Caring for the Present

This week's sermon audio comes with a devotional that includes a few familiar parts of the Sunday liturgy, since we've had to postpone worship services for the time being. I hope this is meaningful for you while we are apart. Stay strong, stay connected, stay informed--as we learn new ways to be the church.

Inspired by Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

If our reading for today gives you more of an Advent vibe than a Lenten vibe, there’s a good reason for that. This reading from Mark that we have before us is always read on the first Sunday of Advent in the Revised Common Lectionary. And that’s because that lectionary follows the themes of the seasons more, and the lectionary we use, follows the life of God’s people, and the life of Jesus, in a more chronological order. And so, we get this very Adventy reading, during Lent. The two seasons really do have a lot in common so it’s an easy transfer, so to speak. However, I think we lose a little something when we take this reading out of it’s context and place it in Advent, which is the season that marks the beginning of a new church year, as well as gets everybody ready for Christmas! Therefore, the season of Advent can’t help but feel more joyous than it’s cousin Lent!

And so, the part that I think we lose when reading this in Advent is the immediacy of Jesus’ teaching here, the seriousness of it all. And that immediacy and seriousness comes from the fact that in this reading, Jesus is near the end of his life, and he knows that. And as I mentioned last week, the close of the last chapter also marked the close of Jesus’ public ministry. From here on out he withdraws to those closest to him, as his end draws ever nearer. So, the time that he spends during these last days, the teachings that he passes on during these last days, naturally have an immediacy and seriousness to them. Imagine if you knew your end was near, how would you spend that time? Who would you spend it with? What last words would you make sure you said to them? This is the state of mind that Jesus is in from here on out. Now, that doesn’t feel very Adventy does it? That, has Lent written all over it! So keep this in mind as we continue through the life of Jesus as seen through the eyes of Mark, til we get to the bitter end.

So, what is Jesus teaching here in this passage? Well, the pattern up til now has been these mulit-scene passages with Mark sharing a teaching of Jesus’ and then showing a real-world example of what that teaching looks like in action. For instance, last week we had the teaching of the Greatest Commandment followed up by the Poor Widow scene, the week before that we had the Parable of the Wicked Tenants paired with Jesus’ thoughts on paying taxes to Caesar. For weeks now we have been seeing this same pairing pattern. This week breaks from that pattern. In this passage, we have one long scene that comes to it’s crescendo at the end. I am going to be taking a bit of a different path with this passage, no surprise there, especially since we are focusing on stewardship this lens and we will again be asking ourselves, “What is God asking us to take care of in this story?”

But let’s start at the beginning. This whole scene consists of Jesus walking out of the temple in Jerusalem and to the Mount of Olives right across from the temple, and the conversation that he was having with his closest followers. It begins very innocently, with those followers simply expressing their awe at the monolithic nature of the temple. I am sure it was a sight to behold. I don’t have to tell you just how difficult it was in that day to build such a grand structure! Well, that’s all it took, that was enough to set Jesus off. Remember, he’s been in a bit of a mood since Palm Sunday. Also remember, that the events of Palm Sunday have already happened, a couple chapters ago in fact. His response to their statement of awe was this, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” Jeesh, talk about a Debbie Downer!

To their credit, Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask him when these things will happen and what signs will there be to signal the end. To that, Jesus launches into a monologue about false messiahs and wars and earthquakes and famines. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus then turns up the creepy dial and goes on about the sun and the moon going dark, and stars falling from the sky, planets being shaken, whatever that means, and the Human One, aka Jesus, coming down from the clouds with angels to gather the chosen people from the four corners of the Earth. Whew! It’s the stuff of nightmares, or at least, sci-fi horror movie!

But we can’t stop there, we have to keep forging through this story to get to the whole point of this, remember this is one long scene, so there really isn’t a whole lotta places we can stop and talk about without spoiling the end, so let’s keep going. From here we get to the climax of the story, the lesson of the fig tree. Now, any other fig tree might be shaking in their roots right now. The last fig tree that Jesus came across in this Gospel got cursed for life! However, Jesus had a different idea for this fig tree. He uses it as an example of how we can have signs of something coming, even when we don’t know exactly when that might be. Remember, they didn’t have calendars at the ready and so the average person didn’t precisely when summer would begin. If the weather warmed early, then the trees and plants would respond early. Other than that, they just didn’t know exactly when the current season was going to end.

So, after scaring them half to death, Jesus tells them to “stay alert.” Or as other translations put it, keep awake or keep watch. I wonder if this was Jesus way of saying, be mindful. Be mindful. Which brings me to our question we’ve been asking ourselves each Sunday of Lent, “What is God asking us to take care of in this story?” The answer? The present. The past is already the past, we can’t change it. The future, at least from a spiritual sense, is in God’s hands, and as we will soon see on the cross, is already taken care of for us. What I hear us being called to take care of in this story is the present. That is where we have the most control, and that is where we can have the most impact, in the present, now.

So, what does that look like? Well, I’d say this is a pretty timely lesson for these days, wouldn’t you? While we are all hunkered down in our homes, waiting this pandemic out, wondering how long it will last? When will it end? Not too many humans on Earth have experienced anything like this. And so, something I have noticed, is that it has made us mindful of things we may have been taking for granted. Things like, the gifts that each of our family members and friends and loved ones bring to our lives; the amount of time we have to spend with them; the insignificance of some things that were merely luxuries or conveniences; the gifts our pets bring to our lives; the pace of our lives; the amount of noise; the intentionality of how connected we are. I could go on but I have a feeling you too have noticed these things as well. Being mindful of the present, appreciating the here and now, being aware of those around us, either physically, spiritually, or virtually—these are the things that I hear Jesus calling us to care for in story from Mark. And in these pandemic days, I find that most timely. Go and be good stewards of the present, my friends, it is a gift worthy of our care. Thanks be to God. Amen.


God Doesn't Need Our Love, People Do

This week's sermon audio comes with a devotional that includes a few familiar parts of the Sunday liturgy, since we've had to postpone worship services for the time being. I hope this is meaningful for you while we are apart. Stay strong, stay connected, stay informed--as we learn new ways to be the church.

Inspired by Mark 12:28-34, 38-44

We are at the end of the twelfth chapter of Mark this week and before we dive into these stories, one thing must be pointed out. With the close of this chapter, Jesus’ public ministry comes to an end. From here on out, he gradually but swiftly withdraws to those closest to him. I found that quite timely, as we are doing the same thing right now, withdrawing to those closest to us, as we wait out this pandemic we are currently in. Jesus withdrew to find comfort with those he trusted, with those he knew had his best interests at heart, with those he knew loved him. Though our withdrawing isn’t quite as voluntary as his was, my prayer for you is that you are also finding comfort with those closest to you. For some of you that may be family, for some it may be roommates, for others it may be neighbors, and for some of you, that may be the very presence of Jesus. So, from here on out, know that Christ is withdrawing too, to those closest to him, and that includes you.

So, let’s dig into these stories we have before us today. Mark continues the pattern of sharing a teaching of Jesus' and then giving us a story of how that teaching is exemplified. Scene one is a pharisee asking Jesus which commandment is the greatest. It sounds like another trick, doesn’t it. It sounds like he is trying to trip him up, like the pharisees have been doing for quite some time. But the way this scene ends, which will get to in a moment, makes it difficult to say if he was one of those pharisees. Odds are, they weren’t all bad! Jesus answers him with this, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength…[and] love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” 

What I find striking about that is the way that Jesus pairs these two commandments. On the surface, they have nothing to do with one another. What would loving God have to do with loving others? It helps to hear this from the mindset of a first-century person. Remember, they still lived under a world view that gods were separate entities, living in the clouds or under the earth or in the sea, but not here with us. Not only that, but gods needed to be appeased in some way, their wrath needed to be either snuffed out or satiated in some way. Their fellow human beings, however? They just needed to be tolerated at best, but they weren’t a part of one’s “plan of salvation.” So to hear Jesus couple these two together, our relationship with God and our relationship with others, is quite interesting and unique. It’s almost as if Jesus were melding the two together, as if one didn’t make sense without the other. And that’s exactly what Jesus was trying to get at here, which Mark makes to come alive with the final scene but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The pharisee, known in our reading as the “legal expert”, replies to Jesus’ answer with, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.” Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “This guy is just buttering him up! Who does he think he is! Jesus is gonna see right through this!” Well, maybe, but Jesus’ response is surprising. He says, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” Really? That’s it? I thought for sure that Jesus was gonna tear into him! Maybe at this point in the story, Jesus is just getting tired, tired of arguing, tired of traveling, tired of always looking over his shoulder, sleeping with one eye open, just plain tired. Or, maybe this pharisee was really on to something! Maybe he was really starting to get it! But let’s move on! The most important scene is yet to come, and it just might clear this up.

Jesus then goes on teaching them, and ends with this final lesson. He tells them to watch out for the legal experts, the pharisees, one of whom he was just praising a moment ago. He tells them that they parade themselves wherever they go, looking to be honored by all for their righteousness, when all the while he says, “they are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes!” They were the predatory lenders of their day! And then, the next scene zooms in tightly to one of those very widows that Jesus referred to, almost as if to say, “I wonder how those widows are reacting to the pharisees’ villainy!” They must be plotting their revenge, right! They must be so angry that can’t even see straight! They’re probably badmouthing the pharisees to anyone that will listen, right! And it is here that we get the hero of the story, the one to whom we as the ready is supposed to look up to, the one we are supposed to model our own behavior after.

And entering stage left, we see a poor widow coming to the temple, probably to worship or to say a prayer, and on the way, she stops to give her offering. Ahead of her are a bunch of rich people putting in large amounts of money. She unassumingly puts two coins in and goes on her way. Watching her, Jesus pulls his followers aside and says, “This poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she, from her hopeless poverty, has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” And Jesus leaves it at that. What more is there to say? 

Now, you might be thinking, especially since we’ve been focusing on stewardship this Lent, that I’m about to say that this is all about how much we should be giving! "If pastor even tells me that I have to give like this poor widow!" No, I’m not going to say any of those things. Although if you want to give like that we’re not gonna stop you! I’m kidding! Well, sort of, anyway! I don’t think this is just about our giving. I think something even deeper is going on here, as there usually is. If we ask ourselves that question that we’ve been asking each week, “What is God asking us to take care of in this story?” The answer is, people. Not necessarily the offering plate, although that is certainly one way to take care of people. 

This is what Jesus and Mark were leading to this whole time, the call to take care of people. Think about it, the story began with Jesus sharing the greatest commandment, to love God and to love others, as if they are one and the same. He then points out how downright evil the pharisees have been, with their predatory ways against poor widows. And ends with a poor widow, giving all she has, for the betterment of others. Whether that money got to the poor as it was supposed to or not didn’t matter to her. She knew how corrupt the ones holding the treasury were. She was going to give, because it was the right thing to do, because the call to care for others, had not waned. In fact, it was stronger than ever. This poor widow knew the greatest commandment, to love God and to love neighbor. And maybe even more than that, she knew that God didn’t need her love or her money, people did. That was the greatest commandment in action!

I can’t think of a better story for times like these than this one. We humans are feeling more vulnerable than we have in our lifetimes. And it’s times like these that we have been preparing for all these years. It is times like these that we have been equipped by Christ for, to care for people, regardless of who they are, for we know now more than ever that all are in need of our care, that no one is impervious to the dangers of life. We all stand on equal ground, bending to a virus that knows no partiality, called to care for people, called to be stewards of people. While you fulfill this calling my friends, know most assuredly, God, the perfecter of stewardship, cares for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Caring for God's Work

This week's sermon audio comes with a devotional that includes a few familiar parts of the Sunday liturgy since we've had to cancel worship services for the time being. I hope this is meaningful for you while we are apart. Stay strong, stay connected, stay informed--as we learn new ways to be the church.

Inspired by Mark 12:1-17

So, we are now in chapter twelve of Mark’s Gospel. The end is almost here already as there’s only sixteen chapters total! A few of you may have noticed that we skipped all of chapter eleven. Is there something in that chapter that we don’t want you to know about? No. The reason that we are skipping it is because the Palm Sunday story is in it and we will be reading that…on Palm Sunday. It’s the only time we read something out of chronological order. It’s one of the failings of our church calendar. The amount of material between the events of Palm Sunday and Easter, in any of the four Gospels, is too lengthy to fit into that one week. We feel this less with Mark because Mark is so short and much more with the other three.

Now, why do I mention this? Many people wouldn’t even have noticed this, and pastor is now taking up valuable sermon time! Well, as I’ve said often, Mark has a very particular order to his stories that he shares with you. And to take something out of order might cause us to miss a few things. I mean, we wouldn’t do that to any other book right? We wouldn’t just skip chapter eleven of Moby Dick and say, “Oh, I’ll just read that between chapters thirteen and fourteen!” But there’s an even deeper reason that I mention chapter eleven today.

In Mark’s narrative, the events of Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, people spreading their clothes on the ground in front of him creating a makeshift red carpet for him, waving branches in the air, all of this fanfare signals one thing for us the reader—that Jesus’ time on earth is very near its end—and in the eyes of Jesus’ enemies, it set in motion a series of events that would be his demise. So, form a narrative perspective, all of the stories after that, must be read in light of the events of Palm Sunday, especially Jesus’ own realization that his time is almost up. You will see a change in attitude in Jesus from here on out. He is short with people. He gets a bit snippy! Patience is wearing thin.

You now that story of him cursing a fig tree because it didn’t have any figs on it? That’s in chapter eleven. When I preached on that story last year from the Gospel of Matthew, my sermon title was, “That day that Jesus woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” The story of Jesus throwing a tantrum in the temple because they were exchanging money there, and he flips their tables over, that’s in chapter eleven! Great stories! My point is, the events of Palm Sunday are clearly another major turning point in Mark’s overall storyline, and we’d be wise to remember that, and keep that in mind as we hear these stories that follow until we actually get to Palm Sunday.

So, as usual, we have two different stories in our reading for today. And they're not really stories, they're more like scenes, aren’t they. The first is a parable, which is nice because we haven’t had one in a little while. This is the Parable of the Tenants, or as some have called it, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. And that’s exactly what they are—greedy, violent, wicked tenants. It begins with this sweet scene of a farmer putting in so much love and care and effort into a vineyard. The farmer had so much hope for this vineyard. And the farmer was right because it was a success! The vineyard had a fine harvest. But when it was time to collect the farmer's share of the crops from the tenants, they either beat or killed everyone the farmer sent to collect!

Now, what would you do at that point? Would you go back? Would you send anyone else? I’m guessing no! You wouldn’t! You’d probably call the authorities! But what does this farmer do? The farmer sends the one and only heir, the only child that the farmer had! Figuring, they won’t harm my one and only beloved child! Well, guess what, they killed the heir as well! Jesus then asks them, “So what will the owner of the vineyard do?” But of course, he doesn’t let them answer because Jesus has been in a bit of a mood lately! He says, “The owner will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Mark shares that they were none too pleased with this parable because they figured out that it was about them! I’m imagining Jesus scowling down at them as he told it.

The next scene is Jesus being harassed by the Pharisees and supporters of King Herod. They’re trying to trap him into saying something stupid, something that’ll get him in trouble—especially because they could probably tell that his patience is wearing thin! They’re just pushing his buttons any chance they get. So, after buttering him up a bit, they ask him if they are still required to pay taxes to Caesar, the secular ruler that occupies their homeland. They knew that answering yes was easy grounds for arrest. How Jesus responds astonishes them. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God”, he said. Now, at first glance, that seems pretty straight forward, right. I mean, he was talking about money, right? I’m not so sure it’s that simple.

This could be about money, but remember how Mark likes to link two stories together? Think about that vineyard for a moment. What was the vineyard? Who was the farmer? Who are the tenants? What was the fruit? Well, Mark didn’t include an explanation of this parable, but I think we can make some educated guesses. So, let’s say the farmer is God. And the tenants are us, only the hope here is that we won’t be wicked tenants. That leaves the vineyard and the fruit. If the vineyard is the world that we inhabit, planet Earth, then I’d argue that the fruit is God’s work in our world. But here’s the kicker, God’s work, is done by us, just like the tenants working that vineyard, helping it to produce fruit. Just like our denomination’s tagline, “God’s Work, Our Hands.”

Now, remember, we are on a stewardship focus this Lent, so we’ve been asking ourselves each week, “What is God asking us to take care of in this story?” God’s work. God’s work is so precious in our world, and God has prepared the world to produce so much fruit, God has put so much care and love into this world. And God asks us to care for it, to be good stewards of it. Why? To produce and harvest fruit. What is this fruit? For the answer to that, you’ll just have to tune in next week, when we read the rest of chapter twelve. In the meantime, rest assured that we are called to care for and protect God’s work in the world, a world that has so many obstacles and wickedness that tries to get in the way. Which is why we need each other to do this work, side by side, even when we are not physically able to be together. The call remains—to be good stewards of God’s work, to be good caretakers, to be good tenants. But we do not go alone, God goes with us, we are never alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Caring for the Ego

Inspired by Mark 10:32-52

Alright, so we are continuing with our exploration of stewardship, and how each of these stories in Lent speaks to that topic. As a reminder, the dictionary definition of stewardship is, “the job of supervising or taking care of something.” By the end of Lent, you will have that memorized. Using that definition, we are asking ourselves each Sunday, “What are we being asked to take care of in this story?” Which is just a less churchy way of asking, “What are we being called to be stewards of in this story?” One more thing I want us to keep in mind is that most of my sermons are meant to be heard as a community. What I mean by that is, I rarely expect you all to go home and wonder how this sermon is supposed affect you as an individual. My hope is usually more like, how can this sermon affect us as a congregation.

Contrast that with sermons you’d hear at a non-denominational, big-box church where it’s all about the individual, all about your personal relationship with Jesus. Think of it this way, if that’s really the perspective you should be bringing, you could do that at home. But instead, we come here not as a bunch of individuals who just happen to be taking up the same space every Sunday morning, we come here to be together, to be united, to be a community, to be fed side by side at the table—and I would add, we come there to listen together as well, and to ponder what we’ve heard together, and to ask ourselves, what is God moving us to do or be through what we’ve heard today? How can what we’ve heard, transform us, as a congregation?

So, keep all that in the back of your minds as we tackle our Bible story for today. Once again, we have here two seemingly very different stories that Mark provides for us. We’d be wise to remember though that Mark is a master-level storyteller. As such, the order that these stories are placed is significant. And more often than not, there is a thread running through many of them. Mark loved to teach lessons with pairs of stories that he has put together, he loved to see how two seemingly different stories played and danced with each other. The first story centers around a conversation between Jesus and James and John. Jesus had just got done predicting his own death and resurrection, leaving them stumped again, and James and John ask Jesus to have prominent positions when Jesus comes into power.

The second story is about the healing of a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus, who asks for the ability to see. Now, these two stories couldn’t be more different from one another, on the surface at least. But what Mark often does, is teach a lesson with one story, and then immediately afterward, he’ll share a story that exemplifies what he was trying to teach with the last story, and this is one of those examples. Mark left us a clue though, that these stories are related in some way, and that clue comes in the form of a question. This question, asked twice by Jesus, serves as an anchor. You can almost hear Mark whispering, “These two stories are connected!” The question is this, asked by Jesus in each of these stories, directed at each of the protagonists, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks this to both James and John, and Bartimaeus. Their answers have lots of similarities, and I’d argue, at least one big difference. Let’s look first at James and John. First of all, they start by demanding of Jesus by asking, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Who does that? Let alone, who comes to Jesus, of all people, with demands like that? Now, if you ignore what follows, you could give them the benefit of the doubt and say, maybe they were just exhibiting a strong faith in Jesus’ ability to deliver! Then you read ahead and see what it is they wanted. Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” I have a feeling Jesus already knew, but he chose to just play along with them.

Then they ask him to allow them to be at his side, on his right and on his left, when he comes in glory. What they are asking of him are positions of power, prestige, and status. Now, as you may remember, the disciples were clueless as to what Jesus was here for. In spite of him telling them point-blank that he’d have to die and rise, they were expecting him to come into political and military power, and overthrow a very corrupt Roman government, so that their people could take back the land promised to them, generations ago, beginning with Abraham, as we read back in the Fall. This is what they are referring to when they mention his glory. Not the resurrection or even the second coming the way we’d hear it.

Think of it this way, imagine a high ranking general, of a rebellious militia, who is about to spark a coup. That’s how they saw Jesus, and they were asking to be his lieutenants. If that makes you feel a little uneasy, it’s supposed to. Like I said, this was about power, prestige, status, but even more fundamental, this was about them, this was about the almighty I, their ego. The word ego is literally the Latin word for I. So, when Jesus tells them no, that it’s not something for him to give, what he’s really saying here is, “It’s not my job to stroke your ego for you, because clearly you two are doing a fine job of that on your own!” Which brings me to the answer to our question, “What are we being asked to care for in this story?” Our ego. We are being asked to care for, to be good stewards of, our egos.

Hold that thought and let’s move to the next scene. A blind beggar named Bartimaeus is shouting for mercy from the side of the road as Jesus is walking by. Contrast that with James and John’s demand for Jesus to give whatever they ask. A little mercy is all Bartimaeus is asking for. And honestly, I’m not convinced he was expecting a miracle, he was probably just hoping to be given some food, maybe a few coins from Jesus’ treasury, and maybe to be treated like a human being for once! And then Jesus asks him that same question he asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” Maybe it was the way Jesus asked it, maybe it was his tone of voice, I don’t know, but something made Bartimaeus shoot for the stars here! I’m gonna go for broke, Bartimaeus thought! I want to see! I want to see.

Contrast that with James and John asking to be Jesus’ lieutenants. Bartimaeus isn’t interested in power, prestige, status, none of those things. He just wanted something that so many of us take for granted. Our sight. A basic human need. That was shooting for the stars for Bartimaeus. He could have asked for anything. He could have seen Jesus as a genie in a lamp and asked for riches or land or who knows what. Nope, he just wanted to see. And if you think about it, once he could see, then what? He’d still be poor, he’d still be a beggar, he’d still be unemployed! But he didn’t ask for any of those things, just to see. Now some might say, “Well, he’s still looking out for number one! His eyesight is for him!” But the way the scene ends gives us a different story.

Bartimaeus receives his sight from Jesus and any number of endings is possible. He could have taken his gift of sight and left, left to find a job, a new life, a new start somewhere. In his eyes, he just won the lottery! The possibilities were endless! But what does he do? Mark writes that “he began to follow Jesus on the way.” Now, here’s a little insider info for you. When Mark uses the phrase “the way”, it is almost always in connection to Jesus moving toward the cross, the ultimate destination of Jesus for Mark. So you could read that final line as, “he began to follow Jesus on the way [to the cross].” Now, if you had just won the lottery, whatever that might be for you, is that what you would do? I wouldn’t, there are too many things I have to buy, too many places I have to see, too many experiences I’ve yet to have!

But this wasn’t all about him, and Bartimaeus knew that, even if the disciples, particularly James and John, did not. To be fair to those two, they all were pretty clueless. But Bartimaeus somehow knew, that this was about bigger things, this was about Jesus’ mission in the world, a mission that Bartimaeus could be a part of—and that was about the cross: Jesus’ path to leave the self behind, in his completely selfless, egoless act, that ended on the cross. So, all of this got me thinking about that question “What do you want me to do for you?” and hearing that as a congregation, not as an individual. How do we answer that question of Jesus’?

The typical answers are: give us new members, new members with big pocketbooks, new members with families, heavier offering plates, to be remembered in people’s legacy giving, better worship, better music, better sermons, more visitations, new members with big pocketbooks! Oh, I already said that one. These are our answers to Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you Bethlehem?” And they’re not bad answers but what if Jesus followed up that question with, “Why?” In other words, “If I give you those things, whatcha gonna do with them?” The answer to that question, will reveal how well we have been taking care of our egos, how selfless these requests really are—whether we are on the way with Jesus, on the way to the cross, or not.

This short but powerful story of the healing of Bartimaeus encapsulates the whole of what Mark was trying to teach us in this chapter. The call to be good stewards of our egos is less about not being a jerk out there in the world, and more about pointing the world to the selfless, egoless way of Christ on the cross. And for Mark, that was the whole point of following Jesus. May we be ever careful with our egos, good stewards of the self, so that we may shine a light on Christ, the perfecter of selflessness. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Caring for God's Reputation

Inspired by Mark 10:17-31

A few months ago, your council decided that we should begin a stewardship campaign beginning on the first Sunday in Lent. I liked that idea because it was unique, outside the box, and what better season than Lent to refocus our efforts on stewardship? So, we were all asked to bring stewardship ideas to future meetings. Now, I’m not sure what your experience has been with pastors and stewardship but typically, pastors are notorious for avoiding anything stewardship related like the plague! There are many theories out there for this, some of them very logical, but at the end of the day, I think they’d just prefer to play good cop to your bad cop.

Most pastors want to be the ones who talk to you about how much God loves you, and at best challenge you to be a nicer person, and then leave all the negative stuff, like money, to stewardship committees and councils to deal with. Well, I’m not your average pastor, as you may have guessed by now, for good or bad. I think pastors are missing out on a huge opportunity when not talking about stewardship from the pulpit. One of my favorite books on the subject is called Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate. The author, J. Clif Christopher, writes, “Nothing is more revealing of what is happening inside people’s hearts than the decisions they are making with their [wallets]. Ouch! I remember thinking the first time I read that.

That is probably one of the most convicting sentences I have ever read. After hearing that, how can pastors not talk about stewardship from their pulpits? So, after council made that decision, I sat down and read all of the Bible stories that we will be reading this Lent and lo and behold, they all lend themselves very well to the topic of stewardship! So guess what I’ll be talking about every Sunday this Lent? Stewardship! Well, nobody got up and left so we’re off to a good start! Although, the real test will be if anyone comes back for the rest of Lent! And some of you are thinking right now, “I already don’t like Lent very much and now he’s gonna throw stewardship on top of it!” Calm down, remember, I’m not your usual pastor so let me share my approach before you leave and don’t come back 'til Easter.

The dictionary definition of stewardship is, “the job of supervising or taking care of something.” So, if money is the only thing you think about when you hear the word stewardship, then your only seeing one part of it, one very small part of it. Stewardship is anything that God calls us to take care of. Sometimes that’s about money directly, sometimes that’s about money indirectly, and sometimes it’s not about money at all. So, with each of our Bible stories that we will read during the Sundays of Lent, we will be asking one key question, “What is God calling us to take care of in this story?” Sometimes money will be easily connectible to that answer, and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes I will make the connection for you and sometimes I may not.

So with all that in mind, let’s dig into our Bible story for today. It’s a fairly well-known Bible story, usually just titled, The Rich Man, sometimes The Rich Man’s Question. I’m gonna come at it from a little different angle than what you’re probably expecting because remember, we’re asking ourselves, “What is God calling us to take care of in this story?” So, the rich man in our story gets to be the butt of everyone’s jokes in this story but the reality is, the jokes on them. If you walk away from this story feeling bad for him, think again, cuz this story is meant to teach us all a lesson, not just the poor rich man. We’re all supposed to walk away from this story with our head hung low. Because the answer to that question, “What is God calling us to take care of in this story?” is—God’s reputation.

God’s reputation. What in the world is Pastor Ron talking about? Stay with me now. The key moment in this story, the part that tells us that this story is about more than just a rich guy with bad priorities, is right in the middle, right after the rich guy walks away sad, Jesus says, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s world!” And here’s a key moment, Mark then shares with us that, “His words startled the disciples.” But he reiterates by saying, “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s world.” And again, Mark shares that, “They were shocked even more and said to each other, ‘Then who can be saved?’” Why would they be startled? Why would they be shocked? And why would they ask, “who can be saved?”

They were startled and shocked because they had lived their lives under a false assumption about prosperity and wealth. They had been working under the assumption that if you were wealthy, if you were prosperous, then that must mean that God favored you, God was happy with you, that God loved you more than your fellow humans who weren’t as well off. So, when they see that not even this poor rich guy might not be favored by God, they were shook to their very core! “If he’s having trouble, how in the hell are we gonna get in?” is what they were probably thinking! “We’re doomed!” they thought! This kind of theology is alive and well today, unfortunately. Scholars today call it “prosperity gospel.” Pastors like me call it the scourge of Christianity!

And if you think we Lutherans are immune to it, think again! I hear it embedded in so many questions and laments that I’ve heard over the years. Questions like, “Why won’t God answer my prayer?” Or “Why won’t God end my suffering?” The subtext under those question often is, “What am I doing wrong for God to ignore me?” Sometimes these sentiments are disguised in humor with statements like, “I must have been really bad for God to let that happen to me!” As they laugh it off. Or, “I guess God’s timing is different than mine!” As they walk away sad like the poor rich man. Somehow, humans got it in their heads that if things are going well, then God must be pleased with me, and so the reverse of that must be true as well.

And that’s just not the way I see our relationship with God working, nor do I see that as very biblical. Think of all the stories that got us here when we started back in the Hebrew scriptures last Fall: Jacob wrestling with God and having a limp for the rest of his life afterwards; Israel in slavery; all the men in Ruth’s family dying at the same time; the God-ordained kingdom of Israel splits in two; The northern kingdom is destroyed; the southern kingdom is conquered and sent into exile in Babylon! I mean, story after story of things not going their way! Now, you may also remember that oftentimes in those stories things turned around for them. Why? Because life is a roller coaster! Not because God’s love for them increased and decreased based on their behavior. No, because that’s just the way life works.

God never promised to take the roller coaster away, or to provide a kiddie roller coaster for you as soon as your faith was good enough. And God isn’t the carnival worker flipping the switches of the roller coaster either! What does God promise? God promises to ride that roller coaster with you, to be a constant companion on the roller coaster that is life. So, when we hear people lamenting how God isn’t answering their prayer or how they must not be good enough for their suffering to end, we should feel a responsibility to defend God’s honor, to defend God’s reputation. Now, in the moment of someone’s suffering, it is not the time to correct the destructive theology that I hear. All I can do in those moments is be present. Which is why I thank God each week for this pulpit.

However, I believe the call to defend God’s honor, to defend God’s reputation, falls on all of us. When we hear people blame God for their misfortune, or blame their unworthiness for their misfortune, those are places that we can identify that need an injection of grace and good news. The good news that that’s not how God works, that God is not so petty that God would withhold love and blessings because we’re bad or because we don’t line up with God’s expectations! We are all called to be stewards of God’s reputation, of God’s honor.

We are all called to care for God’s reputation. And in doing so, we are not only caring for others, we are preparing for the next time that roller coaster hits a scary turn. Defending God’s reputation in this way is nothing short of defending against despair, something that the prosperity gospel sets people up for. May this season of Lent, and this story of the poor rich man, encourage us to defend God’s reputation whenever given the opportunity, as we share God’s unconditional love with the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.