once a little at a time…make it a spiritual practice….
Would he had walked away so dejected?  Would this had made it easier?
Walter Bruggeman reminds us that; “It is true that in a sermon the man's problem can be generalized and identified as anything that claims our highest loyalty, our ultimate concern, and prevents an uninhibited following of Jesus­ not only wealth, but ambition, education, religion, and the like. But the conversations that follow with the disciples and Peter warn us about leaving the topic of money too quickly. Possessions have a peculiar and insidious way of becoming our masters. Precisely because they hold the potential for good as well as for evil, they easily seduce us and make us their slaves. Thus, money remains the topic of conversation.”[4]
You see the disciples watched this guy walk away sad and are confused.  This lesson is for them.  Jesus is rather blunt with them concerning wealth and the kingdom of heaven. The statement “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone to enter heaven” goes against their contemporary Jewish faith.
“the disciples, no doubt are thinking that riches are a material sign of God’s blessing ( a notion occasionally expressed in Jewish literature and certainly alive and well in western Christianity), are thoroughly perplexed by what they hear, and ask in exasperation, ‘Then who can be saved?” Jesus replies that it takes a miracle for a rich person to be saved – maybe one of God’s hardest miracles!”[5]
“Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Jesus kind of just turns on its head what he has just told the young man.  It is still not enough to sell everything and follow Christ…For mortals to get into heaven is its impossible…but in God, through God, in the gift of grace is the key to the kingdom…
But then we must follow and answer the call that God places upon our hearts.
“How hard is it for the conservatives…because there is a kind of resistant regularity that keeps us safe;
How hard it is for the liberals…who know themselves to have all the right answers and want to cram them down the throats of others;
How hard it is for the whites…or blacks…to move beyond racial wounds to trust, when we have learned for so long about hurt and fear and mistrust;
How hard for the entitled to recognize that others have a fair claim on our abundance;
How hard it is in our busyness to take time for what matters.”[6]
This reading is saying it is hard even impossible for a mere human to get into heaven and yet…it is not for with God all things are possible…
With God a conservative’s rules and regulations can bend…
With God a liberal can take a loving and humble approach to their brothers and sisters
With God we can explore white privilege and begin to move beyond racial wounds…
With God those gifted with abundance can seek equity for all...
With God we can slow down and take time for what matters…
“As you know, it used to say, "For men it is impossible." Now it says, "For mortals it is impossible." In our male generosity the men have now invited the women as well to think about the impossibility. For all of our resolve and good intention, it is hard ... how hard! Hard to let go, hard to move on, hard to be transformed.
And then Jesus says, because he will not leave them there: "For God, all
things are possible!"
Listen for that! It was impossible, so long ago, for a baby to be born to old mother Sarah in the Book of Genesis. It was impossible for the slaves to break out from the demands of Pharaoh. It was impossible that Jews would come home to a new Jerusalem. It is impossible that a Friday death should be broken open by Easter newness. It is impossible that God's spirit would blow newness beyond all of our tribal affiliations to create a new community. It was impossible that Apartheid in South Africa would end. It was impossible that the hate would stop its authority in Northern Ireland.”[7]
It is impossible that we will ever see a completely just world.  It is now impossible to see an end to hunger, war or disease. The world is full of the impossible. Yet “we are a people who hold onto the miracles worked by this Easter agent.”[8]
“Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."[9]
Then Peter has to lift his voice…it sounds almost as if he is arguing or defending himself and the others “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
“But many who are first will be last, and the last shall be first” (Mark 10:31)
“Think of that…last/first…first/last…dead/alive…humiliated/exalted…hungry/fed…guilty/forgiven…lost/found…the word of the gospel is big and strong.  We do not need to turn away in shock and grief. God is among us, doing the impossible work of transformation…all things new…how hard…all things new!”[10]
All things new…perhaps this transformation and giving up of one’s riches depends on one’s point of view…It would be hard to walk away from everything…some of us simply couldn’t even if we wanted to. We have dependents, work, health, responsibilities…heck we have a life and to give up everything just isn’t our calling and yet…let me share a few items that Bob shared at bible study this week…
A poor man asked the Buddha, "Why am I so poor?" The Buddha said, "you do not learn to give."
So the poor man said, "If I'm not having anything?" Buddha said: "You have a few things,
The Face, which can give a smile: Mouth: you can praise or comfort others; The Heart: it can open up to others;
Eyes: who can look the other with the eyes of goodness: Body: which can be used to help others."

Such simple gifts and yet it is something that any one of us can give…your smile may just be another person’s treasure for that day.
(St. Basil) If each kept only what is required for his current needs, and left the surplus for the needy, wealth and poverty would be abolished...The bread you keep belongs to another who is starving, the coat that lies in your chest is stolen from the naked, the shoes that rot in your house are stolen from the man who goes unshod, the money you have laid aside is stolen from the poverty stricken. In this way you are the oppressors of as many people as you can help. No, it not rapaciousness that is condemned, but your refusal to share.
For those wondering what rapaciousness means it is “Having or showing a strong or excessive desire to acquire money or possess things;” I confess I am guilty of this, …not so much intentionally, but, I have a huge drawer filled with t-shirts…how many can I wear in a week?  How many are actually sentimental in any way? Do I need all those t-shirts? I can weave them into rugs but am  I really going to do that or just buy t-shirt yarn?
Leonardo Boff, former Franciscan) Anyone who is not poor may become so through solidarity and more, through identification with the poor. One feels full of compassion and gentleness for the inhuman situation that afflicts the poor and decides through love, to live together with them, participating in the hope and bitterness.... This was the way of Jesus. He who ' was rich, became poor for us· with the aim of overcoming the difference between persons, some in affliction and others in consolation, so that there 'might be equality" (2 Car. 8:9-13).
We can choose to learn more about what it means to be poor.  In different societies that means different things.  In San Francisco one could walk with he night ministry for an evening or two.  Here in Petaluma one could volunteer at Cots or perhaps at the senior lunches offered by Petaluma people services. Roughly 10-13% of people in Petaluma alone live below the poverty level.  Who are they what can we do to make a difference?
(Dorothy Day) The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love. The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.
“Making ourselves poor in giving to others” …this is a call to humility.  One can not go into charitable work, can not attempt to walk with the poor with an attitude of supremacy and/or chivalry.  We are not the saviors.  We are not the great hope.  We do not give out of a sense of guilt or superiority. We do what we can in the humility of Christ. We do what we can knowing this is what we are called to do. For many of us we are but a paycheck or two away from being the one who may be in need. We give and care out of solidarity with the one whom we are called to follow, Christ.
(Henri Nouwen) Jesus, the Blessed One, is poor. The poverty of Jesus is much more than an economic or social poverty. Jesus is poor because he freely chose powerlessness over power, vulnerability over defensiveness, dependency over self-sufficiency. As the great "Song of Christ" so beautifully expresses: "He ... did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself', ... becoming as human beings are" (Philippians 2:6-7). This is the poverty of spirit that Jesus chose to live.
A poverty of spirit as Jesus chose.  A unique position that each one of us can work towards.  This is much more than being human it is a spiritual empathy, an understanding of the true human condition and a realization that in each person there is a spirit that we are called to meet , greet, lift up and make first in this world. That the we who may be considered first become last so that those looked upon as last/least may be first.
(Joan Chittister, Benedictine) In a world where the accumulation of goods, money, power, and property denies millions the basics of life­ their wages, their resources, their education, their health, their future­ Benedictine spirituality confronts that kind of engorgement with the principle of sufficiency. "It is written," the Rule says, "Distribution was made as each had need." And, "Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, but whoever needs more should feel humble because of their weakness .... Benedictine spirituality simply confines us to what is necessary-so that we can help to sustain those who cannot earn the money they need to take care of themselves.
For Joan this is a spiritual practice in community and yet easy enough to adopt in one’s own life. It speaks of a practice of taking our needs, evaluating them, and restructuring ourselves to just what is necessary. For each of us that may be something different. In all humility only each one of us can decide what that means for us. What is Necessary? How much do we really need? This isn’t about starving oneself it isn’t even about denying ourselves something fantastic or special now and then.  It is about developing a spiritual practice of contemplation, evaluation and action.
Contemplation…spiritually look at our lives, our position and how we move through this life as Christians.
Evaluate…are there somethings we can live without?  Are there a better practices we can engage in around money, food, conservation?  What would happen if we changed our eating or shopping habits?
(Richard Rohr) How blessed (or "happy'? are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. -Matthew 5:3 "Poor in spirit" means an inner emptiness and humility, a beginner's mind, and to live without a need for personal righteousness or reputation. It is the "powerlessness" of Alcoholics Anonymous' First Step.  The Greek word Matthew uses for "poor" is ptochoi, which literally means, "the very empty ones, those who are crouching." They are the bent-over beggars, the little nobodies of this world who have nothing left, who aren't self-preoccupied or full of themselves in any way. Jesus is saying: "Happy are you, you're the freest of all."
Our prayer may be just as Richard reflects lord make me as the very empty ones.  Help me to get out of the way, lose my ego and let your work within me begin.  Help me to seek you first and foremost so that I may begin to build a just world for all. Amen

[1] Brueggemann, Walter, and Charles B. Cousar. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.p.546
[2] Ditto, p547
[4] Brueggemann, Walter, and Charles B. Cousar. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.p.547
[5] Ditto
[6] Brueggemann, Walter. The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p.320
[7] Ditto
[8] Ditto
[9] Carroll, Lewis, and John Tenniel. Through the Looking-glass and What Alice Found There: With Fifty Illustrations by John Tenniel. London: Macmillan, 1887. Chapter 5
[10] Brueggemann, Walter. The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p.321

Sunday, October 7, 2018

How are the Children? Mark 10:2-16

The commentator says, “the preacher may groan on discovering that the Gospel lesson for this Sunday includes the strict teaching of Jesus regarding divorce and remarriage.”  And I did out loud…very loud…Kathleen asked what was wrong…

Our Faith is a living tradition it is not stagnant, we take the Bible seriously but not literally…do not put a period where God has placed a comma…
This text is harsh and hard to hear and may even bring up some bad feelings for those who have gone through or are going through divorce yet


In this day and age of the me-too movement this is an important text…You see in those days a woman could not or rarely could care for herself she depended heavily on her husband and her husband’s family for she has physically left her family behind to join his

This was much more than metaphorical, for after the proposal and the contracts were agreed to a man would go back to his father’s house and prepare a room for him and his wife often adding onto the existing family home.  He would then bring her home where she would become an apprentice to her mother-in-law as she learned the new family’s traditions of worship, preparing food, caring for the house, and all of her husbands’ traditions that she would be expected to carry on and teach her daughter someday.

She had no freedom, no education, she was her husband’s property. Yet divorce was becoming easier in the first century as compared to the ancient old testament times…

“By the first century there had been some changes to the system of marriage and divorce payments,
which may have made divorce easier. The initial marriage present was reduced to a token amount plus a
promise to pay 200 dinars (a year’s pay), if the wedding was cancelled or later her husband divorced his wife. This was a considerable deterrent to divorce, but quite a modest payment compared with the arrangements in the old Babylonian period. Furthermore, this payment could be waived
for minor offences.
These are they that are put away without their ketubbah (divorce payment); a wife that transgresses the Law of Moses and Jewish custom. What conduct is such that transgresses the law of Moses? If she gives her husband untithed food or has connexion with him in her uncleanness, or does not set apart the dough-offering....And what conduct is such that transgresses Jewish custom? If she goes out with her hair unbound, or spins in the street, or speaks with any man.....Also if she is a scolding woman. And who is deemed a scolding woman? Whosoever speaks inside her house so that her neighbours hear her voice.’
Of course in these cases the woman could still keep her dowry, which would constitute some deterrent to divorce. Nevertheless apart from financial considerations there were few constraints on a husband’s right to divorce. For women the situation was different; it was unusual in the Jewish world for a woman to be able initiate divorce proceedings.
 In the first century though there were protests against this easygoing approach to divorce. The Essenes reproached the Pharisees for being seekers after smooth things, i. e. watering down the law’s demands. They argued on the basis of Gen 1: 27 that God intended monogamy, not polygamy. A view that did not become official Jewish teaching till the decree of Gershom in AD 1030.”[1]

So the men could have multiple wives.  Men could easily divorce a woman by handing her a piece of paper.  Yet a woman now divorced who may or may not have her dowry …even though tradition says she is free to marry again the likelihood of this happening was rare.  So unless she had a son to her support her she had no income, often would have to return home in shame to her parents but if they were deceased she would have nothing to return to no source of income and no way to care for herself.

Now remember these were the ways of the Jewish people…

“the Roman state had little involvement in such matters and separations were resolved in private by extended families.  From the second century before Christ, women were free to invoke divorces and could renounce the marriage at will. Financially, a divorced woman would be provided for by keeping the dowry paid upon marriage regardless of who invoked the divorce.

Such liberal attitudes did not survive the advent of Christianity, which placed the indissolubility of marriage at the core of its beliefs. Divorce was limited to occasions of grave offence by around the third century and generally prohibited in Western Europe by the end of the early medieval period. Civil courts lost their power to adjudicate matrimonial cases and canon law was paramount. The Roman Catholic Church also maintained that, upon marriage, husband and wife became one person in law, with the wife’s legal existence being suspended for its duration.”[2]

The important part of this scripture is that Jesus makes this a primary question about marriage and not about divorce. There were arguments among certain Jewish sects around the interpretation of divorce and the pharisees were trying to entrap Jesus in order to bring about controversy.

“The question ‘is it lawful?’ however gets turned on its head. Jesus pushes behind Deut. 24 to gen.,1-2 behind the stipulation of the law to the story of creation, behind the legality of divorce to the intent of marriage. What emerges is a life long joining of two persons in a profound union (‘one Flesh’) . Even Fathers and Mothers are to be left in the pursuit of this new relationship, attributed to no less than God. (Mark 10:9)”[3]

Jesus had just recently spoke of the family and how the coming trials would split families apart yet here he is placing the emphasis on a union that is beyond human laws, this is a Gift of Gods creation. Today with our understanding of how people are created and how people love and how people grow and change we can bless either a marriage and or a divorce.

We now understand and are learning that unions between people take on many shapes and forms. We are still learning just what that means it was only ten years ago, June 16 2008 that California allowed same sex marriage licenses which was then halted on Nov 5th the same year and it was not until June of 2013 that the nation would catch up.   As the man who wrote Hamilton so eloquently put it in his tony acceptance speech; “ Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.” Yet, sometimes our journeys require us to move on as we discover we have grown differently as opposed to together and that is ok.

Now, immediately following this talk on divorce and marriage Mark takes us to the story of Jesus blessing the children.  It is quite the contrast.  In all matter we must not forget the children.  Our Executive Minister of Justice & Local Church Ministries for The United Church of Christ, Rev. Traci Blackmon, always asks this question, “How are the Children?”

Walter Brueggemann says this;
“Two parts of Jesus' angry retort to the disciples need highlighting.

1. ‘It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’ (10:14). The disciples have bought into ancient society's valuation of children they are not important. Children have no status and no rights, and thus their presence is a nuisance. Jesus sees things differently. In fact, the rule of God belongs to persons like this-powerless, vulnerable, weak persons, who are often deemed a nuisance. In rejecting the children, the disciples have not just made a slight error of judgment-they have missed the whole point of Jesus' ministry.

 2. ‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’ (10:15). Not only do the children serve as poignant examples of those for whom the rule of God is intended, but also their manner of receiving it becomes the model for adults. The weight in 10:15 clearly falls on the verb "receive," which rules out the sentimental drivel about the innocence or naivete of children, often offered as explanation of this verse. The text does not idealize any particular characteristic of children. Instead it talks about the receiving of the kingdom by powerless persons, who have no claims to stake out and no demands to make. The rule of God comes as pure, unadulterated grace, to hungry people at the crossroads and in the byways of life who are invited to attend a scrumptious banquet, and to children without status. They have no excuses to give, no dowries to offer, no bargaining chips. They are eager to be taken up into Jesus' arms and be blessed.

Now whether we are successful or unsuccessful at our marriages, whether we have managed to achieve the profound union God intends or from "hardness of heart" have wound up in a divorce court, the receiving of the kingdom like a little child still holds. We have no bargaining chips to trade in, nor does our history of failure disqualify us. It is just this incredible picture of otherwise rejected children welcomed and given a blessing that sustains both the happily partnered and the painfully separated.”[4] Or if I may add the painfully partnered and the happily separated.

Now today is World communion Sunday.  We celebrate the fact that all over the world people gather around a table and lift a sacred night into prayer, they share a cup and they share bread recalling Jesus’ love and gift of grace to us all.

Global ministries today asks us to pray for Mexico this day and though today we collect for our neighbors in need the prayers asked for today I had to share because today global ministries is asking for prayers for las Memorias.  Las Memorias is a mission partner in Tijuana.  Bob and I have visited there.  We saw a need and initiated a plan to get solar panels on the roof and the project took a few years, but it was completed last year.

But I want to share the words from someone who served there;

“Even though I am no longer serving at Las Memorias, I carry memories and lessons in my heart. This lesson of serving speaks to me of my being witness to service in action. People drawn into the Las Memorias community by a common condition, living with HIV/AIDS. As individuals come to us they are very sick and in need of much physical care. Some need to be fed, all need help with hygiene for they are too weak to stand in the shower alone. It is common practice for a person to recover to a point where they now begin to care for the new person who has come.

But it goes further than that. The whole community of Las Memorias functions on the little bit of service that each one can do. All the cooking, cleaning, painting, patient care, building… everything is done by the residents. Some may say that Las Memorias is held together by duct tape and prayer. I say it is held together by a deep ethos of service.

Jesus tells us whoever wants to be first shall be the slave to all… It is a call to get our ego out of the way. This does not make less room at the table. Living with our ego in check provides us the opportunity to experience the mystery of God at work in the world. There is room at the table for everyone.

Not everyone can go and serve like I did, but every little bit helps. More justice, more service, less ego, more giving… it all helps us to take part in World Communion Sunday and in service WITH our Mission partners and Mission Co-Workers. Your giving made my service possible… I thank God for each of you.

On this World Communion Sunday, oh God of love and mercy, may we open our hearts, not only, to the reality of your love for us as individuals beloved, but also, to your call to serve. As we come to your table to share this meal of bread and cup; open our hearts, our minds, our arms to the life-giving ritual where everyone in welcome.

Oh God of mercy and grace, open our eyes to the reality of service in your name is valuable even necessary as we seek to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Oh God of Grace and wonder open paths before us, paths that lead us to see the value and dignity in those we serve more than seeking to be recognized for the service we offer.

Oh God of wonder and mystery, touch our hearts anew with the spiritual truth that, as we celebrate this World Communion Sunday, not only, do we share in communion meals around the world, but also, with the saints of old.   May it be so, Amen.”[5]

(Prayer and Mission Moment by Jerri Handy)

[3] Brueggemann, Walter, and Charles B. Cousar. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. Pg. 539
[4] Brueggemann, Walter, and Charles B. Cousar. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. Pg. 540