A Question Worth Offering

Sermon – Sunday, September 23, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
Mark 9:30-37


They were silent. In Mark’s gospel today, Jesus was explaining to the disciples that he was to be betrayed, killed, and would rise again. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” So they said nothing. Later when they arrived at their destination in Capernaum Jesus asked them another question. He asked the disciples what they were arguing about and again……they were silent. They were silent because they were arguing about who was the greatest and they were most likely embarrassed that they had been caught arguing about such a thing. If you’ve ever been around a group of children arguing and then asked them what they were arguing about you know what happens……they are silent.

It’s interesting in today’s gospel that at both times Jesus is trying to get the disciples to say what is on their minds. He is trying to get them to reveal the questions that are burning to be asked, but they don’t want to talk. You can’t really blame them. In last week’s gospel text, Peter professed that Jesus was the Messiah, but then when he didn’t understand why Jesus had to suffer and be killed, he was called Satan by Jesus. After that encounter the other disciples didn’t want to risk being called Satan either, so they were silent.

I’ve had teachers and I’m sure you have too that were very intimidating and if you answered them incorrectly they were not gracious in telling you or the entire class why you were wrong. And so you learn not to speak up the next time for fear of being embarrassed. I think that is how the disciples felt when Jesus was explaining his mission. They didn’t understand, but were afraid of risking embarrassment so they didn’t ask him to explain it again. They may have been afraid that he’d say, “Really, how many times am I going to have to go over this with you!” So they didn’t ask any questions.

But Jesus didn’t call Peter Satan because he spoke up. He called him Satan because Peter’s idea of what a Messiah was supposed to be was different than the Messiah Jesus was called to be. So today, Jesus tries to explain it again to the disciples and instead of engaging in a conversation with Jesus they decided to play it safe. But engaging in conversation was exactly what Jesus was asking of them. He wanted them to understand and in order to do that they had to be honest with what it was that they didn’t understand and they were not willing to do that. They were just arguing about who was the greatest. Certainly, you’re not great if you don’t have all the answers, right?

We all are guilty of this from time to time. And if I am honest, I am guilty of it a lot more than I’d like to admit. There’s many reasons for how we learned we have to be perfect; I certainly know there are for me, but that’s the past. Yes, old habits die hard, but the truth is that in our human sinfulness to want to be great and do great things, we have the misguided idea like the disciples that the people who are the greatest are the ones who have all the answers. The truth is, you can’t get the answers without first asking the questions. And for the disciples, and many of us, we’re still asking the wrong questions.

Who is the greatest? Who has the best job? Who is the most respected?  Why are we so concerned about being great? Why were the disciples? Maybe because we, like them, are human and we want to amount to something. We want to make a difference in this world. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an admirable goal, but we’re missing the point. Greatness isn’t found in people who have all the answers and do all the right things. Greatness is not found in perfection; it’s found in servant-hood. It’s easy to forget that. It’s certainly not what our culture tells us.

I received an email a couple of days ago with an attached article entitled The Blessing of Not Being Perfect by Joan Chittister, a Catholic nun in the Benedictine order. In her article Sister Joan explains that we need to embrace our imperfections. She says, “Humanity is a mixture of blunders. That’s what makes it so charming, so interesting to be around. Because none of us is complete, we all need one another. It’s only when we convince ourselves that we are the fullness of all that is, that we become spiritually poor.” It’s easy to forget and I am very grateful to the friend who sent this article to me. In my effort to try and be the best person I can be, I often compare myself to those great people who achieve so much. But God is not asking me or any of us to be perfect. God is asking us to be authentic.

Jesus didn’t want Thomas to be just like Peter. He didn’t want James to be just like Andrew or Matthew to be just like Bartholomew. They were arguing over which one of them was better than the other and all the time Jesus just wanted them to be who they were. Jesus called the twelve because they were all different. If there was one greatest among them he would have called only one. Of course, there was one who was greatest among them and that was Jesus, but instead of trying to be just like Jesus they were trying to be better than each other. It’s a problem many of us still face today. That’s why these gospel stories are so important because human nature hasn’t changed over the centuries. We strive to be great instead of allowing ourselves to be led by the one who is the greatest of all – Jesus, our Savior, our Messiah.

And so in our effort to be great, we hold back our questions. We think our doubts are signs of weakness. We don’t want to reveal our weaknesses because, well, greatness isn’t found in weakness is it? Mark’s gospel says yes. When Jesus took the little child in his arms he was showing them what it meant to embrace greatness. In those days, children were of no importance in society. They were considered almost as low as animals. There was nothing significant about children. They were barely considered humans and they didn’t understand anything. They certainly didn’t have all the answers. In fact, children today still don’t. They have far more questions than answers. Hang around little children long enough and all you’ll hear is a long list of whys. “Why is the sun so hot? Why does a dog have a tail? Why does a cat meow? Why do the birds fly south? Why does a bumblebee buzz? Why do ducks have webbed feet? Why do I have to wear a hat? Why do I have to go to bed? Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to sit in church? Why, why, why……and after a while most adults are tempted to just say, “Because I said so!” But children are asking questions because they want to know the answers. Yet when we become adults we stop asking the questions because we don’t want to appear like little kids; we don’t want to look like we don’t know what we are talking about. But the answers only come when we ask enough questions.

There’s a web site called a more beautiful question . com  This web site praises questions as the means to understand. One story tells how in 1943, Edwin Land was taking a picture of his three year old daughter with a regular camera of that time. She asked, “Why do I have to wait for the picture?” After a serious of questions – and failures – he eventually invented the Polaroid camera. The questions were necessary to find the answer.

Questions and doubts are not a sign of a lack of intelligence. They are a witness of someone who is searching for the truth and it takes great courage to risk asking. Jesus wants us, like the disciples, to come to him with our questions, doubts, and insecurities. Silence on our part is not the answer. We must be bold in our prayers and not be afraid that we don’t even know how to pray as beautifully as others. Prayer is our communication with God. It is our opportunity to understand who God is and what God is calling us to do in our lives.

Sister Joan Chittister in her book Wisdom Distilled From The Daily, says, “The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me.” She says, “Prayer leads us and leavens us and enlightens us. And changes us. It makes us something bigger than we are.” It is God who makes us great, not ourselves. And only in humbling ourselves before God can we be changed.

We don’t have to wait to say something to God until we feel we have something intelligent to say. After all, how can anything we say be intelligent compared to the Almighty Sovereign God of the Universe? We are small, and insignificant compared to God. Jesus held up the little child in Mark’s gospel as an example of where greatness can be found – not in those who have all the answers, but those willing to ask the questions, those willing to be the least in society. God lifts us up and because of that God accomplishes great things through us. We don’t have to be perfect; greatness is found in servant-hood, in following the One who is the greatest of all, who became the servant of all.

There are many people in the 20th century that we consider great – Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela.  All these people were servant-leaders. They did not strive to be great or perfect, but strove to be servants of the Living God. In following Jesus’ example to care for the least in society, God achieved great things through them. Each of these individuals was not afraid to go to God in prayer, to speak their fears, and doubts, and anxieties to God. In order to understand anyone and have a good relationship with them, we must communicate with them. Prayer is our opportunity to communicate with the Living God. It needs to be an ongoing dialogue. We are to pour our burdens before God and then listen for the answer. If we hear no answer, we must still continue to pray, for prayer may not always change the situation, but it will change us. It will open our hearts. It will teach us to be servants, for we as Christians are called to follow Jesus to the cross even when we do not understand. For how can we understand fully the power of the cross, the power of Jesus made perfect in weakness? Jesus embraces us in prayer.

And just as Jesus embraces us, we are called to embrace others. We are called to embrace those who seem insignificant. We must not be silent in our prayers and we must not be silent in speaking the truth, even if it means ridicule, even if it means possible failure. A famous quote by Edmund Burke says, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We cannot be silent in speaking up for those in society who have no voice. We cannot be silent when things are being taken from the poor. We cannot be silent when people are being bullied for who they are or what they believe. We cannot be silent in going to God in prayer because in doing so we can come to more fully understand this Jesus whom we claim to follow.

Like the disciples, we strive for greatness instead of following the One who is the greatest. There is only one Savior and we are not Him. We have questions but are afraid to ask. Today I’m going to ask that we offer God not only our time and talents but our doubts and fears as well. Please take the time – if you haven’t already done so – and write on the slips of paper handed to you by the children, a question you have about God, about Scripture, or about faith. Don’t write your names on them. These are your questions. And when the ushers come around to collect your offerings, please place those in the offering plate too. Just as we give God our time, talents, and money, we can give God our questions, frustrations, and doubts as well. We may feel weak, but our God is strong. Our God is bigger than our questions. Let us not keep silent.  Amen.



More Than Enough

Sermon – Sunday, September 9, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church – Hoople, ND
Mark 7:24-37

Last week in Mark’s gospel we heard that Jesus had quite an encounter with the Pharisees. He challenged their whole belief system. It’s not what is on the outside that makes one unclean, it is what is on the inside. As humans we are all sinful by nature. This caused quite a stir and made some people pretty angry with Jesus. He must have been exhausted from that encounter.

Let’s take a few moments to sit back and think about what it was like back then. Told from the perspective of one of the disciples, I imagine today’s story would sound something like this:

“I don’t know how he does it! Day after day, he just keeps pouring out his heart and soul to everyone he meets. He has to be exhausted. I know I sure am! We’ve traveled hundreds of miles. Our feet hurt, they’re calloused, dry and cracked. Jesus is on a mission from God and he just doesn’t let up! People come up to us all the time asking Jesus to help them, heal them, cast out demons. A few days ago we were in Galilee and he fed over 5000 people with just a few loaves of bread and fish. It never ends! It’s more than enough! But that day we were in the region of Tyre – north of Galilee – in Gentile territory. Jesus needed to get away – we all did – but mostly him. He was beginning to feel like a piece of meat. Everyone always wants a part of him, so he said “Okay, men, we’re heading north where no one will recognize me.  They’re mostly Gentiles, pagans, they don’t recognize who I AM, so I can relax and heal.” Those words were music to my ears, to all our ears. It’s hot and dry, but there’s a warm breeze so we can just relax away from all the crowds. So we were relaxing in this peaceful house.

When SHE comes storming in! This Gentile WOMAN, a Syrophoenician, who pushes her way through the crowd into the private house we were staying in and demands to talk to Jesus.  She’s a WOMAN for goodness sake!  Woman don’t talk to men in this culture. Who does she think she is? She just pushes her way through because she needs something. Isn’t that convenient. SHE needs something. What about us? For generations her people, the Gentiles, have oppressed the Jews. The Gentiles own all the land and we have to pay high taxes and give all our hard earned money over to them. They have all the riches and we have to work hard for them. It’s not fair. It’s the haves and the have-nots and the Jews are the have-nots, at least financially. Jesus knows we are the chosen people of Israel. We are the ones for whom Jesus came to save, not the greedy Gentiles who have it all and think they are better than us. She said her sick daughter was home lying in bed. We Jews don’t have enough money to always have nice beds and here her daughter has one! And she is asking Jesus for something when her kind don’t even care how they treat us. Of course her daughter was possessed by a demon – she’s a Gentile – she’s not one of the chosen people of God!

So Jesus calls her a dog. Yes! That’s how they are known here. Those Gentiles are no better than dogs and everyone knows that, but I was so shocked that Jesus said that. It’s not like him to snap. He’s always defending the outcasts. Was he just saying that to open our ears a little, and get us to listen to how it sounds when we call them that? Or was it just that he was exhausted? I don’t know, but I would have snapped too, but not just because I was tired. I would have snapped because her kind don’t deserve kind treatment. So Jesus tells her that he’s not going to take what rightfully belongs to us “God’s children” and give it to the Gentiles who don’t even worship our God. Her kind can get the scraps, the crumbs, what’s left over. That’s what they always give us. Jesus put her in her place. He wasn’t going to let anyone – particularly a woman – tell him what to do. Enough is enough.

But she didn’t back away when he told her that. I couldn’t believe it; she spoke back to him! She said, “Lord (that was a surprise; we disciples don’t always say that) even the dogs get the scraps that fall from the master’s plate.” Wow, that was bold, and pretty clever. I mean, I don’t know what I would have said if I were Jesus, but since she was a rich, Gentile, woman – I would have sent her away, which I was sure is what Jesus was going to do. And then…….I can barely speak it – he said that because of her faith her child was healed!  Her faith? Just when I thought I had Jesus figured out and he goes and does something like that.

But that’s not all.  Oh no!  Now since he was recognized we had to move on again and went even further north to the region of Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. If that woman hadn’t shown up we could have stayed near Tyre and rested. My feet hurt. Jesus’ feet had to be hurting, but we continued walking and some people brought this man who was deaf and mute to Jesus to heal. Now everyone knows that when there is something really wrong with you like that, then you must have done something wrong to deserve the punishment, right?. But once again, Jesus disagrees with that and he couldn’t say no to the begging. So he took him aside (and I was close by so I saw what he did) put his fingers into the man’s ears, spat on his finger (spat – that’s what I said) and touched the man’s tongue. Why he did that is a conversation for another time. Then Jesus looks up to heaven and breathes a deep sigh and says “Ephphatha!” (which means be opened). And he could hear! And he could speak! It was amazing! Jesus told him not to say anything because honestly, Jesus just wanted some rest. He was exhausted! But I don’t have to tell you that when someone says don’t tell – you tell. And here we are – a few days later – everyone knows about it – and now another hungry crowd has gathered. This ministry work – it’s more than enough; it’s endless!”

I imagine that’s exactly what a disciple would have said. Jesus was exhausted. They all had to be. Someone always wanted something from Jesus so he tried to take breaks as often as he could and so should we, but the work of God is an ongoing process. And we want to stay focused on what it is that we believe God has called us to do, which leads to the heart of today’s gospel message. Jesus knew that God called him to be the Messiah of the Jews, God’s chosen people. When the Syrophoenician woman challenged Jesus she was the prophetic voice of God. The Holy Spirit was speaking through her to remind Jesus that God’s plan of salvation is for all people not just for a select few. God’s love and grace and mercy are too big for just one group of people. It is for all people.

This is a challenging text because we are forced to think about the human side of Jesus. We profess in our creeds that Jesus is fully God and fully human, but many of us tend to think of Jesus as only divine. That’s actually a heresy called Docetism, which says that Jesus was only divine (only God) and only appeared to be human. But Jesus was human. That’s why when a professor in seminary called this text the “cranky Jesus” text I totally disagreed. I said Jesus never got cranky, but as I delved more into this text this week I realized that maybe he was right and I too was guilty of this heresy. Maybe Jesus was a little cranky at that moment. He was not committing a sin. He wasn’t purposely being cruel. Jesus was exhausted, and wanted to get some rest and in a moment of human weakness, he snapped at her. Just like we all do because just like us Jesus was human. In order for humanity to be saved Jesus was born as a human. Like I mentioned to the children today, it is like when we are dehydrated. When we are truly thirsty and there is not really much water left in us we can’t become hydrated from the outside in. We have to be hydrated from the inside out. No amount of moisturizer, or drops of rain are going to do the trick. When we are that parched not even drinking a glass of water will help. When you are seriously dehydrated you need IV fluids. You need to have water infused into your body. You need to be nourished from the inside out.

Last week Jesus said it is what comes out of us not what goes in that defiles us or makes us unclean. So if we are dirty on the inside, we need something on the inside to make us clean again and that is the gift of Baptism; that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that same Holy Spirit reminds us of what God’s mission is for us in this world. That same Holy Spirit works through us because it is within us. All of us – even those we consider outsiders. The Syrophoenician woman was considered on the outside of God’s plan, but the Holy Spirit worked through her to open the humanity of Jesus up to the realization that salvation is for all people not just the ones we feel comfortable around – not just the ones that have always treated us with kindness. God’s grace is for all people. The humanity of Jesus needed to be opened up to reveal the divine. We – in our mortal bodies – need to be opened up too. We need the Holy Spirit to direct our lives.

When the Holy Spirit opened Jesus up to this realization his ministry dramatically changed. When Jesus was opened up he was able to open the gates of healing to others including the man who was deaf and mute. In Mark’s gospel, no longer did he preach to just the Jews, but he saw God’s plan as encompassing even the Gentiles. Now the crowds would get even bigger and Jesus would get even more attention – attention that would eventually lead to his suffering and death. Because once we are opened to the truth that God’s grace is for all people then we are seen as radicals.

Christianity is a radical way of life. We are opened up to be not only hearers of the word, but doers of the word. We are opened up to witness to our faith through our actions. We are saved by grace through faith, but our conduct is a confession of that faith. In today’s gospel stories the Syrophoenician woman’s conduct was a confession of faith just as the people who brought the man who was deaf and mute to Jesus. In each of these cases someone stood up for a person who could not help themselves. We too need to be a voice for those who cannot speak up for themselves. We need to be bold in our conversations with God. God wants us to be persistent in our prayers. We need to ask for the crumbs that fall from the Lord’s table, knowing that even the crumbs are more than enough to feed us all. Amen.

These People

Sermon –  Sunday, September 2, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church – Hoople, ND
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


These people …Those people….You people….words that really grate on me when I hear them, because they are so filled with contempt. Fill in the blank….These people just don’t believe in the right religion. Those people are just plain lazy. You people just don’t look right. These cruel words separate. They build up a wall between us and them – between me and you – between clean and unclean.

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus quotes these words from Isaiah and calls those who are listening hypocrites (pretenders, actors, deceivers). This is hardly the Jesus that we all feel comfortable with; I know I’m certainly not comfortable being called a hypocrite. But of course, Jesus is talking about the Pharisees here, right? 
The Pharisees are “those people” that we’ve all learned in Sunday school tried so hard to do the right things, follow all the right laws, and believe all the right things, that they constantly missed the mark. They tried so hard to make sure they were living holy lives according to their religious traditions that they separated themselves from all the rest of society. They were the good ones following all the right laws and everyone else was part of the unclean group.

Now laws and rules are important. And this is why the Pharisees constantly had trouble with Jesus’ teachings and actions. They felt as though he was dishonoring their traditions. He healed people on the Sabbath. Jesus ate with the sinners and unclean in society. His disciples ate without washing their hands – a practice that had deep religious significance – at least it once did, but like all rules we can forget why we do them. I can understand them feeling like Jesus was being disrespectful. They sincerely wanted to honor God. They wanted to do the right things in order to make sure they were right with God. But that is where they missed the point and so do we. If we’re honest with ourselves we aren’t any different than the Pharisees; we try so hard to do the right things, and in the process we often create divisions between us and them. And whether we want to admit it or not we think we’re better than them, whoever they are.

It’s easy to look at people who commit sins or have vices and say we would never do that, and it’s easy to label something as sinful if it doesn’t meet with our approval. This is why Jesus said “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Jesus follows with a long list that applies to all of us. But what about those suffering from addictions like alcoholism, drug or food addictions? Certainly, these substances from the outside can cause harm to themselves or others.
The roots of these problems are deeper than the mere physical substances. Inside the human heart – the human will- lies evil intentions. As Luther said, we are all saints and sinners. This is why Jesus taught us to pray the Lord’s prayer and ask for God’s will to be done and not our own.

This week I attended a book club meeting and the book discussed was Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. The author is Immaculee Ilibagiza, who will be speaking at St. John’s Catholic Church this coming Saturday. She survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994 by hiding with 7 other women in a tiny 3 x 4 ft. bathroom of a local minister’s home for 91 days. Almost a million people were brutally killed during that time including most of her family. People were slaughtered because they belonged to a particular  group (the Tutsis) by the other group (the Hutus). The Hutus felt the Tutsis needed to be wiped off the face of the earth. One could argue that many of the people doing the killing from one group were promised land, money or even life if they killed neighbors and friends from the other group, but the truth as Jesus speaks, is that the evil is within us. It was their own sinful nature that caused them to commit such evil. They must take responsibility for their actions and so must we. We all have the potential to commit evil deeds. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

We can ask how such evil can happen, but it happens every day. Just look at the news. Horrific atrocities happen because of the sinful evil nature within all human beings. We live in a fallen world of sin. History is full of widespread atrocities like the Jewish Holocaust, the treatment of Native Americans, African Americans, Muslims and many other ethnic and cultural groups. Every day woman, men, and children are victims of domestic abuse. Every day in our schools there is bullying going on to the point of young people committing suicide. Every day in our workplaces there is slander and gossip taking place because someone is doing something we think is wrong and lives and reputations are being ruined. This is not how we as Christians are called to act!

Jesus’ words force us to ask ourselves hard questions. They force us to look in the mirror and see that we are no different than the people we often ridicule and despise.

If someone came into the church building today with dirty, smelly clothes would we welcome them? If we met a new person with tattoos all over their body would we judge them falsely based on their appearance? When someone hurts us or someone we love deeply do we hold onto the hatred or do we forgive? And can we forgive what is sometimes the hardest person to forgive – ourselves?
Please understand, forgiveness is not condoning one’s behavior; it is letting go of the hatred and hurt and moving forward. This is what Immaculee Ilibagiza has done. She has forgiven the people who have murdered her family and friends. How is this possible if it is what is in us that defiles us, makes us unclean and unholy? On our own we are not capable of this. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can do this.

The good news is that there is hope. Our hope is in the one who has come from outside – The Word Made Flesh – and has made us holy through the saving power of the cross. Through the waters of baptism we have been made children of God whose mercy and forgiveness washes over us and transforms our hearts. And through the ordinary gifts of bread and wine God comes to us in Holy Communion. His body and blood – held in our ordinary hands and implanted into our very flesh – reshapes our hearts from the inside out and we are nourished and made whole to be instruments of God’s peace to others. This is why we need this blessed sacrament as often as possible. We need this grace.

And this grace is what changes us from mere hearers of the Word to doers of the Word as we hear in the letter of James. This grace is what motivates us to care for those in this world who are marginalized, those who are different, those who are often forgotten. It is this grace that forces us to stand up for what is right in the eyes of God and not what is best for us. It is this grace that changes us from the inside out to respond toward all people with love and mercy and compassion. When we hear the words these people – let us remember who they are – Beloved Children of God – all of us. Amen.