Sunday, March 29, 2020

Not a waste — a sermon on the anointing at Bethany

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Not a Waste
Mark 14.1-9 (Common English Bible)
29 March 2020, NL2-31, Lent 5 (letting go: fasting from judgment)


It was two days before Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and legal experts through cunning tricks were searching for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. But they agreed that it shouldn’t happen during the festival; otherwise, there would be an uproar among the people.
Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head. Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume? This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial. I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

Last night I happened upon a Facebook Live video of some musicians, half of a local band called Reely Jiggered, doing a little concert for their neighbourhood, which they called “Live from the Drive” — they set up sound equipment and everything, and had their mum hold the phone camera, and their neighbours came to their windows or doors and listened and clapped along. It was a delightful half hour of traditional music, and I could even hear the neighbours clapping.

And then, in the comments, came one person who said: shouldn’t you be in your house?

And then another: I hope no one is clapping along, you’re supposed to be inside!

Thankfully, the scolding didn’t seem to take hold, just a comment every now and then, here and there. But how easy it is to fall into that judgment....here were some talented women, providing entertainment for their neighbours in lockdown, no one crowding up into the drive or dancing in the street, just everyone enjoying the show from their own windows or doorways. But someone couldn’t stop themselves from scolding.

Elsewhere in groups of local folks I’ve seen people saying they got dirty looks from fellow shoppers in the supermarket when they bought a cake for their child’s birthday. And I’ve seen discussions about whether whatever someone ordered from Amazon was actually “essential” or if it was some frivolous thing that risked the driver’s life to deliver. Not to mention the people (usually who are out driving somewhere!) commenting on how many people are out for a walk or queuing for the shop or asking for the newspaper....and that doesn’t even get into the sarcastic answers people get to genuine questions. Scolding has become our pandemic pastime.

Jesus was a dinner guest at the home of Simon — sometimes known as “Simon the leper.” Whether or not the disease referred to in the original Greek text was actual leprosy or something else (it could have been eczema, or rosacea, or any number of other things that were not contagious, the word is literally just “skin disease”), Simon was someone that people who cared about appearances would not have associated with.

Jesus was already a target, the leaders of his community were plotting to get rid of him. They were cunning enough to know that they want to do it quietly, not during the most celebrated festival of the year, when the city is full of visitors and people are already wound up. But the plot was underway, nonetheless. 

It isn’t clear who was at that dinner party at Simon’s house. There were obviously several guests, but we don’t know who they were, other than that they were people who were willing to go to dinner at the home of someone who was ritually unclean, just two days before the Passover. Maybe it was Jesus’ disciples. Maybe it was Simon’s family, or some close friends. Maybe it was a gathering from the streets and alleys, like one of Jesus’ parables. Whatever the case, we know they were in the home of an outcast, and so must not have cared overly much about appearances, or social and religious and cultural taboos.

During dinner, a woman came in. Interestingly, as Mark tells it, there’s nothing strange about this, or about the woman herself. Other gospel writers give her a name or an occupation or a status, but not Mark. She’s just a woman with a jar full of pure nard — a costly and beautiful thing, meant for burials, or for celebrations. She would likely have been saving it for an important occasion. Even the jar itself proclaimed that this was special, not just the perfume you spritz on before a night out. Alabaster is fragile, it can be nearly translucent, and in the right light, it seems to glow. Once the top was broken, it could never be used again.

The woman took this special-occasion perfume, in its gorgeous luminous alabaster jar, and she broke it open over Jesus’ head. 

She offered her most precious possession, the most beautiful thing she had, and the most costly. She recognised that the person invited to dinner that night wasn’t just another outcast, not just another person flouting social norms....he was something special, something worth her gift, worth sacrificing her best for. She gave her all to him. 

Imagine how much courage it must have taken, to walk into that room full of men, including the one she recognised as the Messiah, and to anoint him — not just as the prophet, priest, and king we know Jesus to be, but for his death

When the journey to the cross is completed, just a few days after this dinner, there will be no one to anoint his body, and no time for it anyway. But the scent of this perfume will still be in his hair and on his clothes. Her gift will go with him to the cross, and to the tomb...and he says that wherever his story is told, the scent of her gift will waft along there as well, her story will also be told.

And the others...whoever they were, these norm-flouting outcasts...they scolded her.
They scolded her.

She did something beautiful. She offered herself, heart and soul, body and mind, possessions and status. She recognised who Jesus was, and she worshipped him in the clearest way she knew how.

And they scolded her.

With every breath, the scent of perfume filled their nostrils...but they used that breath for something decidedly less beautiful.

These men who were already breaking all sorts of rules could not stand that this woman had broken not just her jar, but the rules they had just that moment made up.

Why not sell this costly thing and give the money to the poor?

This is the question of someone who has never saved something for a special occasion...never hidden something away for the right moment, when it might be needed....never done the emotional labour of preparing for a future that no one wants to think about. That perfume was at the back of the top shelf of the cupboard waiting for the day of a death or maybe, if they’re lucky, a wedding; not just a trinket brought out on a whim, and not a stash hoarded for a nice holiday. She knew that terrible things happened, and it was her job to be ready. And she was.

And they scolded her.

They did not understand. They made assumptions about why she would have such a beautiful thing, where she got it, what it was for. They made assumptions about her. And they voiced them — called her wasteful. Called her a waste. 

Even as I write those words, I can feel the tears welling up. I hope you can feel it too, the harshness of those assumptions, flooding this woman whose worship was called a waste, whose life was in question, whose dignity was being stripped away by the very people who ought to have been on her side, one team of “outcasts” in the midst of a sea of powerful people’s plots.

They scolded her.

And somehow, she did not run away. She did not drop her jar and rush out of the room in tears. She did not shout at them that she thought they were all in this together, worshipping the Son of God right there in their midst. 

I bet she wanted to, but Jesus stepped in. And in his defence of her, he said something that has been used and twisted throughout the centuries to justify plenty more scolding: “you always have the poor with you,” he said.

Too many have quoted this line and insisted it’s Jesus giving his blessing to an economy of haves and have-nots, that he’s defending the idea of keeping our expensive pretty things to ourselves even if other people starve.

That is not what the woman did, and it is not what Jesus said. 

This sentence is the moment when it becomes clear that at least some of those dinner party guests must have been Jesus’ disciples. Because when he says “you will always have the poor with you,” he is making a statement about his disciples, the Church, who will be his Body on earth. You, followers of Jesus, will always have the poor with you...because you’ll be with them. That is where the Body of Christ is to be found, among the poor, the outcast, the sinner — in other words, the same places where Jesus was found during his ministry. That is where we are to look, if we want to find the Church: Among the poor. Defending the outcast. Bringing healing and wholeness to those who are broken. 

Not scolding. 
Not hoarding.
Not well-actually-ing.
Not imposing standards we don’t even live by.
Building up. 
Serving. 
Caring. 
Loving.

Each week this Lent we have been practicing letting go of something, giving up something not just for Lent but forever (hopefully). We have tried fasting from being owned by our possessions, from being first, from being right, and from needing recognition. I wonder if this week we could practice fasting from judging....fast from scolding, from self-righteousness, from allowing our assumptions to guide our reactions. Because let’s be honest for a moment: most of the time, we have no idea whether those five people we saw out walking together live in the same house or not. We have no idea whether the person in the store has a special-needs child who only eats one shape of pasta. We have no idea what’s inside that box being delivered from Amazon, or why the person needs it. So let’s let go of our self-righteous assumptions. And when someone offers something beautiful, whether it’s a live concert from their driveway or a rainbow posted in the window or an offer of picking up the papers and a pint of milk for a neighbour, let’s fast from scolding them (or anyone else!) for it. Shame doesn’t usually lead to a change in behaviour, but love sure can.

Imagine if, instead of judging based on appearances and assumptions, we started from the truth that all of us, every single one, is made in the image of God, and doing the best we can with what resources we have available. Some of us are more or less prepared, physically and emotionally and spiritually. Rather than scolding, which takes up our own energy unproductively and also tears down and saps the energy of the person being shamed, let’s try to build up the Body of Christ, to show our love for one another, and perhaps, as we give up judgment, we’ll find ourself more able to offer compassion instead, no matter the cost.

May it be so. Amen.

~~~~~~~~
The Bible Study for Lent was based on the Greatest Showman. The storyline of the film involves a variety of people considered to be outsiders, misfits, and “freaks,” into a circus show. The performers become like a family, and being together builds their confidence in their own humanity and belovedness. At one point they are again stared at, shamed, and shut out of the wider community, despite all Mr. Barnum’s previous assurances to the contrary. It’s a pivotal moment in the film, when each of them, and all of them together, finally summon up the courage to live out the truth they have been learning: that they are wonderfully made, and loved, and deserving of dignity. Despite all the scoldings they have received, and all the shame they have internalised over the years, they dig deep and discover that they are allowed to be themselves, just like everyone else. Here is the video clip of the workshop of that moment — this is when the actors and director and writers were asking the studio for permission to make the film. 

As you watch, dig deep in yourself too, and feel your belovedness. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, and God’s love is for you...and let it flow through you to others, too. One way we do that is through the spiritual discipline of giving. Consider how you might give of yourself and your resources to build up the Body of Christ, both right now and in the future. If you have a weekly offering envelope, please put it somewhere safe until we are able to worship together again. Please note: no one is going to come to your door to collect your offering! Save those envelopes up until we can gather again, or until your elder is in touch sometime after this health crisis is over.


~~~~~~~~~


Sunday, March 22, 2020

Core muscles — a sermon on the greatest commandment

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
Core Muscles
Mark 12.28-44
22 March 2020, NL2-29, Lent 4 (letting go: fasting from being recognised)


One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’
‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’
‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:
‘“The Lord said to my Lord:
    ‘Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
    under your feet.’”
David himself calls him “Lord”. How then can he be his son?’
The large crowd listened to him with delight.
As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the market-places, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few pence.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.’

~~~~~~~~~~

It was a few months ago now that I first looked at the readings for the Narrative Lectionary for the season of Lent, and about a month since I started planning just how this would fit with the Boys Brigade Battalion service we were meant to have today. The first part of this story, where Jesus gives us the most important commandments to love God and love our neighbour, are the verses I have been using each time I visit the various sections of the BB throughout the year. We have been working on Strengthening Our Core — both our physical and our spiritual core muscles. So in every section, no matter their age, we have had some exercise challenges, trying to see how long we can hold a plank position or a v-sit position. I will admit that when I started the session I was feeling pretty strong, but the first night I visited the Company Section, two boys held the plank for 4 minutes when I had fallen before the stopwatch got to the 2 minute mark — though to be fair, someone kicked my feet as we were all crammed up on the chancel! Each month we start the timer and see who can hold the position the longest, and we talk about why it matters that we have strong core muscles: because they hold our body together and make all movement possible. Without a strong core, we would have trouble with balance, with walking, turning, sitting down and standing up, picking things up, and of course all the more strenuous activities children do! 

Once we have our physical core exercises done, we talk about our spiritual core, and this verse is it. Jesus says that our spiritual core, the muscles that allow us to do everything else, are this: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If we strengthen these muscles, then we’ll be able to do everything else life throws at us. So each month we have talked about how we love God with our heart, or our mind, or how we love our neighbour. 

So this seemed perfect for the service when all the local BB companies would be here.

Little did we know how much things would change, and how important this story would be for completely different reasons.

Over the past two weeks we have seen incredible kindness all around us. Groups of people wanting to help, offers to drop off shopping or to help set up technology. There seems to be a rebirth of community spirit and pulling together.

And we have also seen an incredible lack of kindness, too. We have seen people buying far more  than they can use, and leaving others with nothing. We have seen people continuing to congregate in ways that seem to imply they’re willing to sacrifice other people’s lives in order to maintain their own convenience or fun. We have seen racist attacks against Asian people, because the virus is thought to have originated in China.

Yesterday during the government briefings we were begged repeatedly to “think of others”....when we’re shopping, when we’re planning to go out with friends, when we’re on public transport. Nearly every sentence, it felt like, asked us to consider the needs of someone else, whether it was NHS workers, elderly family and friends and neighbours, or supermarket clerks.

They stopped just short of saying “love your neighbour as yourself” but I wondered if it might not be the best way to get the point across. The golden rule seems to apply more than ever: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you would want there to still be supplies on the shelf at Tesco when you get off a long shift at work, then take only what you need right now and leave the rest for others. If you would want someone to respect a safe distance from your parents, your grandparents, your neighbours, or yourself...then do that to others. If you would want there to be a nurse and a doctor available when you become ill or get injured, then do what you can to keep them safe. And in the same way, if you would want someone to check in just to chat when you’re feeling lonely, then go ahead and make a phone call to someone else who might be wishing someone would phone them! If you would want someone to offer to deliver your medicine or a pint of milk if you were poorly, then offer that help to your neighbours.

Loving God and loving our neighbour are inextricably linked, like all our core muscles are. If one muscle is weakened or sprained or torn, the others struggle to keep you going...and that’s true for our spiritual core too. 

Jesus and the teacher discuss what commandment is the most important, and Jesus offers two, and each of them has sub-threads as well. 
Love God: not just the feeling of love, but love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. So with every aspect of your being — your feelings, your intellect, your body, and your spirit. Nothing is excluded from God’s love, and nothing is excluded from the command to love. Using our spirits and our emotions to love God seem relatively easy and familiar, but using our bodies and our minds to love God might seem more unusual. But nonetheless they are important. God gave us brains, and expects us to use them for the building up of the kingdom, for discovering more about God’s world, for finding ways to encourage and teach and heal. God gave us bodies, and expects us to use them, to take care of them and to use them to take care of others. There is no aspect of our lives that God doesn’t care about — God made it all, gave us it all, loves it all. 

And then we’re taught to love our neighbour as ourselves....which also means loving ourselves well. No one can fill another’s cup from their own empty jug. Before you say something to yourself, ask yourself if you’d say it to someone else. And, as we’ve already said, think about how even in everyday actions like buying just enough, or washing your hands, or offering some help, you can love your neighbour the way you have experienced being loved by God.

I think it is so fascinating that the conversation between Jesus and the teacher expands into conversations with the crowds. Jesus was teaching in the Temple courts, surrounded by pious people who had come from all over the country to worship at this holiest of places, plus local people popping in to see what was happening in the courtyard today, plus religious leaders and scribes, and probably political spies as well. In the midst of that place, surrounded by that particular crowd of people, he took the opportunity to say that we should watch out for the people who make a show of their love for God. Not only are they likely failing at loving their neighbour, they may actually be harming their neighbours—not leaving them anything on the shelves, as it were. Their preoccupation with being noticed, with gaining recognition for their greatness or their preparedness or their piety, meant they had no energy or attention left to do justice or love kindness, and they had missed the point of “walk humbly with God.” 

And our core muscles are inextricably linked: If we aren’t loving our neighbours, we aren’t loving God....indeed, we cannot love God if we are not also showing love to our neighbours. And vice versa.

Right on cue, a parade of people putting their offerings in came by. The Temple treasury was meant to be used to support people in need, especially immigrants, orphans, and widows. Giving was — and still is — an important spiritual discipline, a part of the way we show our gratitude for all God has given us, and participate in the ministry God calls us all to do together. (I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this is still true even when we cannot worship together in person...as Peter said before, if you don’t already give by standing order, please consider it! But in the meantime, you can hold on to your envelopes until we are together again! And, of course, it is never a bad time to think about a legacy, to enable ministry to continue long into the future!) 

But that day, people who had plenty to spare were ostentatiously giving out of their plenty, so everyone would know they had plenty more, not because they wished to help people in poverty, and not out of gratitude for God’s providing. They wanted people to know how generous they were, and how well-off they were. 

Then came a widow, the very person the treasury was meant to serve. She didn’t have much, and obviously all those people with more than enough hadn’t seen her or thought to help, but she did have a lot of gratitude for God’s grace. She gave her offering, and it was an act of worship. Not an act desiring recognition, but instead an act recognising the Giver of every good gift. 

Jesus saw her, when no one else did. We know he made a habit of seeing people that no one else saw. But this time, she didn’t want to be seen. She didn’t make her offering hoping someone would notice her. And thankfully, Jesus didn’t call her over and make a big deal about it. Instead, he called his disciples, his small group, to come into a private conversation, and he taught them to see as he saw — a woman who gave everything, who loved God with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength, and showed it by giving to help her neighbour even though she was the one who ought to have been given help. 

That woman had a strong core. She didn’t need to show off her spiritual six pack, but it helped her live according to God’s way, even in difficult circumstances.

Each week of Lent we have been considering different things we might “give up” not just for Lent, but forever. We’ve talked about how often we are over full and owned by our possessions. We’ve talked about fasting from being first, and fasting from being right. This story, I think, leads us to try the practice of fasting from being recognised. What if we loved God and loved our neighbour, NOT so that people would see us and thank us for our service, but because it’s the core of who we are? What if we fasted from recognition, and just put love into action, every day, in whatever small or large ways we can, and let go of the need to be thanked or seen or noticed? 

Now...I’m not saying we should give up thanking people, or recognising people’s contributions. Gratitude is a practice we should NEVER fast from. I am saying that perhaps we could try out fasting from our own personal need or desire for recognition, and simply show love because it’s what God asked us to do, it’s what God equips us to do, it’s what God created us to do.

Remember: God is love. And we are made in the image of God, which means we are made for love. Not only the feeling, but the action: love with heart, yes, but also soul, and mind, and strength. Love for our neighbour that is equal to our love for ourselves. Love that remembers that if one member of the Body suffers, all suffer together with it...our health and wholeness is bound up in the health and wholeness of our neighbours. Love that plays out in action — in the supermarket, and the doctor’s office, and the park. Though we have a lot of physical barriers right now (barriers that are currently another way of showing our love for our neighbour, because we value their safety and health!), love can reach across them, through phone calls and prayers and cards, bread and milk and paper goods, even as we keep our hands to ourselves.

Love God and love your neighbour. These are the core muscles we’re meant to strengthen so that everything else is possible — not so we can be seen as strong or good or pious, but so that everyone might know the truth: that God’s love is stronger than our fear, and even stronger than death. And it’s through us that people will know God’s love, so let us love one another, in word and in deed.


May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

I Told You So — a sermon for Lent 3

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s and Greenock St Margaret’s 
I Told You So
Mark 11.27-33, 12.13-17
15 March 2020, NL2-28, Lent 3 (Letting Go: fasting from being right)

They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”
Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)
So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?’
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’
And they were amazed at him.

~~~~~~~~

The phrase “I told you so” is one that many of us try to avoid using, because it can have a negative impact on our relationships...but sometimes it is so tempting, isn’t it? There’s something satisfying about having been right, and reminding people that you were right. At the same time, there’s something about it that feels awful, because usually it comes up in a situation where another person is hurting. Somehow that combination of gloating and empathy feels both good and bad at the same time. It’s almost never helpful, and yet the words are so often on the tip of our tongues.

Almost any bystander witnessing these exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day could have told them how it was going to turn out. You can practically hear them holding back their “I told you so” when each time, the questioners who thought to entrap him end up turning away in frustration. They are never going to trick him into anything....and indeed, their desire to be seen as winning these arguments is actually backfiring, every single time they open their mouths.

First they came to question him about authority. Surely anyone teaching the things Jesus is teaching must have permission, right? He needs a diploma from his healing course, and a certificate from the education authority, and probably a permit from the police for all this street gatherings. Not to mention that no one seems to have signed off on his divinity degree. 

But they didn’t understand what God’s authority looks like, even in person standing in front of them. They were so desperate to control the flow of divine power themselves, they couldn’t fathom that God would just....be there. No barriers, no structures, no requirements, just the living God right there, loving people and literally being grace. 

When Jesus asked them his own question first, their actual problem was revealed. They didn’t want to know who gave him permission...they wanted to prove that they were the ones who had the right to give that permission. They wanted to control the flow of information from God to people, so that they could ensure they were right and others had to follow their way. So they couldn’t claim that John’s power came from people, because that lie would make them look silly to the crowds who knew otherwise. But they couldn’t tell the truth either, that John’s power was from God, because then they would be outed as wrong for their opposition to him — and on the wrong side of God, no less.

There was no way for them to answer the question and be right, so they simply refused to play. And in return, so did Jesus.

When they came back around a bit later, they had a new tactic. First, they used lots of pretty words, but the reality is that flattery gets you nowhere with God! In the culture of the time, Jesus would have been expected to return the compliment, to engage in some mutual flattery with those who were trying to butter him up. He refused to play that game, too. 

When they finally got to the point, they tried to draw Jesus into a common hot-button controversy of the day, about Roman coinage and taxes. Again, they were certain that they were right and would manage to trick him into being wrong....and again, Jesus refused to play their manipulative games. Instead, in what would surely have been an “I told you so” moment for any onlooker placing bets, he asked them for a coin.

With this request, Jesus did two things.

First, he proved himself righteous in the background dispute — he was in Jerusalem, the holy city, and he was not carrying a Roman coin there. The religious law of the time didn’t allow Roman coins in the Temple, because they had a graven image on them. That’s why there had to be money changers — you needed a currency exchange to be able to change the money used out in the rest of the empire into money you could use locally. But Jesus didn’t have a denarius with him. He was outside the Roman economy, perhaps on purpose, or perhaps by virtue of being in the lower classes.

Second, the Pharisees who did have a Roman coin in their pocket were then implicated in the Roman imperial economy themselves. There in Jerusalem, God’s holy place, they were carrying around the currency of the empire, even as they tried to trick Jesus into making an illegal pronouncement. By asking them to show him a coin, Jesus forced them to reveal themselves and the motives behind their question.

In answering the question they asked, Jesus also answered a question they did not ask. He said “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God’s.” The coin, of course, had the image of Caesar on it. And what is it that has the image of God on it?

Humans, of course.

And we know that technically all currency is the property of the crown....and also that the earth belongs to the Lord, and all that is in it.

So when Jesus says “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what is God’s,” he reminds us that all things, all people, indeed the whole world, belongs to God. Therefore what belongs to Caesar?

Nothing, of course.

Though on a technicality you might be able to argue that Jesus said that those who participate in the Roman imperial economy must also pay their dues to the Empire....and those who are not carrying that coin around in their pocket are free from that particular obligation, while still being held to the much higher standard of belonging to God.

But ultimately, Jesus frustrated the designs of the leaders who wanted him to play their game, and to prove them right — either right about their choice to sell out their convictions for imperial gain, or right in their assessment of him as a fraud with no authority.

Unfortunately for them, they knew, deep down, that they were in the wrong, and their efforts to appear otherwise were shallow at best. It is still, even today, a common tactic though, for people in power to try to deflect attention from the things they’ve done wrong by manipulating conversations so that they appear to be right about something! 

Instead, Jesus offers them another way—a way of giving to God what is God’s, which is to say, everything including our very selves. But to take this way will require that we give up the desire to be seen as being right, to give up the impulse toward “I told you so.” Because only God is good, and because we are meant to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life — which involves submitting to the reality that we are not the ones who know everything. Fasting from the need to be right is a tricky thing! Because of course we all want to be correct and to do what is right. But this is about our need to be seen to be right. That need does not serve us, and indeed it blocks our ability to engage with the Truth. 

There is a saying that goes around every so often: “you don’t have to continue in a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.” We have spent a lot of time and energy, as humans, trying to be right, or at least perceived as right. But that’s a mistake we don’t have to keep making. We can choose to allow God’s truth to have the last word, rather than insisting on it ourselves. We can choose to bow to Jesus’ superior authority, even if he doesn’t have the right paperwork. We can choose to admit our brokenness and our failures, to apologise when we have been wrong, and to commit to turning toward a better way.

In these days when insisting on our own ways can literally cost lives, this is a perfect Lenten practice: to fast from the need to be right. It is ok to admit we were wrong, or that we didn’t know something, and to learn together from the One to whom we all belong....and from those people that God has gifted with particular knowledge or wisdom to help us navigate uncertain terrain! Indeed, this is one way we can love God and our neighbour as ourselves: to refuse to persist in a mistake, but instead to fast from being right by allowing those with more information or more training to lead the way, while we all together try to do what Jesus continually calls us to do, to be his Body in the world: to embody his love and grace without barriers or cost, to share his word of life, to serve rather than insisting on being served.

It’s hard work to fast from being right. It hurts to admit when we’re wrong, or to let people see past the fa├žade of having all the answers. But remember: God is never deceived, and when we are honest and when we allow the Spirit a bit of breathing room, that’s when we’ll be able to grow and bear fruit for God’s kingdom. And with God, all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.


Sunday, March 08, 2020

Service, Not Stardom — a sermon for Lent 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Service, not Stardom
Mark 10.32-52 (NIV)
8 March 2020, NL2-27, Lent 2 (Letting Go: fasting from being first)

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. ‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’
‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.
They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’
‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’ ‘We can,’ they answered.
Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means ‘son of Timaeus’), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’
So they called to the blind man, ‘Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.’ Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.’
‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. 

~~~~~~~~~

Every time I hear this story I have to laugh. Because James and John are just so....human. Remember last week we heard about Jesus talk about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and that our reliance on ourselves and our possessions is actually blocking us from entering the kingdom of God. And the very last line of last week’s reading was “so the last will be first and the first will be last.” This morning we picked up at the next verse — that saying is what everyone was amazed and afraid about. 

Jesus takes the opportunity, walking along the road, to remind his disciples what he’d told them before: that he was headed for pain and suffering and death. That his type of messiah was not what they expected, and they needed to prepare. 

And somehow, from those two conversations about the first shall be last and about the coming crucifixion, James and John thought they’d better ask their question now.

Now, I don’t know about you, but never in my life have I ever approached someone, even the best of friends, with the opening line “I want you to do for me whatever I ask.” It seems a risky move, to start there. And more than a little bit cheeky. But that was nothing compared to what came next. 

Jesus asked “what do you want me to do for you?” And somehow, from the depths of their being, came their truest desire. Remember what Jesus said about what comes out of a person — it reveals more than what goes in. What came out of the mouths of James and John was a request that they could sit on either side of Jesus’ throne at his first royal banquet. When he attained the glory they knew must be coming, they wanted to be there, basking in it. They wanted him to honour them above all others. They wanted to be first.

Jesus’ response to them seems to start out by humouring them, but he soon realised that they didn’t really know what they were saying....so he clarified by stating flatly that the head of the line was not his to assign, that asking for glory is not the way to get it.

Then the other ten disciples come crowding into the story, and we discover that they’re upset with James and John....but it sounds an awful lot like they were upset that they didn’t think of this first! Why wasn’t Peter or Bartholomew the one to come up with the idea of asking Jesus for assigned seating in the throne room? Again, I have to laugh, because I know exactly how this conversation went. Aside from having a little brother, I also spent time teaching P1s who were desperate to lead the class when we lined up to go to another room....and I’ve spent a lot of years in Presbyteries where I’m pretty sure jockeying for position was basically a part-time job for some ministers. 

But Jesus wasn’t having any of it. Instead of laughing along, or giving in to their me-first antics, he sat them down and gave them a stern talking to. He explained more of what he meant about that first and last business: that, essentially, if we want to follow him into the kingdom, we actually have to fast from being first. We have to give up being first, let go of that desire to be first....and focus that energy instead on serving. This isn’t about getting glory for ourselves, it’s about giving glory to God. And the way to do that is by giving up that desire to be better than others, and putting ourselves in Jesus’ place: kneeling at the feet of our neighbours, reaching out to people no one else wants to touch, sitting at the table not with guests of honour but with the poor, the sinners, the foreigners, the outcasts. To put ourselves in Jesus’ place means to give up glory and give our lives for others....for the kingdom of God. 

It’s easier said than done, to fast from being first. Honestly I would rather fast from chocolate or even cake! We are conditioned to want to win, of course. But Jesus wasn’t talking about a football match or a cross country race or a pub quiz. He was talking about a mindset of superiority. And he could not be more clear in teaching that those who follow him will need to let go of that. Whatever form it takes, whether it’s the insidious white supremacy that infects our whole culture and language, or whether it’s the more obvious sort of playground bullying, or sectarian bigotry, or racism or sexism or economic colonialism or even just a run-of-the-mill sense that I’m better than someone else....we are going to have to give that up. Not just for Lent, but forever. But Lent is a good time to start practicing a fast from being first.

Perhaps we could take the next bit of the story as our example. They got up from this impromptu schoolroom and continued on the road, and Mark tells us they were leaving Jericho and heading for Jerusalem. Remember that this is the very road on which the parable of the Good Samaritan takes place — a road known for its danger and, at least in Jesus’ stories, for people pretending not to notice the plight of others. There, on the side of the road, was a man....a man who can’t see. At least not with his eyes. But when he heard that Jesus was coming, he began to make himself known, and the people around him couldn’t take it. They wanted him to be invisible. If he couldn’t see, then why should be seen? 

But Jesus was not like the people who typically traveled that road. He did not treat people as if they were invisible, no matter what others thought he should do. He made time even for the man who could not see him. And Bartimaeus, whose name literally means “Son of the Unclean”, who was blind and a beggar, threw off his clothes, his one possession, and came to Jesus, baring his soul.

Jesus asked him the very same question that he asked James and John a few minutes before. “What do you want me to do for you?” 

Imagine the answers that could have come from this man who was well below the bottom rung of the social ladder. He was disabled, he was homeless and poor, he was named Unclean, and he was naked, literally and spiritually, in front of a renowned rabbi. The only way he could have been any lower would be if he had been a foreigner. Yet Jesus asked him the same question he asked his own disciples. And his answer was startlingly different. He did not ask for glory. He did not ask to be raised from his station. He did not ask for wealth or for revenge on those who had treated him as invisible all these year. He asked for vision. He wanted to see....not just the world around him, but the people around him, and also the truth around him. He had insight already, but now he wanted vision. It might not change his social status but it would change his life, and his ability to participate in it.

Jesus didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t even need to reach out a hand. With a word, he gave Bartimaeus sight...and Bartimaeus did the only thing he could do in response to such a gift: he followed Jesus along the road. 

He didn’t run about saying “look at me! I’m the one Jesus healed!” But he also didn’t go back to his invisible place either. He followed Jesus. He left behind any possibility of fame in his hometown, and took a place at the back of the crowd of disciples.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus asks the same question twice and gets such different responses? I wonder, when he asks us the very same question, what our answer is. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks...are we praying for things that bring us glory, that move us to the head of the line, that will help us be first? Or are we praying for the vision to see his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?

This week we are invited to take up this practice of fasting from being first. To instead take up a place at the back of the crowd of disciples and follow Jesus wherever he is going, without thought for our own status or power or prestige. The journey to the cross is not glorious, it won’t make us famous, and indeed it may look like the opposite of all we have been taught about self preservation and smart choices and getting ahead in life. There may be mockery or derision from those on the sidelines. But the last will be first, and the way of Christ is a way of service not stardom, and with God all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.