I worked very hard on this sermon. I’ve spent a long time thinking about it.
Most of it was a waste.
Because I spent a very long time mulling over this Gospel text, of Jesus and Martha and Mary. I worked very hard to understand the story. But not because it’s some complex thing. No, the trouble is, it’s actually rather simple. It’s a story with, like, one plot point. So my effort to understand was not deciphering some crazy esoteric text, but rather, to think about how I might make this very simple text come alive in some fresh way. How I might use it to point out something new, something exciting, something we haven’t all heard a thousand times before.
Because that’s my job, right? That’s what the preacher is supposed to do. That’s my task, my role this morning. I’m supposed to come up with something good, something true, something real. To preach well is to point to Christ, and Christ is not boring. But the more I thought, the more I plugged away at this problem, the more I realized that I had nothing. Nothing fresh, anyway. Nothing alive.
For the preacher, the antidote to this problem is supposed to be prayer. Prayer, encounter with the eternal, the infinite, the Living God, should yield…well, something. And I have been praying! But it’s been harder than normal lately. Less intuitive. I’ve felt overwhelmed by work. I’ve felt stressed. I’ve felt incompetent, and discouraged by that feeling, I’ve tried even harder to work my way out of it, to push through and do something right, something where I wouldn’t be left with lingering doubts and anxieties over whether I’m good at anything.
So, more pushing. More striving. More petition to God to accomplish what I’d set out to do.
Years ago, I would often practice something called “authentic movement,” a kind of contemplative, movement-based exercise with similarities to Carl Jung’s active imagination. In authentic movement you typically have your eyes closed, cultivating an inner stillness of the heart from where you listen for subtle impulses and intuitions guiding spontaneous movement. There would also normally be an observer, whose role it was to witness your movement, and then together you would explore the experience.
I was introduced to the practice as part of a class taught by one of my instructors at the time, a woman with extensive skill and experience as a dance therapist, also trained as a psychological analyst. And I remember one class in particular when I was assigned the role of mover and she the witness.
Starting from a place of stillness, with my eyes closed, I very soon felt a kind of a pull toward what seemed like a source of light. I began reaching for it, orbiting it, losing track of it, then finding it again. In felt like a dance in which we sometimes made contact, and then the distinction between myself and the light would seem to blur. As the time of movement came to a close, I slowly opened my eyes, and found the instructor, my witness, gazing at me with an open, gentle expression.
I well remember in my early adolescence discovering these words from the Gospel: Jesus telling us when we pray, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”[i]That really got my attention! I began asking away, and for a great many things: that I would get an “A” on my geography test. That I would win the prize at camp. That Martha, my classmate with whom I was smitten, would like me. That Butch Hendricks wouldn’t beat me up after school. That my Aunt Ingeborg would get over her cancer. That I would make the cut on the basketball team, and get a uniform. I prayed almost without ceasing. I asked for everything and anything on my mind. It didn’t work most times. And so I got up early to pray. I stayed up late to pray. I clasped my hands when I prayed. I opened my hands when I prayed. I closed my eyes; I opened my eyes. I knelt beside my bed. I secretly carried my Bible to school in my backpack. I memorized Bible verses. I avoided cracks on the sidewalk. I avoided odd numbers. I promised to eat all my vegetables. I ate all my vegetables. I didn’t chew gum at school. I promised never to cheat. –It was like trying to open a safe which I knew was full of treasure. If I could only get the combination right, I knew I could make this verse work: that I could ask Jesus for anything, and I would get it. It didn’t work. Not often. It sure wasn’t anything to depend on, and I remember “dropping” this Bible verse, like dropping a fad.
It was the context of Jesus’ invitation that I only later discovered. The weight of what Jesus promises is not on the word “ask” but on two other words: the pronoun ‘you’ and the word ‘name,’ Jesus’ name. What about the name?
There is an extraordinary amount of power in knowing someone’s name and then using it. To know someone’s name gives you a clear access to them and a claim on your relationship. To use someone’s name gives you the power of identification. And I suspect we all know when that power is misused. It’s when someone “name drops.” When someone feigns to know another person – who they are, what they believe, how they can be accessed. If someone invokes the name of a person with power, but without the license to use that name, it will backfire, eventually… because other people will always know better… that this person whose name is invoked would not say that or could not have said that. It’s inconsistent or incongruous… and the pretender will be exposed.
Which is the key in claiming this invitation that Jesus gives us: that Jesus will give us whatever we ask in his name. We must know Jesus to invoke his name. We must know the mind of Jesus, the heart of Jesus, the words of Jesus to speak in his name. The purpose, the goal, the reason in invoking Jesus’ name is for one reason, one reason only: it’s for the sake of love, so that we may love Jesus, and be loved by Jesus and then love others in Jesus’ name, that is, as Jesus loves them. If we’re to take Jesus’ invitation and ask for whatever it may be, our asking cannot be just on behalf of our own private self, but on behalf of all whom Jesus claims.
And then, when Jesus says ‘you’ – “whatever you ask” – this is not a ‘you-singular’ but ‘you-plural’: “you all.” This isn’t about me; this is about us, what wecollectively need. The founder of our own community, Richard Meux Benson, calls this “the relative life.” Father Benson says, “Your life must be a relative life. The moment you are imprisoned in your own self-consciousness, in your own separate individuality, in the selfishness of your own separate existence, you commit a worse suicide than taking the life of your body. You destroy the very life of your person.” Father Benson says that we are a relative being, and we have no existence except when we live, ask, and act on behalf of another, in Jesus’ name.[ii]
We should take Jesus at his word, to ask away. Jesus assures us, “I will give you whatever you ask in my name….” In my adolescence, the problem wasn’t that I was asking for too much; I was actually asking for too little. We need to know a great deal about Jesus and the enormity of his love – what Jesus would want for those for whom we pray – and then pray our hearts out. And in our praying, we should presume that Jesus will very likely reciprocate, in asking us, asking you, to be a part of the answer to that prayer.
[i]To make a strong point, Jesus is here repeating what he has said in the previous chapter of the Gospel according to John (14:6-14).
[ii]Quoted from Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, pp. 36-37; 297.
Hosea 14:1-9 | Mark 12:28-34
Hear, O Israel.
Return, O Israel.
We live in a particularly noisy world. Hosea and Jesus both certainly experienced the noisiness of our world, but we seem today to confront a kind of cacophony that is unique and acute. Even in the silences of our homes, the noise of the world calls to us from printed page and digital screen, hungry for our attention.
All the more difficult it can be to hear the voice of God in our lives, surrounded by the siren songs of marketing campaigns and the mandates of a twenty-first century pace.
I am sure the scene we’ve just heard in the temple at Jerusalem was a noisy one. This chapter of Mark’s gospel has seen one conflict after another. The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders have questioned the origin of Jesus’ authority; a group of Pharisees and Herodians has tried to trap him by inquiring as to his religious and political allegiances; some Sadducees have tried to deny Jesus’ resurrection claims by positing a logical quandary to him about a hypothetical woman and her seven hypothetical husbands.
John 15: 1, 6-17
Today is the feast of St. Matthias, chosen to replace Judas among the twelve apostles. Matthias had been with them since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Perhaps he was one of the 70 whom Jesus sent out. Hardly anything is written about him. All we know is Matthias had been with them since Jesus came among them. The apostles selected two candidates. They drew lots thereby choosing Matthias.
The group probably was not seeking a big personality. They already had that in Peter, James, and John. Now they were amid grief as Jesus had ascended back to heaven. I suspect they sought stability. They chose one who had been with them. They trusted Matthias would remain with them. Remaining, staying put through loss and grief, is hard. Our culture increasingly offers and expects mobility frequently adjusting where we live, work, and the kind of work we do.
Someone asked Antony, founder of desert monasticism, “What must one do in order to please God?” Antony said to stay focused on God, live according to Scripture, and “in whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it.”[i]Do not easily leave it. Then and now we are prone to leave. There is a hunger for and wisdom in stability: remain, stick it out, and keep finding God here.
Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5,10
Mark 8: 14-21
All of the world’s major Story traditions contain epic cycles of creation, the flourishing of life, decline, death, and renewal. Myths – stories that resound with the ring of Truth, whether or not they are based on factual events – mirror the processes of nature and the work of time. These stories enlarge what is small but also condense what is vast. This process allows the storyteller and the story-listener to make meaning of the cycle – which would otherwise remain too large to handle. The portion that is visible to us at any one moment – birth, growth, suffering, or death – would overwhelm us with its magnitude. Stories sift, sort, and distill until symbols cohere from the chaos: the waters of a great flood; a boat designed by God; a bit of yeast; a single loaf of bread.
When decline and death become the predominant experience of a culture or group, these stories become vital life-lines to a sacred past. “We have been here before,” the people can confidently say. “Let us remember; let our remembering bear us forward.” Some of the Psalms are almost entirely sustained acts of remembrance. Foundational memories recorded elsewhere in the Torah are set to psalmody not to be redundant, but to place them in the mouths of each praying generation. Including ours.
For the people of Israel, there is a power, a force, a God outside of nature and time. “The LORD sits enthroned abovethe flood,” the Psalmist sings. The Holy One is transcendent.
There is a scene in the Gospels where 12-year old Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions.[i]And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Here is my hunch. All who heard Jesus were amazed at his knowledge: a precocious boy from Nazareth (which was a long ways from nowhere), and Jesus’ being sosmart. He dazzled them with his knowledge.
Something happens in the ensuing nearly 20 years, the “hidden years,” before Jesus begins his public ministry. When he emerges from his seclusion, he does great deeds of power, healing, and provision; however something else “astounds” the people. Astounds. They ask themselves, “Where did this man get all this?” And what are they talking about? It’s not just about Jesus’ powerful ministry; it’s not just about his knowledge. Jesus is now filled with wisdom. So we hear in today’s Gospel lesson: the crowds were amazed and asked, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”
In the New Testament epistles, Jesus is named “the wisdom of God.”[ii] Jesus is the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”[iii] “Wisdom and knowledge,” which are cousins. Wisdom and knowledge are related, but they not one-in-the-same. Jesus was not born wise.
1 John 4:7 – 12
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Mark 6: 30 – 44
Those of you who have heard me preach before know that when reading Scripture, my attention is often caught, not by the soaring passages, or the amazing miracles, but the details that often creep in around the edge. Yes, the majesty of the Prologue of John, or the poignancy of the Foot Washing at the Last Supper, or the beauty of the Psalms are not to be missed. However, there is more to Scripture than majesty, poignancy and beauty. There is also the ordinary routine of daily living. It is there, in the ordinary routine of daily living, that God can be found as well. And that is why I am drawn, not to the miracle of the loaves and the fish, but to what comes before.
Chapter Six in the Gospel according to Mark is one of those breathless sections of Mark. A lot happens, and I mean a lot. It begins with Jesus’ rejection by his hometown and carries on to the sending out of the Twelve on their mission, the dance of Herodias and the death of John the Baptist, the return of the Twelve from their mission, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the calming of the sea, and there arrival at Gennesaret. As I mentioned, in 56 breathless verses, Mark crams in an awful lot of action, so much so, that if it were read all at once, our heads would be spinning!
As you may know, this kind of concentrated action is typical of Mark’s Gospel. It reminds me of an excited child coming home from a great adventure trying to condense a whole day’s activity into a few sentences: and then we did this! Then we did that! Then this other thing happened! Then, guess what happened???!!!
For Jesus, Saturday – not Sunday – was the most important day of the week. Saturday, not because of shopping, or afternoon barbeques, or baseball games, or getting bills paid and the laundry done, but because Saturday was the sabbath, the most important day of the week. Jesus was formed in the observance of the Ten Commandments. Of all the Commandments, the longest explanation is given to the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”[i] You are probably quite clear about the commandment not to commit murder, and not to steal, and not to take the Lord’s name in vain, but what about remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy?[ii] Is that a little fuzzy for you? If so, what happened, because you’re not alone? For many people, several things have colluded to compromise the observance of sabbath.
For one, there’s the Church’s deference to Sunday. Sunday is the day of resurrection. Every Sunday is a little Easter. By the Middle Ages, most Christians had transferred sabbath observance from Saturday to Sunday, i.e., keeping Sunday holy. Sunday, for most Christians, became the new sabbath. As a young boy, I remember the preparation for Sunday, our sabbath day, included the ritual Saturday night bath. Sunday morning I put on my very best clothes for church. My father taught me how to tie a necktie because because of church attire on Sunday. And that’s pretty much what we as a family did on Sundays: we went to church Sunday morning and Sunday evening, and we were together as a family all Sunday. I didn’t play with my neighborhood buddies, I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t make a lot of noise. There were no school activities on Sunday. There were “Blue Laws” which kept the stores shut: no shopping on Sundays, which also allowed store employees to do the very thing we were doing on Sunday: having a day of rest.[iii]
Much anxiety stems from what we don’t know and can’t know, especially what will happen. Fearing uncertainty, we often focus on what knowledge we have as something to grasp.
Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to Jesus sounding confident. “We know who you are. We know what is possible and impossible. No one can do the signs you are doing apart from God, so we know that you are a teacher from God.”
Jesus replies, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “Can one enter the womb again?”
Jesus says, “One must be born of water and spirit, must be born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. Now he clearly doesn’t understand.
Jesus is neither direct nor clear. There are still many ideas for what “of water and spirit” means. Perhaps the language confuses Nicodemus. Perhaps it’s the radical reversal. Nicodemus was born in the established, assumed way, from a Jewish mother. Part of his trouble may be from being an insider. That others can enter God’s family from outside is bewildering.[i]
Nicodemus comes confident in his knowledge, thinks he knows who Jesus is, what is possible, what makes sense, therefore what must be true. Nicodemus comes at night, a sign that he’s in the dark, that he cannot see, that he does not know.
Such certainty traps. Holding so tight to tradition and reason restricts hearing God. The Spirit moves like wind, blowing where it will. We cannot predict nor contain. When we think we’ve grasped God, we are overly confident in our knowledge. God is always more. As religious people we can be too certain about our religious knowledge and not hear the news, good and often disturbing news of Jesus.
What do we not see or know because of containers we’ve constructed? It’s may not be new yet we have forgotten. As descendants of Abraham, we are blessed so that allpeople may be blessed. Reading the Gospel of John, we hear from chapter one Jesus comes expanding God’s family to all people: “To all who received him, who called on his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[ii]No matter lineage or background, all can be born of the Spirit. Everyone is invited to be children of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” We also heard it in the Letter to the Romans: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
To those already inside, this may be disturbing that others will join. To those on the margins, this is especially good news of welcome and belonging. Insiders may not realize their own position, their own need. Everyone is welcome, at home, belonging as God’s children.
As adults, we may be uncomfortable hearing ourselves called children. We still have much to learn. Perhaps “born from above” is Jesus’ invitation to “not knowing,” to taking a childlike perspective.[iii]Countering serious adults who strive for certainty, Jesus invites a childlike playfulness, a way of becoming. Grownups get trapped in reasoning, in quests for certainty, right and wrong, and social acceptance. Like Nicodemus, we think we know. If we’re not sure, we may ask in secret to not be seen by others.
A childlike perspective is playful. Open to questions. Exploring possibilities widely. To play is to gaze in wonder. To do something simply because it delights. Act with freedom and inhibition, unconcerned about what others may think. Get down low and get up close to look. Try it out. Take risks. Be vulnerable.
A playful perspective faces the unknown with courage to discover, with risk to behold. In play, we let down our guard. We need play in our relationships to show up as we are. There is more to relating than behaviors in which we feel familiar and confident. Risking the new takes us further. A childlike playfulness ushers in becoming more.
A childlike prayerfulness opens us to more. Pray as you can, as you already do. And take a risk, try something new. There are endless ways to pray. In the face of anxiety and uncertainty, play with your prayer, going beyond seeming proficiency. Try a medium with which you’re not familiar and discover what unfolds.
I find it helpful returning to crayons or trying pastels or paints or clay—something hands on. Coloring in a way we long haven’t, even doing so down on the floor, helps prompt a childlike perspective. Put color on the page and play. Be simple and gentle with yourself. Rather than seeking to know, just be. Surprisingly, it’s then that we see.
Playfulness goes beyond knowledge, beyond definitions or grasping. A playful perspective is open to mystery. Today we celebrate the Trinity, one God in three persons. The divine nature as a community of persons is not logical, not to be grasped. Rather than knowing, join our brothers and sisters, all the children of the world, playfully praying with God who is mystery.
[i]Frances Taylor Gench (2007) Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p21.
[iii]Jean Vanier (2004) Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. New York: Paulist Press, p75.