Monday, March 9, 2020

To Follow on the Way

March 8th, 2020       “To Follow on the Way”     Rev. Heather Jepsen

Mark 10:32-52

         This morning we continue our narrative lectionary reading as we follow the story of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Mark.  We are in the season of Lent and Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the suffering that awaits him there.  This week he will help the disciples and us to understand what it means to follow him on this way.

We pick up right where we left off last week.  Jesus has been traveling on the road to Jerusalem.  Last week he was interrupted by a rich man and we had discussions and lessons about how our wealth is an obstacle to our ability to follow Jesus.  This week it will be our egos.

         We begin with Jesus and the disciples walking along the road to Jerusalem.  On the journey Jesus pulls the disciples aside and begins to tell them about his upcoming suffering and death.  This is the third and final passion prediction in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus couldn’t be any clearer that they are headed to Jerusalem and once there he will be arrested and will suffer and die.  He also tells his followers that after three days he will rise again.  Although the language is clear, the idea behind it is not, and even though they have heard this twice already the disciples still fail to understand what Jesus is talking about.

         That misunderstanding is made abundantly clear by the brothers James and John.  They approach Jesus and ask if they might be granted the places of authority and honor, sitting at his right and left hand, when he comes into his glory.  Duh!  How thick are these guys?  Jesus just told everyone they are going to Jerusalem to suffer and they are asking about an earthly kingdom.  C’mon guys!

         Jesus makes it clear to them that if they continue to follow him they will have their own time of suffering.  But, he does not have the authority to declare who will sit at his right and left.  In fact, when it comes time for Jesus’ suffering, he will have no more than a pair of robbers at his right and left hand.

         Once news of James and John’s arrogance spreads to the others the disciples get riled up.  They are angry at the brothers for asking for positions of honor and perhaps angry that they didn’t think to ask first.  So Jesus has another teaching moment when he explains that leadership in this community doesn’t look like leadership anywhere else.  The political rulers lord power over their people and act as tyrants.  But within the kingdom community, Jesus reminds us the highest place is the one of service.  Jesus himself is to be their example, as he has come to give his own life for this cause.

         Of course, the group is interrupted again as Bartimaeus the blind beggar begins making a scene.  Calling out to Jesus, and giving him the Messianic title “Son of David” he asks for Jesus to heal his sight.  People try to block his way but Jesus will have none of that.  Calling the man to him he offers him the gift of sight.  Surprisingly, even though Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go, Bartimaeus instead decides to follow Jesus on the way.  Even though he had no earthly vision, it seems that Bartimaeus saw who Jesus was better than the disciples who had the use of their eyes.

         All of these stories rotate around the central idea of who we are as people of faith and what it means to follow Jesus on the way.  We know that we are followers of Jesus but what does it mean to actually follow Jesus on this Lenten path to Jerusalem?  Like the disciples we struggle on this journey.  We hear Jesus offer the teaching about being servants and least of these but we really have a hard time putting this into practice.  We don’t want to do it, and really we don’t know how.  Everything we have inside us calls to us of a desire for status and recognition.  We want people to know who we are and to admire us.  We don’t want to be servants, we want to be leaders.  It is just how we are hardwired.

         We want to follow Jesus because we can feel he has something that we need.  But we don’t really want to go to Jerusalem.  Seriously, why would we?  If I said to you, “Come on, let’s go.  I’m going to Jerusalem where I will be arrested and put on death row.  They will make fun of me in public and spit on me and whip me in the street.  Then I will be killed.  Come with me!”  No one would go.  No one in their right mind would go.  Is it any wonder that the people who follow Jesus are amazed and afraid?  We are afraid of the things Jesus says, and we are amazed that he would ask such things of us.  Why would anyone ask us to go and die like this?  It’s awful.

         So what are we doing following this Jesus on this way?  What are we chasing him for?  What do we want him to do for us?  Did you catch that, Jesus asks it of his followers multiple times in this passage.  When James and John approach asking for a favor Jesus says “What is it you want me to do for you?”  “Jesus give me status” they seem to say.  And they will get it, James and John, numbered among the disciples, there is hardly any higher status in the church.  And they will drink the cup of suffering following the way of their Lord. 

         When Bartimaeus interrupts the journey Jesus asks the same of him.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  “Jesus give me mercy” he seems to say.  He asks for the ability to see and he gets it.  Not just to see with his physical eyes but to see truly and clearly who Jesus really is.  Why else would he abandon the life he knows and follow Jesus on the way?  He can see what is really happening.  He knows who Jesus really is and what is going on.

         Lent is a season where we often set aside extra time for prayer.  Perhaps you are following along in the devotional or maybe offering a prayer each morning before you start the day.  As we set our hearts to follow our Lord, chasing after him in prayer, I am wondering how we would answer this question.  If Jesus suddenly asked “what do you want me to do for you?” how would you respond?  What is that desire deep within your heart?  Jesus give me status, give me wealth, give me healing, give me mercy, give me love.  Jesus give me what I need.

         We are so hungry and we are always seeking.  We are always trying to follow Jesus on this way and it is scary.  Like the disciples we are amazed and afraid.  We aren’t as clueless as James and John to ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left.  We know the path is service.  But still, to become the least of these is frightening.  To follow our leader into suffering, into death, it is not really a place we want to go.

         I think my favorite passage in this whole reading is the first one, verse 32.  “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”  Did you notice that part about Jesus walking ahead of them?  Jesus goes first into suffering.  Jesus leads the way.  Even though this path to Jerusalem is scary and painful, we are never alone, because Jesus is already there.  Wherever we follow our Lord to, whatever suffering comes our way, Jesus is already there.  Jesus is with us wherever we go, because Jesus is walking ahead.

         That is what this communion table is all about.  Our Lord walks ahead of us into suffering.  Our Lord is one who knows the depth of human pain and sadness.  There is no hurt that we can feel that our Lord hasn’t already felt.  There is no place in the darkness of our lives and our world that cannot be touched by the light of God.  The worst thing that we can imagine?  God is there, God is with us.  Our Lord knows suffering, our Lord walks with us on the paths of suffering, and our Lord will lead us back out away from suffering.  Away from this table of Good Friday and into the joy of Easter morning.  As Jesus tells his disciples he will be killed “and after three days he will rise again.”

         To follow Jesus on the way is to have the courage to follow wherever he leads.  This path of service is a path of suffering and self-denial.  This is the way we take up our cross and put our own interests aside.  We would be fools not to be afraid.  But we know that God goes with us.  And we know that no matter how low we go, no matter how deep we fall, God will always pull us back again.  We follow not only the Lord who was killed; we follow the one who lives again.  May we have the strength and courage to continue to follow Jesus on the way.  Amen.


Monday, March 2, 2020

Our Greatest Obstacle

March 1st, 2020     “Our Greatest Obstacle”       Rev. Heather Jepsen

Mark 10:17-31

         This morning we continue our narrative lectionary journey through the gospel of Mark.  Last week we read about Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop and we wondered about who the Messiah really was.  There were hard lessons about self-denial, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus on the path to Jerusalem.  Today the hard lessons continue as Jesus teaches us about the obstacle wealth creates in our quest for the kingdom of God.

         We begin with a familiar story that is repeated throughout the synoptic gospels.  A rich man approaches Jesus.  In the other gospels he is referred to as being young, or being a ruler, but in Mark his only identifying factor is his wealth.  This man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him in a sign of deference, and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

         There is some conversation about who or what can be good as Jesus replies “why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”  When we first read this it sounds like Jesus is saying he isn’t good, but I don’t think that’s the case.  I think Jesus is pointing out that true goodness only comes from God.  And perhaps, if the man thinks Jesus is good, Jesus is trying to draw out of him the additional knowledge that Jesus is from God.

         Jesus reminds the man about following the 10 commandments, highlighting the commandments that are about our relationships to each other.  Don’t murder, cheat, lie, or steal.  Like many of us might, this man claims he is innocent of these sins.  His reply, “I have kept all these since my youth” could mean different things.  Is he puffed up and bragging?  “I have kept all these since my youth!”  Or perhaps he is earnestly seeking more knowledge “Yes, I’ve kept all these since my youth . . .” Either way, Jesus looks at him with love which is significant for the gospel of Mark. 

         In love Jesus offers the man one more lesson.  “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.”  It is an invitation into a radically altered life.  Give it all away and follow Jesus on the way.  Mark tells us the man is shocked and goes away grieving, for he had many possessions.  Is he sad because he can’t do it?  Or is he sad because he will miss his things?  Either way, his many possessions cause him grief.

         Jesus senses a wider opportunity for a teaching moment and looking around at the gathered crowds he declares “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  Everyone, disciples included, is shocked and perplexed at this teaching.  Just like in our own time, wealth is a sign of blessing.  There are many pastors in our modern world who preach that if we are faithful to God, God will reward us with material blessings.  It’s called “Prosperity Gospel” and Pastor Joel Osteen is a famous promoter of this theory.  Pastor Osteen is worth about $50 million dollars so he is clearly more blessed than I am.

         But not, unfortunately, according to Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  According to Jesus, it would be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.  I don’t know if Pastor Osteen has preached on this text, I’m guessing not, but other pastors have, and a common story out there is that there was a gate leading into Jerusalem that was called the “eye of the needle” and only a camel without possessions on its back could enter it.  Sounds plausible right?  And this kind of gets us off the hook.  Too bad, it’s not true.  Turns out this is a false story started by some pastor somewhere who didn’t want to deal with the real truth of Jesus’ teaching.  How hard it will be for rich people to enter the kingdom of God.

         Even the disciples are worried that they will be left out of this blessing.  “Who then will be saved?”  And I want to point out, if the disciples think they have too much money, we probably do too!  Jesus’ reply is that this is impossible for us, impossible for those with wealth to enter the kingdom, but through God all things are possible. 

Peter pushes the point, and just like us, he wants to highlight his own poverty.  I’m not that rich am I?  “We’ve left everything to follow you.”  Jesus replies that what we give up we will regain in the kingdom, albeit with persecutions.  Notice here that he is talking about relationships and not possessions.  Followers will gain brothers, sisters, mothers, and children along with houses and fields to share with them.  This is about gaining community, not about gaining wealth.

         Just like the man who approaches Jesus, and like Peter who follows him, we struggle with this lesson.  We are good with the 10 commandments but we stand convicted when it comes to our wealth.  I think that’s ok.  This is the beginning of the season of Lent and now is a perfect time to humble ourselves and think a bit about our sin.  Our wealth is something we should consider in our faith lives.  If our kids are going to honor Lent by sharing their change with those less fortunate, (and I’m not going to call it spare change because kids don’t have spare money, they count every penny), perhaps we should also honor Lent by considering more fully our wealth.

         This is a challenging text, and therefore an appropriate lesson for Lent.  No matter how we spin it, our wealth is an obstacle to our faith.  In fact, I would argue that in our particular context it is our greatest obstacle.  Nothing has the power to divide us from God and keep us out of the kingdom like our wealth.  Imagine with me for a minute that wealth was truly, literally, an obstacle.  All your possessions are like a mountain you have to climb over to reach the blessing of Jesus.  Imagine climbing over your house, your car, and your things all stacked atop each other.  Imagine your 401K and your bank account as a pile of pennies you must summit in order to reach the divine.  How big is the mountain you have to climb?  And can you muster the energy to do it?  Our wealth is an obstacle to our faith.

Wealth, in and of itself, is not a sin if it is earned by honest means.  I earn my money by working here and I use my money to feed, clothe, and house my family.  No sin there right?  But the issue is, my wealth blinds me to my need for God.  Just like in Jesus’ time, our wealth is also a sign of our power, privilege, and prestige.  Our wealth is something that makes us feel important, and it makes us feel safe.  Lars and I sold our house that we had in Washington State last year and I know I have felt a lot more comfortable since then.  The debt is gone, and there is extra emergency money in our bank account.  That makes me feel safe; it would be a lie to say it doesn’t.

         It can be hard to follow God when we find our sense of safety in our possessions instead of in our faith.  Jesus doesn’t invite the man to get rid of his wealth; he invites him to use his wealth to form community.  Give your money to the poor, and follow me.  Just like with Peter, the kingdom of God is about community, new brothers and sisters, new parents and grandparents.  When we share what we have with those around us, community is formed.  Rather than being a place we go to, the kingdom of God is a way of life.  Like our lesson from last week, it is about sacrifice and self-denial.  It is about moving ourselves out of the center of our value system and putting relationships, community, and God there instead.  Our wealth can be used, through God, to form community, which is the kingdom of God.  This is impossible to do alone, but with God we can do it. 

          Last week we found Jesus redefining the idea of the Messiah.  When Peter talked about Jesus being the Messiah he imagined the next ruler of Israel.  When Jesus talked about being the Messiah he imagined his suffering, death, and resurrection.  This week we find Jesus redefining the idea of blessing.  When the young man and Peter talk about being blessed, they are talking about worldly riches and wealth.  When Jesus talks about being blessed, he is talking about a fullness of life.  It is a shared life in community that will be the blessing, and our wealth is an obstacle to that shared life.  Our wealth hinders our need for community.  If I can help myself then I don’t need you.  Our wealth can be a blessing, but it is also a barrier.

         This is a hard lesson for us to learn and practice and that is why we keep talking our way around it.  Like Joel Osteen and his million dollar mansion, or whoever made up that story about the gate in Jerusalem, we would like to hope that Jesus isn’t talking about us.  We would like to hope that this lesson doesn’t apply to our own lives.  But it does.  Luckily for us, all things are possible with God.  Following the 10 commandments was not about earning one’s salvation; rather it was about practicing discipleship.  The same is true with this lesson on wealth.  Giving away everything we have will not earn us our salvation, but it will help us on our path to discipleship. 

In love, Jesus invites the man into a new community, a community of generosity and sharing.  In love we are also invited into this community.  Sharing what we have with others is a way that we practice our discipleship.  Giving away our money is a way that we follow Jesus.  Forming new communities of faith, with new brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, will lead to a fullness of life that in and of itself is a blessing.  The kingdom of God requires sacrifice, self-denial, and sharing.  It is a way of life that we will always be journeying toward.

This Lent, in love, I want to invite you to truly consider this lesson.  “How hard it will be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”  Consider this week how your money distracts you.  How does it make you feel safe?  How does it make you feel important?  How much are you sharing?  And are you willing to share more?  It is impossible for us to save ourselves, but with God anything can happen.  We can even get over our greatest obstacle.  Let us use the blessings that we have to form a community of blessing in God’s name.  This will be the kingdom of God.  Amen.