Judges and Kings: The Secret of Your Strength

Scripture: Judges 16:4-22

Previously on Judges and Kings: The Israelites have finally made it safely to the Promised Land.  They are supposed to get rid of the people already living there, because otherwise they might get tempted and worship foreign gods – but they didn’t quite manage to do that.  And so a pattern begins to emerge: the people do evil things and worship other gods, God lets some other king conquer them, the people cry out to God, God raises up a judge – a warrior-leader – to deliver them.  Then there is peace until the whole thing started all over again.

I told you last week that this pattern is less a neat circle and more a downward spiral: each judge worse than the last, each period of foreign oppression longer than the last, each period of peace more tenuous than the last.

So last week, when we met a judge by the name of Ehud, things were still going OK.  The Israelites had been conquered by their old enemies the Moabites, and the people cried out to God, and God raised up a left-handed warrior who handily tricked and killed Moab’s king and then led the Israelite forces to rout the Moabite army.  And the land had peace, shalom, for 80 years.

(I know it is hard for many of us modern-day people to believe that God could be at work through the slaying of Moabites, and if you have some questions about all of that, let’s talk more offline.  Suffice it to say for now that even if today we picture God as a little more neutral, these stories still have something to tell us.)

From Ehud, things start to go downhill.  Our next judge, Deborah, is still a good judge – though it is presented as a little eyebrow-raising that the man who is supposed to be leading the Israelites in battle has to keep coming to her for advice and encouragement.  Then there is Gideon, reluctant at first to lead at all, who finally lets his success go to his head and rushes into battle shouting, “For the Lord and for Gideon!”  And there is Jephthah, who makes a hasty vow in exchange for God granting military success that ends up costing him his beloved daughter.

But oh, we’re only getting started.

I made the point last week that none of our favorite Sunday School Bible stories come from the book of Judges.  But maybe that’s not quite true.  Chances are, if you’ve ever heard a story from the book of Judges, it is the story of Samson – Israel’s last and most powerful judge.

Samson’s story begins as the twelve tribes of Israel are descending into chaos.   At this point they are ruled by their neighbors to the west, the Philistines.  But one day an angel appears to a barren woman and tells her she is going to have a baby.  This baby, the angel says, should be dedicated to God as a nazirite from birth.  This nazirite business is something we learn about in the book of Numbers – it was a temporary vow you took to dedicate yourself to God for a time, and the rules were 1) no alcohol, 2) no touching a corpse, and 3) no cutting your hair.  Samson, however, is to be a nazirite for his whole life.

From the beginning of his story, we know that Samson is special, and we are led to believe that he will do great things.

As it turns out, Samson’s special status makes him strong.  Really strong.  He will do things like tear a lion apart with his bare hands, and fight a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone, and escape – time after time – from those who try to subdue him.

The first we hear of Samson as a young adult, he has his eye on a certain Philistine woman.  (This is not Delilah, yet.)  He sees her, he wants her, and he tells his parents to get her for him as a wife.  They object, of course: “Couldn’t you marry a nice Israelite girl?”  But Samson says, “NO, MINE” and they do what he says.  At their wedding feast, where Samson certainly breaks the nazirite vow rule of no alcohol, he also makes a bet with the Philistine townspeople: a bet that they can’t solve a riddle he poses to them.  His new wife wheedles and nags him for the answer until he finally gives it to her.  She promptly passes the answer on to her kinfolk, who win the bet.  Samson gets so mad that he kills thirty people and storms home to his parents’ house.  Her father considers this an official divorce, and marries her off to someone else.  When Samson returns and realizes that, he lights the tails of thirty foxes on fire and sets them loose in the Philistine grain fields.  In response, the Philistines kill both this woman and her father; in response, Samson kills some more of them, and soon the Israelites and the Philistines are engaged in an all-out war.  Samson narrowly escapes by tearing the city gates out of the ground.

We learn a couple things about Samson from this story: 1.  He’s impetuous.  He wants what he wants, no matter the cost.  And 2.  He has a weakness for women.

And it’s against this backdrop that a woman named Delilah moves onto the scene:

 

Judges 16:4-22

 

I believe, a lot of the time at least, that our strengths are our weaknesses.  They are the same thing. I, for example, am a fairly introspective kind of person, in my head a lot.  This makes me good at writing but not so fun at parties.  I know some people who are real visionaries.  When I worked with Keary Kincannon at Rising Hope Mission Church, he always had it in mind to be starting a new food pantry or thinking about their move to their next building when they grew.  I’m not a great visionary.  I like to know the details, how it’s all going to pan out in real life.  On the one hand, I can help those visionaries think through how things can actually happen.  On the other hand, I can really rain on some parades.

Our strengths are our weaknesses.  It all depends on how we use them.

Samson, is, physically, the strongest judge to lead Israel.  The question is, will he use that strength for Israel’s deliverance?  Or will his great strength end up being his own downfall?

I think we know the answer to that.

Let me tell you the rest of the story.  The Bible doesn’t say whether Samson’s new love Delilah is a Philistine herself, but it does tell us she’s working for them.  She, like Samson’s first ill-fated love, coaxes Samson’s secret out of him.  She demands to know where his strength comes from; she pouts each time he lies to her and the plan doesn’t work, and she accuses him of not really loving her.  Maybe Samson simply can’t resist her.  Maybe he thinks he’s invincible.[1]  In any case, he finally tells Delilah his secret – that his strength is in his hair, which has never been cut.  Really, it’s not just his hair, but what his hair represents: his special status, the unique relationship with God that was given him at birth, the last nazirite vow that he hasn’t broken.

So she cuts his hair when he falls asleep with his head in her lap, and when, for the last time, Delilah says “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” he discovers he can’t just bust his way out of the ropes that bind him or uproot some city gates.  Not this time.  Instead, the Philistines take him, blind him, and condemn him to a life of servitude.

However, we learn – his hair begins to grow again.

One day the Philistine leaders gather for a festival in their temple, honoring the god Dagon, and they call Samson and make him dance for them.  This is the ultimate humiliation.  But Samson knows how to end it.  He stands between two of the pillars of the temple, and cries out to God: “Make me strong once more!  Let me die with the Philistines!”

His last words are a prayer of revenge.  Then with all his might, he pushes against the pillars.  They collapse, and everybody dies.

“So,” the story ends, “it turned out that he killed more people in his death than he did during his life” (16:30.)

This is the tragic ending of the story of Samson – the boy from whom we expected great things.

The story of Samson is a story of the strength and power we have – and how we use it.

I suppose you might say, Well, that’s a good lesson for President Trump.  Or Jeff Bezos.  Or someone else with actual power.  But  I don’t have power like Samson.  He was special, born to lead and deliver Israel.  I’m just a regular person trying to make it through the day, here. 

I get that.  Most of the time I feel that way too.

There’s a quote I come across every once in a while, by Marianne Williamson, that goes: “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”  I hear that and I’m like, nah.  I’m pretty sure I’m not afraid of that?

After all, what difference do I think I can really make, in a world where students get shot and killed in their classrooms on a regular basis, where volcanoes bury people in ash, where crying immigrant children are taken away from their mothers, where my dad has cancer that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere?  I listen to the news, I get prayer requests, I see my own problems and those of the people I love, and most of the time, I feel so completely powerless.

But maybe that’s Marianne Williamson’s point: that thinking we’re powerless becomes an excuse.  Because we do all have some measure of power.  On the bulletin board in the Fellowship Hall, which has probably been the same so long you’ve stopped seeing it, there are post-it notes from our last Charge Conference where we listed our various circles of influence.  We may not have much influence over nature or other people’s violent actions or even our government’s policies, but we have influence in our families, our friend groups, our neighborhoods, our book clubs and Rotary clubs, our condo associations, our communities.  You don’t have to be a deliverer of Israel or a nazirite from birth to have some sort of power.

It’s not a question of whether you have any strength or power.  The question is, are you going to use what you’ve been given for good?  Are you going to use it for the deliverance of your country, community, and world?  Are you going to use it for justice and righteousness, in the service of the Kingdom of God – or, like Samson, are you just going to use it for yourself?

As I was outlining this sermon I decided I should have an example of someone using their power for good in a small, day-to-day kind of way.  At first I didn’t know what example to use.  But as soon as I started looking, I started seeing examples of it all around me.  There was the woman who emailed me, who stopped into our church to pray last week as she accompanied her friend to her asylum hearing nearby.  There’s the guy I know who just wrote a book reflecting theologically on his own experience of mental illness, because he believes that this is a conversation that needs to be had, especially in churches.  There was the person who came to me and wanted to talk about a prayer vigil for migrant families and other justice issues, because it seemed like there was nothing she could so but pray, but she believed in the power of prayer in community.

Of course you have power.  So what are you going to do with it?

The New Testament has some thoughts for us on where our true power and strength come from.  When Jesus’ disciples fight about who is the greatest and who will get to sit next to him in heaven, Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first of all must be the servant of all.

Later, in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes that once when he prayed to God to take away a burden from him, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  For Paul, it wasn’t about his own power at all, but the power of God to work through him.

There’s a reason Jesus was a different kind of a leader from Samson.

Samson got what he want, but Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.  Samson sought revenge, Jesus said to turn the other cheek.  Samson died a fallen man, bringing everyone else down with him.  Jesus died for love of this world, and all of us, and rose again in victory.

Which one was ultimately more powerful?  Hint: it wasn’t the one who looked the most imposing, or had the greatest feats of strength, or who struck fear into the hearts of the most people.  It was the one whose power came from servanthood and vulnerability – and who always wielded it for the cause of love.

And yet even Samson’s downfall isn’t the end of the story.  God continues to work for the liberation of God’s people.  The Philistines might still be around today, but Israel will come together under King Saul, and then King David, and eventually, God’s oppressed people will be free.  And shalom will reign – at least for a time.

The question isn’t whether the Kingdom of God is on its way.  The question is, will you use the strength and power you’ve been given to be part of it?

 

[1] Common English Bible Study Bible, p. 397 OT

 

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Judges and Kings: Someone to Deliver Us

Scripture: Judges 3:15-30

I’m going to preach part of this sermon before we read the Scripture today, because I think it will help to have a little context.

There are some parts of the Bible we come back to again and again.  The Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the 5000, the conversion of Saul, the Christmas story.  (What would you add to this list?)

Let me state the obvious here: approximately 0 of these stories come from the book of Judges.  In fact, there’s basically hundreds of years of Israelite history between Joshua fit-ing the Battle of Jericho and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace during the Babylonian exile that’s all a little hazy.

There are some familiar stories in there – you may have heard a thing or two about King David and his exploits – but even so, I think we tend to know them as isolated stories, rather than stories that fit into some overarching narrative.

But the stories that come from this part of the Bible are really good stories, and it’s a really good overarching narrative.  Last year when some of us were reading the Bible together in a year, it was this middle section of the Old Testament, in Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel, that got to be a real page-turner.  I didn’t want to put the book down.  That’s one reason we’re going to spend this summer in the stories of this era of Israel’s history, from the time of the judges through the reign of David’s son Solomon, who was the last king to rule over the united kingdom of Israel before it split into north and south.

The other reason I decided to spend the summer in these stories is that I think they are surprisingly relevant.  This part of Israel’s story is the story of people living in chaotic times, in times of transition.  They are stories of leaders and their people trying to figure out who they are and what is most important to them and how they govern themselves and how they relate to God.  They are stories of politics, power, and the Kingdom of God – which is, conveniently, what I’ve named this series.

When I say that a sermon series is about politics, I don’t necessarily mean partisan politics, which we’re all sick of anyway.  I mean, more broadly, how we live our lives in public; the issues we deal with together.  And when I say it’s about power, I don’t just mean our elected officials, but the question of who has power, and what kind, where it comes from, and how it is used.  And when I say the Kingdom of God, I mean how God shows up and acts in the midst of the mess we are often prone to make.  The stories of Israel’s history are about all of these things, and of course so is the history we are making today.

But before we get to today’s Scripture, let me start at the beginning.

Going back to those familiar Bible stories: if you’ve spent much time in church in your life you probably know that the Israelites spent some time in slavery in Egypt.  And you probably know that they had a leader, Moses, who brought them to freedom by parting the Red Sea.  You may even know that they wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, the land God had promised them, for 40 years.

Moses’ protege Joshua finally leads the Israelites into the Promised Land, and the book of Joshua is the story of the Israelite people capturing the land from the people who (surprise) already live there.  The writer of Joshua records full and total victory, but it becomes clear at the beginning of Judges that the indigenous people have not in fact been wiped out of the land entirely.  (I’m inclined to be a little glad about that, but in the story, it’s not presented as a good thing.)

The book of Judges begins the story of an in-between time.  The people are in the land but they don’t yet have the stability of a nation, or a recognized head of state like a king.  So who are these people in this new place?  What, if anything, makes them one people as opposed to twelve separate and loosely associated tribes?  What is their relationship to the God who has brought them here, and how does that play out in real life?

If you’ve ever been in an awkward and sometimes painful time of transition like that, Judges is your book.  It’s a story of people figuring it all out – or, perhaps, not figuring it out at all.

Judges is not a book for the faint of heart – there’s plenty of violence, though as one writer pointed out, we today live in the most violent era in history.[1]  But I also think Judges has some of the best-told stories in the Bible.  They often have the quality of folk tales, which after all, is what they were – not in the sense of tall tales, but in the sense of stories passed down orally over generations and then eventually written down.  I think a lot of times when we hear Scripture read, we have this sense that we have to be all serious and somber and reverent, but folk tales are meant to be enjoyed, maybe even laughed at.  So I hope you’ll hear this story from Judges 3 with that in mind:

Judges 3:15-30

 

When I read the Bible, I write in the margins: questions, reactions, connections, you name it.  It’s my way of being in conversation with God through the text.  In my Bible at the end of this passage I have written: “I love everything about this story.”

The Israelites, now in the land, have somehow found themselves under the oppressive thumb of Eglon, King of Moab, their old enemies from across the Jordan River.  It is apparently their fault – they’ve done something God doesn’t like. But even so, God raises up a judge named Ehud who will deliver the Israelites from Moab’s power.

It’s important that when I say judge here you don’t think of, say, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Judges aren’t really judges.  They’re mostly informal leaders: they are warriors, they are establishers of justice; avengers, maybe.

Ehud is the second judge we read about. He is selected to bring tribute to King Eglon – tribute being the money they had to pay for the privilege of having been conquered by him.  He goes with a group and they do their thing – “Long live King Eglon,” etc – and then the group turns around to go home, but Ehud turns back.  “Oh, ahem, your highness,” he says, “I have a secret message for you.”

“Oh well then, come on in!” says Eglon.  “I love secret messages!”

Because Ehud is left-handed, Eglon’s guards don’t notice the sword concealed on the right side of his body, when you’d normally expect it to be on the left.  Once he’s in Eglon’s chamber he utters the great line, “I have a message from God for you,” and stabs him in the stomach, and we’re told Eglon’s fat closes around the blade, and something spills out, whether guts or excrement.

Ehud then quietly slips out and locks the door.

Meanwhile King Eglon’s people are waiting, and he’s not coming out, so they try the door, and it’s locked, and also they’re kind of getting a whiff of something from the other side, so they think he’s going to the bathroom.  It gets more and more awkward the longer they wait.  Finally they can’t wait any longer so they bust the door down and find their king dead on the floor.  Ehud, of course, has gotten a head start back across the river to Israel.

Let’s just have a moment of appreciation for this story.

That said, I won’t blame you if you’re wondering how in the world this makes for a sermon.

But it does (I hope) – when we put it in context.

In the book of Judges, we see a pattern emerging.  The people of Israel disobey God, usually by worshiping the gods of the other people in the land.  They suffer the consequences, usually by being oppressed by another nation for a time.  The people cry out to God asking for help, and God sends someone to deliver them.  Then there is a period of shalom, peace and well-being and wholeness, until they forget and the whole thing starts again.

This story is one example of this pattern.  The Israelites, we learn, have “done what is evil in the eyes of the Lord.”  God gives them over to King Eglon of Moab.  The people cry out to God, and God sends Ehud, the judge, the avenger, who kills King Eglon and ushers in eighty years of shalom.

Now if only it were that simple.

Plenty of people have tried to look at America, at one time or another, seemingly in the grip of chaos, and apply a pattern like this.  Of course, no one can agree on what we’ve done that is evil in the sight of the Lord or what other gods we are guilty of worshiping.  Is the problem gay marriage or capitalism?  Depends on who you ask.  How do we return to God?  Is it a matter of putting the Ten Commandments in every courthouse, or – as I believe – is it a matter of taking stock of how we treat the most vulnerable among us?  We also can’t agree on who God may or may not have sent to deliver us.  Some people speak about Donald Trump as if he is the fulfillment of some divine prophecy.  When Barack Obama was first a presidential candidate, some also saw him as a kind of Messiah figure.

And I probably need to say that oppressed people are not oppressed because they’ve angered God in some way.  Nor is prosperity itself necessarily a sign of God’s favor.  And while I’m at it, it’s probably helpful to remember that God never made God’s covenant with America, God made a covenant first with the Israelite people and then with people from all nations who choose to sign on – and yet surely God cares about America, too, and what we do here, just as God care about all the nations of the world.

So it’s a little more complicated than all that.

And even so, something about this pattern does ring true, doesn’t it?  The idea that we’re not in a good place as a society these days, and somehow we’ve gotten ourselves here by not being faithful to what God wants from us, and we’re going to need God’s help to dig our way out of it, and maybe there can be shalom on the other side of that, at least for a little while.

Judges isn’t ultimately an optimistic book.  In fact, as this pattern repeats, it gets worse every time, until the book ends in just undiluted chaos.  Judges does not believe in “progress.”  That’s hard for me, because on my better days, I think, I really want to.  I want to believe that things are better on the whole than they were 50 years ago.  We’ve come so far in terms of women’s rights and racial equality and technology and medicine and GDP – haven’t we?  Well, maybe in some ways, yes.  And yet the gap has continued to grow between rich and poor and sometimes it feels like we haven’t gotten very far in terms of racial equality at all and technology means we have weapons that allow us to be at war for years without me thinking about it much in my daily life at all.

God, deliver us.  We have done this to ourselves.

But what the book of Judges does tell us is that God continues to act decisively in our story, over and over; that God, as one writer put it, “is unfailingly faithful to a faithless people.”[2]

Our story as God’s people is a story of falling away, forgetting, worshiping the wrong things, suffering the consequences physically and spiritually, crying out to God – and God doesn’t say, “Too bad, you did this to yourselves.”  God says, “OK, here is help; come back to me.”

As Christians, of course, the story continues for us, not just through the succession of judges and kings who will never truly be able to deliver God’s people, but to Jesus, who can.  Who does.  Who is God’s ultimate decisive act in history.  Who recognizes the enemies and chaos both around us and inside us and promises us another way.  Who invites and empowers us to live in God’s shalom even when no one else around us is.  Who succumbs to the worldly powers of evil and then rises to conquer them, fully and totally, and who will come again to reign over God’s Kingdom on earth.  When no human deliverer can save us from ourselves, God sends one who can.

Our story as God’s people together is a story of grace – of us turning away and God calling us back.  Maybe, as we hear the story continue to unfold, we can believe it is still true – not just thousands of years ago in a land far away, but here, and today, and for each one of us.

 

 

 

[1] J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation: Judges, p. 20.

[2] McCann, p. 3.

Organically Joined

Scripture: John 15:1-8

Preacher: Barbara Schweitzer

What do you get when you send your seminary intern to her first preaching festival in the nation’s capital during the week between Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday, when the theme of the festival is Preaching and Politics?  You get a Holy Spirit infused, super energized preaching intern with a first hand experience in what it means to be a branch on a vine in God’s holy vineyard!

On Thursday morning, during Reverend Anthony sermon entitled “Silence and the Provocation of Song and Protest,” Reverend Baily asked us to stand and sing, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall over come some day? Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.   When we sang the second verse, everyone started joining hands and swaying to the music, “We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand someday. Oh, deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome someday.”  Imagine several hundred people singing these words and the power of God through the Holy Spirit blowing through that church while we were singing. As we sang and held hands, I looked around and I realized that I was experiencing the transforming power of being a branch in God’s vineyard.  As I stood there, holding the hands of people to my right and left, I realized I had the same posture of the grapevine in the picture I chosen for the front of today’s bulletin. Can you see the resemblance? If you look closely, you can see that there are several grapevines in the picture and that the branches of each grapevine extend horizontally towards the branches of other grapevines on either side, as if they are trying to hold hands.  I’m telling you, the experience was providential for this sermon and the topic of abiding in the vine in God’s vineyard.

My time at the preaching festival ended with a prayer walk and vigil at the White House on Thursday night around 10 p.m.  But Friday morning, when I woke up, the experience of the festival was still on my mind as I began to pray and to think about editing this sermon. As I listened for God, I was hit with the revolutionary thought that I wasn’t a grape in God’s vineyard, I was a branch.  And, I wasn’t just a branch on one, single, solitary grape vine.  I was a branch abiding in the vine of Christ in the middle of God Almighty’s vineyard, among approximately 2.3 billion Christian grapevines planted by the Vine Growing God. And, as a grapevine, my destiny is to produce lush, globular, bold tasting fruit.  And then, I realized, that you all aren’t grapes either. You are all branches, just like me.  We are all branches, organically joined to the stabilizing, nurturing, life-giving vine, which is Christ. We are all branches in God’s vineyard and we are all tended by the Almighty Vine Growing God.  And the Holy Spirit infuses all of us with the same breath, energy, and life that is shared among the three persons of the trinity; The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We were never meant to be grapes.  Talk about God healing self-esteem issues.  You see, if you and I were grapes, we would easily be consumed by the people, powers, and principalities of this world who are determined to use God’s creation and the blessings therein for themselves.  But we are not consumable grapesWe are branches, organically joined to the vine, which is Christ, and we are destined to produce grapes, not to be grapes.  And our grapes will nourish all people on this earth, rather than only ourselves.  And, this is the Gospel I preach, and it is political.

Did you know that from the earliest memory, vineyards were essential to the well-being of the people of Israel?  The earliest memory of vineyards in the Bible goes back to the time of Noah after the flood. Genesis 9:20 tells us that Noah planted a vineyard after the flood subsided. Grapevines were an integral part of Israel’s livelihood.  Grapes could be dried and stored for later consumption. They were a source of energy, and they could be pressed into wine.  Vineyards also provided food for the poor, widows, orphans, the migrant, and the immigrant, who were allowed to pick the grapes behind the harvesters.  The vineyard was so important for the community, that in Deuteronomy 20, we are told that people who had new vines were excused from military service, so that they could tend to their new vines and ensure that they grew.  The vineyard was so central to Israel’s subsistence that scholars think the vineyard might have been a national symbol for the Israelites.[1]

In our text, the vine imagery represents a new community, united in Jesus and it emphasizes our organic and intimate union with Jesus, where Jesus is the vine and his followers are the branches that bear fruit.[2] As branches, we abide in the vine. Let’s listen to Jesus’s words again:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 

I have to be honest, the word abide does not help me understand Jesus’ meaning in this passage. Do you understand what abide means here?  In the Greek, abide can mean “to be one in,” “to be kept in,” “to remain in,” “to be held in,” and “to live in.”  As Christians, we frequently say the words “in Christ” and we pray “in Jesus name.”  When we use these words, we are saying that we are one in Christ or that we are abiding in ChristBut what does that really mean?

I found a more helpful translation of our text in The Message Bible and have provided the NRSV and The Message Bible texts side by side for your comparison in the white insert in your bulletin. Please look at the differences as I read from the The Message Bible, starting at verse 4:  Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. 5-8 “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation is intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered-up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

Don’t you find these words more meaningful than the word abide?  So, what does it mean to make your home in Jesus, or to make yourselves at home with Jesus?

I have had to make a new home, several times, wherever the Army sent me and later, my family.  Are you familiar with the saying,  that “Home is where the Army sends you?” As a military nurse and then wife and mother, I recognized how transient and uprooted our military lives were, and how important it was to provide my family with a sense of home, no matter where we lived. We all need a stable, safe, and nurturing environment to counter the instability of our increasingly transient lifestyles.  So, when we arrived someplace new, I intentionally placed the furniture–the tables, chairs, and lamps where I thought they would be most useful and where they best fit in the space available. I would put away the dishes and kitchen things in the kitchen and the clothes in the closets.  You get the idea.  After everything was organized, and my family had lived in that place a few weeks, I got around to decorating. The decorations I chose were ones that I thought would create a sense of home, warmth, comfort, safety, and peace.  Have you done something like this?  Have you had a chance to move into the space in which you planned to live and felt compelled, no matter what the situation was, to try to make the space your home?

But, some of us don’t currently have homes.  And others of us, might come from unstable homes –homes that were not nurturing, safe, or comfortable. Does our text in John still apply?  I think it does, because Jesus is offering both himself and his heavenly home to us, both of which are more stabilizing, nurturing, and safe than our brick and mortar, earthly homes—with the added benefit that Jesus’ home is a mobile home.  We can be at home in Jesus, no matter where we are and no matter what our circumstances.  Let me explain . . .

In John 15, Jesus says “abide in me.” Meaning we are supposed to make ourselves at home in Jesus. This could mean his body, and by extension, the church. But in John 14, Jesus also says “in my Father’s house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  So, Jesus appears to be saying, that abiding in him is, in a way, like moving into Jesus’ and his Father’s house. John also tells us that Father God abides in Jesus and Jesus abides in the Father. Later, John tells us that we also, are to abide in Christ as Christ abides in the Father.  While Jesus walked this earth, he modeled this abiding with his Father. Jesus was constantly influenced by God, in communication with God, and sustained by God, in unbroken fellowship, and God was always present and continually at work in Christ’s life while Christ lived physically on this earth, which is the mystery of the trinity. The Message Bible tells us that we, who believe in Christ, share in this same intimate and organic relationship with Christ and his Father. So, our relationship or connection to the vine is something more than just living together.

So, let’s go ORGANIC for a moment.  These are grape vines. What is it that sustains the life of these grapevines? Nutrients and water in the soil come up through the roots and out to the branches, where they nourish the branches, leaves, buds, blossoms, and eventually the grapes.  At the same time, sunlight or light energy and carbon dioxide in the air is taken in through the leaves and mix with the water and nutrients from the soil to help the plant digest and use its food to give life to the whole plant.  And, a healthy plant breaths oxygen and water into the air which is then used by animals and humans to live. A healthy grapevine will also send out feeler vines to find support structures that will hold it up, so it can grow towards the sunlight which it needs for energy. What we can’t see is the internal arteries and veins inside the vine and its branches, which transport the nutritional life-giving substance throughout the whole plant.  This organic process of feeding, digesting, and breathing is how the vine lives in the branches and the branches live in the vine.  And I think this is what Jesus means when he says, “abide in me as I abide in you.”   This process is the mystery behind our Christian communion too, where we feed on the bread and drink the wine which is the body and blood of Christ.

This morning, as I walked outside to get the morning paper, I noticed all these branches on my lawn. They are dry and brittle, and they can be easily broken. If you break these branches and look inside, you see the marks of a dried-up vessel.  There is no life-giving fluid flowing through its veins.  These branches are not connected to the vine any more. They are not living, they are dead. I don’t even think of them as branches anymore.  I think of it as kindling for a fire that I might want to have in my fire place.  What has happened to theses dead branches happens to us when we are separated from the true vine that is Christ.  This dead branch still has a purpose, but it is not the purpose God originally intended for it.  Similarly, when we, as humans, become separated from Christ because of our unbelief, our doubt, our stubbornness, our pride, our selfishness, or our laziness, our lives change.  We still have a purpose in life, but that purpose will be different from that which God originally intended.  And if we persist in living apart from God, our spirits will eventually die.

Abiding in Christ is living an abundant life, intimately joined to the source of that life.   And just like that ancient nation of Israel understood that tending to the new vines was essential for sustaining the life of its community and the individuals within the community; we also must choose to tend to the life of the vines in our orchard at Arlington temple. We need to read and study scripture together, not only on Sunday mornings, but throughout the week. Just as Jesus wanted his first disciples to make abiding in him their way of living, Jesus wants us to make abiding in Christ our way of living. Understanding the abiding life was so important to Jesus, that it is one of the last conversations he had with the disciples before he died. The ability to live intimately with Jesus and the Father is a reality, but this abiding life must be cultivated. Jesus, in the Message Bible, tells us how to cultivate this relationship, he says, “if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.”

How do we make ourselves at home with Christ and Christ’s words at home in us?  The only way that I know, is through daily prayer, Bible study, meditating on scripture and listening to God in silence.  But the reality of life in the vine goes beyond this. Once we’re believers, Christ’s blood flows through our veins and Jesus not only remains in us, he empowers us to live the Christian life through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the vine that sustains us and holds us secure, both when life rains down on us and when the sun shines on us.

It’s really hard to kill a grapevine, but the master gardener at the nursery where Glenn and I bought these plants told us that feeding our grapevines on a regular basis is key to growing healthy vines that will grow and produce an abundance of fruit.  What kills grapevines and whole orchards is failing to feed them.  Will you take time to commune with God through daily prayers, both in your home, and in this church, which is God’s vineyard in Rosslyn? You may already be doing these abiding disciplines.  If you are not, there’s no time like the present to begin. Amen.

 

     [1] The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, S-Z, Vol. 5, p. 782.

     [2] Ibid.

Pentecost For All God’s People

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Since I was little, I’ve loved learning languages. I love learning the ones that are relatively easy for a native English speaker, like Spanish; I like learning the hard-for-a-native-English-speaker ones, like Korean; I like learning the less-actively-useful-on-a-daily-basis ones, like ancient Hebrew.  I know there are many of you here who speak second and third languages with a fluency I will never achieve in any of them, but even so, I have always loved the process of learning. I would mostly call this a hobby, but honestly I’ve also come to see it as almost a spiritual discipline in its own right.  It’s not just about memorizing vocabulary or where the verb goes in a sentence.  Rather, it’s about learning to see the world from a new perspective.

I had a seminary professor who was Indian and whose first language was Tamil who told us once that in English, if we want to describe someone who is kind and generous and hospitable, we say they are warm-hearted.  But in Tamil you would say that person was cool-hearted.  After all, south India is pretty hot already – it is something cool that is inviting, that offers you respite.  I loved this example of how we don’t just use different words, but actually categorize things differently, things as basic as warm and cold.

I’m also very aware of the barriers to truly being able to see the world through the lens of a new language.  For a time I was helping translate a friend’s old family letters from German.  I studied German for years in school, and at one time I was reasonably good at it.   As I read those letters, mostly, I understood the words, and if not they were easy to look up. But even so I was constantly aware that I could never really be sure that I understood the meaning behind the words, the tone and intention the author had given them.  I could never really enter that perspective completely.

I like the story of Pentecost because it’s about speaking new languages.  I have often wished for a kind of Pentecost moment where a switch was flipped and I was just able to instantaneously speak fluently to someone in another language.

Of course, I know that Pentecost is not fundamentally a story about language proficiency.  It is a story of all those things that separate our lives and experiences and worldviews from one another, and how the church has room for all of us.

When the day of Pentecost arrives, we read in Acts 2, the disciples are all together in one place.  Jesus has at this point died, risen, appeared to the disciples over a period of several weeks, and then ascended back into heaven with the promise that more is to come.  The disciples are prayerfully waiting in Jerusalem for their baptism by the Holy Spirit before heading out on their mission to proclaim the good news of Jesus and resurrection and God’s love.

The disciples who were gathered in that place were an ethnically homogenous group of Jews from Galilee.  However, the crowd of Jews that was gathered in Jerusalem that day came from all over the known world – from all over the Ancient Near East, Asia Minor, northern Africa, Rome.  And, of course, they came with their own languages: Aramaic and Persian and Egyptian and Latin and Greek.  They were all Jews – dispersed near and far by ancient political events – and all were gathered for the festival of Pentecost to celebrate both the spring harvest and the giving of the Ten Commandments.  But even so, there were certainly deep differences among those people of many places and many tongues in how they experienced and understood the world.

Here’s what I think is cool: when the Holy Spirit arrives that day, in a rush of wind and tongues of fire, she doesn’t make everyone suddenly start speaking the same language.  Instead, the disciples each begin to speak someone else’s language.  Pentecost is not a story of homogenization or assimilation, but of how God breaks down those barriers that so often work to keep us apart.  And so the disciples proclaim the good news of love and mercy and grace and resurrection – not in their own way or their own words, but so the people gathered around them can understand.

But again, Pentecost is not just a story about languages.  I have said this before and I will say it again: one of my deepest beliefs is that the entire Gospel is a story of God breaking down the barriers we set up to divide ourselves from each other.

From the beginning, Jesus’ ministry is one of breaking down walls. He calls as disciples both tax-collectors who sold out to the Roman Empire and zealots who had vowed to resist. He touches and heals people whose illness made them untouchable.  He interacts with women, as people, in ways that might cause the town gossips to talk, and he while he sees his mission as chiefly to the Jewish people, he answers the prayers of Romans and Canaanites alike.  He sits down to dinner with people who have been told they are unwelcome in polite society.  He preaches love for our enemies and forgiveness, that hard work of breaking down the personal barriers we set up between ourselves and those who have hurt or wronged us.  Finally, he breaks down the barrier between life and death itself.

We might go back even farther and rightly say that this work of barrier-breaking doesn’t start with Jesus, but is how God has been working in history all along: commanding God’s people to welcome immigrants, incorporating foreigners like Rahab and Ruth into God’s story, sending prophets like Jonah into enemy territory to give them a second chance.

On Pentecost, as the baby church receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, this work of God simply takes on its next shape.  It doesn’t stop with languages: as Peter speaks to the crowds gathered on the street below, he calls this the fulfillment of prophecy: “On those days I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh,” God said once through the prophet Joel: young and old, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free.  The Holy Spirit does not discriminate.  One by one, she breaks down our walls.

And when the people of this new church head out in mission, that is the work they will do as well.

They will preach God’s word first right there in Jerusalem, and in the rest of Judea and even the religiously suspect nearby land of Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.  They will proclaim the story of Jesus to a eunuch, a sexually marginalized person, from Ethiopia.  They will accept as one of them the worst Christian-hater they know.  They will reach Jewish communities in Greek-speaking places.  Eventually they will decide to let Gentiles, non-Jews, in as well, because they see the work that God is already doing among the people they once considered outside the fold.

The barriers that the Holy Spirit is tearing down are barriers of language, but they are also barriers of culture, gender, status, religious background and social propriety.  She is tearing down walls put up by society, walls put up by individual prejudice and bigotry, even walls put up by religious tradition.

The story of God and the story of the church is a story of those walls, one by one, coming down.

Now let me confess something to you.

That part of this sermon, all of those words I just said to you, came easy.   They came easy because it is a beautiful story and a beautiful idea that God is bigger than our differences, that the Holy Spirit transcends them, that our job as the church to keep breaking down those barriers and tearing down those walls.  And when I say it’s a beautiful story I don’t say that dismiss it as if it is just a fantasy, because like I said, I believe in the core of my being that it is true.

This part of the sermon, the part that is coming, is the part that I put off for too long and stayed up too late writing, because I didn’t know how to put it in words or how to make it sound hopeful.  Because the truth is I despair of the divisions that I see and feel all around us.  And the truth is I hate appeals to unity that try to simply paper over those divisions, because they are about real things, things Jesus maybe even cares about.  And the truth is, I suppose, that there are certain walls I’d rather keep up.  And I’m not always sure what to do with all that.

It’s no secret to anyone who lives in the United States that there are walls dividing us.  We live in red states or blue states; we watch different news and can’t even agree on what is true or false, and we demonize each other constantly.

This fact itself is often lamented, and yet our differences are over important things – not just the languages we speak, but, more often, what our values and priorities are; how we believe we can best keep ourselves safe; how we treat certain groups of people. Do I really believe the Holy Spirit can transcend these differences?  And do I really believe that all differences should even be transcended?  What would Pentecost look like in the US today?

Well, to be fair, the work of the Holy Spirit has never been to bring us together as a country.  Her work is to bring us together as the church.

But don’t even get me started on the church – the global church, that is.  The church might be in a worse state than the country.  Many of those same political divisions are alive and well in the Body of Christ, and to those we can add some serious theological differences as well.  We can’t seem to agree on what we believe or what it all means or what exactly it is we’re doing here.  And sometimes I admit it’s easy to get the angriest at fellow Christians who I think have gotten it all wrong!  We want to dissociate ourselves from each other: “I’m not that kind of Christian.”

Even and especially in our own denomination, the United Methodist Church, these days, this seems to be the case, and maybe because it’s so close to home, this is the divisive-ness that wounds me most of all.  You know I’ve stood up here from time to time and updated you on our continued denominational fight over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people, which we will be spending several million dollars on next February when we have a special General Conference to vote on whether we can find a way forward through our disagreements without splitting.  It’s fashionable in the midst of all of this to make appeals to unity, and yet it seems like no matter how you slice it, unity for some means exclusion for others.  I fear we will end up unified around the wrong things, and again, I despair, and sometimes, honestly, it makes me want to give up on the church altogether.

I struggled all week with the fact that when I read the Pentecost story, all I hear is a story of unity.  And I’m burnt out on unity.  I didn’t want to preach on unity.  Oh, sure, I can preach on speaking different languages – but, in the end, that’s not what really divides us, is it?

But it’s not my story, so I guess this is where I bring all of my doubts and reservations and struggles and wounds and let God’s story speak in spite of myself.

I really do believe that the Holy Spirit’s work is to break down the walls that keep us from each other.  It’s a beautiful story and a beautiful idea until she comes for one of the walls that I’m struggling to hold up.

And yet, I have to say this, too:  I have seen the Holy Spirit doing this work in the church.

I remember a trip I once took to Tangier Island, in the Chesapeake Bay with a group of other church-related young adults.  We were on a trip called an ecological pilgrimage, planting seagrass and learning about overfishing in the Bay and attempts to restore it to health.  On Tangier we talked to fishermen and crabbers whose livelihood and heritage both were threatened by restrictions on overfishing, who thought they were an example of government overreach.  That Wednesday night we went to church on the island, and, as our group leader pointed out, the church was maybe the only place where people with different perspectives on this issue and others ever found themselves in the same place.

I don’t always like that fact, but there is something beautiful in that, too.  And the most difficult, unlikely, beautiful thing is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t paper over our differences.  She doesn’t make us all speak the same language.  She just makes us the church, together.

I think of a man I once knew from a church I interned in.  At first, he was someone I did not like.  Though we were both native English-speakers, he often spoke in certain religious language that did not come naturally to me.  We disagreed on many things.  I felt he said the wrong things, even offensive things, in the way he sometimes talked about the poor in our community, in the assumptions he seemed to make about them.  If there was a wall I put up between myself and this person, certainly it was a Jesus-approved wall, a wall put up in defense of the most vulnerable people in our community.

But then I realized that this man also sought those same poor people out and made an effort to befriend them.  He brought them meals.  He listened to them and prayed with them.  He invited some of them into his home.  In other words – while it so often seemed like we were talking past each other, speaking different languages, there he was living out the teachings of Jesus more authentically, probably, than I ever had.

And a wall came down.

This is not a sermon about how our differences don’t matter.  This is not a sermon about unity as our highest goal.  This is a sermon about Pentecost, and how the Holy Spirit continues her work of breaking down the barriers that divide us, sometimes joyfully and sometimes against our will, and how that has been the case from the beginning of God’s story.

And if, like me, you sometimes struggle with what that means and how that looks, then I guess let’s struggle with it together.

Because Pentecost is the beginning of the church’s mission, and this is our work now, too.

Are you ready to break down some walls?

 

Unworthy Disciples: Disciples Who Do God’s Work

Scripture: Mark 6:31-44

One of the ministry hats I wear besides being your pastor is that I help lead a program of the Virginia Conference that offers summer church internships to college students who are discerning a call to ministry.  At the end of the summer, all of that year’s interns gather together back in Richmond to process their experience together, and we usually start this event by sharing what a colleague dubbed “Highs, Lows, and Uh-ohs” from the summer.

Highs and lows – those are probably pretty self-explanatory.  Highs might include preaching for the first time and having it go really well, or a week spent at a conference-run camp for children whose parents are incarcerated, or seeing an event you’ve helped plan come together at the end of the summer.

Lows might include some host family drama, or coming to terms with the fact that the congregation seems to be of a very different political bent than you are, or some experiential learning of church politics.

“Uh-ohs” are a little harder to define, and in fact, we usually tell interns to define it however they want.  These are the surprises of the summer, the times they were caught off guard, the things they didn’t think they could do.  We had an intern once who had to step in and lead worship on her own one Sunday morning when her host pastor’s baby came sooner than expected.  Another intern found himself and the youth group he was chaperoning in the middle of a fight downtown on a mission trip to an urban area.  These are the experiences that make you ask, “What do we do now?”

Over the past six weeks we’ve been following the twelve disciples in the Gospel of Mark and I think it is fair to say that they have experienced some highs and lows in their three years of following Jesus.  Highs: That first time Jesus spoke their name, that first experience of being sent out in mission on their own and being given authority to cast out demons.  Lows: That time they were caught on the lake in a storm and Jesus admonished them for having such fragile faith.  The time Jesus mentioned the yeast of the Pharisees and they thought he was talking about lunch and he bemoaned their thick-headedness right in front of them.  The time they made a public spectacle of themselves trying and failing to cast out a demon, even after they’d been given that authority.

And uh-ohs?  That time there were five thousand people gathered to hear Jesus’ teaching and, when the disciples pointed out that it was probably time to break for dinner, Jesus told them: “You give them something to eat.”

A couple big things have just happened in Mark’s Gospel before this story takes place.  The disciples have just returned from that first mission Jesus sent them out on.  While they were gone, John the Baptist was killed by King Herod.  Jesus and the disciples all have some processing to do.  So Jesus invites them to come on a little mini-retreat with him and rest, and they all get in a boat and head for a deserted place.

In pastor circles they say that ministry happens in the interruptions.  That is certainly true here.  People see them leaving, and when Jesus and the disciples disembark on the other side of the lake, the crowds have beaten them there.  As an introvert, I can certainly imagine how disheartening it must have been to  find five thousand people crashing your silent retreat.  But instead of telling them to go away, Jesus sees their need for hope and direction, and he begins to teach.

Just before dinner time his disciples come to him and say, “It’s getting late, Jesus, better let these people go get something to eat.”

“You give them something to eat,” Jesus says.

The disciples look around awkwardly and say, “Well, uh, there are kind of a lot of people here, and, uh, that’s going to be pretty expensive…”

In other words, they tell Jesus, “Sorry.  We don’t have what it takes.”

But instead of accepting that answer, Jesus says, “What do you have?”  They have five loaves of bread and two fish.  So Jesus says, “OK.  Use that.”

Here’s the thing about a life of discipleship: there are plenty of times when we won’t have what it takes to do the thing that God is calling us to do.

But God tells us to take what we have to offer and do it anyway.

So far in this series we’ve followed the disciples’ story pretty chronologically, from their first call through some of their highs and lows, but we are actually going backwards in the story a bit today with the loaves and fishes story. I admit that that’s because I wanted to end this series on a high point, which the Gospel of Mark itself does not do.  At this point in the story, the disciples have not quite gotten to some of their biggest misunderstandings and discipleship fails.  But at the same time, Jesus knows who these guys are.  Jesus knows who he has called.  He knows they’re not just going around impressing everyone at every turn.  And yet Jesus trusts them with doing God’s work. Those loaves and fishes aren’t going to serve themselves.  You give them something to eat.

We have talked over the past six weeks about how much we ourselves sometimes resemble the first twelve disciples: unready to trust, unwilling to understand, unable to carry through with the tasks they are assigned.  We’ve talked about how sometimes, all those imperfections in our own lives and journeys of discipleship make us hesitant to even claim that title of disciple at all.  But God’s Kingdom isn’t going to witness to itself.  God’s love isn’t going to share itself.  The good news of God’s mercy and welcome isn’t going to spread on its own.

It makes me think of these words attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century.  She said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world.  Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people.”

In other words, flawed and failed and imperfect disciple though you may be, God needs you.  And sure, God is powerful enough that God could do whatever God wants without us – but that’s not how God has seen fit to make it work.  God needs you to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world, continuing this work that Jesus started.

There was a member of our weekday community here at Arlington Temple who told me about someone he used to pass each day on his way to a soup kitchen in a different city.  This person clearly had needs that were not going to be solved by a free meal.  So the man telling me the story said he went around trying to figure out whose job it was to help this guy – to get around, get an appointment with a doctor, whatever it was he needed – but he couldn’t find anyone whose job that was.  So he continued to walk past this guy every day until, he said, I realized: it was my job.

Let me assure you, the man who told me this story was not a person who had it all together, by any kind of outward appearance.  But he got that right.  For some some reason, God trusts us with this important work – unworthy disciples though we may be.

There’s an author I like named Sara Miles who writes about the enormous power that Jesus gives those who follow him.  “’It’s actually pretty straightforward,’ Jesus says. ‘Heal the sick.  Cast out demons.  Cleanse the lepers.  You give the people something to eat.  You have the authority to forgive sins.  Raise the dead.’”  “What would it be like,” she asks, “…to just take his teachings literally, go out the front door of your home, and act on them?”[1]

Sara Miles herself was, again, not a Christian who had it all together.  She was an adult convert to the faith.  She didn’t have a “neat set of beliefs” or an intricate knowledge of Scripture.  What she did have was an experience of being fed – of wandering into church one morning, taking communion, and realizing that Jesus was real – and the belief that she was then supposed to feed others.  So she started a food pantry, in the same space where worship and communion took place on Sundays.  For her, they were the same thing.  And people came to that food pantry – people old and young, speaking Spanish and Chinese and Tagalog, some homeless, some mentally ill, some addicted to various substances.  And, she says, some of them stayed.  They volunteered at the pantry and they, too, fed others like they had been fed.

That’s what this life of discipleship is all about: feeding others as we have been fed.  Not necessarily just with literal bread, of course.

Another of my favorite preachers, Nadia Bolz-Weber, put it this way: “Never once,” she said, “did Jesus scan the room for the best example of holy living and send that person out to tell others about him.  He always sent stumblers and sinners.  I find that comforting.”[2]

I told you at the beginning of this series that if you came away with one thing, it would be that if these twelve guys with all their flaws and failures could be disciples, then there is nothing stopping us from claiming that title either – whether not we feel worthy of it. But I also don’t want to leave things there.  I don’t want the only thing you take away here to be “Well, if I’m a just-OK disciple, that’s cool, because God can still work through me.”

God can.  And God will.  But God also keeps inviting us to go a little farther, to open our eyes just a little bit wider to those opportunities around us, to cultivate hearts that are just a little bit more ready to respond.

One of the theological debates John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once had with a man wonderfully named Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, was about whether the life of a Christian was a life of growth.  Zinzendorf said no.  Once we accept Jesus, we are as holy as we’re ever going to be.  Wesley heard that and said, wait, no: You mean to tell me “that an father in Christ is not a whit more holy than a newborn babe?”[3]

Wesley called this process of growing in grace over the course of our Christian lives sanctification.  And he did actually believe that a person could be entirely sanctified in their lifetime, though he never claimed to have reached that point himself.  Still, kind of intimidating, especially given I’ve been talking to you for the last six weeks about all of the ways we fall into fear and miss the point and fail at our given tasks.  Could we really imagine that, by God’s grace, things could be different?

Here’s the thing: Wesley never meant that we would always get things right.

He meant that we could reach a point of a life lived fully from a place of love.

A few weeks ago I asked what you needed to be able to grow to that next level in your discipleship.  I got lots of great responses and I really appreciated them.  In those responses three things stood out to me – one, that there are those of us who could use some help discerning what God is calling us to and putting our gifts to work inside or outside the church; two, that there are those of us who could use some more help talking about our faith outside of church; and three, that there are those of us who could use some help staying connected to God – incorporating spiritual disciplines into our daily lives and staying accountable to that.

I’m going to be thinking – and maybe you can help me – about what opportunities we might have to help you all grow in these ways.

Because God calls unworthy disciples.  God calls us despite our misplaced fears, our hardened hearts, our frequent misunderstandings, and our worst failures.  God calls us and needs us and trusts us with God’s work in this world.

But it’s our job to offer what we have in God’s service.  And to offer a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more, as God gives us the grace to do.

Fellow disciples, it is a hurting world out there, and people are hungry.  They are hungry to know mercy, hungry to belong, hungry for signs of justice in the midst of injustice.  They are hungry for new beginnings, hungry for a sense of call and purpose, hungry for community, hungry for some sense that God is not far away.

Well, God, that sounds like a pretty tall order, and I’m not really sure I have what it takes...

What do you have?  God asks.  Use that.  You give them something to eat.

 

 

[1] Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, p. ix

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, p. 30

[3] Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley, p. 370

Unworthy Disciples: Discipleship Fail

Scripture: Mark 9:14-29

Once in a while, or perhaps more often, you may have had an experience where it just seems really clear that God is working through you and using you for God’s good purposes.  You do something or somehow contribute to something amazing that can’t solely be explained through your own skill or abilities.

Once in a while here at Arlington Temple, people from the community who are otherwise unknown to me will stop in because they need to talk or pray with someone.  I remember one particular time when this happened.  A young-ish man for whom multiple things had not been going well lately stopped by looking for some hope and direction, and we talked for a long time, and we prayed, and he went on his way.

A few months later I happened to run into him at the gym, and he recognized me and said, “I’ve been meaning to come see you.  Ever since we talked that day my life has taken a turn for the better.”  And he went on to tell me that he had gotten some answers about the health problems he’d been having and they were under control, he had started working again, he had reconnected with some old friends.

Well, hey, I believe that there is power in prayer.  But I’m not sitting in my office working magic here.  That day I rejoiced that God had seen fit to use me in some small way to help this man find some hope in his life again.  That, I would say, was a successful day in ministry.

But the truth is there are many, many other days when I have not felt like a success in ministry.

There have been those times when I have prayed with someone in my office about some challenge they are facing and they have come back to say, “That didn’t work.”

There are the times when, either due to my natural reticence or my deep fear of telephones, I have not offered someone the pastoral care they needed.  I’ve gotten some flak for that at least once or twice over my time in ministry.

You know how last week we talked about how disciples sometimes miss the point?  I’m sure I have done that at times, but there are also those sermons I have preached where it is clear afterwards that at least some of the people listening – completely missed the point.  (Don’t worry, I’m not talking about you.)

There are the chances I have missed to invite someone to go deeper in their discipleship, the church visitors I’ve ignored for too long or scared off too soon, the times I have let my own pessimism squelch a new thing for fear it couldn’t be done, the times I have tried a new thing only to have no one come.

I know these are examples are from my own pastoral ministry, but maybe they resonate with you in your own journey as well.  We all have those times we missed the boat on caring for a friend in need, had that opening to talk about our faith but chickened out, knew we probably should have upped that number on the pledge card but didn’t, promised to pray for someone but forgot, or maybe even tried to get people excited about a cause that we really felt called to only to have no one respond.

In other words: we failed.

It occurred to me as I was thinking about all this that the word failure can mean a lot of things.  It can mean, on one level, sins of omission or commission, ways I have not treated people in the way God commands me to.  Or it can mean something I tried my best at that didn’t work, through no fault of my own.  Or it can mean something in the middle: something that keeps me up late at night thinking of everything I should have done differently, all the ways I should have been more faithful, wondering how much was me and how much was due to forces outside my control.

In this sermon I mean all of those things.  And I believe that the first twelve disciples experienced all those different kinds of failure as well.  And I believe that there is hope for us in that fact.

In today’s story from Mark, Jesus has just gone up on a mountain with his three closest disciples and been transfigured before their eyes in this holy experience they don’t know what to make of.  When they come down from the mountaintop, they are greeted by chaos below – the rest of the disciples are fighting with some of the religious leaders and a they’ve drawn a crowd.  When they spot Jesus, the whole crowd stampedes its way to him, and he has to ask them: “What’s going on??”

A man in the crowd responds, “I tried to bring you my son so you could cast a spirit out of him.  But you weren’t here, so your disciples said they could do it, but they couldn’t.”

We quickly move into the part of this dialogue that this story is famous for, the more inspiring and evocative part: Jesus tells the boy’s father that all things are possible for one who believes and he responds, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

But that’s a sermon for another day.  Jesus casts the spirit out of the boy, and later, when they are alone, his disciples ask Jesus: “What went wrong?  Why couldn’t we cast out the spirit?”  And Jesus responds, somewhat cryptically, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”

What do you think?  Did the disciples forget to pray?  Had they not prayed hard enough?  If you remember from a couple weeks ago, back in chapter 6 when Jesus sent the disciples out on their first mission, he had given them authority to cast out unclean spirits.  This was something they were supposed to be able to do.  But was there some sort of spiritual defect that made their attempt to heal this boy unsuccessful?  Did they let their previous ministry success go to their heads and forget God’s role in it all, think they personally were the caster-outers of unclean spirits?

If I were the disciples, these are the questions I would have stayed up late asking myself.

There are certainly some commentators who would say that was the case, that the disciples failed by their own spiritual fault.  But that’s not the only way to look at it.  Personally I wonder about Jesus’ answer, “This kind can only come out through prayer,” which almost makes it seem like they are facing something new here, a different species of unclean spirit unlike the ones they have cast out before.   As theologian NT Wright put it, sometimes as we progress in our journey of discipleship, the tasks we are given simply get harder.[1]

I don’t know what kind of failure this was, per se: the kind where you did something wrong or the kind when you tried your best and it just didn’t work out.  But either way I bet it felt like failure.

The disciples also know that other type of failure, the kind where it is clear you have stumbled, fallen, missed the mark.

For the disciples, this kind of failure is most evident toward the end of the Gospel, which gets progressively darker as Jesus approaches his death.  There is the failure of the disciples to keep watch while Jesus is praying in Gethsemane – while he is in agony, they fall asleep.  There is, famously, Judas’s betrayal.  There is, famously, Peter’s denial.  There is, less famously, the unnamed, scantily-clad disciple who Mark tells us loses his linen garment and runs away naked from the scene when Jesus is arrested (look it up) – who, scholars say, might represent Mark himself, or maybe any of us who run away when things get risky.

And, at the very end of the Gospel, there are the women at the scene of the empty tomb, who, at the angel’s command to go tell the disciples what they have just seen, flee in terror.

You could make the case that Mark’s Gospel is the story of one big discipleship fail.

But why would Mark want to tell that kind of story?  Where’s the good news in that?  Why would that have been helpful to the community of first-century Christians he was writing this story down for?

Well, for one thing, as I’ve been emphasizing throughout this series, it means that if these yahoos can be disciples, there’s probably nothing preventing us from being disciples, either.

I called this sermon series Unworthy Disciples, and I wonder if maybe the biggest reason we might sometimes feel unworthy to claim the title of disciple is precisely because of our failures.  We, better than anyone else, know the times we have fallen short and the times we have been neither faithful nor effective in sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God.

An author by the name of Dan Hochhalter writes about his own experience of failure when his PhD dissertation was rejected.  It wasn’t just rejected like he was asked to do a few more edits and come back.  It was rejected like he was told never to come back.  He didn’t go into the details – I admit I was curious – but he did add that after that he also lost his job as a high school teacher.  This was followed by months of rejection letters from jobs he applied to.  He had been sure that by teaching and getting his PhD he was faithfully following God’s call, and it had only led to failure.[2]

Months later when Dan finally did get called for an interview for a teaching job at the college level, he almost didn’t go.  He simply didn’t believe he was worthy of being a teacher anymore.

Dan Hochhalter also writes about someone else he met who knew the sting of failure.  Earl was a homeless man he sat across from at breakfast during a youth mission trip he chaperoned.  Dan learned that Earl had two daughters, but he hadn’t been in touch with them for years.  When Dan asked why he didn’t call them, Earl looked down and responded, “Because I don’t feel worthy to be their father.”

It struck me, reading those stories, how much failure can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We think we are not worthy to be something or be called something, and so we don’t make an effort to be that thing.  I wonder if it is the same with discipleship: if we stop trying to grow as disciples when we’ve already convinced ourselves we’re at best just OK at it anyway.

And yet can you imagine if those disciples had never tried to cast out another unclean spirit after this embarrassing incident?  If Peter had never considered himself worthy after those three denials to declare himself to be a follower of Christ again?  If the women who fled from the tomb, silenced by shame, really never said anything to anyone?  We wouldn’t be here today.  Because a church built on disciples who never fail – is a nonexistent church.

But I wonder if we can even go a step father than that.  I wonder if we could say not only that the church is by definition made up of failed disciples, but that the church in fact needs failed disciples.

I asked earlier why Mark would have told this story of discipleship failure to his first-century congregation.  Maybe it’s not only to comfort people with the idea that there is a low bar for discipleship.  Maybe, also, it’s a reminder that the church these twelve went on to build was not of their own doing, that the demons they did cast out were not cast out by their own power, that the people they healed were not healed by their own magic touch or their own beautiful prayers, that the people they converted were not drawn into the fold by their own ability to drum up enthusiasm for the Gospel.  These “successes” were not their own, but God working through them.

Our own failures and our own failings cannot stop the Kingdom of God.  And God needs people who know that.  God needs people who have experienced grace firsthand and want to share it with others.

Our failures help us learn where we need to grow.  For the disciples, maybe, it was figuring out what would help them confront this new kind of unclean spirit.  Or it was Peter’s realization that he wasn’t actually as brave and steadfast as he imagined himself to be that deepened his resolve to boldly and publicly proclaim his faith in Christ no matter the consequences.  The life of discipleship is one of growth – growth in love and grace and holiness, over the course of our lives – and we call the tangible things that help us along the way means of grace.  Prayer is a means of grace.  Communion is a means of grace.  Maybe we could say that failure, counter-intuitively, can also be a means of grace: because through it, we realize that God loves us anyway, and through it, we experience God’s power, and through it, we learn to love others better, and through it, we grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.

The church needs failed disciples.  It needed them back in Jesus’ day, and it needs them now.

Praise God for grace when we fall short, and that by God’s grace, our failure is never the end of the story.

 

 

 

[1] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone

[2] Dan Hochhalter, Losers Like Us: Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure

Unworthy Disciples: Disciples Who Don’t Get It

Scripture: Mark 8:13-21

A police officer pulls a guy over and the guy has two penguins in the backseat. The officer says, “You can’t drive around with endangered penguins. You need to take them to the zoo.” The guy says he will, and the officer lets him go. The next day, the officer pulls the same guy over and the penguins are in the backseat again, only today they’re wearing Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses. The officer says, “Hey! I told you to take those penguins to the zoo!” The guy says, “I did that yesterday. Today we’re going to the beach!”[1]

OK, I am not going to give up my day job, but I did just break my own rule of never starting a sermon with a cheesy internet joke, so humor me here.  It’s funny, right, because the guy in the joke completely missed the point.

Around this time of year I am sometimes reminded of a scene from the movie Miss Congeniality, in which an undercover FBI agent played by Sandra Bullock poses as a beauty pageant contestant in order to deter a bomb threat at the pageant.  During the question-and-answer portion of the pageant, the stereotypically ditzy Miss Rhode Island is asked to describe her perfect date.  “Hmmm,” she says.  “That’s a tough one.  I’d have to say April 25, because it’s not too hot, not too cold; all you need is a light jacket.”

A lot of humor is based on the premise of missing the point, and if we look at things that way, we might begin to appreciate the Gospel of Mark for its comedic value, with the disciples as its slapstick stars.  Poor Jesus is making a serious effort to teach them what it means to live as part of the Kingdom of God and everything pretty much just goes right over their heads.

If you haven’t been with us in the past couple weeks, we are spending this season of Easter with the twelve disciples as depicted in the Gospel of Mark, in all of their flawed and imperfect glory.  The disciples do, to their credit, leave everything to follow Jesus, and they do do some of God’s work along the way – they just also spend plenty of time quaking in their boots when they’re supposed to be trusting Jesus, missing the point of everything Jesus says, and failing spectacularly at the tasks they are supposed to do.  My hope is that for those of us who might not always feel like we are worthy of the title of disciple, there may be some comfort in realizing that the original twelve disciples definitely didn’t have it all together either.

In today’s passage, Jesus and the disciples have just fed a crowd of four thousand people with seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes, and ended up with seven baskets of bread fragments left over.  If you’re confused about the fact that I said “four thousand,” you should know that this is a couple chapters after the feeding of the five thousand.  The disciples have now experienced this miracle of provision and abundance not once but twice.

After the feast Jesus and his disciples get into a boat and cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, where they are met by some Pharisees, always ready to complain about something.  This time the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign from heaven, and Jesus rolls his eyes and says something about this generation always looking for a sign, and he tells his disciples to get back in the boat.  So they cross back over to the other side again, and you can imagine that Jesus is maybe already not in the best mood.

Once they are in the boat the disciples realize they only have one loaf of bread among them, definitely not enough for lunch for thirteen people.  But Jesus is still caught up in his own thoughts when he tells them, “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees.”

He is, of course, not referring to literal yeast.

But the disciples are both hungry and characteristically dense and they begin to mutter to each other, “It was your turn to bring the bread, I told you to bring the bread.  Great, now he’s mad that we don’t have lunch.  Good work.”

Jesus finally picks up on what the disciples are muttering about, and he looks at them and says in frustration, “Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”

“Forget the bread!” he tells them.  “Can’t you think of anything but lunch?  Is it really this hard?? What’s wrong with you???”

The disciple sit there silent and wide-eyed while Jesus continues:

“Remember when we fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread? How much was left over??”

“Twelve baskets?” they say meekly.

“And when we fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread?  How many baskets were left over??”

“Seven?” they whisper.

And he looks at them expectantly, and they look back at him expectantly, so finally Jesus just goes, “Gahhhhhhhh!! Do you still not understand??”

End scene.

What I love and hate about this story is that I feel like I’m kind of tracking with Jesus, you know, it’s not about the bread, got it, haha, silly disciples!  But then he asks, how many baskets of bread fragments were left over?  Twelve.  And the second time?  Seven.  And Jesus is like, “Well??”

And I, reading the story, am left saying, “Well???”

And I realize: I don’t get it either.

As I’ve said before, Mark’s Gospel is an invitation for us to see ourselves in those first disciples.  We laugh at them until we realize the truth: we are them.  Missing the point, messing up, running away, once in a while getting it right: as it turns out, disciples have not changed that much in the past 2000 years.

There are those who see in those numbers, 12 and 7, a certain symbolism: twelve for the tribes of Israel, seven a number representing wholeness.  And while that may be, I’m not sure it’s about the numbers themselves.  It’s more about finding ourselves caught in a riddle along with those first disciples, which let’s face it, the Kingdom of God sometimes feels like.

It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle.  It’s losing your life in order to find it.  It’s “Blessed are the poor and the grieving and the persecuted.”  It’s something we can almost grasp but just not quite.  What is the Kingdom of God, anyway?  It’s already and not yet, it’s somewhere else and it’s here on earth, it’s in us and among us and yet not of us.  No wonder we don’t get it: are we even supposed to?

Maybe the part that unsettles me the most is not that the disciples don’t get it, but that Jesus seems so upset about it.  Doesn’t he know we’re only human, that all this stuff is inherently beyond us?

Let’s face it, when it comes to understanding things about God and faith and eternal life, there is always going to be plenty we don’t get.  I remember in seminary learning about some of the things early Christians fought about: what does it mean to call Jesus both human and divine?  Does it mean he is God dressed up in human form like a Halloween costume?  Does it mean he is human with some sort of special relationship to God?  Is he half and half, these two separate aspects swirled together inside him like a candy cane?  (All of these, by the way, are classic heresies about the divine and human nature of Christ.)

In the past couple weeks in Bible study we’ve been studying the question of what happens after we die.  Does our soul immediately depart from our body and go off to some other realm?  Will we be given angels wings and all learn to play the harp?  Or will we wait, sleeping, for Jesus to come back and to be raised bodily as he was?  If any one thing is clear, it’s how fuzzy we really are on the details of all of it.

In this life of faith, there is always plenty that we won’t understand on this side of the resurrection.  But I don’t think Jesus is mad about that.

Back in chapter 6, Mark tells us a story about the disciples caught on the lake in a storm.  It’s not the one Kelvin preached about a few weeks ago, from chapter 4, where Jesus is asleep and the disciples are afraid they are perishing.  This one comes just after the first loaves and fishes story, the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus has gone off to pray and the disciples are on the water, and when Jesus sees that they are struggling against the wind, he comes to them walking on the water.  But they think he’s a ghost, and when he says, “Hey guys, it’s me,” they are speechless, and Mark writes, “For they did not understand about the loaves, for their hearts were hardened.”

It seems like a bit of an odd connection to make, from loaves and fishes to not recognizing Jesus when he’s walking toward you, but I think Jesus’ frustration has a lot less to do with dense brains and a lot more with hardened hearts.  It’s less about not understanding information, as if the Kingdom of God were only available to the Mensa-eligible, and more about …just…not getting it.

Seven baskets of bread, twelve baskets, it doesn’t really matter; what matters is that the disciples should know, by now, that they aren’t limited by how many loaves of bread they are holding in their hands.  They should understand, by now, that God’s abundance is enough for them.

That’s what they should get but don’t: that God will find a way to feed them, that God can do things they can’t on their own, with their own limited resources.

And that’s why Jesus is mad, because if they don’t get that, what do they get, really?

The truth is I can see myself as a disciple in that story, too.

Can you?  How many times have we taken stock of our resources, doubting that God can work with what we have to offer?  How many times have we doubted that God’s grace and provision are enough?

A few chapters later in Mark, Jesus and the disciples are walking along and Jesus realizes the disciples are having an argument.  They’re arguing about who is the greatest.  After everything Jesus has taught them about hospitality and service and humility and self-sacrifice, they are still fighting about who will get the biggest trophy in heaven.

This time Jesus doesn’t blow up.  Instead, he uses it as a teaching moment.  “Whoever wants to be the greatest among you must be the servant of all,” he said, and then he finds a child, and he says, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me.”  But even though Jesus doesn’t get outwardly mad, I actually think this is a much deeper misunderstanding on the disciples’ part.  The time for Jesus to suffer and die is almost here, and still, the disciples prove, they have completely missed the point.

How many times, I wonder, have we convinced ourselves that something we want is – like wealth, or success, or recognition – is actually what God wants for us, simply because our hearts are hardened?

How many times have we missed Jesus’ point entirely?  How many times have we used religion as an excuse to label people as sinful rather than intentionally welcoming those who are labeled by others as sinful?  How many times have we become the judges of who is in and who is out of the Kingdom of God, forgetting that it is only by God’s grace that we are invited in ourselves?  How many times have we made excuses for not extending that grace we have received to others – or, perhaps, even denying it for ourselves?

I think of the story of John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement.  As a young man and newly ordained Anglican priest, Wesley was intently focused on living a holy life.  He and he his friends at Oxford met regularly to do all the things they were supposed to do: read the Bible, pray together, sing hymns, take communion, care for the poor, visit prisoners.  Then he went to the American colonies as a missionary and failed spectacularly, not just at converting the natives but also in his personal life with a woman he was maybe going to marry but didn’t.  And he ended up on a boat back to England in disgrace, realizing that for all his efforts to be holy and righteous, it hadn’t been enough.

And then one day back in London he listened to someone preach on Romans at a meeting on Aldersgate Street, and as he felt his heart “strangely warmed” by the words he heard, he realized that he had missed the point entirely: that God’s grace did not depend on all his own efforts to be the perfect Christian.

How many times have we tried to save ourselves, forgetting that God’s grace is sufficient for us?

Don’t get me wrong, Wesley still believed that Christians were called to live holy and loving lives and to continuously grow in grace.  And in fact the movement he built was all about helping people do that.   Another way we could colossally miss the point, he knew, was to profess a cheap grace that didn’t actually change us.  Have you ever done that – used God’s grace as an excuse to think that nothing was demanded of you?  But Wesley realized that it was God’s grace working through us that had the power to make us more holy and more loving – not the power he had to do it on his own.

So what do you think: if we do happen to recognize ourselves in those hard-hearted disciples who so often miss the point, is there any hope for us?

I think so.  Because the disciples, you know, didn’t get it – until they did.  Until they met the risen Christ and realized that all those things he had been talking about the whole time were actually true, that God’s love really was bigger than all our doubt and fear and denseness and frailty; that life really was meant to be lived in hospitality and love and grace and service.

Oh, I doubt they got it all at once, even then.

I bet they still forgot sometimes.  I bet they got caught back up in fear and anxiety and doubt and selfishness.  And somehow Jesus would show up to them again, or they would help remind each other.

And somehow here we are, part of this beautiful, holy, imperfect church that they started.

God’s grace really is big enough – big enough even to get through our thick heads, big enough to soften our hardened hearts, big enough to use us in all our imperfect, unworthy glory to invite others to join us as we live and love in the Kingdom of God.

 

 

[1] http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/ComicallyMissingThePoint/Jokes