Sunday, October 28, 2012

Reverent Submission

Sermon Delivered on 10/28/12 
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

About a month after coming to First Presbyterian I made the observation that mowing the grass was similar to confession because it is a way of keeping order by getting rid of excess and taming the weeds that would destroy. Bruce Turner has never agreed with me on that point – given his practical perspective that the grass and the weeds are simply obnoxious realities one must deal with no matter what. I still maintain my position, although my own lawn rarely reflects a sense of priority or repentance.

Even so, I must say that I actually like yard work. There are so few other things in life that offer an instant return on your investment. Some of you know that I have been struggling with that kind of thing with Sam’s soccer team. In fact, last week my facebook status noted an unexpected return with this update: I’m pretty sure someone just replaced my team with a group of boys who know how to pass the ball. Our team’s journey continues, and they did a little better this week – albeit against a team that was missing a few players.

All of us have highs and lows like these at times. All of us have situations where we feel like we have put everything we have into something with no idea how it is going to work out.

That is what sets us apart as a species. We are able to consider a multitude of outcomes and make choices that limit those outcomes to a reasonable set. You can call that hope or faith – or even just the ability to reason – but in the end we are defined by our ability and desire to take risks.

Few greater risks were taken than those by the first disciples of Jesus. In a recent article in The Christian Century magazine, Lee Canipe, suggests that may have been the perspective of James and John. They left everything to follow this itinerant Jewish Rabbi who seemed to offer the very presence of God. He spoke the scriptures into being in a way they had never heard before. He healed people. He acted with authority over the sinful and demonic, and he called even the religious leaders into repentance. Surely this was the son of God – though he routinely told people to say nothing of it.

Maybe James and John were out of line – after all their quick tempers gained the nickname, “sons of thunder”. One thing is certain. They believed in him. They believed that death would not hold him, and they believed that they were going to be with him in the coming kingdom. They believed he would have prominence in the kingdom, and they wanted to know if the sacrifices they were making were worth it.

This is one of those times I imagine Jesus smiling – smiling with all the complexity of deep and abiding love for someone who just doesn’t get it. I think Jesus smiles at me like that sometimes. Usually it is right after I have done or said something with the most faithful intentions possible that has gone exactly the opposite direction of the way I intended it to. But, that is why we are a community of grace and forgiveness.

The world around us expects results directly related to our investments. The world around us especially affirms those investments that give the greatest return for the least effort. The world around us has never said it directly, but it stands in opposition to investments such as the church. Just look at our economy over the last 40 years and compare it to the growth and development of the church – Catholic and Protestant alike.

Today is dedication Sunday, and it is the day in which we bring forward our pledge cards and make a public statement that we plan to invest financially in the church. That is a rather crass way to say it, but it is the truth. Although today is typically a day that pastors give a stump speech for the church’s finances in order to guilt you into increasing your pledge, I’m going to have to disappoint you by not doing that.

You have received letters noting the totals needed to support our budget and the building fund. You have heard, quite artfully, from Chuck about the opportunity of faithful giving to support the vision and mission God has set before this congregation. Most of you have, no doubt, heard the “rising tide carries all vessels” speech more times than you can count – if not here then somewhere – and I would guess that most of you have your minds made up as to how (or if) you intend to pledge.

I’m not afraid, or ashamed, to talk about money, but I think we all know that the church needs money to function and that God loves a cheerful giver. None of this is in question.

The question being asked of us today – with these texts on this day – is about the return we expect on our investment. The answer we receive to that question is found in the sacraments. Jesus says, “Can you drink from the cup from which I drink and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they reply, “We can.”

Jesus quickly reminds them that even though they will share in the cup and the covenant of death and life eternal, only God gives positions of honor. In Hebrews, we are reminded that Jesus did not choose his position. It was given to him in response to his reverent submission. Far from earning anything or manipulating the outcome, Jesus expressed the will of God in a way that required him to let go of control – even to the point of suffering and death.

This is the point that I often find hardest to bridge the gap between emulating the disciples and admiring them for their heroic faith. James, the son of Zebadee, is – by the way – the first and only of the twelve to be recorded as a martyr in the New Testament.

So, as we consider what it means to be a disciple of Jesus we can hardly do so without wondering what kind of death we might also be called to. We can’t all be martyrs, can we? Otherwise the church would never have made it a generation. Yet we drink from this cup and we baptize with water to demonstrate death to sin and birth to a new quality of life – and we use words and phrases like reverent submission to describe it, even though we don’t always know what that looks like.

My 7yr old soccer team has been teaching me what it looks like. After 6 games of being shut out by more than 5-0 every game, one player told his mom that – even though he was sad about loosing – what really mattered is that he has a team to be a part of. Another boy told us that the only way to lose is to stop trying. And yesterday, Sam told me he knows that we will win some more games because he can feel it!

What if the church acted that way? What if we approached our resources from a standpoint of abundance rather than scarcity? What if we based our sense of identity in belonging and encouraging others to feel that they belong, too? What if we became known for our desire to try new things – even if we think they might fail – instead of recounting what we have tried that did not work?

It might look like a church that gave birth to one of the most resiliently underfunded non-profits you can imagine during a hurricane that has impacted our community for more than six years. It might look like a church that invests the use of its people and space in ministries that do not benefit its own members. It might look like a church that is open to changing even the few programs it offers in hopes to be more hospitable to others.

It might look like you. And even though we may be sad over what we have lost – members, prestige, resources, even the potential use of unused stuff – we are a congregation. We are a congregation of believers in Jesus Christ, and we are filled with grief and hope. We are moved and formed by eucharistic thanksgiving!

Note that I did not say “family,” as we often say. A family has little choice in who they are related to – except in the case of individual covenants. A congregation has every choice. Today we received new members into our congregation and baptized their child. This was an act on behalf of the entire church of Jesus Christ, and every one of us made a covenant to receive them, to support them, and to be in ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ with them.

Come to think of it, I think you all have a pretty good idea about what reverent submission looks like. I think we have a pretty good sense of the risky business of being the church! Of course, what really matters is what God thinks. My hope and my trust is that – even when we aren’t quite in sync with what God thinks – God smiles upon us with love and delight while we work it out in our common union. For we are a Eucharistic fellowship that is filled with a delicious cocktail of obnoxious limitations and hope filled relationships. May God be glorified as we drink deeply from this cup and share in the baptism of Jesus – now and always. Amen!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Sermon Delivered 10/21/12
Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
Psalm 34:17-22
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 10:46-52

“Help!” The old man yelled as he ran through a cartoon facade of the drab streets of London until he came upon four lads in a yellow submarine. Then he said, “H is for Hurry. E is for Urgent. L is for Love Me, and P is for P-P-Please! Help!” And so begins The Yellow Submarine, one of the first music videos ever created. It was the story of a refugee from a magical land called Pepperland seeking help from another land because his had been taken over by those terrible, despicable Blue Meanies.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt so deeply in need that you were even willing to bend the English language into a phonetic that matched your purpose? “E is for Urgent?” That is the sound of an animal in a corner.

That is the sound Job made prior to today’s reading when he said, “I would lay my case before God, and fill my mouth with arguments.” God’s response of, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” is not intended to dismiss Job altogether. Instead it is just like I say to my kids from time to time, “Let’s remember who the parent is here.”

God’s comments are not about control or power, they are about perspective. God has the larger picture in mind. Job’s argument is not irrational, but it is consumed with need and self preservation. God preserves and restores Job, but not because he earned it. God did it because God is God. God is merciful. God is providential, and God is just.

The Psalmist reminds us of these very same characteristics of God. The Psalmist also reminds us that we will never be without affliction. Indeed, “many are the afflictions of the righteous.” We don’t like to hear that. We do like to hear that “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” But we don’t like to realize that we are the ones in need of salvation. We don’t like to ask for help.

But lest we deny our condition of vulnerability or decide that it is the result of an angry God or personal failure – let’s not forget the words of Paul to the church in Corinth. “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

He goes on to say, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

The part about not being crushed or destroyed is nice, but carrying around death – not so much. Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Yet – sometimes – we all feel that the problem is not in the depth of our cups as much as it is in the cracks. “We are afflicted but not crushed.” We are cracked pots. But I would still contend that the cracks in our pots and our cups are the means for someone else’s blessing.

And so, what may seem like a very justifiable cause for anxiety and sadness is actually a place of blessing and great joy! Some things we simply cannot fix. In fact, sometimes our experience of God is made stronger by our limitations. I am not simply telling you to make lemonade from life’s lemons. I am telling you that our history and our present cultural landscape are littered with testimonies from surfers surviving shark attacks, quadriplegics learning to paint, men and women born with deformities, and soldiers returning from war with less flesh and more of a knowledge of God!

These people are not so incredible – but their belief in God is. God did not heal a single one of them, but God restored them. God transformed them. And I have never met a person of deep, transformative faith that has not – at some point – begged for the mercy of God.

I do not believe that God is only merciful if you beg. I do not believe that God wants or needs you to suffer. What I do believe is that sometimes we need it. What I do believe is that those of us who consider ourselves to be “The Church” often act like we need to keep Bartimaeus quiet. Yet the reality is that we are the ones in need of healing and restoration. We are the one’s who need to look to Jesus and cry out with all of our might, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Why is that, you might say? Is it because we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God”? No. It is because we are stuck on an escalator. That’s right. There’s a great little video I saw during a presentation at the last Presbytery meeting (I told you we have fun at PSL meetings). Two people are riding an escalator to the third floor of a mall.

The escalator stops, and rather than walking up the two people become irrational and begin to scream for help. People are walking by outside with no concern. Finally a repair man begins to ride the escalator to the second floor, and then the same thing happens to him. I think that is like the church in some ways.

When we expect a young preacher to draw in new people who will put money in the plates and allow us to keep being us, we are stuck on an escalator. When we intentionally neglect some relationships in favor of others, we are stuck on an escalator. When we forget how to care about those who don’t seem to care about us, we are stuck on an escalator. When we decide that being a place where we gather with a particular group of people we already feel connected to is all that we need to be, we are stuck on an escalator.

Now – before you get ready to run me out of here – I want you to remember two things. The first is that the Church – the Body of Christ – is much more complex than any simple illustration. The second is that the key word in all of that critique is the word, “when.”

When we realize that we are a people who are created and gathered to bless each other and through that become a blessing to the world around us, we don’t even need the escalator.

When I hear a young family say that they felt called to join the church after hearing the openness and faithfulness of the elder members of the Sunday School class – and when I meet with a family from the other side of the world who has come to join because they find community here – I hear Jesus looking at our stuck escalator saying, “Go; your faith has made you well.”

When I hear the Stewardship Committee’s call to greater faithfulness through financial commitment I hear Paul say that we are “struck down, but not destroyed.” Even so, I do need to be clear about something. Chuck has done an incredible job of presenting the opportunity of faithful giving and the positive direction that our congregation is headed in. Now, there are two myths I want to dispel. The first myth is that the positive direction of the church is my doing. First and foremost, we are a community of believers. Along with that is the fact that the one and only savior of the church is Jesus Christ. God is doing a new thing here, and it is because we are crying out to Jesus together.

The second thing I want to be clear about is the fact that our budget is supported by two items that are hallmarks of a congregation in the later years of its life cycle. Those items are rental income and planned estate giving. Neither of these are bad for the church, but when legacy giving and rental income become primary sources of funding a budget – it is usually a sign of decline. This is based on data collected over the last ten years of churches that have closed.

So, what do we do about it? Obviously we must all consider our contributions closely. Not just financially, but personally and relationally. It does not matter what we put in the plate if we do not put it in our hearts to follow Jesus. Beyond that, I believe that we must remain open to what the Spirit is calling us to become. We are not the church that we once were. We are not ever going to be the church of the 1950’s again. It is only through our yearning for transformation – individually and corporately – that we will ever become transformed. These words cut both ways, and it scares me sometimes to think of what God might do to me.

It scares me to think of what I might see when God removes my blindness. Yet I place my hope and my trust in this community of faith. I place my hope and my trust in the vision God has given us to be “A Place to Experience, Explore, and Express the Love of God.” And because this is just such a place, it means that when we leave here the place goes with us. When we leave this place we remain the church. I once heard it said that we do not simply go to church – because we are the church.

And we are “persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” [2 Corinthians 4:9-11]

May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Who's In Charge Here?

Sermon delivered by Monique Peddy, Clerk of Session, on Laity Sunday

First Presbyterian Church has an amaing tradition called Laity Sunday, where the service is entirely put together by the congregation and involves as many people in leadership as possible. As you will see from the following, it is not about being in charge or taking over from the Pastor. It is not about giving the Pastor a day off or apprecciating the Pastor. Laity Sunday is about letting the Holy Spirit take over. It is a corporate expression of who we are and what we believe. Who is in charge? God is in charge, just like always.

OK, I don’t know about you guys, but I always think of that as “The Stewardship” passage. Maybe that is because it always comes in October and October is when the annual Stewardship drive starts. More likely it has to do with hearing it and then getting a “sermon” (and I’ll use that term loosely) about how we need to give more to the Church, make sure we tithe, etc. And a lot of times those “sermons” also told us that we would be more Christian if we did it.

Well, my husband is head of the Every Member Canvas again this year so guess what? Nope! You’re not going to hear me drone on about giving to the Church.

In fact, in my opinion, I don’t even think that’s what this passage is about. I think it’s about trying to tell us how to be more Christ like – that is, how to be more Christian.

Part of the passage reads, “25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." When those around him questioned this, Jesus told them that for us it is impossible, but not for God. “For God, all things are possible."

The passage then goes on to say that those who have left everything behind for Jesus and his namesake will receive a hundred fold in eternal life.

Does that literally mean that you have to leave your family and give away all your money or you’re doomed? Of course not. Jesus often spoke in parables. And of course, we are not reading the passage in its original language, or even its original interpretation. I have a Bible app on my smart phone and it alone has 294 versions of the Bible in 144 languages. Oh, and that doesn’t include the New Revised Standard version that we use as our pew Bible. So my job here today is to help convey the message that I think this passage is giving. And as I’ve mentioned already, I think it’s instructing us to be more Christ-like, more Christian.

I think we Christians are a well-meaning group, practically by definition. And by “Christian” I am not referring to what I always knew as “Full Gospel Christians” who to me are extremists in their views and traditions. No, I’m referring to you and me and many others who may or may not belong to a congregation somewhere. We try to do what is right, we try to be kind, we try to help stop injustice. We not only believe in Christ, but we try to be like Christ. But we are not. We are flawed individuals. And sometimes no matter how well intended we are, we don’t REALLY think before we speak.

When I first started thinking about what I would say today, I was basically going to regurgitate a series of articles written by Christian Piatt. Each article has a different name, but they are all about clichés that many Christians use but don’t really think about. Instead, I’m going to focus on some of his Antidotes to clichés. By definition, a cliché is, “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.” I agreed with some of the clichés mentioned, disagreed with some and more than one made me stop and think. I’ll get to a few of those in a minute, but first, let’s think about something that has been attributed to Saint Francis:

“Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” A secondary resource I was using stated that St. Francis said it, but I decided to delve a little deeper and found that he apparently did not say it. Nothing written about him in the first 200 years attributes this saying to him. That is neither here nor there. I think it is a good summary to today’s gospel lesson.

“Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” That is, preach the gospel (try to be more Christ-like) by deeds, not what you say.

Our words sometimes can hurt more than they help. Getting back to Mr. Piatt’s clichés, how often have you told someone, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I understand that this platitude is meant to help the person know that they will get through whatever troubling event is going on or has happened, but, it basically says that if you aren’t a strong person who can handle a burden, then nothing bad will happen. Heck! If that’s the case, I wish we were all weaker people!

We also tend to over use some questions to try to “preach” the gospel. “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” was another one of the clichés and honestly, this one made me stop and think. As Presbyterians, we are constitutionally required to ask when ordaining a person to office, “Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and head of the church..” Jesus himself did not call himself Lord, he rejected it. In fact, I just read one of the passages that shows this. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

“Preach the Gospel always.” Many of you have heard me refer to my father as a closet Christian. Although he grew up in a Baptist church and graduated from a Jesuit college, he claims to be an atheist. But, he treats everyone fairly (he LIVES the golden rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). I’ve seen him stop on the street and give someone money, and he believes in the power of prayer. OK, that last tidbit might be a bit confusing, but he has a point. He thinks people should pray often. He claims that Wes Cady should go to the catholic hospital in town so the nuns can pray over her like they did for him when he was sick. (He says it must have worked because he got better.) But mainly he says, when people are praying, they are not doing evil things. So, even though he claims to be an atheist, I think my dad preaches the gospel quite often.

What else can we do to be more Christian? How about talk less and listen more? By the way, Mr. Piatt had a list of 29 clichés in his series of articles, so this one definitely makes sense. Twenty-nine trite expressions that have lost impression by overuse. Talk less and listen more. Quite often, we read in the Bible of someone telling Jesus their plight and the passage reads, “Jesus listened…” And when he did speak, he often left room for interpretation.

Or maybe we can be more Christian by Stop trying to fix everything. Sometimes people just need to talk and put their problems or concerns into words and they need someone to listen. They are not necessarily asking you to fix it. Just getting the problem said out loud may be enough to help them get some peace so that they can go forward.

Give generously of yourself. And I don’t mean your money. Yes, clean out your closets and give items to C.U.P.S. and donate to charities. These things ARE important, but they are not my point. As I’ve already said, this is not a stewardship sermon. “Christians” often approach people with a “you need what I have” attitude, or “I’m saved and you’re not.” Talk about not being very Christian! Give of YOURSELF. Make yourself vulnerable, and open yourself emotionally. It may help the person you’re with open up themselves.

Be grateful for what you have. That one came true to me 11 years ago. It was early September, a Monday. Money was tight and I was driving an aging van. The front door on the passenger side had long since failed to open from the outside. The past weekend, the driver’s side door broke in a similar way, so the only way in from the outside was through the sliding door on the passenger side. On that Monday, I left the office to pick up some lunch and my transmission was acting up. I couldn’t think of anything worse happening. We just didn’t have the money to repair these things. But then, it was as though I got “Gibbs slapped.” For those of you who may not know, a “Gibbs slap” is something a character on NCIS uses. It’s a slap to the back of the head and is used as a wake-up call. This wake-up call, this Gibbs slap, made me realize that no matter how hard I thought my life was, no matter how tight I thought money was, there were millions (yes millions) of people in the world who had it worse off than I did. I live in a country where I am free. I can question the government, I can speak my mind. I and my family had our health. My husband and I both had jobs. Our children were happy and well behaved. Yep. I had it pretty darn good. We’d get over the money problems and things would get better. By Monday afternoon, even though I had all of these problems, I was grateful for the good things I had.

The next morning was September 11, 2001 and planes hit buildings in New York and Washington DC and near a small town in Pennsylvania and thousands of people lost their lives. Wives lost husbands, husbands lost wives, children lost parents, friends lost friends. I remember that day very distinctively. I was not only grateful for the good things that I had, but I was even more grateful that I had figured that out the day before and that it didn’t take this horrible tragedy to make me realize it. And so I prayed.

That’s another thing we can do to be more Christian. We can pray. And it’s not necessary to use words to pray. It’s not even necessary (or even a good idea) to tell someone we are praying for them. Prayer doesn’t have to be formal. Prayer doesn’t have to be spoken. Years ago, when Dorothy Andrew had her lung resected, in hopes of easing her breathing problems, I would, several times a day, take a deep breath and think, “this one is for you, Dorothy.” One Sunday, I was talking to Phil and mentioned that I didn’t feel like I was a pray-ing person, but that I would take a deep breath and think about Dorothy. In his characteristic deep voice, Phil looked at me and said, “Hell, that IS a prayer!” So here I was, thinking that prayer had to be formal and I was doing it without realizing it. So pray. Send good thoughts to others, try to right injustice.

Be open to the possibility that you are wrong, or at the very least, not completely right. Personal faith evolves over time. Even if you’ve been a lifelong Christian, your beliefs are not the same as when you were a child. I’ve heard many stories about how people enjoy or even turn to the Presbyterian church because we not only allow questions, but we encourage them! By being open to the possibility that the person you’re with can teach you something you are honoring their wisdom and experience. And don’t forget that person may be younger than you.

Own your love. Yes, God loves your neighbor, Jesus loves your neighbor, but WE are commanded to love our neighbor. We hear people say all the time, “God loves you” or “Jesus loves you.” Own YOUR love. Tell someone YOU love them. You’re opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable, just like I suggested earlier.

See yourself in the "Other." I’m going to quote directly now from Mr. Piatt’s Antidotes for Christian cliches, because I like the way he puts it. “Somewhere along the way, Christian outreach became more about personal conversion than about empathy and compassion. One of the biggest turn-offs I hear about Christians is that folks see us as trying to make everyone like us. But Jesus himself was moved, affected and -- yes --changed by the people he encountered. And lest we forget: the Greatest Commandment was not to convert people to Christianity; it was love others with all you have and all you are. Part of loving others is actually understanding what they want or need, not just giving them what you think they want or need.”

So, I hope you leave here today, enjoy some barbecue, enjoy some coffee and chocolates later on, think about the opinions I’ve expressed, try to be more Christian in the best way that YOU can and understand that the person sitting next to you may not do the same thing in trying to be more Christian. Amen.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Demons, Prayers, and Salt, O My!

Sermon Delivered on September 30, 2012 
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

For the past few weeks the book of James has been dispensing some practical theology. We’ve been told that all good things come from God, and that we have the opportunity to participate in the actions of God. We’ve been told that we discover our true identity when see others as equally valuable in the eyes of God. We’ve been told that we cannot see others this way and still deny their basic needs. And we’ve been told that we must not spend time judging the performance of others and instead put our energy toward doing the will of God.

Today this wisdom continues. Are you suffering? Pray. Are you happy? Praise! Are you sick, don’t keep it to yourself. Go to the congregation and the church Elders. Get them to anoint you and pray for you!

Whoa. That’s not what we do. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard of individuals and families leaving Church X because they had a health crisis and no one from the church seemed to care – especially Pastor X. That’s not to say that the Church or the Pastor have no responsibility. But it is to say that assessing blame is downright messy.

That’s why James sets up his argument by telling us – in similar fashion to the Charge of the Light Brigade – that “Ours is not to question why. Ours is but to do or die.” And like the soldiers in that fateful poem, what matters most to James is not the joy or pain of the individual. Instead it is the opportunity of community – community with one another, community with God, and community within ourselves – even though our very minds and bodies may seem filled with internal conflict.

Of course all of this was written well before the reality of modern medicine. The same is true for the teachings of Jesus. In today’s reading Jesus and his disciples have returned to Capernaum. Jesus has just settled a dispute between the disciples about which one of them is the best by picking up a child and telling them that the child is their new role model.

John cleverly deflects the criticism: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” I’ll admit it would be easy to judge him for that, but his criticism wasn’t entirely unfounded. Demons were believed to be the cause of illness, and sin was the open door and welcome mat. To sin was to vary from the path, and these guys were clearly not following the rules. Besides, casting out demons willy nilly like that was like putting out a bomb with a hand gun. Who knows where they might go – maybe even to smudge the innocence of a child.

Jesus is nonplused, as we might expect, telling John that, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Oh, but the church could use listening to those words today! How bent are we on schism because those people over there are not doing what we know in our bones to be true? At least we know that even the first disciples were struggling with the same things that we are today.

Perhaps it is because we take Jesus’ words about salvation through self mutilation so very seriously. Don’t believe me? We say things like this:
  • Those people do not understand the difference between justice and getting even. 
  • Those people worship their traditions. 
  • If the church supports XYZ I’m out of here. 
  • Why do they always have to get their way? 
Even so, I believe that things have gotten better in recent years in the Presbytery of South Louisiana (PSL). I have seen congregations becoming more interested in championing mutual causes and celebrating one another’s ministry than they are in tearing each other down. That is not to say that we (in the PSL) are without conflict. It is also not to say that we are without hope. For without hope, all conflicts are resolved through the politics of power – and we are called to another way.

Even so, unresolved conflicts and fundamental disagreements can make us want to follow the wisdom of my sister-in-law – who has been known to say, “I think I would stab myself in the arm to get out of that.” – but that is not God’s word for us today. The challenge of God’s word for us today is not about limiting others (even by stabbing ourselves to get out of things). It is only about limiting ourselves.

Does Jesus literally want you to maim yourself to keep from sin? I sure hope not, because I am not sure how much of me would be left up here to preach to you. The extreme and radical position that Jesus is taking is not one of punishment as much as it is of orientation – just as it has been throughout Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus began with a call to repentance – the call to turn from an orientation around the self and turn toward an orientation around God. Now he is moving to a more impassioned plea that tells us the natural consequence of our resistance to repentance.

It’s as if he is saying, “You found the path. Great. But if you are focusing on your own journey without considering the influence you have on those who are seeking the path of God, then you really aren’t on the path.” Not only that, but Jesus is equating the temptation to leave the path with actually leaving the path.

Though it may seem that Jesus is telling us that we are guilty until proven innocent, he is – instead – telling us to remove the temptation before it becomes a temptation. Anyone who has ever failed a diet can tell you that sometimes this is easier said than done. Yet, that is the practical wisdom of this text.

Or, is it? “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

It seems to me that Jesus knows that we love our bodies too much. Jesus knows that we love our own bodies more than his. Jesus knows that we will have trouble seeing ourselves as his body. Jesus knows that we will cut his hand off before we will cut off our own. Jesus knows that salt preserves, just as it can also corrode. And Jesus knows that we are, and always will be, in need of grace and mercy in order to find peace together.

And so we are told by the book of James to come together, and pray. I need to tell you now how important the Agape Prayer Lunch is to this faith community. As a Pastor I am often the one who is expected to pray. In essence, I am paid to pray. Although I endeavor to do so in great faith, there is nothing less genuine to God than professional spirituality. On Wednesdays at 11:30a.m. I encounter some of the most genuine offerings of faith I have ever experienced. We talk about you – nothing confidential. We just give thanks for you. We ask for God’s grace to be active with you, and we open our own hearts for God to enter in.

It’s supremely intimate – and entirely risky – but we do it anyway. And I’d love for you to take that risk with us. The risk of prayer is in the intimacy and vulnerability it creates. You know, one of my standard premarital questions is, “Do you pray together?” Out of around 2 dozen weddings I can only think of one or two that said “Yes.” Most will tell me that it’s too private. I got news for you, folks. I don’t know where I heard this first, but I believe it to be true – faith is entirely personal, but it is never private.

Not everyone needs to share every little thing. We have Dr.s, Lawyers, and even Ministers for good reason. But even more valuable than all of these is the presence of Christ in our midst. I cannot promise you with the conviction of James that our prayers will heal every pain. But I can promise you that miracles will come of them.

I can promise you that through our beautiful, salty, and messy common union we can experience the peace of Christ that passes all understanding – especially in the midst of unresolved conflicts and unclear expectations. In all things we can expect God to be present. In all things, we can say with confidence the words of Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic of the 14th century, who wrote:

All shall be well,
        and all shall be well,
              and every manner of thing shall be well.

May it be so with you. May it be so with me. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.