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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

“The Lord Watches over Strangers” (Psalm 146)

Image result for the caravan

            The caravan!  The president of the most powerful nation on earth, the United States of America, mobilizes 5,200 soldiers to … our border.  Why station combat-ready troops at the border?  Who’s threatening to invade?  Poor Honduran and Mexican migrant farmers and migrant workers fleeing political oppression and debilitating unemployment.  Many in our country, the U.S.A., see these who want to come have some of the freedom we hold and have not earned but enjoy by virtue of birth, secured by our European ancestors’ invasion and conquest, and they call these immigrants “illegals,” or “foreigners,” or “strangers.” 
Many of the Americans who affix such negative labels to those in the ‘caravan’ would call themselves ‘Christians,’ evangelical Christians.  From the Greek root, ‘evangelical’ means one who spreads good news.  ‘Christian’ literally means ‘little Christ.’  Evangelical Christians among all the branches of Christian faith most ardently claim to live Biblically.  So these Americans wanting to abide by the dictates of scripture and to spread good news to the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25:40) and to walk in the footsteps of Christ support the move to block the poor, the hungry, the homeless at the border of the land of the free and the home of the brave? 
Confronting weary, desperate refugees families with a show of military force doesn’t seem very brave or Christi.  What have we become?
The Bible’s got something for those refugees and migrants, and the Bible’s got something for powerful political leaders who refuse to welcome or help them.  Psalm 146:9, “The Lord watches over strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he will bring to ruin.”  Bible-reading, Bible-obeying, good news-telling, little Christ evangelicals, read this Psalm carefully, slowly, over and over (and Matthew 25:31-46 while you’re at it).
See the God this Psalm describes.  He is the one to trust, not princes (meaning earthly political leaders, whether monarchs, oligarchs, prime ministers, or presidents – 146:3).  We trust God.  “Happy are those whose help is God” (v.5).  He is creator of the universe (v.6).  A lot of evangelicals agree with this as they reject evolutionary biology and in the process willfully ignore the established conventions of science.  Evangelicals ignore science, blissfully declare belief in a creator, and then miss that the very same verse that asserts creation, Psalm 146:7, depicts God as giver of justice for the oppressed. 
Those in the ‘caravan’ were severely persecuted in their home countries.  They have had to use everything they have to travel harsh roads to finally arrive at the country that in the past has said “send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door” (see the statue of liberty)!”  After their harrowing flight and exhausting journey, these people, the oppressed of Psalm 146, the ones God watches over, are met at Liberty’s door by Liberty’s army pointing Guns and tanks at them. 
What has happened to America?  What have we become?  And how in the name of the Holy God can any evangelical anywhere support such inhospitable policies?  Psalm 146:8-9.  “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.  The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.  The Lord watches over strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”  Read these inspired, inerrant words again and again and again until they sink in.  In the news story dominating headlines, the story of the ‘caravan,’ and our nation’s furrowed-brow-response, God is on the side of the weary immigrants seeking safety and opportunity. 
Aren’t evangelicals supposed to be on the side God is on?
It sounds as if I have been beating up on evangelicals.  Nope.  I have been doing what evangelicals do because I am one.  I have turned to the Bible, specifically Matthew 25:31-36 and Psalm 146 (see also Isaiah 58:6; 61:1-2 & Luke 4:18-21 where Jesus said that in his coming the passages from Isaiah had come to fulfillment).  Like any evangelical, I want to be a Bible-reading, Bible-obeying, good news-telling Christ follower.  That is literally what an evangelical is. 
I have not beat up on evangelicals here.  I have renounced media that falsely depicts evangelical Christianity, and I renounce those who claim to be evangelical and then try to define it by political party affiliation and issues-based self-identification.  True evangelical Christianity takes its cues from scripture, and scripture defines God as being opposed to those in power and in support of those oppressed and afflicted.  This is who the God of the Bible is.  If this is who you trust, the Psalm says you’ll be happy.  If you’re opposed to welcoming the haggard poor in the caravan, you’re opposed to the God of the Bible.  That’s a faith statement, not a political one.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Never Again?

            “Never again.”  These solemn words serve as a mantra in remembrances of the Holocaust exacted by Nazis against German Jews in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.  All around the world, including in western powers like America and Britain, it was agreed that genocide is an unspeakable evil.  Mass murder must be stopped dead in its tracks.  The deaths of 6 million Jews, and many millions of others (homosexuals, Gypsies, Nazi-opponents) at the hands of the fascists taught us that mass murder and genocide[i] must be confronted by international coalitions. 
            When I write “us,” I mean humanity.  Human beings generally regard murder as wrong.  When one group intends to exterminate another group, whether it is a religious group, a racial group, or a political group, human beings around the world recognize that intension to genocide as inherently wrong.  Furthermore, “we” not only recognize the wrong, but also our own responsibility to intervene and prevent the genocide. 
            However, despite our recognition that genocide is wrong and our sense that if we can stop it, we have the responsibility to intervene, we haven’t.  We in the west, we in America, we human beings have shirked our responsibility repeatedly.  Thinking of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, we say “Never again.”  Yet it has happened over and over again, and every time “we” turn our heads so as to not be made uncomfortable by the grotesque evil on full display before our eyes.  With eyes averted, clinging to our ignorance and creature comforts, we do nothing as it happens time and time again. 
·         The Mid 1970’s, 1,500,000-3,000,000 Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
·         April-July 1994, 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsis killed by the Hutu government and the Interahamwe militia in Rwanda.
·         July 1995, 8,000 Bosniak men and boys are slaughtered in a few days’ time in the town of Srebrenica at the hands of Serbian soldiers serving under General Ratko Mladic in what is termed an act of “ethnic cleansing.”
·         2003 – 480,000 Sudanese Muslims in Darfur killed by Janjaweed (an Arab, government funded militia) in Western Sudan

More example are listed at the website “world without genocide” (  The instances of genocide I have listed here serve to show that instead of “never again” we turn away and ignore that it happens again and again.
Now, in 2018, we have the opportunity to once again turn our heads away or to figure out a way to intervene.  The extremely poor Middle Eastern nation Yemen is on the verge of mass deaths. 
This is what starvation looks like.  

The famine is being caused by war and politics, not weather or food shortages.  The Saudis are bombing the Houthis rebels who control the northern part of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.  As many innocent civilians die in the bombings as do Houthis.  The banks in the south, controlled by the Saudis have devalued the currency.  So goods poor people could not afford previously now cost twice as much even paper currency is nearly worthless.  There’s food and available medical care.  People just cannot pay for it.
And what is the response of the typical American to this horrifying humanitarian crisis?  “Where’s Yemen?”  “Houthis?  Never heard of them”  “We’ve got to make sure those people don’t come here.  They’re terrorists.” 

* Let’s do a little aside regarding terrorists because the ones who have spread terror in America are politicians who say we need to fear terrorists. 
Do you realize how much more likely you are to be hurt or killed by a drunk driver, a careless sober driver, cancer, the flu, a spider bite, or a fall than by a terrorist?  Have we declared a war on drinking?  Well, yes, back in the 1920’s, but we decided we like drinking so much, we’ll take the deaths that come with it.  Have we declared a war on cars?  Hell no!  We worship the metal traps we drive around in at deadly speeds.  Have we declared a war on spiders?  Maybe the arachnophobs have, forgetting that spiders eat mosquitos (which are also responsible for more American deaths than terrorist, by a lot). 
Listen and listen carefully.  You are far more likely to be struck by lightning in your life, than to be attacked by a terrorist.  And no one walks around in fear of lightning strikes.  The data is indisputable.  Any politician that threatens that terrorists are going to enter our county through Mexico or through refugee resettlement and cause all kinds of harm is shamelessly lying through his or her teeth, or is too stupid to qualify for any kind of leadership position.  The notion of “border security” is a political ploy to take your vote, not any kind of plan to protect you. 

OK, the aside intended to counter the false, anti-immigrant narratives about terrorism is over!  Back to the topic: genocide or mass murder in Yemen.  It’s happening.  And we in America, who could stop it, refuse to.  We refuse to even acknowledge it.  We refuse to even care.  Look at the pictures I’ve posted. Go to the New York Times article where I got them (  Or Google image search “Yemen mass deaths.” 
Then, start caring.  Pray.  Write your congressman.  Insist that America lead an international coalition to oppose Saudi military engagements in Yemen.  Make the phrase “Never again” actually mean something.

[i] I am using ‘genocide’ and ‘mass murder’ somewhat interchangeably knowing that Genocide has a unique definition.  I will refer to various mass murder-level events since WWII in this piece knowing that not all of them fit the technical definition of Genocide.  For a precise definition, see Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century by Alain Destexhe and Anthony Daley.  For my purposes the events I reference all point to the continued reluctance of the international community to get involved in conflicts within sovereign nations even when those conflicts involve mass murder or genocide. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Your Faith is too Small

            I attended the New Baptist Covenant, gathering of Baptists black and white.  We assembled in Atlanta, Georgia in 2018, the heart of the President Trump era in a racially divided America. NBC, began as a vision of Former President Jimmy Carter in 2008.  He was unhappy with divides – the many divides among Baptists in America, and the racial divide that has tortured our country for centuries.  He dreamed of remedying both by bringing together Baptists of all races around topics of justice, unity, and love.
            I first attended the NBC summit in Atlanta in 2016 and was back this time around with a lot of guilt in my heart.  Every time I hear a speaker say something to the effect that our world is run by “white men,” and that is not a good thing, I hear myself being counted among the worst of racists.  I possess every advantage: healthy?  Check.  White?  Check.  Male?  Check.  Educated?  I have a bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees.  Economically, I qualify as middle to upper middle class.  I am heterosexual and married.  I lived with every conceivable privilege.  In the past 5 years, the scales have fallen from my eyes as I have learned of my own privilege as well as the institutional prejudice that once rendered even benefits like the GI bill inaccessible to African Americans. 
            I carry guilt.  When I attend events like the Racial Equity Institute’s phase 1 anti-racism training or I read books like Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here, I expect to be hit by a tidal wave of blame for problems.  Injustice in America is mostly, if not entirely, the result of the racism of white men.  I expect to be hit with this and I expect to take it because there is much truth in it. 
            That guilt rode me heavy in Atlanta.  Additionally, I contemplated the rhetoric of the most ardent supporters of President Trump, whites who rally to preserve Confederate monuments and deny the inherent racism of the Confederacy.  “It’s not about slavery or racism,” they say, “It’s about heritage and culture.”  “OK,” I respond, but what is the content or substance of the culture you want to preserve?  It’s white supremacy.”  Defenders of southern culture, whatever that phrase means, know that what they’re standing for is unabashedly white hegemony, yet they don’t explicitly acknowledge it.  Or worse, they do.  An alarmingly high number of white Americans are happy to call all brown skinned people potential terrorists, and to look on all black people with disdain.  The division seems utterly unbridgeable. 
            I sat in the reflection group wearing my cloak of guilt and my coat of hopelessness.  And that’s when the group leader hit me with something I wasn’t expecting; grace and invitation.  Rev. Kasay Jones, formerly a pastor in Washington DC and now on staff with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Global welcomed me as a brother in Christ.  She is an African American woman, and she did not see me, a white man, as a bearer of guilt.  She saw me as a fellow Christ follower, a part of her family. Thank you God!  She offered what I needed, but dare not ask for.  I was grateful. 
            Dr. Patricia Murphy of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, an African American woman, could see I was struggling with the topics being discussed as I listened in the breakout session she led.  She looked right at me and said, “You’re safe here.”  I have tried so hard to convey that very message to people who come to our church.  I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear someone say those words to me.  She gave me space to work out how I understand my participation in unity and racial justice from my perspective as a white man.  Thank you God!  She, like Rev. Jones, let me know I am not the enemy.  I am with her in Christ.  And that’s where I want to be.
            Those invitations meant the world to me, but I still felt overwhelmed as I envisioned trying to be a peacemaker with whites who are perfectly happy to live in their privilege while pretending they aren’t tremendously privileged or insisting privilege doesn’t exist.  I felt like, we were a few hundred people in Atlanta talking about this, and the millions in that one city, let alone all of America, did not know or care that we were there.  Sure, I had my own epiphany, but how could such a small group make any difference.
            My Bible reading for the final morning of the event was Matthew 17.  I didn’t seek that passage out.  It was just the next reading up in the journal I’m keeping, Matthew 17:14-23.  In this passage, the disciples are perplexed that they cannot drive out a demon.  Jesus drives it out.  Why couldn’t they, they wonder.  His answer to them is His answer when I bemoan that we black and white Baptists are not enough to make any kind of waves in the cause of the Kingdom of God and racial unity and racial justice.  Jesus said (to me), “Your faith is too small.  What I’m about to tell you is true.  If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, it is enough.  You can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you” (17:20-21).
            As a pastor, you’d think I know that.  But let me let you in on something.  Pastors aren’t any holier than you are.  Pastors do not have a “hotline to heaven.”  Pastors get discouraged.  In many ways, this year after my Sabbatical of 2017 has been the hardest, most discouraging years of my career.  Some of it has been professional.  Some personal.  Much of it has been around the issue of race in America and the tendency of white America to deny realities and work to maintain status quo.  Some days, it feels like the discouragements pile up. 
            And then I went to Atlanta.  And two sisters in Christ, well credentialed ministry professionals opened their hearts to me and invited me in and told me it was safe and I wasn’t the enemy. 
            And Jesus said to me, “I conquered death.  I can face racism.”  And Jesus said to me, “Rob, you are going to face racism and evil because my Holy Spirit is in you.”
            Now I am back from Atlanta, back into the normal rhythms of life.  There are good days and bright spots as well as disappointments and times of ennui.  That’s true in just about any season of life.  But now, I cannot wilt and hide in my white guilt or my white fragility.  I have been invited by Christ and His church to be a bearer of good news and a worker for justice and love and peace.  I cannot say the problem is too big or too hard.  I have been given mountain-moving faith.  It’s time to live it. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

To Drink with Jesus (Mark 10:32-45)

            Let’s meet for coffee.  I receive or extend this invitation almost every week of my life, often multiple times in a week.  What’s so special about coffee? Nothing!  The phrase ‘let’s meet for coffee’ actually means, ‘I want to sit with you and talk with you and get to know you.’  The translation of ‘let’s meet for coffee’ is ‘I want to get to know you.  You matter so much, I think the best way for me to spend my time is in your presence.’  Let’s meet for coffee.  I say it or hear it from church members; people who are new in our church; new pastors in the area; people outside our church who want to talk with me in my role as pastor; people who want to spend time we me as just “Rob,” not “Pastor Rob.” 
            It’s got nothing to do with coffee.  You could meet over cokes or beers or for lunch.  Let’s meet for coffee is an invitation to relationship. 
            It’s a question Jesus puts to each of us, yet He asks it this way.  “Can you drink the cup that I drink?”  Are we able to drink the cup with Jesus and undergo the baptism Jesus experienced, a baptism that included water and a cross and a burial? 
            Mark’s Gospel, and especially Mark chapter 10, has Jesus on the move. Last week’s passage, 10:17-31, began, “As he was setting out on a journey.”  Today’s reading, 10:32-45 begins, “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them.”  This is God in human flesh, a man like other human beings, but unlike any other.  The disciples know they’re moving toward the city, but they trail behind in a cluster unsure of where this all is headed.  They are amazed, it says.  And the crowd following is afraid!  Afraid?
            Things around Jesus are intensifying, moving more quickly, becoming more serious.  “See, we are going up to Jerusalem,” he says.  “The son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days, he will rise again” (10:33-34).  Jesus has to look back to say this to his closest friends because, as Mark said, he’s walking alone, ahead of them.  They can’t keep up and aren’t sure if they want to.  Sharing coffee with him will lead them down dangerous paths.
            So James and John pretend they only heard the “rise again” part of what Jesus said.  They jog to catch up.  “Teacher,” they say, very respectfully, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  They’re like that rich man we read about last week who bragged that he had kept all the law with perfect obedience.  No, they’re worse than him. At least he knelt before Jesus.  And all he asked was that he promised a place in God’s kingdom.  He just wanted to get in.
            James and John do not kneel before Jesus.  They walk alongside him.  Well, they hang back for the part about being mocked, spat upon, and crucified.  But when he says, “rise again,” they’re ready to listen and even more ready to speak.  “We want to sit at your right and left hand in your glory.”
            Do we do that?  Do we assume that when we take on ourselves the title “Christian,” we are on God’s side; or, more accurately, do we assume, God joins our side?  Thus anyone who opposes us, opposes God, and God joins us in opposing them?  This could be in politics or in interpersonal relationships.  Are we with Jesus when he talks about being crucified, or are we hanging back?  Do we, like James and John, when we hear “rise again” come running with our requests that Jesus give whatever we ask for?
            As he did with the rich man in the previous episode, Jesus joins James and John in their shortsightedness. “What do you want me to do for you?” He asks.  He’s about to go to cross, about to suffer absolute humiliation, torture, and then death; and he’s doing it for all of humanity.  To be with him is to give of yourself as he gave of himself.  They only want to be with him when it’s good for them.  “Allow us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory” (v.37).  They want reward without sacrifice, glory for themselves without regard for anyone else.  Jesus gives of himself for everyone else.
            What do we want when we think of God and faith and life?  Do I live in way that I am all about me, my needs, my wants?  The results I am concerned about the results that affect only me?  Am I am indifferent about the suffering of people around me?  Am I unaffected by the tears other people cry?  If so, then I am not drinking with Jesus.
            That’s what he asks James and John.  They talk about glory, assuming they and Jesus and God are on one side with opponents on the other.  Jesus said, “To sit at my left or right hand is not mine to grant.”  He defers all authority to God, including his own life and death, suffering and happiness.  Jesus puts it all in God’s hands.  James and John want him to guarantee their glory.  He asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink?”  Ignorantly, arrogantly, they declare, “We are able.”
            It is not for us to stand before Jesus Christ our Lord and declare, “We are able.”  We offer this.  “We are willing.”  He makes us able.  In humble worship, we say, “We are here.”  He tells us where to go and what to do.  He tells us who we are in the world. We do not tell him who he is supposed to be for us. 
            “Can you drink the cup?” 
            “We are able.”
            No you aren’t.  Jesus tells them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink.  And the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (v.39).  And he’s already said what that means: mocked; spit upon; flogged; crucified; resurrected.  In order to have the seats in glory requested in verse 37, we have to follow Jesus.  He’s not looking for people to believe in Him.  He’s looking for people who want to follow Him.  Jesus has no interest in admirers.  People will say, “O Jesus, he was a great moral teacher; a wise rabbi; a true prophet.”  He has no time for empty, uninformed flattery like that.  Jesus is Lord and is to be recognized as Lord by people who will commit their lives to following Him.  To sit in glory, as requested in verse 37, one has to follow Jesus even when he walks the road of suffering described in verses 33-34.  He tells them they don’t understand it, but they will walk that road.
            Of course Matthew and Peter and Judas and Nathanial and the other disciples don’t find much to like about James and John’s request.  Who do these brothers, these sons of thunder think they are?  An argument ensues and Jesus will have none of it.  “You know among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants.  … It is not to be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great must become your servant and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all” (v.42-44). 
            Mark writes that when the other 10 hear James and John’s request they become indignant.  That might be a word that encapsulates our political moment in America: the politics of indignation.  Our president calls someone “horseface” or describes African nations as “-hole” countries or mocks a victim of sexual assault, and we become indignant!   He’s done things like this all his life.  Why would we be surprised?  Senate Democrats do everything they can, not to provide leadership for our country, but to block him.  And the Republicans among us become indignant.  Why?  Politics in America is not about leadership; it’s not about what’s good for our democracy; it’s not about what actually helps people; it’s about winning.  Why would we expect anything else?
            “It is not to be so among you,” Jesus tells us.  The community of His followers, the church, the body of Christ, must be different.  And our loyalty, our calling, our identity, is not primarily as American citizens, but as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, subjects in the Kingdom of God.
Yes, we should vote.  As November approaches, we will pray for our nation, for our elected officials, for all the candidates, and especially for all the voters.  In your heart of hearts, you may pray that one party does very well.  You do so knowing that your brother Christ with whom your worship every week is praying just as earnestly that the other party does well.  That’s OK.  We can pray that entrusting our thoughts, dreams, and hopes to God.  We give it to God and trust God to do something with it. 
But more importantly, we give ourselves to God.  We do what God directs us to do.  We go where God sends us.  We vote as God leads us to vote.  We don’t pray that God would lead other people to see things the way we see things.  We pray that we would see the world as Jesus sees the world.  We renounce the politics of indignations because that is the way the world operates and we are in the world, but we are not of the world.  We are of the Kingdom of God where our Lord came “to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v.45).  We follow Him in that, giving of ourselves that others may be blessed.  We sacrifice time, money, reputation, glory, power so that others, the undesirables and unwanted around us may know the love of God and the life Jesus gives to all the broken people who come to Him. 
            As we renounce the self-serving, ego-driven politics of indignation and instead live in self-giving love, we come to understand what it is to drink with Jesus.  We drink the cup and even in the parts that are painful, we see Him and walk in His blessing.  
            Keep this in mind as you look around and decide if you want to drink the cup of Jesus or become indignant because the side opposite you is making you mad as you knew they would.  Drinking the cup of Jesus sets one apart.  Remember the sequence at the beginning of the reading.  The crowd is trailing behind, afraid.  Ahead of them, but considerably behind Jesus are the disciples, thinking they knew what’s what, but actually quite confused.  Then, out front, Jesus walks alone to the cross and then to resurrection.
            When, and if, you decide you want to catch up and walk with him, you will be walking toward resurrection and glory.  However, there’s a valley of death between here and there that cannot be avoided.  To walk with him, we have to go there with him.  There is life and love and joy every step of the way, but every step is not easy because death never is.  And to drink His cup and walk with Him, we know we will be set apart from our neighbors, our families, and our culture.  He told the disciples and he tells us, the world is one way; it is not to be so with you.  We are invited to drink Jesus’ cup and walk Jesus’ path. 
            So, ponder that invitation.  Picture your life in the world, but not of it.  Knowing what it means, decide if you want to drink with Jesus.

The One Thing You Lack (Mark 10:17-31)

I didn't get to post this last week because I was out of town.  So here it is today, my sermon from 10/14/2018.  Also today, I will post yesterday's sermon (10/21/18), and a reflection from my experience last week at the New Baptist Covenant Summit in Atlanta.


          The disciples heard what Jesus said, and they could not believe it!  Then, he said it again, more forcefully.
            What did Jesus say and why did it shock them so much?

            Jesus was in the region of Judea, beyond the Jordan River.  This is a period of history in which everyone traveled by foot.  You walked everywhere.  So you traveled at a walking pace.  Today, if some teacher set up and began to teach on the side of Interstate 40, the people whizzing by at 70 mph would not even notice.  In 30 AD it was common for itinerant teachers to teach spontaneously along the roadside.  When they did, they always drew a crowd. Those passing by were not headed to a movie theater or a stadium to watch a game or to the downtown shopping district.  The roadside preacher was a welcome amusement whether or not you liked what he had to say. 
            Most people liked what Jesus had to say, or were at least intrigued by it.  His teaching was both familiar and new.  He challenged his listeners even as he entertained them with humor.  He gave wisdom and truth.  And his teaching was powered by the Holy Spirit of God.  “Crowds gathered around him,” Mark writes, “and as was his custom, he again taught them” (10:1).
            This is what’s happening when Mark writes, “a man ran up and knelt before him.”  Jesus has just again collided with Pharisees; he was intent on teaching the Law in a way that gave people life and joy; the Pharisees wanted to use the Law to trap him (10:2-12).  Jesus won the rhetorical duel and laid down strict prohibitions against divorce in the process.  Then he welcomed the messy, chaotic joy of children leaping on and about him, and reprimanded his disciples who tried to keep the children at arm’s reach. 
            So, we see him clashing with authority, teaching strict adherence to the Law of Moses, and at the same time upsetting the social order by elevating the voiceless – children.  Now, a zealous man has made a show of kneeling before Jesus to tout his own righteousness.  He heaps flattery upon him because he wants to hear Jesus say, “O wise, righteous man, you are already bound for the kingdom of God.”
            Jesus does not say that.  Instead, he calls the man out for the flowery words. “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone” (v.18).  The disciples have already heard demons call him “the holy one of God” (1:24).  Mark is not, at this point in the story, asserting Jesus’ divinity.  He’s hinting at it.  And this is another of those hints.  Jesus says this, “no one is good but God alone,” for his disciples’ benefit.  And Mark situates Jesus’ statement for his readers’ benefit.  The disciples knew Jesus was good.  They had seen it over and over. We, Mark’s readers know Jesus is good.  We’ve seen it and many of us have experienced it.  Get the hint?  The man who ran up kneeling and asking and boasting did not.
            Jesus tells him the path to the kingdom is one he already knows.  He must keep the Law of Moses.  In a statement of bald arrogance so glaring it’s hard to believe the man could blurt it out with a straight face he says, “I have!”  I have obeyed the laws of God since I was a kid.  That’s not true of anyone.  We all have moments when we lie or we steal or we gossip or we covet something our neighbor has or we fail to honor our parents or we ignore the Sabbath.  The one who honestly thinks he has totally kept the law lives in the worst kind of self-delusion.
            Jesus doesn’t call this man on his absurd claim.  If that man wants to live in a reality in which he observes the Law perfectly, Jesus will join him in that fantasy.  Jesus wants this man to hear the truth so clearly that he cannot miss it even hiding behind the walls of self-delusion he’s constructed.  Jesus looks at him and loves him.  He doesn’t want to hurt this man.  He wants to free him.
            “You lack one thing.”
            Now, we have to pay close attention to the action.  This man ran up to Jesus.  Knelt before him.  Asked his question, a clearly self-aggrandizing question.  And for good measure, he boasted of his own righteousness.  That’s the action so far.
            Now Jesus gives him new actions to take. “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, and follow me” (10:21).  Go!  Sell!  Give!  Come!  Follow!
            Suddenly the man of action isn’t running any more.  Suddenly the man of obedience who has kept all of God’s laws since his youth, isn’t obeying any more.  Upon hearing what Jesus said, he is shocked.  He wanted to be promised Heaven.  But he didn’t want to change his life.  He wanted praise and promises from the great teacher who had again and again outshined the Pharisees in rhetorical flourish.  The great teacher doesn’t give what he wanted.  And he is a rich man.  One of the things to know about rich people is they usually get what they want. 
            “You lack one thing!”  Jesus says to him.  He says that to every one of us; to you; to me.  What is that one thing we lack?
            Two things we must avoid are diluting this story and diverting this story.  We dilute the story when we find ways to lessen the blow.  In verse 23 Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  Then in verse 25 he drives the point home.  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God.”  The disciples and most people in their day believed material wealth was a sign of God’s blessing.  Wealthy people had to be closer to God; it’s why they were rewarded with wealth.  So, if what Jesus says is right, that it is impossible for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom, then certainly poor fishermen and villagers will be left out.  “Greatly astound they said to one another, ‘who can be saved’” (v.26)?
            Unable to tolerate such a conclusion, we find ways to convince ourselves that Jesus didn’t really mean that.  I even had a college professor who researched and discovered that there was indeed a gate called the “Eye of the Needle” gate, which was quite narrow.  Getting camels that gate was quite hard, but not impossible.  My professor, a history teacher, could not accept that salvation is impossible.  Jesus wasn’t talking about a narrow gate.  He meant apart from following him, not believing, but following him, salvation is impossible and especially so for rich people.  We must not dilute his teaching and rob the message of its force. 
            We must also not divert it.  Yes, Jesus did say it was impossible for the rich to be saved, but I am not among the rich.  You might know a lot of people who are wealthier than you.  But, if Jesus said to you, go and sell your possession; give all the money you make to the poor; and then, come and follow me.  Would you do it?  Would you do it joyfully?  Sell your car and your house and your computer and, gasp, your phone?  Mark did not include this episode from Jesus’ life for other people.  This is here for me and for you. 
            One other thing to note.  In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 8, we meet several wealthy women.  They use their means to support Jesus and the disciples financially.  He didn’t just turn stones into bread and multiply loaves and fish all the time.  Most of the time Jesus ate food the same way you and I do.  Someone bought it and then he ate it.  He did not tell those women who were supporting him to go, sell, give, and then come and follow.  He did not say that to Zacchaeus, the short, wealthy tax collector.  In the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus invited himself to the rich man’s house and ate a fine meal at the rich man’s table. 
            What gives?  Why in one case does Jesus tell the rich man, you have to give it all away?  In other case, he meets the rich man on the rich man’s terms and promises the rich man salvation without ever threatening the man’s rich’s?  What gives?  Which word does Jesus give to you or me when we meet him?
            “You lack one thing.”  This is true for every single person.  Before we enter the Kingdom of God, there is something we lack, something we must give up.  And we don’t get to choose what it is.  I know, Jesus, I’ll give up eating Shrimp!  (Don’t tell Jesus, but I’m already allergic to shellfish).  That man had to give up his riches because his riches are what came between him and God. 
            Most rich people like being rich.  At least, they think they do.  Whatever new things enter their lives have to fit in with their riches.  So if this guy is going to listen to Jesus, Jesus’ message cannot threaten his wealth.  Thus he has a problem because “to enter the kingdom of God one must submit to God’s rule so that God reigns over every aspect of life.”[i] For most rich people, it is the riches they don’t want to give up, not even for the promise of Heaven.
            Middle class and poor people are just as troubled because everyone has something they don’t want to give up.  “God, this is how I am and I am not changing and I am not sacrificing.  I think you made me this way, so your laws and life as a disciples has to accommodate me.” 
No!  That isn’t how life in Christ works.  When we run up and kneel before Jesus and say, “Jesus, tell us what to do so we can go to heaven when we die.”  Jesus says, “Do?  There’s nothing you can do.  Turn every aspect of your life – all your stuff, your most cherished relationships, your career, your appetites and attractions, all of it – turn it all over to me.”  That’s what Jesus says.  He demands to be Lord of all of it, all of life.  We lack the will to surrender.  We want to be assured of heaven even as we continue to live on our own terms.  Jesus wants to let God the Father take care of the Heaven part.  Jesus wants us to live this life totally committed to Him, surrendered to His Lordship, dependent upon his Holy Spirit.
Remember, he looked at the man and loved him.  The life of following Jesus would lead to hardship and sacrifice and it was better than anything that man’s riches could buy. The life of following Jesus is a happier, fuller, more adventurous, and more rewarding life than any other.  But that man could not bear to let go and surrender to God.  So he who came running up to Jesus full of himself walked away sad because all he had was himself. 
The disciples saw this exchange, and they were shocked.  Are we?
What do you have?  What are you holding that is dearer to you, closer to your heart than anything else?  Is the life Jesus has for you better than that thing you’re holding so tightly?  Would you risk following him to find out?  That’s what Jesus is asking you to do this morning, right now.
·         Take an inventory of your life.
·         Identify that which is more precious to you.
·         In faith hand that thing over– possession, relationship, dream – whatever it is; hand it over to Jesus.  Maybe he’ll let you keep it.  Maybe he’ll transform it.  Maybe he’ll tell you to get rid of it.  The point is to trust him.  He is Lord and matters more than even that thing you love most.  So hand it over to Jesus.  You will have treasure in Heaven.
·         Then come and follow Him.


[i] David Garland (1996), The NIV Application Commentary: Mark, Zondervan (Grand Rapids), p.400

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Lonely Center

            It seems human thought on any major issue subscribes to a binary worldview.  You’re either “this” or you are “that.”  And “this” is defined by the ways it is not “that.”  The original Star Trek series even did an episode depicting the ludicrous places such “this or that” takes us.  Captain Kirk and The Enterprise crew encounter a planet that is at war. 
            The people of this planet are completely black and white.  One half of their bodies is pure white.  The other half is pure black.  Captain Kirk looks at them, perplexed, and asks why they are killing each other.  Bele[i] is confused by Kirk’s question.  “Why do hate I them?” He asks Captain Kirk.  “Just look at them!” 
Kirk doesn’t understand.  He says, “But, they look just like you!”
Enraged, Bele responds, “They are black on the left side!  We are white on the left side, black on the right side!  It’s entirely different.”
Later in the show, Bele is locked in mortal combat with his antagonist.  His foe yells at him, “I’ll kill you, you half-white.”  Bele shouts back “You miserable half-black.”
Any reasonable person can see how idiotic this is.  Most people have the ability to be reasonable.  Yet last week, a crowd cheered our president as he mocked a sexual assault victim.  No one in the crowd had any evidence that showed Christine Blasey Ford fabricated her claims against Brett Kavanaugh.  The reason they supported the president is the people in that crowd decided it is in their best interest to be on the president’s side. 
Never mind that sexual assault has been a scourge on justice and on women and on vulnerable people in our country for all of our history.  Only now are women raising their voices in a way that says this evil must stop.  Many in that crowd who laughed at President Trump’s derision of Ms. Ford have themselves been victims of violent sexual assault.  Yet, they laughed because their side was laughing.
On the other side, those who oppose President Trump have not effectively proven that Kavanaugh assaulted Dr. Ford.  As I thought about it, I thought about the immature ways I used to goof off with my female friends in college.  We would should pies in one another’s’ faces, give piggy back rides, and sometimes wrestle around.  And we hugged.  Considering how sexually active college students are now (and were when I was in college), my own experiences sound childishly na├»ve.  But I don’t know if in the midst of innocent shenanigans I have touched a woman in a way that she did not like but was afraid to say.  I was not sexually active, but did I inadvertently hurt someone?  Democrats and feminists have not proven Kavanaugh did anything or intended to. 
It’s OK to say, I believe Judge Kavanaugh.  That doesn’t mean one needs to mock Dr. Ford.  It’s OK to believe Dr. Ford.  That doesn’t mean one has to damn Judge Kavanaugh.
But the loudest voices in our society do.  The voices of those who sit in the center and consider all perspectives are drowned out so that all that is heard are the extremes.  This bipolarity is claiming rule in churches.
In this first quarter of the 21st century, the issue ripping American churches apart is the status of LGBTQ persons.  Can they be full participants, including ordained ministers?  Will the church perform same-sex marriages?  These would be welcoming and affirming churches.  Or, if the church defines Homosexuality as sinful based on Biblical norms for marriage and human sexuality, must the church then segregate LGBTQ persons as “them.”  Doing this, then must that church restrict the participation of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church? 
Is it possible to be a church that includes people who think the Bible says homosexuality is sinful and people who are in same-sex marriages?  Can people from both groups exists as brothers and sisters in Christ in a church?  Or must the church decide for one group and against the other? 
I sit in the middle on most issues.  I can see the reasons people on each side feel the way they do. Being in the middle doesn’t mean I don’t have a position.  I almost always do.  And I feel as strongly about my position as do those at the opposing poles.  But, I don’t feel that just because you and I differ in opinion we have to be on opposite sides.  
·         I’m pro-life, to the extreme.  You’re pro-choice, no compromise!  You and I can sit together in church and sing songs of praise and worship side-by-side.  I know God hears your praise and loves you as much God loves me. 
·         I’m a believer in affirmative action.  You oppose it.  Maybe we’ll have heated conversations about it, but in the end, we can be united in Christ.  We can be a part of the same church family, brothers to each other. 
·         I believe the Bible clearly says homosexuality is sinful.  You’re a woman married to another woman.  You and I can say the Lord’s Prayer together.   Though we differ on the issue, we are united in Christ.
·         I know “white privilege” is one of the great of evils of systemic racism that renders our country broken and threatens to make true justice for all people impossible.  You reject the notion of systemic racism and you insist you have never benefited from any type of privilege.  We strongly disagree.  We can still serve each other communion, the body and bread of Christ.  Even with our differences, we have this in common. We desperately need the life Jesus gives and the only way we get there is through Him.  It’s true for us both. 

The Center is becoming a dreadfully lonely place.  I know am I not the only one occupying space in the center.  But there are fewer people here than at the poles.  Newer Christian writers and evangelical bloggers desire to share Christ evangelically and to work for social justice and compassion.  They insist on Biblical Christianity and they love all people including LGBTQ persons.  These new evangelicals don’t fit the Left-Right bipolar paradigm. In their books and blogs, they often search for a “third way.”  That’s probably a futile effort.  Most human beings are more likely to revert to the base simplicity of the poles than to live in the dangerous tension of the uncertain middle.  In the middle, all views are respectfully, thoughtfully considered.  I don’t think there is such a thing as a “third way.”
What I am coming to understand is that the middle is difficult.  It requires that faith and wisdom (reason) wed.  The middle demands that those who live there think things through, wrestle with beliefs, and give love – the love of Christ – fully to all.  People in the middle are there because they choose to be there.  They find blessing in the other middle-dwellers they meet.  And they come to learn (I have come to learn) that the only true seekers are the people willing to venture from the simplistic safety of the poles to the treacherous tempest in the middle. 
So why do it?  Why live in the middle?  I can only give one reason.  The God who reaches to people in the middle is infinitely bigger than the small god of the poles.  The God in the middle exhibits deeper love, more extensive grace, and more transforming compassion.  I want to know that God.  There are days that I absolutely hate the middle.  That I am writing this probably tips you off that today is one of those days.  But I won’t flee to a pole just because I am feeling sad right now.  The God who can truly lift me out of this funk and make me become a better me is here.  The God who will show me how to love as He loves me is here.  Yes, the middle is hard.  And it is where I belong. 

[i] Bele was played by Frank Gorshin, the actor who depicted the Riddler on the 1960’s Batman tv series;