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Weakness and Vulnerability: Divine Things (February 25, 2018)

Mark 8:31-38

Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

I said last week that the author of Mark’s gospel writes in a pretty unique style. Direct, fast-paced, only including details that help make the point and leaving out anything else. And that this author invites us, the reader into the narrative–to finish the story, as it were.

This text today is Mark at his/her finest! It’s pretty hard to miss the point here, isn’t it? Disciples of Jesus are those that follow him even though he’s heading to his own death. To do anything else is to put human things ahead of divine things. And that, Jesus makes clear to Peter, is satanic.

Mark doesn’t leave us a lot of wiggle room. If you put yourself and your own life ahead of your neighbor’s, you are in essence losing your life. Real life only comes by giving yourself away for the sake of others—which is exactly what Jesus says he’s doing when he talks about his death.

Mark’s direct writing style on display. And, as the reader, we are invited into the story right alongside Peter. Human things or divine things? Follow Satan or follow Jesus? Serve ourselves or serve others? It’s that clear, that demanding, and should be that simple.

But here’s the thing. Like a lot of folks, I want to let myself off the hook just a bit, justify serving myself and choosing human things. And the Jesus in Mark makes it pretty clear where I stand when I do that.

I’m not alone there. So the one thing we all have in common is that the Jesus in Mark would say the same thing to each of us that he says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Because we want a God who doesn’t address our refusal to follow. We want a God whose only job is to forgive us for choosing the human things. Then, we can continue doing so feeling like God is backing our human choices.

Because just like Peter, we much prefer a God who is more human than divine. A God who meets our standard of power and might instead of one who is weak and easily killed. We want a God who is strong enough to take care of school shootings and gun violence for us, not one who invites us to follow him into the powerlessness of the victims.

Just like Peter, we expect strength in our Messiah, just as we desire strength in ourselves. That’s a human thing, not a divine thing.

Instead of striving to be powerful and strong, what would it be like if we followed Jesus into the divine thing. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who approached life from the position that they are always correct? Hard to be vulnerable and weak with them isn’t it? An encounter with someone like that is not usually an encounter with the divine, vulnerable Christ.

So, what if picking up our cross meant that we were as vulnerable as Jesus? We think the divine thing is power, when in fact it is the very human thing. Are we avoiding vulnerability in order to appear strong? Get behind me, Satan.

Jesus says very openly in this reading that the divine thing is to pick up our own cross and follow him. Because it’s in the vulnerability of the cross that God is most fully present with Jesus. Perhaps the cross we pick up is that same vulnerability. Because when we acknowledge our own vulnerability we are then walk with others in their vulnerability. Rather than avoiding weakness and brokenness which is the human thing, perhaps the divine thing to do is recognize God present in weakness. Both our own and others’. Rather than judge others in their vulnerability, rebuking them for a lack of Messianic strength, we join them in their brokenness, knowing that we are following the one who picked up the weakness of the cross. Instead of meeting power with more power, strength with more strength, force with more force, we seek to join the presence of Christ in the weak, the victimized, the wounded, the grieving.

That’s the divine thing to do. Because it’s only through the cross that there is resurrection. It’s only in weakness that there is strength. It’s only in vulnerability that there is life. Mark seems pretty clear about that.

There are a bunch of students from Parkland, FL who have experienced extreme vulnerability, and seen it in each other. They’ve decided to walk together in that vulnerability and in so doing have been resurrected to a new life, a new purpose. They’ve found a new voice in their collective weakness. And that voice just might change our culture of violence.

So we pick up this cross of weakness, of vulnerability, and we follow Christ. Not because of our certainty, but because that’s where we meet him. Because that’s where we discover resurrection and life. As we embrace others in their weakness too, walk alongside them in their vulnerability too, we recognize Christ present with us together. And together we experience new life.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2018 in Sermon

 

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The Power of a Vulnerable God (March 19, 2017)

John 4:5-42

So [Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Here’s my current strategy with the gospel of John. I take a small piece—usually one I can’t understand—preach myself into a corner, and see if Jesus will get me out. For now, at least, it seems to work.  The small piece that caught me is Jesus asking the Samaritan woman at the well to give him a drink.

If you were here last week, I pointed out that Nicodemus had come to Jesus at night—in the dark. This is a metaphor in John for “not getting it,” for “being in the dark.” He is a male, a Jew, a leader in Jerusalem, well-versed and well-respected.

This woman is, obviously, female, is a Samaritan (enemies of the Jews). She’s had a difficult life and pretty much everything she knows about God and/or religion is, from the perspective of a Jewish rabbi, wrong.

But, she meets Jesus at noon—the brightest part of the day. She, unlike Nicodemus last week, is “in the light.” Right away, doesn’t that make you curious? What does she get that a religious leader and teacher of God’s law doesn’t? What is happening in this story?

“Give me a drink,” Jesus asks her. It is a request. He’s simply asking her for some water. It’s her well, after all. And she has the only bucket around.

And, there it is. He asks her for water.

This is Jesus, right? Son of the Almighty God. Second person of the Holy Trinity. Performer of miracles. Doer of signs and wonders. Why doesn’t he create a bucket of his own and draw his own water? Why doesn’t he just make the water come up out of the well by itself and hover right in front of him? Why doesn’t he just miraculously dig his own well with sparkling water? I mean, it’s Jesus, after all. I’m sure he’s share it with her. Or just miraculously hydrate himself.

He’s got all the power, right? Putting aside the Divine thing, from a human perspective he has the advantage too. He is Jewish, he’s male, and he’s respected as a rabbi, a teacher. He’s got every advantage. Why not just make this simple and use his advantage to quench his thirst?

But that’s not what he does. He is tired and he is thirsty. He’s not in his home territory. And so he gives up power, privilege, and advantage and gives it over to her. He becomes vulnerable to her. He submits himself to her and asks her if she would use her bucket and her well to help him. As tired and as thirsty as he is, he allows her to exercise her power over him.

And he has to cross some cultural boundaries to do so. He’s male, she’s female; he’s Jewish, she’s Samaritan. In both cases, he’s not supposed to even talk with her, much less establish a relationship and give her an advantage over him.

Why does he do this? For the same reason Jesus does everything—vulnerability and inclusivity reveal the character of God.

How different is Jesus’ understanding of God than mine! I want an almighty God of strength who uses that strength to help me out. I want a God who is will intervene when I am in need. A God who, because I believe, will give me an advantage over others—the unbelievers and the unrighteous.

The bottom line is that, if God isn’t powerful and giving the advantage to those of us on the inside, what good is that?

This is not exactly the way Jesus goes about it, though. Jesus reveals a God who gives up power. A God who’s more interested in relationship than advantage. A God who is vulnerable. A God who is thirsty and asks for a drink. What good is a God like that?

I had an experience this week that showed me. I was visiting someone in the hospital this week and the spouse of the sick person was there. The one who was sick couldn’t feed themselves or even talk. Completely vulnerable with no advantage whatsoever at that point. But the spouse lovingly fed their sick loved-one a mouthful at a time, talking and smiling and encouraging all the while in genuine love and openness.

I realized, at that moment, how powerfully God was present. This was a #HolyMoment. God was there in the connection between these two. A connection that can only happen when they are open and vulnerable to the other.

God doesn’t come in the power and the morality and the strength and the righteousness. No, God is present in the space created by vulnerability and openness to the other. God is present when we give up our advantage for the sake of an open connection to another person. God is present in that vulnerable space.

Like Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman.

There are four newly resettled refugee families in our church neighborhood. Without knowing it, certainly without choosing it, they are offering us an opportunity to experience the presence of God. They are, right now, quite vulnerable and powerless in a new country. We have every advantage.

Today, let’s give up our advantage. Let’s welcome them as people of dignity and worth. This is Jesus at the well. We have an amazing opportunity to include people with openness and grace. One way is spending time making welcome cards for each family. More than that, cards of gratitude.

In addition to providing material needs for these families that come out of our abundance (i.e., advantage), today let’s make ourselves vulnerable for their sake. Let’s pour out ourselves in love and gratitude. Let’s humble ourselves in their presence. Then, let’s see the presence of God in that space of openness.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2017 in Sermon

 

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A God for Weaklings

Luke 4:1-13

Have you ever bargained with God? Have you ever been in one of those situations where you  say, “Get me out of this just this one time, God, and I promise I’ll never eat anything left out overnight again”? “Just do this one thing, God, and I swear I’ll go to the gym every day from now on.” You ever done that?

Yes, you have. . . Have you ever followed through with it? Those of you who say you have followed through, have you ever lied about anything else?

We’ve all tried to bargain with God. We’ve all tried to persuade God to show mercy, to use divine power, to perform a miracle, persuade someone to see things our way, to rescue us from this situation where we feel incredibly vulnerable and helpless. Sometimes it’s as trivial as a speeding ticket (just get me a warning and I’ll never speed again!); sometimes as agonizing as the death of someone you love. But we’ve all experienced that helplessness, that vulnerability, where there’s nothing else we can do but hope God or someone intervenes. Because whatever it is, is beyond what we have any control or power over.

When we are that powerless, that weak, that helpless, that alone, it’s like we’ll grasp at any straw to change it. When we are so overwhelmed with the situation, we’ll say anything, do anything, just to get through it.

I gotta think that’s where Jesus is in this gospel text. Absolutely overwhelmed, helpless, vulnerable. He’s just been baptized by John and his mission as Savior of all creation has just been declared from the Father. He heads out into the wilderness to regroup, think this through. And at the height of his vulnerability, the text says that’s when the devil came to visit him. Of course that’s when that would happen! If Jesus is feeling all pumped up and strong, excited about what’s coming, nothing could tempt him away from that. But when we’re weak and confused and desperate and defenseless, we all know how quickly we’re tempted to cave in and cry out.

Here’s what I’m noticing in this gospel reading, though. Look at the first six words. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit.” Before he ever went into the wilderness. Before he began his 40-day fast. Before the devil came to him. Before there was any temptation. Before any of it, he was full of the Holy Spirit. Fresh from the baptismal waters of the Jordan River, he was Spirit-filled, and ready for the wilderness.

The point here isn’t that Jesus resisted temptation, therefore you really ought to try harder. It’s that when facing temptation because we are in a situation where we are weak and vulnerable, the Holy Spirit is there and we are filled.

The point is not that if you were stronger you wouldn’t cave in. It’s that at those times when we cannot try harder, the Holy Spirit sustains us.

The point is not that weak people should feel guilty. It’s that because we are weak, the Holy Spirit comes to us in our weakness.

The point isn’t that you better resist temptation in order to be closer to God. It’s that because we cannot always resist temptation, God comes closer to us.

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God. She is the love of God with you. She fills you with forgiveness, comfort, and hope. Not because you are strong enough to resist temptation, but because you are not.

When you are in a situation where you are powerless and vulnerable, the Holy Spirit has filled you up—with God’s love, with God’s tender mercy, with God’s forgiveness.

When you are overwhelmed and helpless, the Holy Spirit is present with you—bringing grace and compassion.

When you cave in, when you are confused, when you are too weak to resist, the Holy Spirit is there for you—in hope and with a new start.

This isn’t a “become more like Jesus” text. It’s a “know the comfort of the Holy Spirit” text. It’s a “receive God’s forgiveness” text. The Holy Spirit fills you with mercy and forgiveness, not because you are as strong as Jesus, but because you are not.

So guess what? Next time we’re in a situation where we find ourselves bargaining with God, where we are helpless to change our circumstances, the Holy Spirit is, at that moment, already filling you to overflowing with the forgiveness and mercy of a loving God. Not because we are free from brokenness, but precisely because we are not.

Know the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Live in the forgiveness of the Holy Spirit. For you are filled with the mercy of the Holy Spirit. When you resist temptation, and especially when you do not.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Sermon

 

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