Who Knows? Mark 13: 1-2

Mark 13:1-2 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
The Temple Will Be Destroyed
13 As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look at these beautiful stones and wonderful buildings!”
2 Jesus replied, “Do you see these huge buildings? They will certainly be torn down! Not one stone will be left in place.”
A friend emailed me the other day. “I think God is trying to tell us something,” she wrote. She implied that God was punishing us. But Pope Francis has a different, and better, take on current events.
Addressing God, the pope said that “it is not the time of your judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.” In the midst of the storm, Pope Francis said, God is calling people to faith, which is not just believing God exists, but turning to him and trusting him.
Another friend, in an online face-to-face meeting, pointed out that the Church is going to look very different after this pandemic. We were in the middle of a meeting with five other people, so I didn’t ask her to elaborate, but I’ve been haunted by that idea ever since and I’ve given it a lot of thought. In fact, in a newspaper interview (DeWitt Observer), I told the reporter that the pandemic will either make or break the Church as we know it.
First, let’s look at the church from seventy years ago. Churches were full every Sunday. Preachers were second in line to the Trinity, as far as respect went. Churches were building Sunday School wings to hold all the kids who were attending Sunday School. Why did churches expand so rapidly in the fifties? One word: communism. President Eisenhower was concerned about the spread of communism. Communism was anti-religion. The church became one of the new front lines in the battle against communism. That and hiding under your desk at school. If you were in church, you weren’t likely to become a communist. I doubt that many church growers were aware that sitting in the pew was a political act. As does any call to action, people developed loyalty to the church, which was subtly mixed in with loyalty to country. Nationalism and patriotism were quietly mixed together. It followed that to be socially acceptable, you hung out with the right crowd.
This wasn’t all bad. The Church continued to study and share the Gospel. The Church continued and expanded its mission to serve those who needed help. The expansion of the church meant there were more hands—and more money—to reach out to the world. In some ways, the Church saved us from totalitarian rule—-up until now.
With the end of the Cold War, the battle front against anti-religion threats changed. One of the areas the Church might have been weak on was fulfilling the spiritual needs of the people. It kept people busy, but the Church became the box store of spirituality.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French priest and philosopher who stated this spiritual need in a simple to remember formula.
“We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.”
Our culture provided other ways to fulfil those spiritual needs in the form of the entertainment and sports.
So, here we are, acutely aware that our sanctuaries are not packed on Sunday mornings, painfully aware that we are short-handed as our mission to our communities increases. And we are burdened with expenses that we did not create, but that are now our responsibility, because the Church did go through a period of growth and the Church responded.
Now we must respond again as a Church, this time to a pandemic. We are facing a pandemic of not only a virus, but also a pandemic of chaotic leadership. Our leaders have used our own fears and our own insecurity to set us against each other, like rats in a cage.
In our text today, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was the Church, the one place where everyone worshipped.
13 As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look at these beautiful stones and wonderful buildings!”
2 Jesus replied, “Do you see these huge buildings? They will certainly be torn down! Not one stone will be left in place.”
Point 1. The Temple was known for its beauty as much as for its purpose of worshipping God.
Point 2. That Temple was destroyed thirty-seven years after Jesus described its destruction.
Phyllis Tickle established the religion department at Publisher’sWeekly, an American weekly trade news magazine targeted at publishers, librarians, booksellers and literary agents. But she is more recently remembered for her writing about the “emerging” church. Her best known book on the topic is The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Her hypothesis is that the Church goes through a great “rummage sale” every five-hundred years. I have copies of the book if you want to read it. Five-hundred years ago, Martin Luther, John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon, among many others, called out the practices of the existing Church and brought renewal to worship and theology and practice among Christians.
Here we are, five-hundred years later, with the opportunity to bring renewal to worship and theology and practice to the Christian Church.
This pandemic has forced us to stop practicing what we think of as Church. We are not allowed to meet for worship. We are not allowed to meet to sew together. We are not allowed to meet to eat together—-perhaps our greatest talent. 🙂 This pandemic has forced us to be the Church in new and challenging ways. What do we have left?
We pray. We call. We listen. We sew. We worship in our homes. We conserve. We are cautious.
We must be conservative about protecting ourselves and others from spreading disease. But here’s the good news: we can be generous in prayer. We can be generous in phone calls and emails.
As Pope Francis says: “How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility,” he said. And “how many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer.”
God’s love has no limits and neither does ours. Amen.

Here is a prayer that one of my Facebook friends shared. Please pray it with me.

Holy God…
It seems that I return to you most easily when I need comfort, O God. Hello… here I am again, knowing that you are waiting for me with love and warming light.
In the shadow of your wings I find respite and relief that feeds my innermost self and renews my soul.
Day and night, you are my refuge.
These uncertain days of news conferences and quarantines tempt me to assume the worst for my loved ones, myself and my community.
“Pandemic” is a frightening word, and I can easily feel confused or helpless to respond.
Now I am relying on you to lead and guide me, to put my anxiety in its place.
Help me see it as a human response that keeps me conscious of the seriousness of this moment, but do not let it overwhelm my spirit.
Buoyed by your love, I choose each day to let peace reign in me. Breathing deeply of your calm, I repeat, again and again, “You are here.”Good and gracious Companion, my family and friends need tranquility and assurance.
Help me to offer them your tenderness.
Those in my community who are suffering need care.
Help me to be generous and to keep contact with the forgotten.
Our world calls for cooperation among national leaders, scientists, health care providers, and all who are instrumental in overcoming this crisis. May my prayers and support be with them all.
I have come back to you, and I will return, knowing that your open arms will never fail.
God of hope, may your love blanket the earth, as you teach us to live more generously today than yesterday. May my anxiety be transformed into love.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom
and the power and the glory
forever and ever. Amen

Receive the benediction:
24 God bless you and keep you,
25 God smile on you and gift you,
26 God look you full in the face and make you prosper.
(Numbers 6:24-26 The Message)

You can Love!

Mark 12:28-44 New International Version (NIV)
The Greatest Commandment
28 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?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 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.
Whose Son Is the Messiah?
35 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? 36 David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:
“‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right handuntil I put your enemies under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?”
The large crowd listened to him with delight.
Warning Against the Teachers of the Law
38 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 marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
The Widow’s Offering
41 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. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
The widow puts in two copper coins. Not very much. Not impressive.
When I was a kid, I was given a nickel every Sunday to put in the Sunday School offering. Eventually, I discovered that everyone else put in a dime. To my credit, I never asked my parents why I was only allowed to put in a nickel. Perhaps that was their equivalent of the widow’s mite.
This is a good Sunday to talk about putting in our 2¢ worth. We talked last Sunday about the dangers of closing our building for a few weeks. Really, we weren’t too worried about losing touch with each other. We’ve always been good about calling, texting and emailing each other during the week. Where we fall short is in our offering.We had a 21% shortfall last year. Thanks to the foresight of the saints who have gone before us, we can dig into our endowment. At least most years, we could. This year, that probably won’t happen. We may have to wait some time for the market to recover.
You are probably dealing with some budget changes, too. At our house, we’re not spending money at restaurants. We are spending a little more at the grocery store, but I’ve always been told it’s cheaper to cook for yourself than to let someone else cook for you. Because we’re closed for worship and because I’m not keeping office hours, I’m driving about 150 miles less a week, so I’m saving money on gas. Perhaps you’re not driving so much either. I don’t think I’ll be shopping for a new Easter outfit, so there’s some money saved.
Meanwhile, for our church, the regular bills come in. I’m still working for you, so there’s $1000 a month. The electricity is still working, so there’s $500 a month. We’ll have insurance bills coming in, so there’s another chunk. We won’t have to worry about having snow shoveled, but there will be grass to mow.
To meet our expenses, we need to bring in $2,000 a month. Divide that by 20. That means each of our members, ages 2-90 should be dropping a crisp Ben Franklin in the plate every month. That’s not going to happen. Most of us are on “fixed incomes” or paying mortgages.
During this pandemic, we are seeing people rise to their greatest levels of creativity and generosity. Every evening, after the corona virus update, the networks show us stories of people’s kindness. We see restaurants supplying meals for kids who are out of school. We see people standing outside nursing home windows cheering up loved ones inside.
That brings me to my greatest concern: our place in the community.
By now, you’re wondering if I actually read today’s Gospel lesson. Yes, I did. The story of the widow is the perfect conclusion to the preceding text.
The majority of the text is a discussion between Jesus and a teacher of the law (in some translations, called a scribe). The topic is the ten commandments. The teacher asks a simple yet tricky question: Which commandment is most important?
Think for a minute about the ten commandments. The first three describe our relationship with God. The remaining seven tell us how to live in good relationship with our neighbor. By neighbor, Jesus means EVERYBODY.
So, first of all, we’d expect Jesus to start with loving God, since he is God. He condenses the first three into one sentence: 30 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
I’m going do my own theology here, although I have plenty of resources, which I’m listing below for your perusal. Here is my question: why is loving God important? Why do we love anything or anyone? Because we benefit from it. Why do we love our children? Because they are part of us? Why do we love our parens or our siblings? Because they share with us, give to us, appreciate us. Why do we love our friends? Because they bring joy to our lives? So why do we love God? This is Sunday-School easy: God gives us more than all our friends and family combined.
One of the activities I’ve added to my life in this time of isolation is walking in the woods. Fortunately, I live near a park that has wonderful paths among woods that are not pruned or trimmed; every tree grows right where its seed first dropped, right next to all the other trees, most of them too close together to get very big. There are broken branches everywhere, uprooted trees here and there. On a windy day, I can walk protected from the wind. I know that in a month or so, one hill will be covered with the perfect white flowers of blood root. God gave us this creation. Have you ever tried to list every gift of creation? Seeds that grow into plants that feed us, flowers that amaze us, leaves that cure us. Animals that keep the plants in check by grazing. Animals and birds that spread the seeds. Animals that eat the insects that annoy us Bees that pollinate the flowers so that we have fruit to eat. Wind that cleanses. Water that nourishes. If we love nature, we love God.
Jesus continues: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We all love ourselves. Some of us find things not to love ourselves, like the extra fifty pounds that accumulated in the last twenty-five years. That’s only two pounds a year; don’t sweat it. I personally find that watching television commercials and reading catalogs makes me find things to not love about myself. I don’t love my hair, I don’t love my eyebrows, I don’t love my thighs, I don’t love my clumsiness. But I do love having toenails that can be painted (I went with purple this time—liturgically correct for Lent). I do love having a smile that is contagious. I do love the taste of a fresh orange, of a green bean cooked with a little onion, of pecan pie, of pizza. I do love hugging people; I do love chatting with friends. These are all things that I love about myself. I love myself so much that I go out of my way to make sure I am comfortable. I love myself so much that I cook from scratch. I love myself so much that I make sure there are flowers planted all around my house for every season. In fact, I have flowers blooming right now—hellebore—Lenten roses, so aptly named.
So, what did Jesus say? ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ So, how do I express that love? I express my love for Jill by going to her shop and having her give me the most marvelous pedicure, complete with purple polish. I smile at everybody in the grocery store. I buy food from my local grocer and I cook it for my husband. I chat with my friends via texting and telephone and walks in the woods. I send flowers to our mothers.
Perhaps you are grouchy about not being able to go to your favorite places. Perhaps you are lonely because you can’t play cards. Our options for showing our love have been changed. I say changed, not cancelled, because, again, God created us to be creative. New opportunities are opening for us to show our love.
I am especially concerned for our community, for those who live among us. One opportunity that has popped up is offered by JoAnn’s Fabrics. They are going to teach classes on how to make hospital gowns and other items that the hospitals need. We have one young family in our community who is quarantined with three small children. Perhaps we can find a way to help them. And even if you can’t leave the house, you can phone people to check in on them. A lot of us are going to be mentally and emotionally challenged by this quarantine.
Let’s stretch this “love your neighbor” thing a bit. Let’s use this love your neighbor things to adjust our attitudes. Ten years ago, I never knew you were going to be my neighbor, my beloved friends. Ten years from now, who will be our friends? Whom should we love now, not because we know and like them, but because Jesus wants us to show our love to those we don’t know. Some strangers will become your friends, some will not. You can probably name groups of strangers that you’d like to stay away from. Five years ago, I never thought I’d be visiting people in jail. Some of them belong to groups of people who are hated. Yet, here I am, loving them. It’s easier to hate in the short term, but it’s easier to love in the long term. Hate requires a lot of energy. Love requires faith. You have faith in God, you love Jesus, you are strengthened by the Holy Spirit. You’ll can do it! Amen.


Show Me the Money -or- Amazing!

Mark 12: 13-17
13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 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 imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 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.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 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 setting for today’s Scripture is critical.  Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem—an event we celebrate as Palm Sunday.  He is in the thick of the Passover holiday crowds, he is a celebrity by now, and there is a price on his head.  There is hardly breathing room, let alone a safe space for him. He is on everybody’s dance card and subtlety is not his modus operandi. 
Among the crowds it is hard to determine who are the bad guys and who are the good guys.  My Sunday School lessons from the fifties taught me that the Pharisees were the bad guys. In fact, many Pharisees followed Jesus, hoping he truly was the Messiah. The Romans were the bad guys, I learned in that classroom with thirty other restless four-year-olds, bu in fact there were Romans who listened to Jesus and sought him out from time to time.  And the Jewish crowd was a mixed bunch as well. Some were Zealots, who were hoping that Jesus would lead them in a military revolt against Rome.  The revolt happened about forty years after Jesus’ death, but it was disaster.  And who really understood Jesus’ true mission?—forgiveness of sins, salvation and hope eternal. 
Jesus was more misunderstood than understood. It’s amazing that we belong to a religion based on his teachings when they were transmitted for a couple centuries only by word of mouth, then written down after everyone who knew him was dead, then interpreted by a man who met him only in a vision. Amazing.     
Even more amazing is that the church as an institution has done as much harm as good and still survives.  The Crusades and the persecution of Jews and Native Americans come to mind.  One of the books I’m reading right now is Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich.  The complicity of the church in the extermination of six million Jews and Gypsies is another black mark on our collective Christian history. Ironically, substituting a few names and dates and it could pass for something written in the last year about our country. 
It is so easy to combine religion and nationalism.  That was the idea behind the trap the Pharisees and the Herodians set for Jesus.  They chose a topic that irked most of the listeners: taxes.The tax in question was a specific tax that was assessed on non-Roman citizens; hence Jesus’ Jewish followers, already angry that they were under the dominion of the Roman government, disliked equally being taxed by the Roman government.
Have you ever heard the saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?” Notice that we have two groups of people approaching Jesus today with the same purpose: Pharisees and Herodians.  These groups had little respect for each other. The Pharisees endeavored to keep the Jewish nation and the Jewish people separate in every way from the Roman occupation.  The Herodians, on the other hand, cooperated with the Roman authorities. Yet here there were, working together to take down Jesus. 
Imagine them meeting over a glass of wine, at first uncomfortable with each other, then warming to the idea that they were both threatened by Jesus. Imagine them discussing the best way to get Jesus out of the way.  They knew they couldn’t use physical force. The only way to trap Jesus was with his own weapon: words.  Imagine their delight when they came upon the tax question.  If Jesus answered one way, he was breaking the Roman law. If he answered another way, he would alienate his followers.  Either way, problem solved. 
They must have felt pretty excited as they made their way to the place where Jesus was preaching.  Of course, they would have attracted attention by their dress, by their status, by their confidence.  Can you imagine the tension creeping up among the crowd?  It must have been no secret in Jerusalem by now that Jesus was a wanted man, that his very life was in jeopardy. Something was about to happen, and nobody was going to miss this confrontation. 
The Pharisee-Herodians coalition starts out by flattering Jesus.  Why? To put him off-guard, to make him think they really, really like him, that he is a good guy like them.  “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.”   In other words, we all agree on the same thing…we all worship God. 
Then, bam!, hardly taking a breath, they threw their question at him: “Is it right to pay the imperial tax[] to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”  Warm-up is over; time to play ball.
Can you imagine the collective gasp of the crowd?  The dead silence?  Here is one topic they can relate to.  They all have skin in this game. 
No respectable Jew paid this tax gladly and some refused to pay it at all. Paying the Romans a tax meant disloyalty to God and to the Jewish nation. (https://www.swapmeetdave.com/Bible/Mark/Mark-12-1-17.pdf) Most insulting was that the tax was used to fund the Roman army occupation of Israel, so the Jews were being forced to pay for their own subjugation.    (www.patheos.com/blogs/theperipateticpreacher/2020/03/the-peripatetic-preacher-mark-12-1-17-lent-3-march-15-2020-taxes/)
Jesus needs no time to answer them.  He asks for a coin. They readily supply it.  Now this is interesting, because part of the problem was that the tax could only be paid in Roman coinage.  From an article I read: 
The poll tax could only be paid in Roman coin, the infamous silver denarius, not in the smaller copper coins in everyday use in Palestine. The denarius had the emperor’s head fixed upon it. Without hesitation, the questioners produce one of the coins, suggesting that they are ready to pay the tax to Rome. Of course, by Jewish law and custom, Jews may not carry anything that has a supposed god’s or human image on it; in that way the Herodians and Pharisees have broken their own laws. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/theperipateticpreacher/2020/03/the-peripatetic-preacher-mark-12-1-17-lent-3-march-15-2020-taxes/
 Isn’t that interesting? I wonder how many of them had more of the same coins stashed away at home? Hypocrisy is a tricky companion. But that is not important here.  What is important is that Jesus understands what is at stake. Are the people following him required to break God’s law in order to obey Caesar’s law?  Jesus has been preaching for three years about loving and serving God.   
I wonder if all of the listeners, Pharisees, Herodians, peasants, shopkeepers, fisherman weren’t a little disappointed with the answer. The Pharisees and the Herodians would be upset, of course.  Jesus hadn’t said anything to get him in trouble with anyone, so their purpose was thwarted. But what about those followers who were hoping for the overthrow of the Roman government? What about those followers who were hoping Jesus would say, “No more taxes!”  Was there not a little disappointment in the answer?  
This text is often used to justify the separation of church and state. Here’s another argument to throw a little sugar in the gas tank. The theological question is “What does God own?”  The correct, Sunday School, answer is “everything.” So, what does Caesar deserve? Whatever he deserves, it already belongs to God. At the most, all Caesar gets is some pieces of metal, which will some day be, at best, collectible and at worst, useless. 
From another article I read: 
But if all belongs to God, nothing in effect belongs to Caesar! Thus, far from urging following state law, what Jesus may be suggesting is that if one really gives to God what belongs to God, and if state law hinders that action, then disobeying certain laws of that state may be not only appropriate but necessary if God is to be obeyed.https://www.patheos.com/blogs/theperipateticpreacher/2020/03/the-peripatetic-preacher-mark-12-1-17-lent-3-march-15-2020-taxes/
For us, that means that our first obligation is always to God. And that brings us to history and current events.  When does our obligation to God put us in conflict with the state? Jesus does not tell us how to negotiate that fine line.  Where is the wilderness and where is the temple? When does the wilderness encroach on the temple.  When does the temple try to become the center of secular power? 
These are the hard questions of every age. At what point does the government circumvent or restrain or destroy the Gospel on the ground? 
At what point do we claim our rights as children of God to protect the rights of those who are disenfranchised and damaged by the legislation of the state?  
April 15 is a month away.  You’ll probably pay some taxes or get a refund.  You’ll probably gripe about your taxes.  But here it gets muddy.  Are you on Social Security? Medicare? Do you drive on paved roads? Did your children go to school tuition-free?  Can you fly safely from airport to airport?  
Sometimes what we give to Caesar comes back on the right side of the coin.  On our coins are the words, “In God We Trust.”  Even people who don’t trust God use those coins.  I find it a little ironic that in Jesus’ times, to put the head of someone on a coin was considered idolatry. Now we put God’s name on a coin and suddenly, it’s not idolatry any more.  Or maybe it is. But that’s a sermon for another time.  Amen.

Missing the Point or Be Careful What You Ask For Mark 10:32-45 Sunday, March 8, 2020

32 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. 33 “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, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 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.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 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. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 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.”

“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
That’s pretty bold isn’t it? What if I said to you, __ I want you to do for me whatever I ask. Would that make you a little uneasy? What would be your response? Something like, “Well, that depends.” I hope your first answer wouldn’t be =”Sure, pastor. Anything you want.”
But Jesus parried their request: 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
Let us fill in some details of this scene.
Jesus and his followers are walking toward Jerusalem. Everyone seems to know that something big is going to happen in Jerusalem. Jesus tells the disciples in plain language that it will be bad, but some how they are caught up in the excitement and they want to make the most of the coming adventure.
This reminds me of my love of political candidates. I love meeting people who might someday become famous or important. It’s a sort of intellectual high. In the end, the fact that I chatted with Michelle Obama or shook hands with Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal means absolutely nothing. But there is something about sharing in the potential glory of a candidate that is irresistible. That’s what John and James are feeling—-being connected to someone important and getting the most out of it.
Somehow they have missed the part about “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, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
All that has registered with them is that they are going to the big city, to the biggest celebration of the year, and that people are expecting them. They will be the center of attention; they will be important.
This text also reminds me of events of the past week. You may have heard that some of the presidential candidates dropped out of the race. But they didn’t drop out and disappear. They dropped out and simultaneously threw their support to one of the remaining two candidates. This was probably not done out of love and admiration; it was probably done in exchange for a cabinet seat. In other words, if Biden would win the nomination, then the election, we can expect to see Buttegieg, Klobuchar and Bloomberg in as Secretaries of Something.
Members of the current cabinet were not hired for the size of their intellect or experience, but for the size of their financial donations to the president’s campaign.
That’s how humans operate. What John and James were doing was pure politics, that is, they knew how people get along with each other, how people work with each other. It would be very natural for Jesus to appoint his disciples to high positions in his Kingdom.
IF Jesus’ Kingdom were going to follow the standards and procedures of earthly kingdoms. Jesus’ Kingdom is different. And that difference often confuses us and how we make our choices.
Jesus explains that in his Kingdom, the rewards are not based on levels of power or authority:
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 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.”
Jesus’ kingdom does not provide the perks one would expect if one were best friends with the boss. Quite the opposite, really. In Jesus’ kingdom, nobody is better than anybody else. And it goes farther than that: everybody is expected to serve everyone else, regardless of race, creed, orientation or affiliation. So I must serve you, not because I signed a contract, but because that is how this Kingdom works. You must serve not only your spouse or your parent, but also your neighbor.
What does that look like?
I spent Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday of last week at Wartburg Seminary’s Rural Ministry Conference. Our theme was “Ministry in Divisive Times.” The words “red” and “blue” were used a lot and one of the books written by the keynote speaker is Preaching in the Purple Zone. Our focus was how do we do church when we live in an environment where we are automatically repelled from each other by labels like “red” and “blue,” “conservative” and liberal?” We’re like opposite ends of magnets; when we come near each other, we back off. This doesn’t happen around the communion table or the potluck table. It only happens when we want to address the brokenness of the world, like climate change, immigration, prison reform, military power, states’ rights, health care, racism, sexism. We can get along as long as we stay away from the most important topics that face us. These same topics are the areas that call for our service to each other. These are the issues that we, as Christians, should be addressing.
We don’t have to address these issues: the broader church does that for us at conferences and conventions. We can ignore what the broader church does, send our yearly dues and ignore progress or failure, ignore the consequences and results of serving the less lovely.
But someday those chickens will come home to roost. One of us will be forced to deal with someone’s sexual orientation or the injustice of racism or voting rights for felons or food insecurity because it will be personal. It will be a child or a child’s spouse, a friend’s grandchild, a neighbor. Someone we love will be on the short end of justice, will be jailed, will be hungry, will be deported. Then what? Who will come to our aid? Will we have to pay an attorney? Will we have to fit one more person under our roof? Will we have a grandchild separated from a parent? Will we lose a coworker whose contribution to the work place is irreplaceable? Most importantly, will we bond as a congregation, as a community to serve the person, the family who is hurting? Will we serve without judging, without condemning?
Will we serve the way Jesus serves, the way Jesus instructs us, expects us to serve? Will we serve the person who disagrees with us? Will we serve the person who is a different color, be it black, brown, or white, red or blue?
Speaking of gender bias, I ran across this interesting posted by a pastor colleague on Facebook He observes that, “I’m reminded of one of my seminary professors, Susan Nelson, who challenged us to look at the Bible from multiple perspectives. She argued in “Beyond Servanthood” that for men who are used to being served, a call to be a servant can be an important challenge to humility. But for many women who have become accustomed to self-sacrifice and servanthood, this call to be a servant can push them to sacrifice their needs even further…”
Sometimes we Christians like to approach life as if Jesus were an athletic coach: “present pain for greater gain.” We do trust, as Christians, that death will remove us from the challenges of this life and that death will unite us once and for all with our Savior.
But first, we have to walk this earth, just like Jesus did, with eyes and hearts wide open, ready to see the hurt, ready to heal the hurt. Jesus spent most of his ministry among those who were hungry, sick, homeless, jobless (Why else would they have time to follow him from place to place?). He went one-on-one with demons, with hypocrites, with the powerful and the powerless. He didn’t confine his activities to the Sabbath and the synagogue.
If we take Jesus seriously, we have to take him full-throttle, 100%, all-inclusive, from our first words to our spouse or child in the morning through our daily errands, in every department of our workplace, in every social interaction. If you watch the news, don’t criticize the newsmakers; pray for them.
Impossible! It’s impossible, of course. Just as often as we set out to step carefully, we charge through the day, leaving broken commandments in our paths. So why try? Beyond teaching us, Jesus also forgives us. We are in a season of repentance right now. That is one of the bright spots of Lent—-we spend extra time in repentance. Repentance is hurtful only because it reminds us we have hurt others. But in repenting, we turn our guilt over to Jesus and he forgives us. We may not be forgiven by those whom we have wounded, but Jesus forgives us and pushes us back into service, without judging. Jesus knows in whose image we are created, Jesus knows he has taught us well, and Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to comfort us. Amen.