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Sunday, November 11, 2018

November 11, 2018 - Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost - God's Kingdom Comes in Unexpected Ways

There were flowers at the altar today from my mother's memorial service and I thought about the community who gathered together yesterday, family and friends who were important to my mother and Creator members who did not know my mother personally but attended to support our family. There were also the members who had expressed their prayers and sympathy. Inwardly I blessed them all for their thoughtfulness and prayed with gratitude for this congregation, my friends and my family.

Today was a reminder that God's kingdom comes into this world in unexpected ways.

Pastor Ray preached a powerful sermon with a new perspective on what Jesus taught by calling out to the disciples the widow who gave the treasury two coins. Traditionally she is thought to have demonstrated her extraordinary faith in God through this generous (for her) contribution.

As usual for this time of year, Creator is in the midst of our stewardship drive. Joe gave a Temple Talk  about a church being like a wheel where hub spokes and tire all need to be present, like members, ministry and money are needed for the church. All are needed to keep things rolling.

This could be the basis for a strong sermon and has been used in that way, building on this story as an example of how to cheerfully give to the church. Another sermon might be how any amount offered, no matter how small, makes a difference. Pastor Ray took this story in a different spiritual direction.

Pastor Ray drew our attention to a proceeding verse in today's Gospel that gave a warning abut the scribes "They devour widow's houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers." He preached that Jesus might be calling the disciples to take to heart the widow's condition as she gave her contribution. The two coins dramatized an unfair social structure that allowed her to live in this poverty. Jesus needing to draw the disciples' attention to this implies that her giving would probably have gone mostly unnoticed. Important moments can easily be overlooked or forgotten. 

A story I once read that was constructed to make a point about what Jesus taught and may help illustrate what Pastor Ray was pointing out.

In this story Roman soldiers  (as a show of their power and designed to humiliate and intimidate Christians), would often order Christians to carry their heavy packs for a mile,  When complaints about these orders were brought to Jesus he commanded his followers to carry the soldiers packs for two miles instead of one. A group of faithful followers heard this command and were delighted to be able to demonstrate Kingdom values and suffer in some small way for the faith.

Soon they developed a reputation for their way of life, and many from this group often emphasized the need to carry a soldiers pack for two miles as a sign of one's faith and commitment to God. One day Jesus heard of this groups actions and visited them with another message, "...you have failed to understand the first message. Your Law says you must carry the pack for two miles. My law says carry it for three...."

One point of this story is that Jesus is not simply teaching do and don't rules. Christianity is about life transformation. Followers are called to go beyond the law and live in a different way. Our familiar Christian stories may sometimes make this hard to see. We become accustomed to not living out every day what we are called to do as Christians. We believe we live in "Christian" times in a "Christian" nation, yet we, like all humankind, live mostly outside of what Jesus taught and called us to do, even if those teachings are understood as simple, ethical do and don't rules.

We should not take the main teaching of Jesus to be that the widow, by giving two pennies, is more moral, more faithful or is giving "more" of a monetary amount than the scribes. When Jesus says "Truly I tell you this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury" I doubt now he is talking about the monetary quantity of the gift as calculated and expressed as a percentage of her wealth. Rather he considers the widow is giving beyond and more than the monetary value of the two coins.

Teaching that giving a greater portion of personal wealth could indicate a greater faith obviously leads to some concerns. This can escalate to a "good works" race. Should followers calculate the biggest contribution that shows their great faith by the percentage a contribution represents of their wealth? That is why I doubt that Jesus was teaching wealth percentages should be a measure of faith.

Instead Jesus may be teaching his followers to observe actions that defy expectations - looking for 'turn the other cheek" moments or moments of humanity. This moment, for example, could be a way to take back the sting of being asked to contribute to Roman oppression and re-evaluating a social structure in need of change. Giving the two coins may demonstrate how the widow is using her personal choice and power for positive change.

Her two coins may stand as an accusation, what we would now consider a nonviolent protest. The injustice of her condition is laid bare for all to see with these two coins. The scribes, working within the law, devoured her house and wealth according to the Gospel. Her giving shows anyone observing her that those two coins represent a tangible symbol of injustice.  Jesus, if this is the case, sees this moment others have overlooked and he helps her in her fight.

This may also be a lesson to followers on how to look for changes that bring about God's Kingdom. Humanity's temptation is to look for powerful, world-impacting historical moments to measure the coming of the kingdom, believing these are the moments we have to remember. Yet, more often than not, this is not the way these moments of change initially come.

They may be as simple as a choice a black woman makes on where to sit on a segregated bus. In 1906 South Africa passed an ordinance, the Black Act, that required Indians required to carry a registration card to be produced on demand. Some Indians organized and did not carry the card and were jailed. Mohatma Gandhi led this protest after he was thrown off a train for riding with a first-class ticket as an Indian.In retrospect, he called this incident as "one of the most creative experiences of his life".

Personal and societal transformation we truly might recognize may be barely noticeable and missed in our reactions to the ever-present gloss of status and striving of daily life towards what we feel to be our true desires.

God's kingdom comes in unexpected moments we could not have predicted.

Back to today's service the musical moments included Matt leading and singing the tenor part in a SATB choir quartet. Together with Shirley, Kim and I we all sang two classic hymns that Kim chose for us to share, It Is Well With My Soul and Be Thou My Vision during Offertory. The acapella portions felt particularly chilling and dramatic as we offered these hymns to the congregation.

It Is Well With My Soul made me think about a story Kelly, our choir director, told us about the composer, Horatio G. Spafford his wife Anna and five children. In 1873 his family, without Spafford, was crossing the Atlantic from the U.S. to Europe in a ship with 313 other passengers. Although Mr. Spafford had planned to go with his family, he found it necessary to stay in Chicago to solve an unexpected business problem. He told his wife he would join her and their children in Europe a few days later.

Four days into the crossing the Ville du Harve collided with another ship. Anna hurriedly brought her four children to the deck. She knelt there with them and prayed that God would spare them if that could be His will, or to make them willing to endure whatever awaited them. Within approximately 12 minutes, the ship sunk, carrying with it 226 of the passengers including the four Spafford children.

A sailor, rowing a small boat over the spot where the ship went down, spotted a woman floating on a piece of the wreckage. It was Anna, still alive. He pulled her into the boat and they were picked up by another large vessel which, landed them in Cardiff, Wales. From there she wired her husband a message which began, “Saved alone, what shall I do?” Mr. Spafford later framed the telegram and placed it in his office. Another of the ship’s survivors, Pastor Weiss, later recalled Anna saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.”

Mr. Spafford booked passage on the next available ship and left to join his grieving wife. With the ship about four days out, the captain called Spafford to his cabin and told him they were over the place where his children went down.

According to Bertha Spafford, a daughter born after the tragedy, Spafford wrote It Is Well With My Soul while on this journey. This was a meaningful story for me to be reminded of today, a story about a couple's grief and the faith they both shared in their God.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

The service closed with Eternal Father, Strong to Save to honor those who serve and have served in the military on Veteran's Day. The lyrics were a prayer to God to protect those who stand in danger on land, air and sea.  A tribute on Veteran's Day that made my heart swell in recognition of what many have done and sacrificed for us.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

November 4, 2018 - All Saints Sunday - Lazarus and God's Promise Pushing Us To Grieve Out of Love

Lorie McCown
"On All Saints' Day, it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and overbearing ones, the broken ones and whole ones, the despots and tosspots and crackpots of our lives who, one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own."

-Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

Most Creator Sunday worship services since my mother's passed have shifted my focus either to  the recognition of, or grief over, both her death and my father's passing. Today All Saints Day was celebrated and and my eyes were open to something new. I heard in the past there were other congregation members who never attended All Saints Day because it was too hard after the death of a loved one. I understood that today.

Pastor Ray started Children's Time with a question as usual. He asked the children "What is a saint?"  and , later, "Who is a saint?" 

Lutherans know we should consider everyone both saint and sinner. Only a few of us raised hands when Pastor Ray asked, "Who out there is a saint?" . There are multiple reasons for this. We do know how the named saints are formally recognized through the process of canonization in the Catholic church.

Also acknowledging the saint within appears to stand in opposition to acknowledging the sinner within. If  someone is declared a saint who has not gone through a religious heroic and rigorous  journey there is a sense of discounting an accomplishment. This immediately leads to a "good works" argument and justification of the label which is even more uncomfortable .

Since we all are classified as both saint and sinner it is hard to completely embrace these labels completely, either for ourselves or others. I have been thinking about the saints in my life recently and the word still comes hard as a description of an individual for me.

Yet, as a discipline, I acknowledge my parents today as Saint Yvonne and Saint Ralph, as well as other members of my family, friends and fellow congregation members. Immediately honoring those in my life in this way invites a comparison with those typically thought of as "saints". With this acknowledgment other feelings are uncovered. It opens up a deep wound or, more precisely, makes me aware of this deep wound I must confront about the nature of the spirit and my understandings of resuscitation, resurrection and eternal life.

As I said, I have pondered those saints in my life for a few weeks now. Saints that know and have communicated the truth at pivotal moments for me.  Saints who were seers, and who saw what really mattered in a situtation. Saints who were realists, idealists and dreamers. Those who embraced suffering out of love.  Saints who embraced a heroic joy.  (This is one of the criteria for canonization: Saints must have joy.)

Saints are servants of Christ.  They look at the truth of the Bible verse "What profits a man if he conquers the whole world but loses his soul? And saints continually conquer the sinners within themselves. The battle is not won just once.

The story of Lazarus does not necessarily feel connected to the celebration of All Saints Day. It almost feels inappropriate. Why does power over death appear to be confined to Lazarus?

Pastor Ray preached about all the characters in today's Gospel passage about the raising of Lazarus. I empathized with all their different reactions to death. The grief that is mixed with accusation in a natural response to any death The whispered internal thought "Could not Jesus, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept my mother and my father from dying?" The, of course, the list expands and explodes with the great tide of all I have known who died.

On first read, Lazarus is a story about the overcoming of death. a resuscitation where Lazarus comes out of the tomb. Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answers, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” and Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Lorie McCown
Yes, Lord,” she replies, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Is the implication of this that basically had Martha kept to her understanding of resurrection at the last day, rather than declaring her belief in Jesus, Lazarus would not have come out of the cave? Would another implication be that the resuscitation of Lazarus was *the* sign of the power of Jesus over death?

The story of Lazarus, when viewed this way, becomes more of a fun house mirror right now in how to confront the death that preys on my thoughts. I see myself saying what Martha said to Jesus. I long for comfort, the love and the touch of my mother. Today, however, I clearly see a difference between Lazarus' resuscitation and the promise of eternal life which is evident to me in the Gospel story.

The resuscitation of the physical body is not the central fact around the power of Jesus over death. The resuscitation of Lazarus is not, in itself, a sign of eternal life. What I do or don't believe about Jesus and death is not a factor in my mother's eternal life any more than Martha's belief affected the resuscitation of Lazarus. If this had been the point of John's Gospel the story Lazarus being alive would have emphasized far more, Lazarus might act beyond coming out or speak, perhaps praising Jesus and proclaiming the power of God. Instead what happens is presented as incomplete, without that particular, expected and triumphant ending.   

Pastor Ray  described the crowd Jesus addressed to complete what happened to Lazarus as a character. Pastor Ray preached when Jesus said, "Untie him and let him go". that Jesus recognized community was needed to complete this miracle. I am realizing just how much I need a community at this moment of vulnerability. Recently the most meaningful moments have come to me when I acknowledge  how much I rely on my family and others even when I can stubbornly resist dwelling on that truth.

The memorial for my mother on Saturday and what can be done in this world to respond to death is necessary for me. Honestly, every memorial for those who have passed away is needed. These processes, rituals, emotions and reflections are a part of that mysterious unbinding and letting go process needed after a death. The process can start the creation of something new when old structures in our lives are crumbling. When we lose individuals in this way a process of renewal reignites a spirit of hope within.

I must admit, even with that hope reignited, facing everything to be confronted with courage is still not within my grasp at this moment. This service and this Gospel were hard to reflect on. What does the unbinding of feet and hands really mean? How do we let a person go? The enormous emptiness and immediate presence of all I am experiencing clings to all these reflections and they shake me to the marrow of my being.

I did recently read these words:

Grief never ends... but it changes
It is a passage, not a place to stay.
Grief is not a sign of weakness, 
Not a lack of faith...
It is the Price of Love.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

October 28, 2018 - Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost - Reformation Sunday, Three Johns and the Story of Bartimaeus

This Sunday Creator celebrated Reformation Day by some wearing red, our Harvest Festival by some wearing costumes, and a Chili Cook off fund-raiser.

I found it interesting that the Gospel changed for those celebrating Reformation Sunday. For Christians not celebrating Reformation, the Revised Standard Lectionary for the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost the Gospel is the story of Bartimaeus.

As Lutherans we do celebrate the Reformation which reformed the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church at a time where humankind's understanding of God was changing. Eventually that movement divided Christendom along confessional, as well as territorial, lines. The religious turmoil of the period led to warfare within most states and between many with massive, historical repercussions.

At Creator Josh Stromberg-Wojcik gave the sermon on this Reformation Sunday Gospel John 8:31-36. He began by observing how the world and issues that Luther encountered when the Reformation began were different than what is important now to our modern faith. He specifically talked about how he was not particularly anxious about the destination of souls in the afterlife because of his faith and that Augustine's concept of original sin does not directly speak to him either.

He went on with what he and his wife Marie had learned during their time at Iona from John Philip Newell that did touch him deeply. Newall's talks centered around all of us being born attuned to all creation and that sin was not so much original sin but rather no longer being able to listen to God. At some core of this teaching was the Celtic memory of John, who Jesus loved, leaning against Jesus' breast during the Last Supper. Celts believe that, because of this, John actually listened to the heartbeat of God. What becomes important for them is to listen for God's sacred presence and move closer to this heartbeat of all that surrounds us.

This tied in with the Gospel verse where  Jesus said "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.". When listening to the Word whether it be in scripture, in creation, or through Jesus we are made free and we are made free in ever-changing ways.

Since this was spoke so directly to Josh he appeared too suggest the Word is always changing when there are new concerns in man's changing heart in what constitutes humankind's faith in God .

Christ and Bartimaeus by Julia Stankova
Today, at least through the lectionary, we can also reflect on Bartimaeus described in the Gospel. He is a beggar, disenfranchised and outside of society. In stark contrast to the rich young man of the Gospel reading two weeks ago, who asked how he could inherit eternal life, Bartimaeus is hardly dignified. He shouts; he leaps up and throws off his cloak when called. He does not ask Jesus for the correct interpretation of scripture, he cries for mercy. Only when Jesus asks him, "What do you want me to do for you?" does he ask to be able to see. And when Jesus says "Go; your faith has made you well" he regains his sight.

Then, unlike the rich young man, Bartimaeus immediately follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

His faith not only makes him well but gives Jesus an opportunity to transform those who are on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus. Notice how, at first, they all sternly ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly. When Jesus stands still, acknowledges and calls him, what those around Jesus say completely changes to "Take heart; get up, he is calling you."

To sum up we have the Reformation which, through changing cultural faith also changed many personal relationships with God. This "cultural reformation" is always changing as Josh preached today. Christianity may speak to us more strongly through seeing our traditions through a Celtic lens.

We also have Bartimaeus, whose personal faith allows Jesus to transform the faith, the words and the actions of a small group gathered around Jesus who are on the way to Jerusalem. They become more supportive of outsiders and the disenfranchised. And Bartimaeus immediately becomes part of that community.

I was humbled by the different lens of seeing God today and at least two different ways God works within and transforms humankind.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

October 21, 2018 - Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost - What Is Great?

Photo by Ron Houser
In today's Gospel James and John ask Jesus "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." Pastor Ray's sermon focused on how not only they but many of us make the same mistake, confusing what our lives with Jesus are all about. He focused on what he called the ironies that are piled up in this Gospel because James an John, like us, do not know what they are asking of Jesus. They are seeking to be greater than the other disciples.

During Children's Time Pastor Ray asked the children "What is great? How do we know if someone or something is great?' Unsurprisingly, they were a bit hard pressed to answer. I imagine if they were not in church they would have been able to agree on a better, or maybe different answer.

Think for a moment about this. Who or what do we say is great? We constantly hear the slogan now Make America Great Again. Most would associate it nationally with being first in the world, both an economic and military powerhouse that can always have things our way. Now Jesus in today's gospel speaks again, "Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all." Do we, must we, believe this?

It appears we don't profess this dictate during the majority of our lives. We don't live our lives where we behave in this way either. We follow the survival of the fittest dictate far more often and act as if the survival of those who don't depend on the generosity of the strongest. We often act as if this world is ruled by violence.

Jesus says to James and John "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" 39 They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized"

James death, unlike Jesus was by stoning. John was reported to have died a natural death The baptism Jesus refers to is likely death in general rather than specifically a death by crucifixion. “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death.” In the first phase of water baptism, Christians are “buried in a watery grave.”  Whenever anyone was baptized in the early church after they were saved, they were immersed under water, which represented the death and burial of their old Adam. Dying to rise again into new life.  In this way, water baptism reveals the heart of the New Covenant.

This new life is not one where we suddenly incapable of sin. This is not a life of glory as we our old selves understand glory. This is a life where we need to constantly remind ourselves we are the living body of Christ. We are always taking first steps in the journey and supporting others as they take there steps to make God's will done on earth as in heaven.

What is great? Perhaps what is great is that there are always first steps to take.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

October 14, 2018 - Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost - Inheriting Eternal Life

Pastor Ray's installation service was almost a year ago today although we made no mention of it in our service today

A man asks "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

An age-old question Pastor Ray preached on which was in today's Gospel. Naturally there is a part of how Jesus answers that receives the primary focus - namely, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  With this focus today's follower then asks, like the disciples, "Must I sell what I own and give the money to the poor or was this answer directed to this one man?"

The natural tendency is to try to distance ourselves from what Jesus asks of the man. Yet the Gospel makes this hard. He appears to be a person that any church worth its salt would want to attract. Matthew says he was young (Matthew 19:20) and Luke that he was a ruler (Luke 18:18). He appears humble (he kneels before Jesus), moral (by his own measure he has kept the commandments since his youth) and spiritual (given the man has asked this question about eternal life).

However, where there is a will not to follow a command Jesus gave, there is a justification. There are many reasons that so few follow what Jesus said here about selling everything and giving it to the poor. Some are satisfying, others are not. Pastor Ray explored many in his sermon.
  1. Jesus could sense that this particular individual had too much faith in wealth and addressed this weakness in him. 
  2. The man was not following the first commandment "You shall have no other God before me". 
  3. Jesus exposed to the man that a piety he claimed to have followed from his youth was a sham. 
  4. Being rich is relative. This allows a Christian to protest being considered personally rich. 
Ultimately none of these reasons truly create much difference between most of us and this man.

Pastor Ray also brought up that the story of the eye of a needle refers to a small gate in Jerusalem where a fully-loaded camel could not enter but the camel would fit if all the camel's carried baggage was removed. He declared that such a gateway into Jerusalem has never been discovered or proven.

There is more to examine in this Gospel than what Jesus sees the man "lacks". The first words from Jesus in response are surprising and worth considering "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.' The implication appears to be that everyone has already been given God's answer that should be living within our hearts. Instead sin haunts our hearts. A heart problem makes the man ask this question. It is a problem we all have.

To capture the spirit of what this implies I asked myself "How would you have done it?  How would you have answered this young man given all our cultural values which are firmly locked up in our conceptions of wealth, our prerogatives, and our identity?' There is something gentle, not preachy, about the way Jesus talks to, answers and loves this man. I would be hard pressed to express this any more thoughtfully.

Photo by Ron Houser
I am still in grief today and what personally stood out for me was the word inherit. This is different than many translations of Matthew, for example, where the question is "What must I do to receive or obtain eternal life?".

For an inheritance to be secured someone must die. Today's Christian knows who will eventually die (so those who believe will not perish but have eternal life).

However, Jesus might be also suggesting a different answer to the what the man's question actually implies. Is what is being asked the same thing as what younger son, in the Prodigal Son parable, asked his father to do.

When the son requested his father for his share of the estate he asked his father to essentially drop dead, or at least act like it. The difference here would only be in the distribution of that estate, to distribute to the poor rather than a father to his two sons. Unsurprisingly the young man goes away grieving, knowing that he cannot choose this way of life.

His leaving proves what Jesus, in the next few verses will teach the disciples "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." This is another substantial answer to the "What must I do?" part of the question. There is nothing humankind can do by their own effort because God's grace makes eternal life possible.

The fact the young man goes away grieving suggests there is more to this story than the young man simply leaving. From his question the young man sounds unsatisfied with following the deep, abiding faith he professes to have in the commandments that Jesus lists. By asking why the young man called him good Jesus may be giving the young man a different way to consider the significance of scripture.

Could Jesus have been proposing that this young man break away from an old, calcified faith and assumptions about the ways he must follow scripture? Did Jesus give the young man a freedom from following the sacred texts that guided his life but did not fulfill his spirit? Perhaps, without these texts as a central means to buttress his sense of being good within himself, the young man may have realized that the culture that he lives within, rules, and had been given riches by, was draining him spiritually. That knowledge may have allowed his breaking away form his old understanding of the world.

With a new sense of what is valuable in life, the young man could have gone on to give to the poor his accumulated wealth or not. The difference would be that, instead of doing this by what he was commanded to do, his new faith and a different conception of life and wealth could establish a new relationship with the disenfranchised. This new conception could take a lifetime to follow and fulfill. Still, after all, he was a young man and this may be become his lifetime's work rather than one moment of spontaneous action.

Ultimately what happened to this young man is not recorded. I think this might have been the beginning of a new path he followed. I imagine him later blessing his memories of his encounter with Jesus and blessing the response to his question that expressed Jesus' love.

Jesus remains constantly ready to spread the good word through those who believe, transform with the word and ready to help in the faith that we have inherited eternal life..

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

October 7, 2018 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost - When The Issue Sometimes Is Not The Issue

Today was the Blessing of the Animals at multiple churches including Creator. Many brought their pets to service and there was a blessing in the narthex with Pastor Ray giving the blessing and Matt playing music for a sing-along.

Pastor Ray talked about wanting to have a sermon about animals but thought he the Gospel was the text to examine. He began his sermon saying of the Gospel that the issues is sometimes not the issue. What is brought up in this Gospel is Mosaic law regarding divorce  Among Jewish legal experts, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was a key text, one that assumes divorce will occur and proscribes procedures for carrying it out. But other scriptures call the permissibility of divorce into question (like Malachi 2:13-16; Genesis 2:24).

The only other time divorce is talked about in the New Testament is when John the Baptizer called out Herod and Herodias over the king being divorced and remarried. This Gospel deals with this question of Mosaic law. Law is used to maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberty and rights. The Pharisees become shorthand for law over the spirit of the law, empathy and love. 

In Mark 10:2-16 the Pharisees ask for answers. Jesus gives advice the Pharisees are unlikely to accept as an answer. After all this is not a question seeking the truth but is asked as a test. The Pharisees ask a question that is general and abstract. They start with "If a man". Jesus responds by turning the abstract personal. Instead of asking "What did Moses command regarding him?" he asks "What did Moses command you?" This is where the law will, by nature fall, short because it must deal generalities rather than particulars. Also, maintaining order may trump resolving disputes amicably or protecting the liberty and rights of particular groups, like women.

In verses 10-12, Jesus gives women an equal place in the marriage relationship rather than as an extension of property. By speaking of a man committing adultery against a woman (and not against her father or her past or present husband), Jesus also implies that adultery involves more than violating the property rights of another man. It concerns accountability to a partner, just as marriage does.

Finally we have the disciples speaking sternly to the people who have brought their children to be touched by Jesus.  Verses 14 -16 "But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them."

This ties the vulnerability of children with the spirit versus the letter of the law.

Monday, October 1, 2018

September 30, 2018 - Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Salted with Fire

Today Pastor Ray, through his assembled Ministry Support team, proposed a new program where two families would meet with Pastor Ray for dinner on some evening throughout the year. Hopefully this would be a chance for two families who don't know each other well to get acquainted while learning more about Pastor Ray at the same time.

The rest of the announcements demonstrated how church activities were ramping up again. Creator just finished a September blood drive. The volunteers for the Clackamas Community Center are going strong and there were a number of individual members who announced activities the congregation could support.

The Gospel reading for today ended with Mark 9: 49-50 "For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."

Pastor Ray talked about today's entire Gospel being rich in directions to take a sermon. He focused on the last two verses and described how historically, salt was obtained from salt marshes. If this crude salt were exposed to damp, essentially the other "swampy" tastes would be revealed and the salt could, in effect, lose its saltiness.

This direction, in a way, could have been more in keeping with Jesus when he said in Matthew 5:13: "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.".

This Gospel is specifies being "salted with fire", This is not a random reference. Fire is also mentioned in verse 43 If 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 and in verse 48 " ... where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched".

In this Gospel reading "salted with fire" stands in contrast or opposition to the corruption of hell and unquenchable fire of verses 43 and 48. The purifying, or preserving quality of salt (and a different kind of fire) from this corruption of hell seems to be key more than the flavor of the salt. Salted with Fire feels more like the fire at Pentecost or the fire John the Baptist talks about in Matthew 3:11, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

I recently read Leviticus 2:13 "You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt". Now, as I reflect on this verse, I feel this offer of salt represents the purifying grace and presence of God that must be added and acknowledged with any offering to God.

This Gospel was also both uncomfortable and comforting to read. However veiled, the description of worms and corruption with the burial of my mother that happened this week was difficult. My mind easily conjured up images I did not want to dwell on. Yet it was also comforting that the 'salted with fire' counters these images of worldly death.

I also appreciated how Jesus described the purifying, or preserving process as something that comes from within oneself and is not centered on the other. Our human tendency is to focus on purifying or preserving the world from some evil or corrupting influence. Instead Jesus describes our own body parts, which we think of as our identity and so crucial we would never be able to sacrifice them.He centers us on the larger purpose of this purification or preservation that we go through throughout our lives.
What is the most important thing here, and is easy to forget, is how inclusive this Gospel message becomes. Jesus includes everyone. Everyone is salted with fire. You don't need to follow a particular group, you don't have to be baptized, you don'r need to belong to a particular church or religion, or have a particular belief in God.

God's promise to humankind is that everyone will be salted with fire which ties back to the beginning of this Gospel.where Jesus says about the man exorcising demons in Jesus' name, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For 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."