Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Primary Relationship

Last Thursday, my youth director and I attended a seminar on boundaries.

For the most part, the seminar was okay.  It was quite predictable.  Much of the material was essentially common sense thought in how to prevent abuse--sexual and otherwise.

But there were a couple of things that rubbed me a bit raw.

1. The power issue.  I belong to a denomination that is obsessed with power.  The ELCA has bought into the dichotomous thinking of liberation theologies where the world is viewed through the lens of oppressor/oppressed, and sense God has a preferential disposition toward the oppressed, the voices of the oppressed must be valued, raised up, etc.  Hence, there is no shortage of identity based theologies clamoring for ascendancy: Latin American Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist Theology, Native American Liberation Theology, GLBTQ Theology, and the like.

There are a whole host of problems with this particular theological view, but now is not the time to go into such problems on a theological level.  I want to address something on a more practical level, particularly as it related to this course.  As we discussed the role of a clergy or a "professional" we were told that we, by virtue of our position are those in the power position.  (Never mind the conflict with Jesus' particular view that in order to be great in the kingdom--which we proclaim--we are actually last of all and servant of all.)  This differs from a marriage or dating relationship where two people come together as equals.

But wait!!!  If feminist liberation theologians are correct, then a marriage relationship or dating relationship is not of equals!!!  Males have the power!!!  Women do not!!!  How can we make a distinction between relationships if power dynamics govern both in such a manner?  Seems like we need to rethink our theology or our worldview in order to have a more solid basis when discussing boundaries.

2. Perhaps the most laughable line of the gathering was the emphasis that boundaries actually give freedom.  Not so much.

I mean, I'm going to split hairs here for just a moment because it is what I like to do.  :-)

I give my kids rules for a reason.  I tell them, "Don't play in the street," for a reason.  It's a limitation on their freedom, not for freedom, but for safety.  Within the boundaries (i.e. in the yard up to the sidewalk) they can run and play and go bananas--because they are safe.  They are not free.  There is a difference.

In this seminar, we were basically encouraged to make up more rules.  Make up more policies.  In theological speak, it was, "Make up more laws."

Newsflash: laws do not make you free.  They shackle you.  Martin Luther, the great reformer said, "The Law always kills."  There is a reason he said this.

First off, no one follows the Laws totally and completely.  No one.  In one part of the seminar, there was a list of rules to follow when it came to certain interactions.  I commented to my youth director, "I've probably broken nearly all of those."  Why?  Because many of those particular rules are broken each and every day in our relationships with each other as we laugh and joke and play with each other.  All one need do is turn on the television for a few minutes to see more than a few boundary violations.  Is it any coincidence that the rise in people getting offended has paralleled our loss of humor as a society?  We have failed to add context to what goes on in interaction, and that has led to some scary situations.

Among those scary situations is a societal trend of emotional reasoning.   Essentially this means a person allows his or her emotions to guide his or her interpretation of reality.  Some celebrate this; however, it is not to be celebrated.  It is actually a cognitive distortion.  (Leahy, Holland, McGinn, Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders)  Just because you or I see something as reality does not mean it is actually reality.  A pastor who gently places his hand on a crying woman's shoulder--for all intent and purposes--is likely trying to offer compassion; however, that woman may have been a victim of physical abuse, and she interprets the actions as abusive or sexual in nature.  Who is right?  This pastor's life could be upset for years if this woman presses charges--even though her interpretation of reality is not reality.  The answer is not: more policies and more laws.  For heaven's sake, there were 613 commands in the Old Testament, and the people couldn't follow them!!  The laws and commands are not the problem.  The problem will be addressed below.

Secondly, if someone actually thinks he or she can and does follow the laws, commands, and policies, it almost always leads to a sense of self-righteousness, smugness, and confidence in one's ability to be morally upright and superior to others--almost always.  This leads to an "if I can do it, you should do it too" attitude.  Of course, the problem with this is two-fold.  Self-righteous people are almost always seen as a$$holes by regular folks.  (I speak from personal experience as one who has traveled long upon the self-righteousness road.)  Secondly, when such a person falls, and there have been many (think televangelists who get caught engaging in extra-marital sex) then great damage is not only done to that person's credibility--there is also great damage done to the institution of the Church.  Self-righteousness also leads to an us/them mentality.  We pure, upright, honest people are doing it right versus those heathens over there who can't get their proverbial $h!t together.  Such an attitude is hardly what we are called to espouse and set forth as Christians.

Both of these paths are "killer" paths.  They damage individuals.  They damage the Church.  They damage the soul.  More laws are not the answer.  More policies are not the answer.  What is?  Onto the third and final point.

3. The money comment which was made during this seminar was the following, "Abuse of boundaries takes place when there is a problem in the primary relationship."

Please re-read that comment again, because I think it is of vital importance.

But here is my fear: my greatest fear is that most people in the room thought the primary relationship had to do with their spouse or significant other.  My fear is that the "primary relationship" centered upon wife or husband or partner or boyfriend or girlfriend or the like.  And that is not the primary relationship.  It cannot be.  Why?

There are always problems with that relationship.  Always.  There are no perfect marriages.  There are no perfect relationships.  There is always going to be some sort of conflict.  There is always going to be some sort of animosity or anger or jealousy.  Two imperfect people cannot ever and will not ever come together to make something that is perfect.  And if those two imperfect people have added a couple of little imperfect people into the mix...well, then that just adds another whole layer or two or ten of imperfection, stress, anxiety, and the like--things that lead to boundary violations.

You see, our marriages, our friendships were never meant to satisfy us.  They were never meant to give us fullness or completeness.  They were never made to give us our identity or well being.  Imagine if you expect your closest relationship to bear all of those things.  Imagine if you thought your relationship with your spouse was capable of giving you all of those things even when your spouse or significant other is having a really, really bad day.  Is it any wonder so many marriages fail these days?

The problem isn't necessarily with marriage.  The problem is the focus on the wrong relationship.  The relationship with a spouse isn't the primary relationship.  The primary relationship is the one with one's Creator.  The primary relationship we have is with God.  We should know this in the church--should.

And so we return to that important statement: when something is wrong with the primary relationship, boundary violations occur.

Which raises the question: how do you make sure the primary relationship is right?  How do you make sure you are right with God?

Well, now we get to the heart of the Gospel.  For if we are orthodox in our belief, we confess that there is nothing we can do to make that relationship right.  There is nothing we can do on our part to make that relationship whole.  If we could--then we would become extremely self-righteous.  If we could, we would be able to follow every Law and command.  If we could, then there would never have been any need for Jesus and the cross.  We cannot make that relationship right.

But God already has.

Through the incarnation.  Through the cross.  Through the blood of Jesus, we are made right with God.

That relationship has been made right when you were unable to do it.  That relationship has been made right by sheer grace--by God's action and not your own.

Therefore, you have no room to boast or become self-righteous.
You have no room to become arrogant.


You have no need to find your identity, your fulfillment, your sense of well-being from anything but God.  When you are seeking these things elsewhere, that means you are not trusting in what God has done--instead you are trusting in yourself--in what you think you have to do.

When you violate boundaries, it means you are not trusting in what God has accomplished for you.  You are returning to works/righteousness instead of the Gospel of grace.  The answer to the problem of boundaries is not make more boundaries.  It's trust God more.  He is and has made the primary relationship whole.

I learned this lesson the hard way.  My hope and prayer is that others might have an easier time.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Cutting Off Your Hand Doesn't Work

    Last week, as we read through the book of Mark, we saw how Jesus coached His disciples in dealing with those who were not members of the “in” group.  An exorcist was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but this exorcist was not a part of the inner 12.  Jesus sternly said, “Do not stop him for someone who does such a deed in my name will not soon turn against me.”  These are powerful words as we deal with our fellow Christians who do not believe as we believe.  Jesus name is what unites us, and doing what we do in His name renders most differences moot. 

    Then, Jesus spoke about those who do not follow Him as a disciple.  “Truly I tell you anyone who gives you a cup of cold water because you bear the name of Christ, that person will not lose the reward.”  Again, hearing Jesus’ words is important because this isn’t about the things we do–this is about how people treat Jesus’ disciples.  If a non-believer gives YOU a cup of cold water, then they will not lose the reward.  If Jesus regards even a non-believer this highly, the disciples should as well.  For Jesus came to save the world, not just a select few.  Only those who blatantly reject Jesus, whose hearts are consumed by other things, who seek their own satisfaction and self-preservation will bear some serious consequences. 

    This is why Jesus teaches what He teaches in our snippet from Mark chapter 9 this morning.  Jesus shifts the focus from those who are outside the faith, from the outer life, so to speak, to the inner life of the believer.  Jesus cuts through all external things and gets to the heart of the matter.  This is extremely important to grasp, especially since today is Reformation Sunday–a special day for those of us who call ourselves Lutheran Christians–a day when we strongly emphasize God’s grace and our inability to save ourselves.  How does this all come together?  Let’s turn to the text.

    Jesus begins with some powerful, strong words: 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

    It is important to note that in the ancient Jewish world, people literally did blame their extremities for sin.  William Lane in his commentary on Mark says, “It was not a Palestinian custom to refer to an abstract activity but to the specific member of the body which is responsible for it.”  So, in the culture, it was acceptable to say, “My hand sinned.  My foot sinned.  My eye sinned.”  Jesus confronts this thinking and says, “Well, if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  If you foot causes you to sin, cut it off.  If your eyes cause you to sin, pluck them out.”  Jesus pushes the culture’s logic to its logical conclusion.  It’s better for you to be lame or blind than to be sinful.  It makes perfect sense, but it is horrifying.

    Not only is it horrifying, it’s also forbidden by Jewish scripture:

    Deuteronomy 14:1 reads, “You are children of the Lord your God. You must not lacerate yourselves or shave your forelocks for the dead.”

    Deuteronomy 23:1 reads, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  (Bet you didn’t know that one was in there!)

    There is a reason behind these laws for the Jews understood God to be holy and whole, complete.  If you were incomplete.  If you were not whole, you were seen as further away from God.  You were seen as less than what you should be.  For Jew to hear Jesus say, “Cut off your hand.  Cut off your foot.  Pluck out your eye.” would invoke absolute horror!  The Jew would have thought, “You are asking me to separate myself from God–to become incomplete–to make myself less than I should be!” 

    But is Jesus doing such a thing?  Is Jesus telling us to cut off our hands and feet or pluck out our eye.  No serious scholar believes such a thing because of this pertinent fact: if you cut off your hand, you will still sin.  If you cut off your foot, you will still sin.  If you pluck out your eye, you will still sin.  The cause of sin does not reside in your hand or your foot or your eye.  The cause of sin is much deeper.  Jesus knows this.  Jesus has taught this.  Unfortunately, it is not sinking in.

    Remember way back in Mark seven, there was an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees where the Pharisees were complaining that Jesus’ disciples were eating with unwashed hands.  There’s a lot that is happening in that exchange, but eventually, we get to the place where Jesus says this, “4 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’  17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

    It is from the human heart that evil intentions come.  Hear that one more time: it is from the human heart that evil intentions come.  Jesus pushes the cultural logic to its horrific conclusions to get people past the absurdity of it.  Jesus pushes the cultural logic to its horrific conclusions to show that blaming hands and feet and eyes for sin is asinine.  Sin is a condition, not of the extremities, but of the deepest recesses of the human heart.

    It is easy to blame a hand for stealing.  It is easy to blame a foot for walking into a house of ill repute.  It is easy to blame an eye for looking at another person with lust in your heart.  It is easy to blame the rich for all the world’s problems.  It is easy to blame those on welfare for their unwillingness to work.  It is easy to blame capitalism for poverty.  It is easy to blame communism for destroying human rights.  It is easy to blame Democrats or Republicans or conservatives or liberals.  It is easy to blame teachers for kids failing to learn.  It is easy to blame elected officials for failing to deal with the problems of a given community.  It is easy to put the problem “out there”, residing in someone else.  But Jesus won’t let us get away with that.  The problem isn’t in the hand.  It isn’t in the foot.  It isn’t in the eye.  The problem isn’t out there with any group or institution or form of government.  The problem is in the human heart.

    Now, most folks don’t like this.  Most folks would like to blame circumstances that are out there.  It absolves them of responsibility.  However, the Christian faith is not about shirking responsibility.  It’s about accepting it, and accepting the fact that each and every one of us is indeed sinful.  We are not just people who do bad things–who are imperfect.  No.  We are much worse.  We are rotten to the core.  We are self-centered and seek our own self-preservation. 

    You may not like me saying that, but let me see if I can show you the depths of your own sinfulness.  Why do you do most of the things that you do?  What is your motivation for getting up in the morning and going to work or engaging in any sort of activity?  What drives you?  I am not asking you to give me a superficial answer to this question.  I really want to know.

    You see, I get up most mornings and exercise.  I make two laps around Cat Spring doing interval training.  Most of you know I have lost quite a bit of weight in the past couple of years, and I want to keep it off.  Some of you know my motivation behind it.  A couple of years ago, my kids and I were visiting my parents.  We were going to go to the Texas State Aquarium, and my kids ran up to their grandpa and said, “Grandpa, are you going too?”  Grandpa, my dad, said, “Sorry, I can’t.  My knee is hurting too badly.”  Now, my dad hurt his knee playing football.  He is also on the heavy side.  These two things came back to haunt him.  I hurt my knees playing football.  I was on the heavy side.  I saw the future in an instant–a future that if I am blessed with grandchildren that I could face.  And I did not like that picture.  I did not like the idea of my grandchildren asking me if I could go with them and having to turn them down.  I decided right then and there to lose the weight and hopefully save my knees.  Now, who did I lose the weight for?  You could say that I did it for my children and my hoped for grandchildren.  But that is not the truth.  I didn’t want to deal with the disappointment of my grandchildren.  I didn’t want to deal with their hurt.  I didn’t want to see that in their eyes because IT WOULD BOTHER ME.  My reasons are selfish.  They have nothing really to do with my future grandchildren.  They have nothing to do with this body that was given to be by God.  My motivations are purely selfish.  Purely.

    Do I need to give further examples?  Do I need to delve into why you get up and drink a cup of coffee?  It’s because you enjoy it, right?  You like the taste.  Would you drink it if you didn’t like it?  Would you drink it if you got no benefit from it?  Oh, here’s another story putting the crosshairs directly on me.  When I was on internship at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Waco, I did a lot of visitation.  I really enjoyed visiting the little old ladies who were all too happy to provide snack for me.  They found out I liked to eat, and they were happy to spoil me.  One day, I went to visit Emma.  I was told that Emma tended to be on the depressed side.  She hadn’t done well after her husband had died.  I hoped to cheer her up.  Emma and I visited, and then she said, “I have something for you.  It’s some fresh banana bread.” 

    A little part of me died inside.  I hate bananas.  I really do, especially since the taste of a banana makes me gag.  Literally.  I will gag when I taste banana.  So, here is this wonderful lady; who went out of her way to make me this bread, who was a little on the depressed side, who didn’t need her intern making any sort of negative comments; what was I to do?  I choked down the bread.  I did something I didn’t like in the least.  Hiding my gags and chugging water, I got that darn bread down.  Self-sacrifice?  Hardly.  I wanted Emma to enjoy the visit.  I wanted her to think positively about me and what I brought to her.  I choked that bread down for purely selfish reasons.

    Are your motivations any different?  Do you engage in activities that you get no benefit from; no enjoyment out of; no satisfaction at all, yet continue to do so because it is the right thing to do?  Most of us don’t.  Not in the least.  In fact, most of us know the right things to do, but we don’t do them because it costs us.  It costs us dearly.

    Which is why Jesus says, “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  Most scholars are perplexed by this saying, but interestingly enough most of them link Jesus’ saying with Leviticus chapter 2:13, “You shall season all your cereal offerings with salt; you shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be lacking from your cereal offerings; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”  These offerings were sacrificial offerings.  They were offerings set forth showing a radical dependency on God.  They were offerings saying, “Lord, we trust that you will get us through thick and thin, and we bring the first fruits of our grain to you to be burned in fire, with salt.” 

    But Jesus is taking this offering a step further.  It’s not the first fruits that are offered and burned and refined and salted–it is us.  We are refined and salted.  We endure the fire and refinement as living sacrifices.  St. Paul puts it this way in Romans chapter 12, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

    This is the calling Jesus gives to His disciples.  Don’t be superficial.  Don’t look at your hand, your foot, or your eye.  Look at the deep recesses of your heart and let the sinfulness of it be burned and refined.  Offer your very self as an offering to God.  Discipleship is not for the faint of heart.

    Now, anyone who grasps this and understands this should be terrified.  Really.  If you understand what I have proclaimed to you to this point, you should be shaking in your shoes.  For Jesus is demanding your entire being.  He is asking you to walk away from all the desires of your heart.  He is asking you to walk away from your own motivations and selfishness.  He is asking you to forsake your identity and your well being to follow Him.  It’s not a very good sales pitch.  Most of us, if we were honest, would say no.  We would say not a chance.  None of us here this morning would accept such terms because they are just too difficult.  The need for self-preservation and self-satisfaction is just too strong.  We are unwilling to sacrifice ourselves.

    But there is One who was willing.  There was one who was able.  There was one who did such a thing in our place.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it dozens of times, we must understand all scripture through the cross.  We must understand all of Jesus’ teachings through the cross.  The cross is the center of our faith and understanding, and Jesus knows you cannot and will not sacrifice yourself.  Jesus knows the depths of your sinfulness.  Jesus knows the hold that sin has over your heart.  And He must break that hold.  He must show you that following Him and trusting Him is worth the sacrifice.

    And so when you could not sacrifice yourself, He sacrificed Himself.  When you were afraid to face the fire, Jesus descended into Hell and faced that fire for you.  When you were afraid of the pain of forsaking yourself, Jesus faced the ultimate forsakenness as the Father turned His back on Him as He hung on the cross.  Jesus looked at you in the midst of your sin and in the midst of your selfishness, then looked at His Father and said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.”  Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice on your behalf. 

    When you could not do; when you were in bondage to your self, Jesus did.  He saved you from yourself when you could not.  This was not something you earned; rather it was given to you by sheer grace.  And when you are moved by this, when those chains fall off your heart because you know you are deeply sinful yet deeply loved, you want to die to yourself.  You want to become a living sacrifice.  You want to be salted with fire.  You want to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus.  Your heart beats with a deep gratitude for the One who gave Himself up for you because He loves you.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.  This is most certainly true.  Amen.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Peace in a Pluralistic World

    One of the major issues confronting our world is its shrinkage.  You may scratch your head for a moment on that comment thinking, “Isn’t the earth the same size as it has been for billions of years?  There aren’t parts of it eroding into space, are there?”  No.  That’s not the kind of shrinkage I am talking about.  It’s the shrinkage that has been ongoing since the development of more types and faster types of travel and communication.  It is in this regard that I think the world is getting smaller.

    Consider this, 150 years ago, if you wanted to know what was going on half-way around the world, you had to wait days, if not weeks or months to find out.  Letters from overseas were carried upon horseback to an awaiting boat–most probably a sail boat although steam engines were beginning to arrive on the scene.  The letter would arrive and be delivered on horseback to its location, but if you were very lucky, the railroad might be able to carry it a bit faster to your location.  Communication took time–a long time.  Travel took time–much longer than it does now.  Today, we have instant communication anywhere in the world by satellite phone or internet.  We can board an airplane today and in less than 24 hours can be sitting on the other side of the world.  We can drive down to Katy in under an hour’s time whereas 100 years ago it would have taken half a day.  The world has shrunk because of technology, and that has had some consequences.

    Among those consequences is that we are now forced to rub shoulders with people who are vastly different than we are.  We are now coming into contact with people of all sorts of races, religions, worldviews and identities.  If you engage this world in any way, you will run into people who do not look like you, think like you, or act like you.  Amazingly enough, we are doing a pretty good job of coexisting in this world without destroying each other; but there is quite a bit of tension–quite a bit of tension.

    We see that tension rear its head in politics; in spirited debate; in the various wars around the world.  There is heightened tension right now between Israel and Palestine.  There is heightened tension between Democrats and Republicans.  There is heightened tension between conservatives and liberals.  There is heightened tension between those who believe in God and those who are atheist.  There is heightened tension between Christians and Muslims.  Various worldviews around the world are in a constant struggle to interact and offer people a sense of belonging and sense of understanding about the nature of reality.  And there is a struggle for truth–which worldview is true and leads us to respect and honor one another?

    Some have argued that no one worldview can have a hold on the truth.  No one worldview or religion can grasp ultimate truth if that ultimate truth even exists.  In fact, some use a rather fascinating illustration to show this.  It’s an illustration called the “Blind Men and the Elephant.” Perhaps you have heard it.  Depending on the version, five or six blind men encounter an elephant, and each of them touch a different part of the elephant.  After their encounter, the men argue about what the elephant is like.  One argues the elephant is like a rope–long, narrow, and stringy, because he touched the tail.  One argues the elephant is like a wall because he touched the torso.  One argues the elephant is like a tree truck as he touched the leg.  One argues the elephant is like a hose because he touched the trunk.  Another argues the elephant is like a spear, long and sharp because he touched the tusk.  Round and round and round they argue–all of them, in one way right, and all of them in one way wrong.  And, some argue, that’s the way with religions and worldviews.  All of them get something right.  All of them get something wrong.  Leslie Newbigin gave a rebuttal of sorts to this parable as he realized something: you cannot say that all worldviews have something right and something wrong unless you can see the entire perspective of reality yourself.  You cannot possibly know all worldviews have something right and something wrong unless you yourself know the truth!  Therefore, people who try to tell you that reality is this way are simply trying to convert you to their way of thinking!  They have no idea if it’s true or not.  It is just another competing worldview.

    The Christian worldview offers a particular way of looking at the world, and it is a way that unabashedly claims to know the truth while honoring and respecting those outside its belief system.  It seeks converts but does not seek to harm or hurt those outside the faith.  Now, that has not been the case because there are those who have warped Christianity’s teachings, but this morning, I would like to show you what Christianity teaches using this little snippet from Mark chapter nine.

    This little piece begins with the disciple John coming up to Jesus and saying, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  Now, keep in mind the following points: first, remember that just a few verses earlier Mark recounted how the disciples were UNABLE to cast out a demon.  So it is with no great irony that John is trying to stop someone else from successfully doing what the disciples were unsuccessful at accomplishing.  Secondly, immediately preceding John’s statement was Jesus’ teaching on greatness.  “Whoever wants to be first of all must be last of all and servant of all.”  Does it strike you how John, who is speaking for the rest of the disciples as well, doesn’t quite seem to get humility?  Finally, consider this last point which was rammed home to me by James Edwards in his commentary on this text.  I never even considered this point until I read it, and it makes absolute sense to me now.  Edwards says, “John’s report that the independent exorcist ‘was not following us’ is depressingly ironic.  We should expect him to say ‘because he was not following you.’  Is it not a little presumptuous at this stage of discipleship for John to think himself and the other disciples as worthy of being followed?”  I hope you caught Edwards’ gist there.  John and the disciples are still quite consumed with themselves.  They think they are something special because they follow Jesus.  They rank themselves with Jesus, but in reality, it’s not about them!!!  It’s never supposed to be about them or us!!  It’s always supposed to be about Jesus!!!

            Which is why Jesus replies to them, “‘Do not stop him [and the Greek gives you the sense of “do not stop him or anyone like him now or ever]; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.”  Now, I want to point out quickly here that the other exorcist was not casting out demons in the name of any other religion or in the name of any other god.  Some might like to take Jesus’ words and expand them to all religions here.  You cannot do that.  Jesus said plainly and clearly that this was being done in His name.  When someone does something in Jesus’ name, we are called to humbly step back.  We are called to celebrate what they are doing.  For anyone who does something in Jesus’ name is not against us.  We are working toward the same goal and purpose–if we are working in. Jesus’.  Name. 

    Of course, that now raises the question of, “Well, what if someone is not doing anything in Jesus’ name?”

    Jesus continues, “41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”  Some have massively misinterpreted this verse.  They have suggested that if we are doing even the littlest of actions, then we will be rewarded.  They suggest that Christianity is about doing all sorts of little things with great love, but you need to look very, very carefully at what Jesus says here.  This is not about the actions of His disciples.  This is about the actions of those who are outside the circle of Christianity.  This is about those who are not following Jesus.  “Whoever gives YOU a cup of water to drink BECAUSE YOU BEAR THE NAME OF CHRIST will by no means lose the reward.”  If there are those outside the faith who welcome you; who embrace you; who are kind to you, Jesus sees that as a welcoming of Himself.  Try to wrap your head around that for a moment.  Even if someone does not believe in Him or trust Him, when they care for you, they are caring for Jesus, and Jesus honors that.  Which means, if Jesus is honoring the actions of those who care for us in such a manner, should we not do the same?  Of course we should, and I will return to this in just a minute after dealing with the final verse.

    Jesus finishes, “‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  This comment would have called up historical precedent because the Roman army had inflicted this exact punishment some Jewish Zealots who had tried to rebel against them under Judas the Galilean (Lane 346)1.   Again, let me point out that Jesus is reinforcing the idea that we should not inhibit someone who is striving to do good in His name.  In our zealous nature to make sure everyone does everything “right” we may cause others to stumble. We may cause others to fall.  We may cause others to walk away from the faith, and Jesus says this would be cause for us to have a millstone hung around our necks and us be cast into the ocean. 

    Again, the problem confronted throughout this particular teaching by Jesus is the problem of self-righteousness.  John and the other disciples thought they were better than this other exorcist because of their close association with Jesus.  Humility was severely lacking.  If we look down our noses at those who are outside of the Christian faith and treat them as less than those created in the image of God, this again is self-righteousness.  If we go around criticizing others for trying to follow Christ in a manner that we think is wrong or undignified or less than perfect, then we are being self-righteous.  And this self-righteousness comes from thinking that religion and following Jesus focuses on our actions.

    This is exactly where Christianity diverges massively from the rest of the world’s religions.  For the rest of the world’s religions focus on what we do.  They say we must do the right things to be accepted.  We must accomplish good works or the deity will turn against us.  This leads us to either despair because we do not believe we can accomplish those works or it leads us to become self-righteous because we think we are accomplishing those works and others should do like we do.

    But Christianity says we are not saved by our works.  We are not saved by casting out demons.  We are not saved by bringing cups of water.  We are not saved by living perfectly, morally, and uprightly.  We are not saved by telling everyone else how they should or should not act.  We are saved totally and completely by sheer grace.  Let me repeat that again, you are only saved by sheer grace.  You are saved only and completely by Jesus and His actions on your behalf.  You are saved only by what Jesus accomplished for you on the cross by dying the death you deserved.  You have no righteousness to stand on.

    St. Paul put it this way in the third chapter of the book of Philippians, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through trust in Christ, the righteousness from God based on trust.”

    You see, Paul had every right to think that his works had guaranteed him righteousness with God, and Paul was indeed self-righteous.  He persecuted the church because he thought he could accomplish the works of the law.  But Jesus appeared to Paul and radically changed his worldview.  Paul knew that Jesus came into the world and saved him by sheer grace.  No longer could Paul trust in himself.  Paul knew he must trust in Jesus.

    And when you trust in Jesus, when you trust in His work on the cross, several things become abundantly clear.  First, you know that you have seen God.  You have seen the Truth.  For you have seen the God who became flesh.  Secondly, you are humbled because you know that you did nothing to deserve what you have been given.  Your heart is no longer hardened because you know that Jesus died for you when you least deserved it and were living in sin.  And finally, you have a heart for others.  You cherish those who work in Jesus’ name, and you see those who do not work in Jesus’ name as those created in the image of God who God longs to bring into fellowship with Him.  You long to bring them the news of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  For even though Jesus indeed died for you, you remember John 3:16 and 17.

    “For God so loved the world–the WORLD–that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world–THE WORLD–not to condemn the world, but that the world–THE WORLD–might be saved through Him.”  If we know that Jesus came to save the WORLD, we know that means all of the people in it.  If your heart is touched by this, I invite you to delve further into the Christian worldview, for I think you will find within it the Truth who brings peace to this shrinking world.  Amen.

1. New International Commentary on the New Testament. “The Gospel of Mark”. William Lane.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Kingdom is not About You

    I remember having a conversation with a clergy friend many years ago.  My friend had graduated from seminary and had taken a call at a small, rural congregation.  I asked her how it was going, and she confessed that she was struggling.  In many small congregations, the pastor is expected to do darn near everything, and this congregation was no exception.  This was actually causing a bit of difficulty for my friend as she said, “They even expect me to take out the trash!”  That statement caught be aback because I considered taking out the trash to be no big deal.  My friend thought otherwise obviously believing such a task was beneath her. 

    Now, this isn’t a bash a fellow clergy illustration, because in reality I was no better.  You see, for I had my own motivations for taking out the trash even in this congregation.  Now, I’m not saying anyone around here expects me to have janitorial duties, but I’ve regularly taken out the trash as well as washed dishes from time to time at WELCA or at some other gathering.  I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty at all, but when I was asked why I would do such a thing, I commented smartly, “I will not ask anyone to do anything around this church that I am not willing to do myself.”  Meaning, I think, look at how I am willing to be a servant, you should be a servant too.  This too is the wrong motivation for action.  It’s a self serving motivation rooted and grounded in the idea that if I am doing something, you should be willing to do it as well. 

    Contrast my friend’s reaction, my reaction, to a truly humble response to taking out the garbage.  What would such a humble response be?  How about simply seeing that the garbage needs to be taken out, taking it out without a second thought, and simply doing it because it needs to be done.  There is no expectation for anyone else to look at you.  There is no expectation of anyone saying, “Thank you.”  There is no expectation of reward or punishment or the like.  There is simply a job that needs to be done, and it gets done.  Period.  Doesn’t matter who does it.  Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if things happened in such a fashion?  Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we all simply did what needed to be done without any thought to reward or punishment or the like?  I think it would, but we run smack dab into our human nature when it comes to such matters.

    And what is that human nature?  Just this: we seek self-preservation.  We seek our own self-interest.  We work to ensure our safety and our security–sometimes without even realizing it.  Sometimes, we are blind to our own motives and motivations as we seek to get ahead and maintain our positions in life.  For the most part, everything we do is all about us.

    Some of you might want to call me on the carpet on this one.  You might say, “But pastor, I do an awful lot of volunteer work.  I give to a lot of different charities.  I’m involved with helping others all the time.”  Great!  Fantastic!  Why are you doing these things?  What is your motivation?  More often than not, do you know what response I get?  “It makes me feel good.”  Think about that.  You are doing all of those things because it makes you feel good.  If it didn’t make you feel good, would you still do it?  That’s the question you need to ask yourself.  It’s the question we all need to ask ourselves.  Would we do anything if we got absolutely no benefit from it?  If we are honest with ourselves, most of us, I think, would have to say no.  The motive of self-preservation and self-interest is that strong, and even our humility tends to be self-driven and therefore isn’t real humility at all.

    This has led, I think, to the plague that faces the American society–the plague of self-righteousness.  Everywhere I look, I see that plague manifesting itself.  If everyone would just do what I tell them to do, then the world would be great.  If the Republicans just did what the Democrats told them to do, we’d solve this country’s problems.  If the Democrats just gave up on their platform and voted for Republican measures, this country would be saved.  Conservatives are the ones who know what it takes to make life work.  Liberals are the ones who have it all together.  Of course, all of them are wrong.  Everyone knows that if you just did what Texas does, then all would work out well.  Texas is, after all, the center of the known universe. I could go on and on and on.  At some level, we all believe that we know better.  We all believe we have the answers to life’s greatest challenges and problems.  At some level we think we should be listened to and should have the place of honor and prestige.  At some level.

    But at another level, we also know our inadequacies.  At another level, we find ourselves being crushed over and over and over again.  I mean, I’ll illustrate it this way.  Last Sunday, I noticed that very few people in our congregation were singing the songs for the day.  It wasn’t because the songs were strange.  They were familiar songs!  I could chalk this up to the fact that people were having an off day, but I think there is something greater going on in our society.  People don’t sing anymore.  At one time, everyone gathered around their pianos in the house and sang songs.  People developed their voices and sang with some measure of confidence.  Not so anymore.  Not so at all.  Instead, we plug into our phones and listen to music. We may sing in the car at the top of our lungs when no one else can listen, but for the most part, we leave the singing up to the “professionals.”  Many truly believe, “I am not good enough to sing.”  And it’s not just with singing.  There are many other areas that we feel completely and totally inadequate in.  There are many other areas we know we fall short in.  And we try to hide those areas.  We try to keep them as secret as possible because we don’t want to be made fun of. We don’t want to be exploited.  We don’t want to show any kind of weakness.  It’s self-preservation once again.  On the one hand, we desire to be accepted and acknowledged and thought highly of, but on the other hand, we know our inadequacies, and we are afraid of them.  It’s almost as if we are at war with ourselves.  Can anything bring peace?

    Let me turn at this point to our Gospel lesson from the book of Mark chapter 9.  It’s a very intriguing text, and I confess to you, I almost missed it’s central point. Almost.  Let’s see what that point is and how it addresses this problem of our war within ourselves.

    After Jesus and His disciples leave the house where Jesus taught them about prayer, they begin traveling toward Jerusalem.  Jesus doesn’t want a lot of attention at this point because He has some serious things to teach His disciples.  “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  Jesus is predicting His passion once again, and there is a very important nuance in this teaching that we miss in translation.  The Greek word for betrayed can also be translated “to be delivered up”, and it is mostly used in a judicial manner.  William L. Lane says this in his commentary on the book of Mark:

    To deliver up” or “hand over” is an important concept in the context of lawsuits and in the Jewish theology of martyrdom.  More than simply the coming of an individual into another’s power, the term connotes the actual fulfillment of God’s will as expressed in Scripture.  Particularly in martyrdom, God is the one who permits (or hinders) the handing over in fulfillment of deeper purposes...The background of the term in Scripture, however, indicates that the thought is more profound: Jesus will be delivered into the hands of men by God, and what takes place on the level of historical occurrence has ultimate significance because it centers in the eschatological action of God.

    I think that comment is pretty self explanatory except that last sentence where that big word eschatological is used.  Lane means, this delivering over is in accordance with God’s will and fits into God’s plan.

    Once again, Mark tells us the disciples don’t get it.  They are still having difficulty seeing.  The story of the blind man healed in stages still haunts this discourse, and the disciples are too afraid to ask any questions.  They are too afraid to delve into this matter more deeply.  It does not fit their narrative of the Messiah.  And so they turn their attention to other matters–matters that do fit with their preconceived notions. 

    When they arrive at “the house” in Capernaum, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about along the way?”

    Once again, when Jesus asks the disciples a question, He is met with silence.  It’s the same kind of silence Jesus was met with when He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them” (the Scribes) in the previous story about the demon who could only be cast out in prayer.   The disciples were embarrassed then.  They are embarrassed now because they were arguing about who was the greatest.

    Jesus is much kinder than I would have been.  I would have been like, “Greatest?  Didn’t you all just fail miserably in casting out a demon?  You want to argue about who is greatest when you were all a bunch of failures?”  As I said, Jesus was nicer than I would have been.

    But the disciples’ argument isn’t without some sort of merit.  I mean, Jesus had made a distinction among them when He took Peter, James, and John upon the mountain alone.  This would have given the disciples some food for thought and smacked of favoritism.  Not only that, the surrounding culture was obsessed with status and privilege.  Questions of rank were argued about ALL the time.

    But Jesus isn’t going to play that game.  He sits down, which means, He assumes the position of rabbinical teacher–a position of authority.  He calls His disciples together and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Craig Evans in his commentary explains this well, “In the Jewish culture of this period “protos” “first” meant rulers, aristocrats, ruling priests, and other persons of authority and influence.  Thus to be esxastos “last” and diakonos “servant” was to be someone with no rank, no authority, no privilege–a status that humans ordinarily do not covet.”

    Now, here is what I almost missed because most of the time, we pastors jump right into telling you, “Go out and seek to be a servant.  If you want to be first, make sure you are last.”  Think about that for just a moment.  If you want to be first, be last of all and servant of all.  If you try to apply that–seeking to be last so that you will be first, who are you thinking about?  Who are you trying to exalt?  What is your motivation?  To be first.  You are still striving for a place of prestige and exaltation.  Does this strike you as humble?  It doesn’t strike me that way either.  So, let me ask you this question: who is first in the Kingdom of God?  Who is the one who is front and center and above all in God’s reign?  Jesus.  Yes, Jesus is first in the Kingdom of God.  I want to point out to you right here and right now, the Kingdom of God isn’t about you.  Being first in the Kingdom of God isn’t about you.  Being last of all and servant of all isn’t about you. 

    It is about Jesus who, to quote an ancient hymn recorded by St. Paul in the book of Philippians, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  Yes, it is Jesus who became last of all and servant of all.  It is Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet and then became scorned by the world as He hung on the cross.  This is all about Jesus who is the first in the Kingdom of God.

    And to ram home this point, Jesus brings a child into the midst of the room.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  Whoever in my name welcomes the least; the lost; the marginalized; who does not think one’s self above such a one, welcomes me and further welcomes the One who sent me.  This isn’t about you.  This is about welcoming God; welcoming Jesus into the depths of your very heart.

    And how does this make all the difference in that war between ourselves?  How does this bring peace to that conflict of self-preservation wanting to be accepted and thought of highly but also knowing our inadequacies and feeling like a failure?  How does knowing that Jesus is the First in the Kingdom of God do such a thing?

    You have to remember what Jesus accomplished on that cross.  For you see, Jesus knew your inadequacies.  Jesus knew your failings.  Jesus knew your selfish desires and me first attitude.  Jesus knew how you trust yourself instead of God and would like to lord your own thoughts over this world.  Jesus knew that you wanted to be God yourself instead of allowing Him to have His rightful place.  But instead of destroying you; instead of humiliating you and punishing you; He died for you.  He took upon Himself your sin, and He begged His heavenly Father, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Jesus poured out Himself for you because He loves you. 

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it.

    God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn you for your failings and frailties, but to save you.  Jesus does not exploit your failings and frailties.  He loves you in spite of them.  He loves you with a love that goes beyond even your wildest imaginations.  And when you see that kind of love in action; you are deeply humbled because you know you can never love with that kind of love.  You know you can never serve as deeply as Jesus did.  You can never give as much as Jesus gave.  You can only marvel at His work and say, “Yes, Jesus, you are first in the kingdom of God.  I don’t even deserve to belong there.  I am completely and totally inadequate.”  And right here, you accept your inadequacies.  And right here, you also know you are deeply loved.  The tension is gone, and you are at peace.  And it is a peace you long to share with others, so you welcome them in Jesus’ name because you know what Jesus has done: becoming last of all and servant of all to die on the cross to save you.  Amen.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Lack of Trust

    As I begin this morning, I would like to let you know that because of recent events, I modified my sermon.  What I preach now will be different from my original, written text.

    As the news of the school shooting in Oregon began to flash across my computer screen, I became very troubled by the eyewitness reports of the gunman targeting Christians.  Apparently, he held a deep seeded animosity toward us.  And I wondered why?  I mean, first off, don’t get me wrong, I believe that this shooter had something deeply wrong within him.  You just don’t go and shoot unarmed people who have no chance to fight back.  That is a cowardly act.  The man bears the full responsibility of his actions.

    Yet, I cannot help but wonder why Christians.  I mean, at the heart of our ethics are two commands: love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus says that upon these two commands rest all of the rest of the Law and the Prophets.  And if we are loving the Lord with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and if we are pouring ourselves out in love to our neighbor, why in the world would anyone target us?  Hate us?  Desire to kill us?  Well, maybe, just maybe, we don’t love God and our neighbor as much as we think.  I believe our gospel lesson helps us see this.

    Too often today, we define faith is believing something that we cannot prove.  Essentially, we make faith an intellectual pursuit.  Faith is striving to make our brain accept something we have little or no evidence for, i.e. I cannot see God.  I have not experienced God.  I see no evidence for God, but I am terrified of what happens to me if I die.  If I can wrap my head around believing in God, and if there is life after death, then I can assure that I will not end up in the fiery pit of hell.  For your information, I do not like this definition.  I think this definition and understanding falls far, far short of what faith truly is, and it is rightly criticized and mocked by people who do not believe in God.  Why would I say such a thing.

    I think I can actually illustrate it quite well with an old joke.  It’s a joke about an atheist who decides to take a walk in a remote part of a national park.  While he is admiring the scenery, the trail suddenly gives way and he is hurled off a cliff.  He manages to grab a branch that is extended from the cliff wall.  He looks up, and he knows he cannot climb the sheer face.  He looks down, and it is a drop that will certainly kill him.  He begins crying for help.  Being the rational sort, he knows no one is likely to come by for quite a while given the remoteness of the area.  Being the rational sort, he also knows he is quite run out of options, so he does something that is against much of his nature.  This atheist cries out, “Well, God, it seems as if I am in a pickle.  If you are up there–and most of my life I haven’t believed that you are–can you give me a hand?”

    A voice boomed out, “I am here.  I will help.  Let go.”

    The atheist then retorted, “Anyone else up there?”

    I find that joke quite humorous, but I also find it deeply true.  Once the voice spoke, the atheist could no longer say that he didn’t believe in God.  The voice confirmed the existence of God.  However, it is quite one thing to believe in something and quite another thing to actually trust in that something.  Let me say that again.  It is quite one thing to believe in God, and it is quite another thing to actually trust in God.  For far too long, we in the Church have simply talked about believing in God.  We have not done a very good job in convincing people to trust in God nor have we done a very good job in trusting God ourselves.  We suffer from the same condition the disciples suffered from and the same condition the father in the Gospel lesson suffer from.  How so?  Let’s turn to the text.

    Jesus, Peter, James and John come down off the mountain where Jesus was transfigured.  They run smack dab into conflict.  The scribes and the rest of Jesus’ disciples are in a heated argument.  It is quite interesting that when Jesus appears, people come running to him with utter amazement–the Greek word here is extremely strong indicating an overwhelming sense of awe.  Given the context of this verse, I can only think that the crowd is not awestruck in the sense of Jesus has done some sort of mighty act, but they are extremely, extremely glad that He has arrived.  Why would they be so glad?

    The story, I think gives us the clues as Jesus addresses everyone by asking, “What are you arguing about with them?”  I think Jesus’ question is addressed to the disciples, but they are strangely quiet here.  It is quite surprising that they say absolutely nothing, and it is a person from the crowd who speaks.  It is a man who says, “Rabbi, I brought to you my son [Luke tells us that this is the man’s only son] who has a demon, and your disciples were not able to heal him.”  This is an important point because in the rabbinic tradition of ancient Judaism, it was well believed that a rabbi’s followers–a rabbi’s disciples–would be able to do the things the rabbi did.  And that’s exactly what had happened in the past.  In Mark, chapter 6, Jesus had sent the disciples out to proclaim the Gospel, to cast out demons, and heal the sick.  Mark 6 verses 12 and 13 read, “12So they [the disciples] went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”  So, the disciples had been able to cast out demons in the past, but they were unable to do so now.  This would have called into question Jesus’ teaching.  This would have called into question whether or not Jesus was legitimate, and this would indeed precipitate a heated argument between the scribes and Jesus’ disciples.  It would also have caused quite a bit of embarrassment to the disciples–they were unable to do the things that Jesus did; that they once had did.  Something was wrong. 

    Jesus reacts rather harshly at this point.  I mean, His words are poignant!  
“You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?”  This is not a nice comment.  This is not a comment that makes you feel good.  This is not a “Jesus loves you just the way you are” comment.  No one wants to hear this kind of rebuke, and no one escapes it.  Not the disciples.  Not the crowd.  Not the scribes.  Every one of them is included in Jesus’ comment.  Every one of them.  Why?  Why are they all included?

    Let’s push on. We will get there.  Jesus concludes His questions of anger with the command.  “Bring him [the boy] to me.” 

    They obey, and the demon throws the boy into a convulsion.  We look at this and we see a classic example of a grand mal seizure.  The medical profession may simply see epilepsy here, but Mark calls us to look deeper.  What drives the epilepsy is not something physically wrong with the boy–there is something deeper.  There is something malevolent.  There is something that not only causes grand mal seizures, but causes them while the boy is around fire or water.  There is something that is seeking to destroy the boy, and when that something comes close to Jesus, it begins reacting once again.  It begins trying to destroy the boy once again.  Evil cannot stand in the presence of God incarnate. 

    Jesus looks at the boy, and in great compassion, He turns to the father and says, “How long has he been this way?”  You see, Jesus is tapping into the father’s deep grief here.  Jesus is tapping into the years of this father trying to keep his son from dying at the hands of this demon.  Jesus is tapping into the frustration, the pain, the sorrow, the anger, the toil, and the exhaustion that has built up over the years.  Jesus wants this father to know that He cares.

    You can almost see the father’s grief become manifest as he sighs and says, “From childhood.”  And then as the father continues to explain, “It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 

    Jesus catches this father’s slip up.  “IF you are able?  All things are possible–and I’m going to change the translation here–for the one who trusts.”

    The father replies, “I do trust.  Help my distrust!”  This is such an important statement.  Hold it in the back of your heads for a little while as I finish going through this text. 

    When Jesus sees that the crowd is starting to expand, He rebukes the demon and casts it out.  He demands that the demon never, ever again enter into the boy.  The demon makes the boy have one, final, tremendous convulsion–it’s like a convulsion of all convulsions, and then the boy appears dead.  I can only imagine at this moment what the crowd; what the disciples; what the father; and what the scribes are thinking.  They are thinking Jesus has failed.  The father is probably standing there fighting back tears.  The crowd is standing in disbelief thinking this miracle worker has finally met his match.  The disciples are frightened that they have indeed tied in with the wrong rabbi.  The scribes are secretly rejoicing that Jesus has been shown to be a fraud.  But Jesus, takes the boy by the hand, and He raised him up–just so you know, the same word Mark uses for Jesus raising the boy is the same word Mark uses for Jesus being raised from the dead.  Sometimes, when it looks like all is lost, that death has won, there is more to the story.  There certainly was here. 

    When all was said and done, Jesus and His disciples retired into a house, and the disciples’ curiosity got the best of them.  “Why couldn’t we cast that one out?” they asked Jesus.

    “That kind can only come out with prayer,” Jesus responds.  Mark leaves us right here.  There is no more explanation.  What does this mean? 

     I think, given the context of this story and the trajectory of the book of Mark, I would like to suggest to you that the disciples were still struggling to see.  They were still partially blind.  They believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they hadn’t learned to trust in Him.  They hadn’t learned that following Him meant submission to Him.  Why do I say that?

    First off, let me ask you this question: do you know what position the Bible most recommends for prayer?  Do you think it’s with head bowed and hands folded?  No.  It’s not.  The position of prayer most employed by people in the Bible is laying down prone on the floor with arms outstretched.  The second position most mentioned for prayer?  Kneeling.  The first position is a position of extreme vulnerability–of ultimate submission.  The second position, on one’s knees is also one of vulnerability and submission but not quite as much as the first–the point being, prayer is a position of ultimate submission and vulnerability.  Prayer is the place where we come before God to admit our inability, our powerlessness, our lack of control over anything and everything.  Prayer is the place where we come and place our complete trust in Jesus.  Prayer isn’t about our belief–prayer is about trust.  To go back to the joke of the atheist on the branch: prayer isn’t hearing God’s voice and saying, “I’m glad to know you exist;” prayer is letting go of the branch trusting that the voice knows what it is talking about.  The disciples were not submitting to God.  The disciples were trying to do it all on
their own with disastrous results.

    Oh, and at this point, you might expect me to urge you to put your trust in Jesus.  At this point you might think I am going to stand up here and tell you that you should stop just believing and allow your faith to migrate all the way to your heart so that you put your trust only and solely in Jesus.  And that once you put your trust completely and totally in Jesus you too will experience peace, joy and satisfaction.  You too will be able to face illness and death and evil and overcome it.  You might expect me to announce to you that this is what the Christian life is all about, and you need to practice this.

    You know, this is all true, but if I were to start proclaiming all of this, I would expose myself as the ultimate hypocrite.  I mean, if I trusted solely and only in Jesus, I would never take my children to the doctor.  If I trusted only and solely in Jesus I would not worry about saving for retirement.  If I trusted only and solely in Jesus, I wouldn’t worry about offending anyone by what I said and what I did.  If I trusted only and solely in Jesus, I wouldn’t worry about burning out.  But when my kids get sick, I take them to the doctor.  When I think about growing old, I worry about whether or not I will have saved enough.  When I think about what I say, I worry about if I offend anyone.  When I think about working, I strive to ensure I do not burn out.  And this is just the tip of the ice berg.  I believe in Jesus.  I believe that He is the Son of God, incarnate, who died and rose from the dead.  I believe this with my whole heart and my entire being, but I do not trust Him completely.  Over and over again, I trust my self; I trust science and technology; I trust my bank account.  “Oh Lord, I trust, but I don’t trust you fully.  Help my distrust.”  Do you see why I said that statement is crucial?  It captures the reality of living the Christian life.  It captures every one of us who profess to believe in Jesus Christ.  It points us out as those who indeed have some bit of trust in Jesus, but it also condemns us that we don’t trust as we should.  We too don’t quite see as we should.  We do not have the hearts that we should.

    And if we do not trust God in the manner that we should...

    If we do not live as though we were totally and completely dependent upon God...

    How in the world will we ever love Him with our entire heart and mind and soul and strength?

    How will we ever love our neighbor as we love ourselves?

    We can’t.

    We won’t.

    Do you feel very small right about now?  I hope you do.  I do too.

    But the good news is that there is One who indeed trusted His heavenly Father that much.  There was One who loved His Father with His entire heart and mind and soul and strength.  There was One who loved His neighbor as Himself.  There was One who fulfilled the Law and its demands and became the perfect Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.

    For Jesus’ obedience and trust in His Father led Him straight to the cross where upon it, Jesus looked down at a world that deserved God’s wrath and punishment; Jesus looked down at a world that deserved condemnation.  Jesus looked down at you and I in our distrust; our disbelief; our enmity toward God and toward one another and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.  Do not let your wrath burn hot against them.  Do not forsake them.  Forsake me.  Let your wrath be turned toward me.”  And the wrath of God was satisfied as Jesus took our place on the cross loving us with a love beyond measure.

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”

    This is the core of the Christian message.  The Christian message is not, “Go out there and follow the law better.”  The Christian message is not, “You’d better do justice!”  The Christian message is not, “You’d better get your sexual morals in line.”  The Christian message is, “Look at how much God loves you.  Look at how He died for you!”  And if we are leading with that message and are still targeted, so be it.  For we are leading with the love of God and not striving to tell everyone what to do.  We are leaving it up to God to change others’ hearts.  May this message be on our lips today and every day.  Amen.