Monday, October 19, 2015

Reflection on Mark 10:35-45

In the secret, in the quiet place
In the stillness You are there
In the secret, in the quiet hour
I wait only for You
Cause, I want to know You more

I want to know You
I want to hear Your voice
I want to know You more

I want to touch You
I want to see Your face
I want to know You more

- "In the Secret" by Andy Park

I am going to give James and John the benefit of the doubt here.  When they ask Jesus to grant them to sit at his right and his left hand in his glory, I am going to assume that they are not necessarily seeking power and glory for themselves.  I am simply going to assume that the desire of their hearts beat the words of the song printed above: "I want to know You more."  I assume that they want to be close with God.

I get that.  On my best days, the ones where I am not obsessing over getting an article written, or the study prepared for, or to get the groceries bought without forgetting something, I want to be close with God. 

During my college years, I had sort of a mystical understanding about this getting close to God business.  I reasoned, if Christ was the source of all life, and still is making all things new right as we speak, then if I am still enough, I will be able to feel him, touch him, be at one with him, know him more.

As a disciple of Christ, my main go-to activity therefore was meditation.  I tried to still my soul enough that I may be at one with Christ…that I may feel that eternal peace that comes only when you rest completely in Christ’s arms.  James and John, I hear you.  You want to be near Christ always, to know him more?  I think we all want that.

I had a friend also wanted to be close to God.  We worked together scraping rust off of an old Corp of Engineers steamboat.  While we scraped he talked about his desire to get closer to God. 

“If I can get closer to God,” he would say, “then God will reward me and I can get out of this rust hole.” 

We were literally back to back, scraping a tube full of rust. 

“I know that God wants the best for me.  I know that God want me to be successful in life and rich.  Can you help me know God more?”

I once made the mistake of telling my coworkers that I was going to go to seminary the following year.  You know how if you once changed the oil in the car for a friend, they assume you know how to swap out a fan belt or change a catalytic converter?  Well, this is the pastor version of that. 

There is one thing I knew for sure, I knew this guy was not going to be happy with my Lutheran church with all of our talk about the cross.  He wanted glory and reward, not sacrifice and cross bearing.  And, my church had a great, big, huge, 20 foot tall cross right in the middle of it. 

“How about you check out that church on the edge of town, you know, the one where the pastor pulls up every Sunday morning in a Ferrari.” 

Needless to say, my pastor did not own a Ferrari.

Yeah, I know, it’s easy to judge the guy, but how is his desire to know God more and get the benefit of nice things in life any different than my desire to know God more and get the benefit of peace in life.  We both want something from God.  We both come with hands open, expecting them to be filled properly.

“Teacher, we want you to do for you whatever we ask of you,” James and John ask, hands open…waiting to be filled. 

Just a quick aside, notice that Jesus first asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”   My conversations tend to go something more like this:

“Can you do something for me?”

“Sure, what do you want?”

“Good, I want you to blow up the nuclear power plant.”

"Um...well...when I said yes..."

You see what happened there.  Do not do that.  Follow Jesus’ lead and never, ever answer, “Sure” or “Yes” and afterward ask what they want.  Ask what they want first.  That is a free practical tip for you today, right from Jesus.

“What do you want?” Jesus wisely asks first. 

What did they want?  They wanted to be a part of God's glory.  They wanted to sit at the right and to the left of Jesus on his throne.  They want to be near God. 

But, they do not know what they are asking.  They just do not understand that they may want to go to the charlatan on the edge of town who drives a Ferrari because ahead of Jesus is a Great, Big Cross. 

Christ's throne of glory?  It is a cross.  And, the seats to the right and to the left…they cannot have them because they have already been taken by two criminals who will die with him.

The last will be first, and the first will be last.

Greatness, being one with God, is not defined by power and glory or even eternal peace.  Rather, it is defined by slavery. 

Slavery, or a more holy way to put it: service.  Serving those things and people that God cares about.  Serving the hungry.  Healing the mentally ill.  Caring for the children.  Loving the total mess up.  Forgiving the sinner.  Getting down and dirty with those whom most people in polite company would simply push away.  Dying for those same lowly people on a cross, that is glory.

Do you want to be close to Jesus?  Then go find him hanging out with those he cares about the most: those who are at the lowest of the low. 

That is where Jesus found me anyway.  The most defining part of my faith life was when I was at my lowest.  When I was in doubt.  I was literally balled up in the corner of the kitchen, unable to believe in a God that makes any sense, and in that moment of personal darkness, Jesus spoke to me through some scripture.  I was given the prayer from scripture that gave me hope.  The prayer goes like this, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  And, in that prayer, Jesus came, and raised me.

Searching for Jesus?  Number one, Jesus tends to find us rather than us finding him.  However, if we were to go looking I am willing to bet that Jesus, in his glory, would not be found by looking up in the glorious places. You would more likely find Jesus by looking down. 

Jesus is found where there is suffering.  No Ferrari for Jesus.  Only acts of love for lowly ones.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Reflection on Mark 10:17-31

"God alone is good."  "Follow me."

These two verses stick out from the crowd of words, waving and calling attention.  "God alone is good."  "Follow me."

Imagine that you run up to Jesus, kneeling as if in need of healing.  Healing…is that actually what you need?  Maybe?  You do not know, all you know is that this man can make things right, and things do not seem to be quite right.

“How can I be right with God?” you ask yourself.
Looking at Jesus you ask, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And, there it is.  The healing you need...finally out of your lips.  You desire God.  You desire life.  You desire life that does not fade or rust.  You desire the good stuff.  You desire God. 

“Why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone,” Jesus replies. 

“God is good.”  Yes indeed, God is good.  That is what you have been searching for, a good God, a loving God, a God who can identify what you are missing and heal it.

Jesus redirects your attention, answering your question, sort of, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'"

You have not murdered.  You have not cheated on your spouse…there is no secret second family somewhere.  You do not steal; not even pencils.  You do not lie about others or gossip.  You work for what you have, you do not try to take it from others.  You care for your parents in their old age.  You have done it all it seems.  You are a good person.  Yet, yet, something still lacks. 

"Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth."

Jesus, looking at you, with love in his eyes says, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 

He found it: the hole in your life.  He discovered the pain and offers to heal it. 

But, that cannot possibly be the right diagnosis?  You have worked hard for all that you have.  You have never felt entitled to anything.  You have never sought to steal any of it.  Give it away?  What is wrong with having it?  Surely there is nothing wrong with having the finer things in life, is there? 

What would it be like to give it all away?  What if you gave it away and then needed it later?  Then what?

The fact that you are obsessing over a pile of stuff, struggling to even conceive of letting it go reveals for the first time just how sick you are.  You have kept all of the secondary commandments, but have forgotten about the first, to love the Lord your God and trust God alone. 

Of course it is illogical to trust stuff, but we do.  Why is it so hard to part with it?  The reason is not hard to discover.

This weekend, I had a chance to see my brother and his family in DC.  And, while sitting in our hotel room, I started playing with my niece and nephews.  We did not have any toys, but there was that free pad of paper on the table. 

So, I took a sheet of the paper, folded it into a paper airplane, threw it at the kids, and they began to laugh and play.  They figured out a way to take turns with the only toy in the room, and they were laughing together, throwing it and chasing it. 

Paper airplanes are a cheap toy, and there was no real reason that they needed to share, so I made another, and another.  That way they would not have to worry about figuring out whose turn was next.  In fact, I just sat there and kept making the airplanes out of the whole pad of paper, about 20 planes from the cheap little pad. 

But, as I was making more and more, something curious happened.  The playing and laughter had stopped.  Instead of running around the rooms, throwing flying planes at each other, they had begun to collect them and stash them away, like prized possessions.  One had a stash by the pillows on the bed, another, a stash under the table.  The youngest was not old enough to know how to protect his property, so he had none. 

Instantly, the children had gone from playing and sharing, when they had one, to protecting their possessions when they had many to share. 

Ah…but, the possessions were theirs.  They had rightfully collected them because they were the fastest and most clever person.  They had worked hard for their stash, and they needed to protect them.  Of course, the youngest...the weakest...was not entitled to any.  I am certain he would learn in time how to collect and stash, just not today.

By now you have noticed that in the end none of the airplanes were used for their intended purpose, flying and laughing and playing.  The children also were no longer fulfilling their intended purpose either, to have fun with each other. 

The abundance of planes had started to control their actions and their beliefs.  And, in the end one of the children was left out.  The abundance of planes had led them to forget to love.

Things do not lead us to love.  Things do not lead us to do good.  Things lead us to sin. 

And, the two phrases stick out clearly once again, “God alone is good.”  “Follow me.” 

No one is good but God.  No one gives life like God.  No one loves like God.  Only God can be trusted completely. 

Jesus looks at us with love, sees how attached we are to our things and says, “You want to be healed?  Share your wealth with those who have nothing.  Trust me.  I love you and will never forget you.  Follow me.”

The young man went away grieving, for he had many things. 

It seems that too much has been asked of him.  Maybe it has and there is no hope that he will trust God.  Except, one word does not allow me to write him off completely: “grief.”  He went away grieving. 

Grief only happens when you begin to let go.  Grieving happens when you can no longer have what you formerly loved.  Grief happens when someone dies.  Grief happens when your favorite car gets smashed.  Grief happens when what you have will soon be gone. 

Maybe, just maybe, Jesus has healed him and the man has taken his first step in letting go.  Maybe, just maybe, the man has taken his first step in trusting that God is good.  Maybe, just maybe, he will be able to follow.  Maybe.

And, Jesus looks with love upon us, because God alone is good.  Faith drives us to let go of all those things that control our lives.  “Give them to those with none, and come, follow me,” Jesus says.  “God alone is good,” he promises.  “Follow me.”

Monday, October 5, 2015

Reflection on Mark 10:2-16

If you have been through a divorce yourself, or have experienced one as a child, or as a friend or family member, there is one thing that I do not need to do for you in this post.  I do not need to go on and on about the pain that occurs when the one flesh is ripped back into two.   

You all know the pain of divorce, way too well.  No one reading this needs to hear yet another sermon about the sinful nature of divorce, or the destruction that divorce causes.  No one reading this needs me to add to the pain by being self-righteous and preachy.  I have no desire to add to your pain this morning.  You already know…you already know.

It’s easy to hurt people while talking about divorce because religious discussions about divorce tend to be very abstract.  “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  And, then we can discuss, as if it were theoretical, whether or not Moses allows it, and in what circumstances it is allowed.  Can you divorce your wife for not cooking well?  Maybe, you can only divorce if she is unfaithful?  Maybe divorce is fine and the real problem is remarriage.  You can divorce, you just can’t remarry.   

But, in all of the theoretical, heady, banter back and forth we forget one important thing: real people in really complicated situations are involved in divorce.  There is nothing worse than a theoretical discussion that forgets about the people.

The people.  Did you know that the one of the highest demographics of the working poor are single mothers with children who are just trying to get by after a divorce?  I do not think it is right to cast a dispersion on the vulnerable.   

Did you know that most divorces are not mutually agreed upon?  Rather, one of the two people is left feeling like their spouse has just died…trying their hardest to hold together something that is falling apart everywhere like a handful of wet noodles.  Again, I do not think it is right to cast a dispersion on the vulnerable.  Then, there is the cheating and the drinking and the…well, you know…you know.  There will be no rocks thrown here.  Divorce leaves a person quite vulnerable as it is.

The vulnerable.

Do you know who is vulnerable?  Children.  Children are vulnerable.  They have no power in any adult decisions.  They cannot sign legal contracts.  They cannot enter unless invited.  They are told not to speak unless spoken to.  Children have no say if their world in turned up-side-down.  They have to go where they are led, even if it is into a deep, dark pit.  Children are truly vulnerable. 

And no, I am not going where you think I am.  You already know the effect that divorce has on children.  You already know.  I am not here to pile on even more guilt.  I was not going there. 
What I did want to mention is that Jesus welcomes the children.  In a world where they have no power and they are shooed away by the disciples as unimportant, Jesus rebukes the disciples and welcomes the children.  Jesus draws them near.  He takes them into his arms and holds them close.  Jesus snuggles the vulnerable.  The kingdom of God is for the vulnerable.

And, that is what I want you to hear today.  To those single parents who have struggled, counting pennies because of their divorce I have one thing to say to you: the kingdom of God is for you, the vulnerable.   

To those who yearn to have things the way they were back at the beginning of the relationship…when you truly felt as if the two had become one flesh…to those grieving that loss, I have one thing to say to you: the kingdom of God is for you, the vulnerable. 
The entire reason that Jesus is against the one flesh becoming two again in the first place, is because it brings harm to the vulnerable.  Women and children in the ancient world were abandoned, without support, when divorce occurred.   

Jesus understands that place in life.  The image of Jesus on the cross is at the same time one of complete vulnerability…identifying with the vulnerable...and arms wide open embracing all.  Jesus is about drawing all of creation together, not tearing it apart.  Jesus is about protecting the vulnerable, not creating more.  As you already know, divorce does not draw together.

I know of a Christian man named Christian ironically, who filed for divorce.  He and his wife had not been happy for years, and the kids knew it.  He was a working dad and she was a stay at home mom, and over the years they simply drifted apart, until they were two quite different people than they were from the start.  Christian thought to himself that it clearly was not fair to keep his wife trapped in a loveless marriage, but he just could not imagine a good future for his wife and kids alone.   

Then, one night, while tossing and turning on the couch in the office, the idea came to him.  The next day, he went into his shop, grabbed some tools, took his Saws-All, and started cutting a door into the side of his house, right into the office.  The office, which was practically already his bedroom anyway, would become his apartment.  He could still pay for the house and food and be there for his kids, but he didn’t have to remain married to his wife.  He and his wife could both have their own lives, but in this way, he would protect her and the kids from being abandoned and vulnerable.  And, the idea worked.  The two were no longer one flesh, but no one was left vulnerable. 

Of course, I do not intend for this example to cause guilt either.  I know that in many circumstances such a solution would have been impossible.  Do not worry.  The kingdom belongs to the vulnerable.  The only reason I tell Christian’s story is because his primary concern lined up so well with that of Jesus.  He cared enough for his wife and children that they might not become sad statistics of divorce.  He cared about the vulnerable, and he did something about it. 

I know of one other guy who cared about the vulnerable, and then did something about it.  Seeing the pain that happens when people are ripped apart from sin and strife, he went to the cross, was stripped of his clothes, was abandoned and alone.  He joined in the pain of the sinful and vulnerable and spread wide his arms for all.  Drawing the world back together through forgiveness and new life, Jesus took care of the vulnerable.  “Let the little children come to me.”  And, that includes the vulnerable who have suffered from divorce.