It's Time to Start Over . . . a sermon planned for the Palisades Community Church on January 13, 2019 but unable to be given due to snow.
Begin by reading Mark 1:9-11
Anyone here on the second Sunday of January already in need of a new start?
You thought you’d stop eating so many cookies when January 1 rolled around, and well. . .
You thought you’d begin walking more every afternoon or at least take the steps instead of the elevator if you had the choice and well . . .
You thought you’d start the new year off in a more spiritually grounded place, meditating each morning before you got out of bed or grabbed your phone and well. . .
Well, it not going as you planned at all.
We make a lot of fuss it seems in weeks like this of being better, doing better, living better. Because we not only believe we need to, but because everybody’s doing it.
Everybody it seems is starting over. Isn’t that what early January is all about?
Mark’s gospel opens in such a different way from the others tellings of Jesus’ story. Rather than hearing a genealogy or birth narrative or even beautiful prose like, “In the beginning was the Word” Mark simply gets to the point. And the point is this: the ministry of Jesus began after John the Baptist prepared the way for him.
Particularly we read, “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
Just as hundreds of people had followed the call John made . . . to come to the wilderness, to confess their sins and seek forgiveness . . . Here shows up Jesus and asks for the same from John.
I can remember the time in Sunday School in the Tennessee church I grew up in, when one of my classmates raised their hands (trying to outsmart the teacher) and asked, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized? Didn’t you say last week that he was perfect? What did he need to ask forgiveness for?”
After looking puzzled for a moment my teacher looked this little guy in the eyes and said: “For Jesus, baptism wasn’t about forgiveness. It was about showing us the way.”
I’m not sure any of us fully understood in the class what we heard that day, but the older I’ve got the more I’ve realized that that Jesus’ baptism was all about his humanity.
Jesus, as Emmanuel, God with Us for whom we celebrated the birth of only a few weeks ago on Christmas Eve—embraced his full humanity as baptism.
Jesus was not asking us to do anything that he wasn’t willing to first do himself. Jesus would begin his ministry with a ritual signifying a new start, a new path, a new calling. Jesus would say with his public baptism that his time on earth belonged to God. And even in his frail, complicated and pain producing human skin, he would be faithful to what God called him to do on earth.
And what came next? Scripture tells us that “Just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.”
What I find so interesting about this narration is the choice of verb that Mark uses “torn apart.”
Because couldn’t he have just used the word “open?” Did he really need to be so dramatic?
Yes, in fact he did. Mark told us the heavens “tore apart” because this was a water shed moment in the life of Jesus. It was a moment of clarity, of knowing, of believing!
Jesus was not just your average guy coming up in tattered sandals and a sweaty brow asking to enter the Jordan.
Jesus would no longer be known Joseph’s son in Nazareth working in the carpentry shop.
The verb “torn apart” as Mark uses it here in the first chapter is used only TWICE in the entire book. Once here. And once at the end of the book when the temple curtain is “torn apart” at the moment Jesus breathes his last and provokes a confession of Jesus’ true identity made by the Roman centurion “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Which makes so much sense when we read what comes next in the post-baptism narration: “and the Spirit descended like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The heavens had to “tear apart” you see because a declaration or a naming was about to occur!
And here, too a confession was made over Jesus’ life but on this occasion by Jesus’ Father: “YOU are my Son, the Beloved; who you I am well pleased.”
Baptism, you see, became a moment for the truth about Jesus’ humanity to be spoken aloud. Not only is Jesus called Son, God’s Son. But, he’s also claimed as the Beloved one.
And then baptism came to play a central role in what it meant to share the good news of Jesus through the centuries as Jesus’ parting words to his followers were: “Go ye to into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”
One way is right. Another way is completely wrong.
I’ve even been privy to churches where a pastor will speak to a person whose considering becoming a member of their church and call this potential new church member’s baptism by another congregation invalid. (Deep sigh and know that you’ll never hear such foolishness from me).
And where this has gotten us is that we’ve forgotten the GIFT of baptism. The gift Jesus received that day in the waters of Jordan. And the gift that any of us also receive when we embrace baptism.
And that is what baptism offers us: a new start.
It was an honor to be there and to represent PCC in my presence to say that Max didn’t just have one church tradition in his mother’s family’s Catholic roots, but that he had a home and a heritage with us going back generations in the Palisades.
I attended with tribulation as I do as a clergy person in a Catholic setting. As much as I’m so grateful for this church tradition and its rich history that shaped my becoming as a person of faith in the world, I also know that I’m not fully welcomed there.
I can’t take communion, even though the words of institution are words I lead you in regularly and know by heart.
And even though I am a minister called by God, women of my gender are not welcomed into the pulpit there. I tip toe in trying to guard my heart from hurt that I can know can come from this branch of the Christian church.
For these reasons, maybe it’s why I wore my clergy collar to the service. I wear it infrequently being a Baptist and all, but there’s just sometimes I’ve found when it I want to make a statement that indeed I am a pastor. It’s kind of fun to shock people.
So, sitting with Rev. Beth that day, we went through the order of the service watching several babies and toddlers like Max come forward and have the priest bless them with words and water poured over their heads.
It was a beautiful moment to witness baby Max being blessed by so many words and well-wishers.
And then came time for the service to conclude. Only some closing words of blessing were left. The chatter of the small children in the room was growing by the minute.
At this point, the priest leading the service, turned toward me saying how much he welcomed me, his colleague to this service. To my shock, he stepped aside, called me to the center of the room, handed me his gold-plated worship folder and said,
To tell you I was floored is the understatement of the year. Me, asked to pray in a Catholic church? The male priest stepping aside? Me given his holy book?
I thanked this man after the service the best I could saying, how much hope this simple act gave me for ecumenical relations with the Catholic church. I said that his allowing me to be seen as I was at that baptismal service—a minister with people to serve--- encouraged me to re-consider my bias. It encouraged me with hope to begin again when I might be tempted to judge.
I have to tell you I walked out of that church more confident with my head held high. I was seen as I was that day! And with the church I got a new start!
In the same way that this baptismal service was for me in reclaiming hope in an unexpected way, I think the same is true for any of us who might risk the experience of remembering our baptism today.
We are beloved sons and daughters of God, we’re made into a new creation in Christ.
And, we’re called good— as was the word said over us at the beginning of all creation.
We’re welcomed as we are, just as we are, with God handing us the holiest of books and saying, here read, your part of my story too.
It’s easy to stray way from the enormity of what this means, or not even to realize it in the first place.
Yet, if we believed it, if we claimed it and if we lived it, this identity would change everything about how we carry ourselves in this world. Imagine it!
No more defeat.
No more low self-esteem.
No more woe is me, nobody loves me.
You are beloved!
Say with me: I am a beloved child of God.
In response to this word, this morning I want to give us a tangible reminder of our baptism.
Can you remember the day you were baptized? Some of us can.
But others of us might not intellectually remember ours.
It could have been done on your behalf by parents or loved ones who made the choice to raise you in the faith—a decision, Kevin and I made for Amelia over a two years ago now. And so today, you might be saying, Pastor, “How can I remember my baptism?”
You remember it by giving thanks for those who loved you and lead you to faith. And give thanks for the work of God that has been a part of life since then, leading you to this moment in your life—here in a worship space on this Sunday morning.
So, baptized church, in just a few moments, I would like to invite any of you to come forward to receive the sign of the cross from the basin of water on your forehead or on your hand to remember your baptism.
Maybe some of you are realizing today that baptism is something that you’ve never got around to YET, but something you’re interested in having a conversation with me or Pastor Beth about sometime. If that’s you, hang tight today. Let’s talk soon. May the next few moments be for you a witness of hope.
Church, we remember our baptisms today not because there’s any magic in the water or that it does something do us, but because sometimes you and I need tangible symbols of remembrance.
We’re reminding ourselves of the beloved identity that was given to us a long time ago.
I’ve heard it said countless times that everything you need to know about workplace or a school comes when you see who sits with whom at what lunch table.
And it’s true. When you think about it, whom we dine with or choose not to dine with—is often one of the biggest indicators of our values, our likes and what matters to us the most.
There’s one thing I know for sure: in some way, we all know what it feels like to be welcomed at a table or not.
In the gospel lection from Sunday, we found a parable told by Jesus about a group of people who were trying to find their place at the table too.
It’s a story with an intense name: “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” (A great text to preach on near Halloween, wouldn’t you say?)
It’s a story that has created a lot of confusion over the centuries because of the anti-Semitism found in popular interpretations of its meaning.
But, it’s a story I believe that has a lot to teach us about the kingdom of God and who is sitting among us as when we come to the Lord’s Table.
The audience gathered around Matthew when we reach chapter 21 of his gospel are the high-class religious leaders of the day, those with the most influence in society. They’d recently seen Jesus turning over the money changing tables in the temple courts. They’d heard Jesus say with clear authority: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”
For Jesus, there was no time to waste on this Jesus’ last week of life.
Again, he needed to teach. So Jesus told another convicting parable. Saying:
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, and dug a wine press it in. He left the country, and told the tenants of the land that they were in charge. When the harvest time came, the landowner sent his salves back to collect his produce.
But then things got real. It was like a mob take-over of the vineyard! There was no way the landowner was going to get his property back.
For when the slaves arrive to collect the harvest, they’re first are beaten, stoned and one is even killed.
In response, the landowner then sends another delegation of slaves to collect his produce and again, the representatives of the master are beaten, stoned and some killed.
When none of this worked, the landowner sent his son. (Crazy choice don’t you think?)
But again, Jesus says the tenants are angry. They show no respect for the son either. They take matters into their own hands to protect what they think is theirs. The landowner’s son is soon killed too.
And it is at this point that the parable abruptly ends. The text transitions our attention back to the crowd gathered around Jesus.
In verse 40, Jesus asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do those tenants?”
This question is Jesus’ way of saying, ok, let’s slow down and think a minute.
The religious pompous, though, were quick to answer, saying in verse 41 about the landowner: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Or in other words—those crazy tenants, Jesus—please tell us that that they are going to get what they deserve! Please tell us that they’re going to die too.
What comes next is Jesus not affirming or even acknowledging what they say—rather drawing attention back to the scriptures and the using metaphors describing the kingdom of God.
And while some preachers and teachers might then proceed with the rest of the sermon giving you a lecture on Matthew’s take on Jewish/ Christian relations and what came of the Christian movement after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD—and how possibly Jesus was telling this parable to condemn the religious leaders of the day for what was to come after his death . . . .
I am not going to go there.
Instead, in light of the commentary of Professor David Lose, I want to help you think of the parable in this way:
What if we lay aside what the landlord might do in this parable and instead focus on what the landlord actually did?
Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. And I agree with David Lose when he says that this is one such occasion.
It’s the question, I believe, that leads us I believe to gospel. So what did the landlord do?
Though we could easily get caught up in the use of the word “slaves” and the willing sacrifice of life (such as why did the landlord willing hand over his slaves and his sons for torture and slaughter?), if we read this passage allegorically, gems of the landlord’s character begin to shine through.
Gems like determination, persistence and unconditional love.
For, there was nothing that the landlord would not sacrifice on behalf of staying in relationship with the tenants on his land.
Nothing. He gave it all.
Even his own beloved son!
And the same was true of Jesus is what He was trying to convey.
In modern terms Jesus’ message would go something like this:
Listen, crowds, I am about to give my life, own very life so that you can live abundantly too. I am about to show you how determined I am in my mission. Nothing, no nothing is going to separate me from you if you only open yourself up to receive me.
And in giving my life, I’m creating a new kind of kingdom.
A kingdom where it doesn’t matter who deserved what: rich or poor!
A kingdom where it doesn’t matter what your position is: slave or free!
A kingdom where it doesn’t matter where your faith story began: Jew or Gentile!
This is all you need to know about my kingdom. I’m going to be the cornerstone on which it is all built.
It is as if this parable is leading us to SEE what God's table might look like.
For there’s room at God’s table for brothers and sisters who have been eating at the table their whole life who are superstars of Sunday School. And there’s room for those who have not.
There is room at God’s table for those who follow scriptures to the degree of the law and have their daily devotions every day. And there’s room for those who are not.
There is room at the table of God for those who are from the United States with citizenship. And there’s for those who do not.
The question in becomes when is the last time our churches, our communion suppers and our dinner tables were full of people that lived into Jesus' words about what God's table is all about?
The Way God Sees the World
A sermon preached from Matthew 5:1-12 & Micah 6:1-8
Let me start off this morning by saying that I realize the sermon title: “The Way God Sees the World” is presumptuous. Last time I checked, I was not nor ever would be called God. Even with a seminary degree and all from Duke Divinity School like your pastor (Go Blue Devils!) and with ordination accreditation ascribed to my name, I claim I am a human being with limitations to understanding the mystery of the Divine. And if there is one thing I am certain of in this world, God is God and I am not.
And I boldly offer such based on our New Testament lesson for this morning taken from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5. For within the first 12 verses of this text, we find Jesus laying out for us some very straightforward, yet often misinterpreted descriptions of the world. God looks upon and says, “These folks get it. They’re not waiting on arriving in heaven to see my face and know me. They are living in the kingdom of heaven right now.”
Last week in our lectionary reading, the first disciples of Jesus have just been asked to join this new spiritual movement. Jesus met Peter, James, John and Andrew and said you’ll be fishermen no more— “Come fish for people with me.”
And as chapter 5 opens, Jesus’ teaching ministry is about get quite busy. Folks from all over the countryside have heard about him and are curious to know more. The crowds want to know what is Jesus’ next move. The disciples, however, are given premier access. Matthew 5 opens by telling us that the crowds have followed Jesus up to a mountainside. Jesus sits down with the disciples beside him and begins to say words that no one could have seen coming.
Jesus was expected by many to be a political leader after all—one who rose up to mobilize the Jews in force to overtake the oppressive Roman leadership.
If he truly was the Messiah—the one for whom they had been waiting for hundreds of years, then surely he’d have a message of power proclaiming himself ruler of all. Surely he would teach this crowd gathered to raise up an army and fight back
But instead of anything like this, what we hear is:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. . . .
Biblical scholar NT Wright talks about this paradigm shift when he says: “When God wants to change the world, God doesn’t send in the tanks. God instead sends in the meek.”
And it is meek Jesus on the scene. But, was Jesus out of his mind? Did Jesus really know what he was saying?
Yep. He did. For Jesus goes on to call out these groups of people as blessed: poor in spirit, mourners, meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and persecuted. He’s making some very clear statements about what life will be like for those who want to follow him.
There are so many preachers and teachers who at this moment of a sermon would parse out this text for you by explaining the difference between blessed and happy. Some translations say these are the blessed statements others say these are the happy statements. These pastors would say, "Happiness is short-lived and blessing is eternal." And their message could be summed up as: “We oh people of God need to focus our attention on less worldly things”
Then there would be some preachers who would go down the route of telling you that the Greek adjective markarios which the NRSV translates to English as “Blessed” can actually mean “fortunate” “happy” “in a privileged position” or “well off” (all true in fact) saying if you follow exactly what Jesus says then you have more fortune, happiness or privilege in your life, etc. Joel Osteen, anyone?
And even others would go down the route of saying that the beatitudes are about missions. Jesus doesn’t favor the rich and well off in life they’d say. Then these preachers would come down hard on their congregations with a strong voice: “We’ll be a better church, oh people of God if we spend more of our budget on the “least of these” instead of on our fancy new buildings or big staff salaries.”
And to all of these interpretations, I say there would be some truth found within, but maybe not the deeper question that Jesus is trying to help us understand. And this is: how does God see the world?
I have been blessed (pardon the pun given today’s scripture) over the years to travel a lot internationally. When I was in high school, college and even seminary, I always jumped at the opportunity to go abroad on service learning trips. When I was 14, I took my first big adventure out of the country without my parents to the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean to be mentored by a missionary teacher. And after that I was hooked. There was just something about seeing another country with a culture different from my own that enlivened me like nothing else could.
When I was 18, I booked a trip alone to Tanzania and Kenya for three weeks. Though I would be staying with friends of our family when I arrived, who were Americans, I was eager to get to know Africa as I’d had read and studied about it in school. I wanted to taste the food. I wanted to smell the air. I wanted to shake hands with new friends. I wanted to see Africa the way Africans saw their country.
But I have to tell you that whole trip turned out to be a bust. Never did I taste Ugali. Never did I go into any non-expats homes’. Never did I go anywhere that a person of non-European descent would go. My hosts wouldn’t allow it.
The Africa they saw, I learned, was the Africa through their American eyes. Their body had no sight or no taste for anything that didn’t resemble what was most familiar to them. For three weeks, I ate a lot of pancakes, pizza and tacos in Nairobi—strange, right? I came back to the US three weeks later only having tried bottled water from an African bottling company.
In the same way, I believe many of us read and understand the beatitudes much like my “Americanized African” trip.
We read these scriptures through the lens of what we know: being human, the way my friends introduced me to American food in Africa.
We digest scripture literally. We make salvation about where we go when we die. We might even look at beatitudes as a checklist for righteous behavior. And we stop engaging the scriptures right there.
We don’t take a step back and see the bigger picture. We don't see the feast of a new kind of life that Jesus is offering his followers. "Come learn of me," Jesus is saying, and "You will never position yourself in the world in the same way. Because the kingdom of heaven is not about some specific action you do. It’s not about how poor or rich you are. It’s not about how many mission trips your church takes. It’s about seeing the world with God’s vision, taking your place as a citizen of heaven even as you abide as a citizen of earth."
I'll say it again, you take your place as a citizen of heaven even as you abide as a citizen of earth.
This feast of living is what makes the gospel of Christ so mind shattering! The kingdom of heaven IS here and it can be known through human ambassadors like us. How? When we see the world as God sees it.
In August of 2012, my husband and I traveled to Malawi and Kenya for our first overseas adventure since he took over as President and CEO of Feed The Children a few months before. It was a trip of many jewels but one of the most important encounters for me during our time there was with a group of young men called the Hardy Boys—a group of 20s and 30s something young men with special needs. They had lived in the Feed The Children orphanage in Nairobi since childhood but had aged out of the system. (Thus, the “Hardy House” was created for them to live in for the rest of their life for most all of them have no family that is interested in caring for them).
Though full of life challenges and unable to do the one thing that they all wanted to do—work—for there are no jobs with persons with disabilities in Kenya (like most developing countries), the joy in their faces communicated to us beyond words and moved me to tears. During our time, one of the men, Christian gave me a year’s worth of his beautiful paintings in a sketchbook (pictured to the right). We ate together a meal with foods they thought we’d like the best. And later around chairs, we sang one of their favorite songs, “Kumbayah” together while drool rolled down the cheeks of some their faces and the blind ones twitched their heads back and forth and the rest of them couldn’t stop clapping their hands.
It was in this motley crew that most everyone in the world had written off as unimportant and insignificant that I saw something about God that I, as a seminary educated, able-bodied, able sighted person hardly knew: that God dwells where people have given their life to Jesus—all of it.
And this is truth: the way God sees the world is much like the Hardy boys do. And on that August day in their living room, I was standing on holy ground.
This does not mean, however, that we should any way glamorize the harsh realities of poverty. It does not mean that embodying compassion or enduring persecution is a bed of roses. It does not mean that hungering for righteousness is a delightful kind of labor.
No- not at all: injustice is real in this world and God asks us to lend our voices to do what we can to speak out against the greatest ills. Doesn’t our Old Testament reading for this morning make it plain? “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”
But in all of this, the world that God sees and Jesus exhorts us to get to know is a world where every mourner is comforted, where the meek inherit the earth, and where those who endure persecution KNOW they are doing divine work. And in this world there is joy, even in the midst of pain and suffering.
This kind of life goes against all modern notions of happiness. For in a nation where we constitute the "good life" with a well-paying job, children in good schools, the ability to go to see as many movies in a weekend that we want, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and having enough money to hire someone to clean our house and cut our grass, we don’t realize how POOR and OFF the mark we really all.
Again, not that having things is bad. But just that we’ve got the narrative of blessing all wrong.
Are we focused alone on our little kingdom on this earth or are we seeing the kingdom of heaven come to earth?
This is what I know without a shadow of doubt: when we come and see the world that God sees it, we are blessed. God's kingdom IS among us! How could we not be?
We are blessed as we mourn.
We are blessed as we purify our hearts.
We are blessed as we make peace.
We are blessed because we are living within the kingdom of heaven. And though onlookers may say falsehoods about us and mock the ways we spend our time, our talents and our money, we can not be shaken for God gives us vision for the plans of his world. We just need to follow.
For Jesus’ coming and showing us the way to the kingdom of heaven, today we can rejoice and be glad. There’s more than meets the eye in this world in which we live and this is good news for all of us today.
We all grow up with rules. Rules like:
Don't color outside the lines.
Don't hit your neighbor even when they bug you on the playground.
Don't leave the house without telling someone where you are going.
There are some of us who grow up liking such boundaries. They are like a blueprint that lead us to unlimited affirmation.
Then there are some of us who come out of the womb hating rules. We weren't born on our due dates and we've never been on time to anything a day in our lives. We love the joy of finding ways to do our own thing no matter what.
And there are those of us who land somewhere in between. We frequently drive above the speed limit but we wouldn't dare go against unspoken family rules of who speaks up at gatherings.
(For much of my life I've been in the rule loving group).
But, if you've been following my recent posts about vocation, you know that living a life without professional rules is something that I'm experimenting with. And in this journey, I'm realizing that I can be a happy and fulfilled minister without a church, without a retirement plan and without someone with authority providing constant praise-- imagine that?
Jesus' ministry on earth could be summed up in his relationship with the rules of the day.
In my preaching the past couple of weeks, I've noticed this: Jesus did not follow the rules. Not to the point of arrogance and not to the point of disrespect of persons, but he never was afraid to go against what was accepted or commonplace in the cultural context.
Jesus was the guy who had the audacity to submit himself to the waters of baptism (when he was God come to earth after all) and needed no affirmation by human hands.
Jesus was the guy who had the audacity to tell fishermen that they would do more with their lives than spend all their nights on smelly boats.
Jesus was the guy with the audacity to tell the crowd that gathered around him on the mount that "blessed" was not about earthly esteem but about peacemaking and meekness.
Jesus broke the rules because the rules themselves had become such a skewed parameter of what God's intentions for humanity were!
Or simply put: rules can keep discipline in and joy out. Rules can focus us on the expectations of others, not who we are as beloved children. Rules can hold us back from God wants to be in us. So Jesus showed a new way-- a way of freedom.
Don't get me wrong. Rules can be good. They can keep us safe. They can help us better live in community peacefully.
But there comes a time when all the big questions of life emerge and when we take a step back and evaluate the deeper meaning of things and we realize that rules aren't all that. They are just rules. And like the Dali Lama XIV once said: “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
What are you doing lately to break the rules?