October 27, 2009

A Christian Memorial Day

by Jenny Williams
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6; John 11:32-44

Where I live, remembering and honoring the dead is celebrated annually in May. Over Memorial Day weekend, families flock to cemeteries, flowers in hand, to decorate the graves of loved ones who have passed. In many cases out-of-town relatives come in for this ritual. It’s a pretty big deal.

The church remembers the dead at an entirely different time of year. In Protestant churches, on either November 1st or the first Sunday in November, we celebrate All Saints’ Day. In the churches I’ve served, we remember and name the members of the congregation who have died since All Saints’ Day the year before.

What prevents the Church’s practices on All Saints’ Day from turning into ancestor worship, and what makes those practices different from the practice of decorating graves?

First, the church always strives to lift up the good news that we are part of a people and not individuals unto ourselves. The liturgical acts of remembering each saint by ringing a bell, lighting a candle, or naming help us remember that the Christian life is not a solo endeavor, but one lived out in community—a community that extends and exists beyond our earthly bodies. We are part of the people of God in life and in death. Liturgical practices on All Saints’ Day give us a visual or audible reminder that more than one of us has died, and that those who have died are part of “all the company of heaven” (as the United Methodist Eucharistic liturgy proclaims). Decorating graves tends to focus on one person and who they have been, while the church’s celebration lifts up the whole communion of saints and who they will become in the redemption of all creation. “What we shall be has not yet been revealed, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him.” (1 John 3:2, paraphrase)

This sense of the continuity of the people of God is further highlighted by a celebration of the sacraments on All Saints’ Sunday. If your church follows the tradition of baptizing on All Saints’ Day, as one of four days of baptism in the church (the other three being the Baptism of the Lord, Easter, and Pentecost) new saints are brought into the church temporal in conjunction with the celebration of the passing of saints into the church triumphant. Celebrating Eucharist on All Saints’ Day can highlight the aspect of the communion of the saints: that in the body of Christ we are in mystical union with all the faithful, across space and time. When we feast, we feast together in Christ, our head, who at the heavenly banquet after his final victory will serve us the “rich food and well-aged wines” that Isaiah tells us about.

And while a decoration of a grave may dwell on our loss, All Saints’ Day sharpens our focus on the resurrection. A death date on a gravestone may remind us of the day someone “left us.” The tradition of lifting up the death dates of historic Christian martyrs calls us to dwell not on loss and separation but hope and reunion. Jesus called Lazarus out from the grave, unbound and unfettered. Doing so, he removed Mary and Martha’s grief and foreshadowed something that we can all look forward to. God has “swallowed up death forever!” We will not remain in the grave, stinky and broken. We will be made whole and found forever with the Lamb and all the faithful departed. A Church which takes seriously its liturgical responsibility on All Saints’ Day provides a tremendous act of pastoral and congregational care to those who grieve. Let us offer something greater than putting flowers on a grave.


October 22, 2009

Coming Home with Shouts of Joy

by Ragan Sutterfield
Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). It’s a striking question Jesus asks Bartimaeus—a beggar sitting beside the road when Jesus passes by; a blind man whose pleas of “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” could not be suppressed. What kind of answer was Jesus expecting? Bartimaeus is a blind beggar; does Jesus expect an answer other than the one that Bartimaeus gives? He wants his sight back!

But Jesus doesn’t give him his sight back. He replies to Bartimaeus, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Jesus only reveals to Bartimaeus that it was Bartimaeus’s own faith that made him well.

To understand this passage better perhaps we should look back at the reading just preceding it from the Gospel last week. It was in this Gospel that the disciples argue about who should sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he comes to power and are taught once again that it is the first who will be last and the last who will be first. The passage just following this story is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

We are told that Jesus is travelling with a large crowd when he meets Bartimaeus. We must gather from this sequence that Jesus is travelling toward Jerusalem and the rumors that he is coming to take power are gaining traction. Jesus, for all those with him, is the new king with all of the power and status that goes with that.

This is the reason that those crowding around the road are so stern with Bartimaeus. What is this blind beggar doing? Jesus is on his way to over throw the Romans and this outcast, sitting just outside of Jericho, is demanding his attention. Imagine the presidential motorcade going down the road and a bipolar homeless man yelling out for the president to help him. Everyone would tell him to shut up. And in this case that is what they did.

But Bartimaeus didn’t shut up. He knew that Jesus was his only chance and Jesus responds to Bartimaeus’s plea. “What do you want me to do for you?” It is an open question; a servant’s question. It is not the question of a genie, asking what wish he can grant. It is a question like that asked by a servant of his master. By asking this question Jesus changes the situation and shows his disciples exactly what he was just talking about, that the Son of Man came to be the servant of all.

What he says in response to Bartimaeus’s request also turns the situation upside down. He does not claim to have healed Bartimaeus. It was Bartimaeus’s own faith that made him well. In this way Jesus responds to both of Bartimaeus’s needs. He is not only made to see, but he is also freed from the situation of being a beggar.

Bartimaeus was an outcast, excluded from society, literally outside of the city. Jesus reaches out to him and brings him back, returns him from exile. It is as we read in Jeremiah, “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back” (31:9a) and in Psalm 126, “Those who go out weeping…shall come home with shouts of joy” (v.6).

We are told that Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way. For most of those traveling with Jesus they are on the way to take hold of power, to unseat the Romans and take their place. With Bartimaeus we see that Jesus is displacing the powers, not to occupy their place, but to make room for a different kind of kingdom where blind beggars are asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”


October 15, 2009

The Unknowable Shape of Things to Come

by Brian Volck
Is 53:4-12; Heb 4:14-16 (Catholic), 5:1-10 (Revised Common); Mark 10:35-45

Do we ever truly know what we’re getting into? If young couples truly knew what pledges of lifelong fidelity require, would anyone marry? If humans truly knew what children demand of parents, would the species continue? If any of us truly knew how often grief is the final evidence of earthly love, would anyone choose to love?

Zebedee’s boys have no idea what they’re asking. Not that they weren’t warned. The verses immediately preceding today’s gospel are another prediction of Jesus suffering and death in Jerusalem. James and John must not have been paying attention. Perhaps they were thinking of the view from either side of the throne of glory.

By the shape of our lives, most of us make plain we prefer arriving at Easter without first negotiating Good Friday. Many of us imagine that, if we lived in another time, we’d help fleeing slaves along the Underground Railroad or hide Jews and gypsies from Nazi thugs. Nearly all of us imagine our good intentions are discernible, if not to others, then at least to God.

Most of us are fortunate not to have our mettle tested. Very few of us will drink the cup of martyrdom, struggle forthrightly against present darkness, or know if our efforts we think noblest will appear, with the perspective of years, virtuous and fruitful.

Certainty and perspective are not ours to enjoy. Instead, Jesus offers the gift of service to embody, share and pass on. This is all Christians can be sure of getting into: a life we hope resembles Jesus’.

In his book, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton offers this prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

We don’t choose the road or its destination, but we can stumble in a direction we believe to be forward or let ourselves be led in trust. The rest is not up to us, nor ours to know.


October 07, 2009

Thanks, but No Thanks

by Kyle Childress
Job 23: 1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22: 1-15; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31

Around our church some of us have undertaken the simple task of teaching our children basic manners, especially things like speaking clearly, looking a person in the eye, standing straight, and shaking hands with a good firm grip. One 9-year-old boy, who came to church when he was four from an abusive home, used to hide under the chairs when you talked to him and the only way he showed any affection was to come up and hit. We’ve worked with him, been very patient and loving, and we’ve taken the time to give him these basic lessons about social interaction. It has been good to watch him practice these lessons and grow and change.

Good posture, firm handshakes, head held high and eye contact – this is the way we carry ourselves; it is our exterior and physical demeanor. It is an indication of what is going on in our souls.

It shows up in this week’s Gospel reading.

A man comes to Jesus asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17).

Jesus tells him what the tradition expects: obey the commandments. Surprisingly, the man says that he has been obeying all of the commandments since he was a kid.

Then Jesus, in the words of Mark, “looking upon him loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions” (Mk 10:21-22).

What an interesting old phrase – his countenance fell. His countenance became sorrowful. A person’s countenance usually means the person’s face but in this story it sounds as if it also refers to his whole posture. He excitedly goes to talk to Jesus, the same Jesus whom Mark says loved the young man. But after his conversation, his countenance fell. His shoulders slumped, he hung his head down, his face was saddened.

As far as I know, this is the only story in the Gospels where Jesus invites a person to discipleship and they turn it down. “He went away sorrowful”; he turned his back on Jesus because of one thing: money. “For he had great possessions.”

I suppose that might cause a lot of us to have our countenances fall, for we too have great possessions. When we discover that discipleship has to do with our money, our shoulders sag, our faces drop, and maybe like that 4-year-old-boy, we want to hide under the chair.

This passage is among the best-known stories in the Gospels and among the hardest to preach. Many of us pastors stand up every Sunday in front of a congregation full of men and women in their Sunday best, bright countenances, with great possessions. They’re making payments on two or three cars, a house, a boat, a lake house, three or four TVs, two or three computers, cell phones, the cost of eating out five or six or ten times a week, a membership at the gym, a couple or more club memberships, health insurance, car insurance, house insurance, life insurance, and when Sunday rolls around they generously put a $20 bill into the plate. They are moral in their personal conduct, work hard, and occasionally volunteer for Vacation Bible School. So for us to stand up in the pulpit and announce that their very possessions are in the way of following Jesus is to risk not only that their countenances will fall but that they will not put that $20 in the plate and not volunteer for next year’s Vacation Bible School. We’re having a hard enough time paying the church bills and getting volunteers as it is; the last thing we want to do is run everyone off. Maybe Jesus could afford to run off potential disciples; he didn’t have a budget to keep, salaries to pay, and a building program on the drawing board. He didn’t even have a place to lay his head – no mortgages and no car payments; no TV’s, no cell phones and no insurance.

Maybe that’s the point.

Jesus was not possessed by possessions, as the man was, as we are and our churches are. The man held so tightly to his stuff, and the stuff had him so deeply enmeshed, that he couldn’t let go and grab what Jesus was offering him. Verse 21 says Jesus loved him. What if Jesus was not adding to the man’s burdens but offering him (and us) a loving and gracious invitation to new life?


October 06, 2009

Some Pastoral Reflections on Planning (and Its Opposite)

by Mike Bowling
Some Christians are reluctant to talk about the future. While there may be 'biblical' reasons for it, that reluctance can have a destructive effect on our life together in Christ as the Church.

Whether it is the cumulative effect of misreading numerous Scriptures or an over-reaction to those who plan in arrogance and rigidity, the simple fact is that planning is an important part of all sustained work. Too many read Jesus' words " not be anxious about tomorrow" as "anti-planning" Scriptures, when Jesus was simply teaching that in God's kingdom we can trust in God's ultimate provision. Or, anti-planners like to reference James 4:13-17, which is more a cautionary note for those who trust in their wealth and their ability to produce wealth.

Of course, compulsive planners misuse Scriptures in similar ways. Who hasn't heard Jesus' words concerning the radical nature of discipleship twisted into an admonition concerning "sensible" financial/planning?

Everyone plans! The question is on what basis do we plan? Here are my assumptions for faithful planning as the church:

(1) I assume God is up to something which God alone knows exactly what the end will look like.

(2) I assume God has not only invited the Church into the Divine mission; God has also supplied for us in Christ to be participants.

(3) I assume God has made known in Christ the particular role of the church in God's plan (see Eph. 3:18-21).

Planning which ignores these assumptions is presumption of a risky kind, but failure to plan is its own kind of presumption, and may be a sign of lack of commitment, resistance to accountability or just plain laziness. Failure to plan may also be a sign of confusion or a fear of failure. All of the preceding call for careful instruction and difficult conversations.


October 01, 2009

Visceral Responses

by Brian Volck
Genesis 2: 18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11 (Catholic); Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 (Revised Common); Mark 10:2-16

Texts like these that make me grateful I’m a pediatrician and not a preacher. Given the diversity of understandings and practices among Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox regarding marriage and remarriage after divorce, and the contemporary fault lines around which these and other marriage-related battles are fought, it’s dangerous to speak before anything but a homogenous congregation. As it happens, the Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries both select from the Letter to the Hebrews for the second reading this Sunday, but the verses barely overlap, so the safe road is out, too.

So, let me make one brief observation and go. The image used for marriage in Genesis and Mark is literally visceral: “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” This language is reserved for the most intimate and important relationships in the Bible: David to the tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-3), Christ to humanity (John 1:14), and Christ to those gathered as the Church (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 4:11-16, and Colossians 3:14-15). This is not the language of a contractual relationship between rights-bearing individuals that the nation-state regulates as part of its interest in property and – rather farther down its list of concerns – child welfare.

In other words, the Church embodies marriage quite differently than the nation-state. One might even say that the nation-state doesn’t embody marriage at all, but sequesters it to the realm of contracts and property. In any case, I humbly suggest that future conversations among Christians about marriage and divorce take into account these stark differences in language and embodiment and decide which vision takes precedence. For instance, does it make sense for priests and ministers to serve as state functionaries at weddings, signing state documents, licenses and so forth? What is the theological basis for this?

I have no doubt well intentioned, faithful Christians may reach very different conclusions about quite a few things from this starting place, but at least they’ll know whence they’ve come. As Wendell Berry puts it, we inhabit “The Country of Marriage,” where, “Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange/of my love and work for yours, so much for so much/of an expendable fund.” Here again is Wendell Berry, to whom I’ll grant one last word:

Marriages to marriages
are joined, husband and wife
are plighted to all
husbands and wives,
any life has all lives
for its delight.