EPISTLE LESSON: Ephesians 2:11-22
GOSPEL LESSSON: Mark 6:30-44
SERMON: “God Never Said . . .. Part 2 ”
Pastor Billy Strayhorn wrote,”Most people expect me and every other minister in the world to witness and do the”E" word thing. You’re sort of like secret agents. Most folks don’t expect you to talk about your faith or be involved in this whole evangelism deal.
“But you know what, you are exactly who Jesus would have chosen. Jesus called fishermen, tax collectors, and the everyday ordinary kinds of people. He didn’t have a single Pharisee, Sadduccee, Priest or Levite on his staff. It was all run by the laity.”
Preaching professor William Willimon said:”In baptism we are initiated, crowned, chosen, embraced, washed, adopted, gifted, reborn, killed, and thereby sent forth and redeemed. We are identified as one of God’s own, then assigned our place and our job within the kingdom of God.”
So why do we cringe and hide whenever the E-word gets mentioned in church meetings or in worship?
Because we have a lot of misconceptions about evangelism.
At the end of June I shared with you a message inspired by Scripture and Larry Moyer’s book, 21 Things God Never Said, in which I (hope I successfully) debunked the myth that if you can’t name the exact date and time, or at least the specific circumstances under which you became a Christian, then you’re not saved. God never said you had to know the exact date and time.
There are some other things God never said about faith and evangelism I want to share with you this morning.
Myth #1: “If you don’t tell others about Me, then you’re not a Christian.” Our favorite Bible verse, that one that just about everyone who has at least one verse of scripture memorized knows, John 3:16 says 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It does not say, whoever believes and tells others about him.” In none of the conversions recorded in the New Testament is telling others about Christ a condition of salvation.
That’s important, because if there’s a condition attached, it’s not a gift. As the Apostle Paul wrote,”For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Telling others about Christ is not a requirement for salvation. It’s a requirement for discipleship. When Jesus, starting out in his earthly ministry, called those first disciples he urged them,”Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” When the disciples urged Jesus to send the people away because they were hungry and needed to go buy something to eat, Jesus could have sent them away, or he could have met their need in a variety of ways, but he said to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” And when he gave the disciples his final instructions before ascending into heaven he told them, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
So don’t let anyone lay it on you that if you fail to tell others about Christ, you’re not a Christian. Just know that telling people about Christ is part of discipleship.
A side note on how we go about doing that:
Someone once said to me in the middle of a conversation about growing the church, “I don’t believe in shoving my beliefs down anyone else’s throat.”
Friends, I don’t believe in shoving my faith down anyone else’s throat either. Think of it this way: – I like chocolate cake. It looks good, smells good, tastes good, and from my family traditions it means birthday! Cake and presents! As much as I enjoy a good piece of chocolate cake, I wouldn’t want anyone to come and start forcing it into my mouth and down my throat – literally. If that’s the only way to get some, I’d rather do without. But offer it to me when I’m hungry, hand me a fork and let me taste each bite. God Never said “shove it down their throat.”
Myth #2 “If evangelism scares you then you don’t have a gift for evangelism.” Perhaps you’ve had the experience. The moment happens when it just seems like the right thing to do to talk about your faith, about what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. But your palms go sweaty, your breath grows short. You start to wonder what this person will think of you. You feel the fear and letting the moment pass, you let out a sigh of relief rather than speak of the gospel. You think, I love the Lord, but I just don’t have the gift of evangelism. It’s maybe possible you don’t have the gift of evangelism. But feeling fear at those opportune moments doesn’t necessarily prove that.
Consider this. You have heard me play the piano – just a couple of weeks ago right here in this sanctuary. I know I’m not Mozart or Van Cliburn. There are many more gifted pianists than I. But I can play – somewhat advanced arrangements – moderately well. Does it surprise you to know that it scares me every time I do it? Friends, I even get nervous about getting nervous. Seriously, from the moment I commit to play on a particular Sunday I think almost as much about how to get past the nerves as about playing the piece I’ve chosen. Does that mean I don’t have musical gifts?
The Apostle Paul wrote: “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, . . . 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.” This great planter of churches was cognizant of his weaknesses and came in fear.
I’ve heard Billy Graham preach. I actually had the privilege of attending an evening of one of his crusades – ten or more years ago. When he gave the invitation for people to come forward, hundreds, thousands of people went forward in response to the words of doubtless the greatest evangelist of the 20th Century. Would it surprise you to know that he has stated that he has felt fear when sharing Christ one on one. I suspect he would agree that it is more difficult to speak one on one about Christ than to preach to a hundred or thousands of people. If it were true that feeling fear means one doesn’t have the gift of evangelism, then the fact that Billy Graham admits having felt fear when it came to talking about Christ means he didn’t really have the gift.
God never said that if you feel fear at the thought talking to someone about Christ that it means you don’t have the gift of evangelism.
Myth #3: Living a Christ-like life around non-Christians is enough. You really don’t need to use words.
Ghandi, the great spiritual leader of India was asked,”What is the greatest hindrance to Christianity in India?” His answer: “Christians.” He was, of course, referring to people who professed Christ but didn’t act like it. Few things do more damage to spreading faith in Jesus Christ than people who claim to be Christians but whose lives belie their affirmation of faith. How can we take seriously someone who says forgiveness is one of the greatest blessings of Christian faith, but who refuses to forgive someone in his life? How can you take seriously someone who says,”You really need to go to church,” yet rarely goes herself.
But we’ve heard it said, live a good Christian life around non-Christians. If necessary, use words.” “You’re the only Bible some people will ever read.” “There’s no need to speak to unbelievers about their need for Christ. Just live the life around them, and they’ll come to the Savior.”
I could wish that were true. If only I could just life my day-to-day life, being kind, putting others before myself, receiving insults and ill treatment and manage not to return evil for evil and everyone around me would become Christians. If I could just be compassionate, prayerful, trusting in God and all those non-Christians would, just by seeing me, become believers. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.
First of all, lots of people won’t even notice. Another group of people may notice, but won’t ask what is different for me. For whatever non-Christians who notice and ask (whether it’s 2% or 92%), words are not only important – they are essential. Did you receive your faith by noticing others’ behavior? Or did you somewhere along the line hear a sermon, attend a class, read a book or have a conversation with someone who explained to you that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he gave up his place in heaven, took on human life and lived among us; that he not only gave us teaching and direction, healing and compassion, forgiveness and understanding, but he willingly and purposefully gave up his life, was crucified, dead and buried; that he rose again from the dead and is still alive today.
Yes, we need to live the life Christ calls us to live – to behave in Christ-following ways throughout the week at the office, on the golf course and in the church parking lot just as much as we do on Sunday morning in the sanctuary. But we also need the words.
How will they know if no one tells them. As the Ethiopian said to Philip when Philip asked him if he understood the scripture he was reading, “How can I,” he said,”unless someone explains it to me?”
I read some marketing statistics recently that noted that 97% of the world has heard of Coca Cola, which has only been around about 100 years.
72% of the world has seen a can of Coca Cola.
51% of the world has tasted a can of Coca Cola.
And the comment was made,”If God had given the task of world evangelization to the Coke company it would probably be done by now.”
God never said that salvation depends upon speaking and teaching about Christ. But discipleship does.
God never said that feeling fear in the moment you have an opportunity to talk about faith means you don’t have the gift of evangelism. From St. Paul to Rev. Billy Graham, even great evangelists feel fear.
And God never said that living a good Christian life is enough. Use your words.
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON I Samuel 18:28-19:10
GOSPEL LESSSON: Mark 6:14-29
SERMON: “It’s Not Easy Being Gre. . . uh, Honest”
I was probably about five years old at the time. I don’t remember eating any of the pie. But I do remember when my next-door-neighbor and best friend’s mom confronted the two of us for having eaten some of her blueberry pie. Apparently she had other plans for the pie and was not exactly happy with the two of us. Fearing whatever punishment was about to be forthcoming we both denied having eaten the pie, in spite of the fact that there was evidence of blueberry pie filling on our faces. This much of the story I have to piece together, because I truly don’t remember it happening. But I have never forgotten what Mrs. Maguire said to the two of us as blueberry stickiness told her what Binna and I denied. She said, “If you tell lies, you won’t have any friends.” It was one of those pivotal moments of character formation for this girl.
The trouble is telling the truth can be very costly too. When I first read through this account from Mark about John the Baptist, beheaded for telling Herod the truth about his sins of adultery and incest, the Muppet song “It’s not that easy being green” started running through my head, and I thought, “It’s not that easy telling the truth.
It’s not that easy being green;
Having to spend each day the color of the leaves.
When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold-
Or something much more colorful like that.
It’s not easy being green.
It’s not that easy telling the truth.
Having to tell people things they don’t want to hear.
When I think it could be safer being careful, circumspect, judicious
or something much more secure like that.
And yet we value the truth. I know one of the things that annoys me most about the political season, which keeps getting longer and longer, is the prevalence of lies and half-truths told by each candidate about the other. I was scrolling through Facebook the other night and someone had posted a quote from one of the presidential candidates. I knew, from having watched the speech they were quoting, that between the first half of the sentence posted and the second half, there were about three or four additional sentences. Changed the entire meaning of what was actually said.
I’m old enough to remember that when Jimmy Carter was president, he had a reputation for honesty that was unique among politicians. In fact, that he was able to maintain this reputation was a topic of curiosity for reporters. Once, when his mother, Miss Lillian, was being interviewed by a particularly aggressive female reporter on network television, she was asked about Carter’s honesty.
“Is it true,” asked the reporter, “That your son doesn’t lie? Can you tell me he has never told a lie?”
Miss Lillian replied, “Well, I reckon he might have told a little white lie now and then.”
The reporter jumped at the opening. “I thought you said he didn’t lie!” she exclaimed. “Are you telling me that white lies aren’t as bad as black lies? Just what do you mean by a white lie?”
“Well,” drawled Miss Lillian, “do you remember when you came in this morning and I told you how nice you looked and how glad I was to see you...?”
We certainly do struggle with honesty and truth-telling.
There are countless biblical examples of twisting the truth and how it didn’t work out too well. It all started in the Garden of Eden with the crafty serpent telling the woman, that eating the fruit of the forbidden tree would not kill her:
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Abram, the father of the Hebrew people, lied about Sarai, his wife, when they were in Egypt. He told people she was his sister. And he had what he believed to be good reason – he wanted to protect her, and possibly save his own life.
Moses killed an Egyptian out of anger at seeing the man beating a Hebrew slave. Then he fled to Midian rather than face the truth.
Why do we have these texts in Holy Scripture that exhibit the worst side of humanity? For one thing, because Scripture confronts people with the truth. And for another thing, there is horrible evil in this world. There are evil people – There are sick people. There are misguided people. There are unthinking people. There are the sociopaths, the mass murders, the vicious child and spouse abusers. There are evil moments when otherwise good people are drawn in - that scene played over and over on TV several years ago of a dozen police officers beating and kicking a wounded suspect. There are evil systems in which we all participate - people going without food and shelter in a nation of abundance, people not getting medical care because of no other reason than lack of money. There are even evils born of sheer stupidity, like the stupid promise Herod made to Salome to give her whatever she wanted just because her dance was pleasing to him.
We are horrified at the shooting spree in Colorado in the wee hours of Friday morning. It brings to mind other horrors we have experienced – Columbine, Virginia Tech, The Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, 9/11. You will no doubt think of other horrors I haven’t mentioned. There are too many. The reality is there is evil in the world. That’s the first thing we acknowledge.
What is Mark trying to tell us in this particular text of horror?
Look at it in context. What did Mark tell us just before this? He wrote about Jesus sending the twelve out to preach that people should repent, and to drive out demons and to heal sick people. Jesus tells the disciples to go out and embody God’s love in the world, and not to expect everyone to welcome their ministry. In fact they need to be prepared for rejection and trouble. There is danger when you tell the truth, especially to those in power. The story of John’s death reminds us that being a follower of Christ does not guarantee success in this life, and very likely will bring some suffering.
According to Craig Keener in The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001), John the Baptist was probably the only figure who had the courage to stand up to Herod Antipas. This is not the Herod who was around when Jesus was born nor is this the Book of Acts Herod who later persecuted the church and killed many. But what this middle Herod shared in common with those other two was a real nasty streak of immorality, self-aggrandizement, and corruption.
He had been married originally to a Nabataean princess whom he later dumped in favor of marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. Even though it made him guilty of multiple sins (adultery and incest among them) and even though it angered the king of the Nabataeans (to whom Herod’s first wife fled in humiliation after Herod took up with his sister-in-law)-and even though this later led to a military conflict with the Nabataeans, in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed – nevertheless Herod married Herodias, and no one, except John the Baptist, had the moral courage to point out how wrong it was.
Had John just stuck to baptisms and maybe some harsh pronouncements about the Pharisees and such, he would have been okay, because the Pharisees didn’t have the kind of power Herod did. But John landed in prison because he had the audacity to question the morality of Herod.
The story of the beheading of John makes it crystal clear that God’s work is risky. When you do it, don’t expect accolades or success. When you speak the truth to the powerful there may be a bitter price to be paid.
Jeremiah knew that when his ministry prompted naysayers to plot against him.
Jonah knew that – that’s why he got on a ship heading the other direction rather than preach to Ninevah.
Each one of us has to respond to the challenge spoken by Joshua: Choose this day whom you will serve. When Joshua issued that challenge it was for the people to choose between Yahweh and other gods. For us the choice may be between God and self-interest or self-preservation.
As many of you know, my presbytery work is serving on the Committee on Preparation for Ministry. One of the things we check for in people who present themselves to be taken under care is their sense of call, for there are people who believe that being in pastoral ministry means having a church full of people who will love you. Reality is that while good ministry will likely result in some people being genuinely fond of a pastor, there will also always be those who are anywhere from indifferent to critical to hostile.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a teacher who was fired from his job six months short of his retirement after 25 years. It was a nasty piece of work on the part of his superiors. They wanted to punish him for challenging them and to make him an example for anyone else thinking about trying the same thing. They called it early retirement and gave him a party he suffered through. “I’ve been to my own funeral,” he said weeks later, recounting the pain of it. “I lost my students, my program, my livelihood, and my pride. But you know what? There really is life after death. I’m doing things I always wanted to do, but never had time. I’m spending time with my wife. I’m finding energy I thought I’d lost forever.
Getting crucified turned out better than I thought.”1
Those who follow Jesus must not give in to the naive notion that being faithful to God will be easy. It isn’t.
John the Baptist told the truth. It got him beheaded.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It got him crucified.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: No matter what happens, God’s plan cannot be stopped. It may not always be easy being honest, but Resurrection tells us not only does Love win, but Truth wins.
1. Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain - Teaching Sermons on Suffering (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp. 73-74.
First Lesson: Genesis 1:26-31
Second Lesson: John 8:1-11
Message: "If the Church Were Christian, ”
(it would focus more on affirming our potential than condemning our brokenness.)
Imagine for a moment that instead of this hot, summer day, it is a cool, crisp autumn afternoon. You look out on your front lawn and there they are again! A mess of leaves from your neighbor’s tree. You have not one tree on your property, and it annoys you that for your yard to look good and to protect your grass you must rake your neighbor’s leaves. You speak to your neighbor. Shouldn’t he be willing to take care of the leaves from his tree? But he declines. The law says that they are on your property, so they are your responsibility. That’s the setting of a wonderful story, “The Jefferson Street Leaf Wars” from Philip Gulley’s book Front Porch Tales.1 The author is a Quaker pastor, with a knack for story-telling, who lives and ministers in a small Midwestern town. The woman in this story actually comes out in the middle of the night to gather the leaves and dump them over the fence back onto her neighbor’s lawn, so that his leaves will once again be his responsibility. People are funny, and Gulley has a gift for writing about human nature. I have two or three of Gulley’s books of stories, and I have waited for him to write more. So I was intrigued when I saw a new title by this author: If the Church Were Christian. Those of you who remember your high school English grammar will recognize the “conditional” in that title. Grammatically the use of the word “were” instead of “was” implies that the Church is not Christian. Well, ouch!
I got the book and started reading the introduction.
Keep in mind I like this author. I’ve appreciated his observations on human nature for years. But his introduction contained one “ouch” after another. In it Gulley points out that there are approximately “39,000 Christian denominations, each of which has a slightly different take on the priorities of Jesus. All denominations, whether liberal or conservative, share the conviction that they most faithfully follow Jesus.” Gulley goes on to say that when he became a Quaker he sincerely believed Jesus had been raised in an early version of a Quaker meeting house. While he downplays the importance of theology, he uplifts the idea of – oh, my goodness – actually following Christ’s teachings. “If the church claims Jesus as its founder, it should at least share his values,” says Gulley. “The question for Christians is whether the church reflects the priorities of Jesus.”
Now I like studying theology, and engaging in theological debate, so I found much of what Gulley wrote in the introduction and his first chapter challenging. I could enjoy debating some of his theological conclusions. But he won me over with the title of chapter two: “If the Church were Christian, affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.
I have never been able forget Philip Yancey writing about a woman who came to him with a whole host of troubles and problems, some of which she had brought on herself. When he asked her if she might not find help in the church the woman exclaimed, “Church! They would only make me feel worse.” Double ouch!
How has the Church moved from a people who listened with rapt attention to the Rabbi who taught that “God so loved the world. . .” and that our first commandments are to love God and neighbor. How did the Church move from being a people who heard him say that we are the salt of the earth and that God knows us intimately – so intimately in fact that he even knows the number of hairs on our heads? How did the Church move from being a people who heard with joy the story of the father welcoming home his prodigal son to a people who insist that we are right and they are wrong . . . whoever “we” and “they” are.
Some of us have watched with dismay, and some have watched with joy changes taking place in our denomination. General Assembly recently concluded its biennial meeting in Philadelphia. In two years GA will meet again – this time in Detroit. Some of you are aware that when GA met in 2010 there were sweeping changes to the Book of Order, and a hotly contested, frequently challenged statement on ordination standards – for elders, deacons and ministers of word and sacrament was removed. 2 You may have seen headlines that the PCUSA is now constitutionally permitted to ordain gays and lesbians. You may have heard that because of these changes there are churches leaving the denomination, and that is true across the country. One of the Grand Rapids PCUSA churches has left. Others are considering it. Some of you are glad to see them go. Others weep at the loss. Many pastors I know are examining their commitment to the denomination and praying about how to lead their congregations. Let me be clear: While I believe we cannot prevent those who wish to go from leaving, and can only be gracious in wishing them well in their faith journey, I do not think leaving the denomination is the right response to our differences.
This year’s General Assembly stopped short of redefining marriage as between two people instead of being between a man and a woman.
Some of you are horrified. Others are overjoyed. Some Presbyterians are convinced that the denomination is in self-destruct mode and others are satisfied that finally we are on a path to full inclusiveness.
If Philip Gulley is right, if the Church were Christian it would affirm our potential more than dwelling on our brokenness, then we can find some insight for our church and our denomination in today’s reading from John.
A woman has been brought to Jesus by the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. She is accused of adultery. First of all, recognize this as a set-up. Only the woman has been brought, not the man. John points out that the synagogue officials were trying to trap Jesus. They say the Law requires she be stoned to death and ask Jesus what he would do. If he follows the Law he will affirm the death sentence. If he shows the love and compassion he has been teaching and sets her free, he will be guilty of breaking the Law.
All too often accusations are made that have an agenda that differs from the obvious issue. These men aren’t really interested in having the woman stoned. They are interested in making Jesus look bad.
So what does he do? He sits and writes with his finger in the sand. Wouldn’t we like to know what he wrote? Perhaps it was nothing more than a doodle, a moment to let him think of a solution. Perhaps his intent was to bring down the tension and emotions. When he spoke, Jesus said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again he stoops down and writes on the ground some more. By the time he looks up again, everyone has left, starting with the older ones. Maybe being older they had had more opportunities to commit sins of their own. Perhaps, being older, they had greater maturity to recognize their own culpability. That every last one of them left without lobbing even one stone reminds me of Paul’s statement that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Imagine yourself as part of the crowd that day. Do you believe you would have been able to cast a stone at the woman? I know I couldn’t.
If you are looking for a church with a perfect pastor, you need to keep looking. And if you find a church with a pastor who claims he or she is perfect – keep looking. If you are looking for a church with perfect people – keep looking. And if you find a church whose people profess perfection – keep looking. If you are looking for a denomination that is perfect – keep looking. And if you examine all 390,000 denominations and find one that maintains that they are perfect – keep looking.
This denomination is not perfect. This church is not perfect and this pastor is not perfect. But here is one of our great strengths: We are very diverse, both as a church and as a denomination. Sometimes I have noted that is also a weakness for us, but the good news is that we welcome conservatives and liberals. We welcome imperfect people and have even ordained quite a few. We have potential because we engage in conversation and debate, and as one of you frequently reminds me, we cling to the affirmation that God alone is Lord of the conscience. And I will add that people of good conscience sometimes disagree. Will we ever achieve consensus on ordination and marriage issues? I doubt it. If we ever did, I suspect we’d find something else to argue. As long as the Church includes people, there will be issues on which we will ultimately have to agree to disagree, without either side throwing stones at the other.
We are a people who are learning that many issues are not a matter of “either/or” but of “both/and,” . . . even when the two sides seem incompatible. As we learn to recognize the potential in our diversity, rather dwelling on our brokenness, pointing fingers and throwing stones, we can focus on following Jesus’ teachings. Here’s a challenge for you: Pick an issue that is important to you – church, politics, personal. For the next three days set aside your position on that issue, and whichever side you are on, take note of the opposition’s winning strong points. Learn to be a both/and participant in life.
Where are you in this narrative from John’s gospel? If you are a very religious person - you are in the story. If you are an extremely non-religious person - you are in the story. If you are a conservative that thinks that sin should be dealt with in a tough way- there is something here for you to learn. If you are a liberal, who thinks that sin should be dealt with in a tolerant way - there is something here for you to learn.
When Jesus looked up and spoke to the woman, he did not say, “Go and do whatever feels good to you.” He said, “Go, and sin no more.” That’s a both/and solution to the Pharisee’s set-up.
This story doesn’t tell us that sin doesn’t matter. It does tell us that focusing on the sin of others when we have plenty of our own to deal with is not our job. He gave the woman an opportunity to start over. He saw potential in her to do better. He did the same for Zachheus and Peter. God is always offering us opportunities to do better. Jesus could have condemned her, but what good would come of that? Instead of becoming a lifeless body, the woman now had a chance to have a good life. Jesus could have condemned Zachheus, but then he would not likely have paid people back what he had stolen from them. Jesus could have thrown Peter out of the discipleship group for publicly denying that he even knew Jesus, but how would Peter then have responded to the call, “feed my sheep.” ??
Psychologists tell us that it takes 11 positives to overcome the power of one negative. Challenge number two for this week: Find eleven ways to affirm the potential of someone or some group of whom you’ve been critical recently.
The Genesis account establishes that we are created in the image of God. That’s pretty wonderful. Let’s affirm that. Jesus tells us over and over that God loves us. That is good news. We are the Church and we profess that we are followers of Jesus Christ. Therefore let us follow Jesus’ example by demonstrating that affirming our potential is more important that condemning our brokenness.
1 "The Jefferson Street Leaf War" is actually from Michael Lindvall's The Good News from North Haven, another collection of wonderful stories about human nature. Not having access to the books at the time I was preparing this message, I confused Gulley's book, Front Porch Tales with Lindvall's book. Both are great collections of stories, and the point that I have had an eye out for more from Gully still holds. Gully is a Quaker Pastor. Lindvall is a Presbyterian pastor.
2 My friend and colleague, Pastor Dan Anderson (Spring Lake PC) addressed the issue in a way I found helpful and part of this sermon was inspired by his message. To hear Pastor Dan’s remarks on gay ordination go online to http://www.slpc.org/broadcasts/Thoughts%20about%20Openly%20Gay%20Ordinations%20by%20Rev%20Dan%20MP3.mp3
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 30
GOSPEL LESSON Mark 5:21-43
SERMON: “The Peter Parker Problem”
Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Thor, Iron Man . . . there has been no shortage of superheroes in the comics, in movies or on television. And there are still “underoos” so that kids can dress the part all year, not just on Halloween.
How many of you watched Superman on television when you were young(er)? George Reeves played the superhero in the television series from 1952 through 1959. I always liked Christopher Reeve in the movie versions. Books and articles have been written on Superman as a Christ-figure – sent to earth as a baby in a rocket ship shaped like a star, raised by an earthly step-father, he grew up in Smallville, a small nowheresville town, reminiscent of Nazareth where Jesus was also raised by an earthly step-father. Like Christ, Superman grows up where people have no idea of the powers he possesses or what his true identity, his true nature really is. “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” The “S” on his chest might just as well stood for ‘Savior’ as for ‘Superman’ as he heard peoples’ cries for help and came to their rescue.
Spider-Man is not a Christ-figure. He’s been in the comic strips, had a television series, a video game and three big-budget movies about him in 2002, 2004 and 2007. A musical about Spider-Man opened in New York last year – reported the most expensive musical in Broadway history (I still recall news reports of production difficulties). And a new 3D feature opened last week, promising to tell us the ‘untold story.’
The Amazing Spider-Man is really high school student Peter Parker, bitten by a spider -- radioactive? Genetically engineered? Somehow spider DNA bonds with Peter DNA and the young man gains super strength, the ability to stick to walls and ceilings and to shoot webs that can both capture bad guys and support him as he swings from skyscraper to skyscraper high above New York City streets. He’s Spidey, the web-slinger, and he goes out to fight criminals and super-villains like the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. The Amazing Spider-Man – Peter Parker.
You have to just like Peter Parker. He’s a genius-level nerd, teased and harassed by the other boys at school, awkward and shy with girls, forever coming up short of the expectations of his teachers, employers and authority figures. The police are after him and accuse him of being a dangerous vigilante. I’ll admit I really like Tobey Maguire in the role, better than Andrew Garfield. I just had to go see the film to find out what that untold story was. What were they going to tell us about Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, that we don’t already know?
United Methodist Pastor Bob Kaylor suggests that Jesus has a “Peter Parker problem,” in the sense that we think we know all about him. After all, he has appeared in books, television shows and movies. Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the most memorable musicals. We’ve been reading about him and talking about him for years.
Just as we are drawn to Peter Parker, the awkward high school student, we are drawn to Jesus because he is the suffering servant. He is misunderstood by the people, hounded by the leaders of the community he is trying to help. The Jewish authorities accuse him of blasphemy and constantly question his actions from eating with tax collectors and sinners to healing on the Sabbath. The Pharisees conspire with the government authorities to destroy him. Like Peter Parker, Jesus is always being attacked for doing good.
It might be a good idea to do a re-read of the Gospel of Mark as it gives us the story of the Amazing Jesus-Man. In the first chapter Jesus went into the synagogue with his newly called disciples and began to teach. Mark says, “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”
The people were amazed when he commanded an impure spirit to come out of a man.
In chapter two, the people were amazed when Jesus healed a paralytic.
In chapter five, they people were amazed when Jesus commanded a legion of impure spirits to come out of a man.
In chapter six they were amazed when he walked across the water, climbed into their boat and the sea calmed right
Again and again the people are amazed at what Jesus does. But here’s the untold story of what Jesus is doing for the people of Galilee: All of his mighty acts are intended to save them. Whether they’re facing evil, illness, destruction or death, Jesus wants to come to the rescue. In fact, the Greek word for “save” (sozo) pops up again and again in the gospel of Mark, although it’s usually reduced to bland English words such as “heal,” “cure” or “get well.” What amazes the crowds is that Jesus is working to rescue them, to save them.
In today’s reading, first it is Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue who comes to Jesus begging that his daughter might be saved. While Jesus is on his way to Jairus’ house, a woman comes up to him who has been suffering with a medical problem – a hemorrhage – that’s been going on for twelve years. Jairus’ daughter is at the point of death. Jesus and all the disciples and hangers on are on a mission to save her, and this desperate woman says to herself, “if I just touch his clothes, I will be healed – Greek: SAVED.”
She reaches out, touches Jesus and immediately the bleeding stops. Part of this story is about touching, about the healing power of touch. We struggle these days because of sensitivity to inappropriate touching. We hesitate to offer a hug sometimes when it is so needed, when it would be warmly welcomed. Still there are times when we need to pay attention to “do not touch” signs. Despite such “Do Not Touch” signs, a museum was having no success in keeping patrons from touching and soiling priceless furniture and art. The problem evaporated overnight when a clever museum employee replaced the signs with ones that read: “Caution: Wash Hands After Touching!”
A touch from Jesus is a welcome, healing touch. This woman is healed of her disease and rescued from a miserable life of pain and social isolation when she reaches out to touch Jesus’ clothing. She is saved by the Amazing Jesus-Man. Jesus realizes immediately (in Mark everything happens immediately) that power has gone forth from him and he asks who touched him. His disciples think it’s a crazy question. There are so many people around him, the crowd is jostling him, people are pressing him on every side. But Jesus wants to connect with the person he knows touched him and looks until the woman finally speaks up and confesses what she has done.
One might think he would chastise her for ‘stealing a healing,’ but instead he says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Back to the Greek again. Your faith has saved you.
When Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you,” he is telling her, and Mark is telling us, it is her willingness to trust Jesus that permits God’s healing power to flow into her. His touch, his clothes, God’s power are always there. It’s the willingness to trust that completes the healing,
The story returns to Jairus and his daughter’s death. While all this other action has been going on his neighbors come up to tell Jairus his daughter has died and there is no point in bothering Jesus any more. What does Jesus say to him? ––– “Don’t be afraid. Only believe.”
When they arrive at the house, professional mourners are already there weeping and wailing. But Jesus kicks them out, goes in to the child, takes the girl by the hand and says to her, “Little girl, get up!” And Mark tells us that immediately (!!) the girl gets up and begins to walk around. Jesus has saved her not only from illness, but from death itself. And those who witnessed it – do you get their reaction? They are ‘astonished.’ (another word for ‘amazed.’)
I’ve enjoyed watching the Spider-Man movies. It’s (amazing!) to watch him swing from building to building – whole city blocks and more at a time. But as fun and entertaining as that is, Spidey has nothing on Jesus. His is the stuff of comic book fiction.
Jesus is the one with the power to heal and save us. It should not be an untold story. Jesus rescues us from sin through the gift of forgiveness. He saves us from illness by touching us with healing in our bodies, minds and spirits. He breaks our social isolation by giving us a place in his community of faith. And he rescues us from death through his promise of eternal life with God.
EPISTLE LESSON Psalm 48
GOSPEL LESSON II Corinthians 12:2-10
SERMON: “Stand Out or Fit In ?”
Studies show that everyone wants to fit in – well, almost everyone. There are always exceptions. For our children, that “fit in” phenomenon begins as early as Kindergarten. When my son was a toddler and when he was in nursery school, he had a wardrobe, mostly sewn by my mother-in-law. She was a good seamstress. And she found the cutest materials. I remember with great fondness the fireman shirt, the crayon shirt, the tennis shoe shirt and yes, even the “I love my shirt” shirt. And he had many, many pairs of corduroy pants to go with the shirts. All was well until he started kindergarten. Suddenly those clothes were no good. The corduroy pants had to go – it had to be blue jeans. The shirts had to go -- no one else had anything like them. This was 1980-81 – he had to have a Steelers sweatshirt and a Cowboys sweatshirt to fit it.
Everyone wants to fit in. Paul was 5 when he was in kindergarten. When I was 5, my family went to live for a year and a half in London. It took my sister Peg, who was almost 12 years old at the time a little more than a month to pick up a British accent. Judy was about 8. They say it took her a couple of weeks. At the tender age of 5, family history says it only took me about 2 days. The speed with which I picked up a British accent was one of the few things I ever did quicker or sooner than my sisters. It says more about the facility of young children for language than about my skill. Bottom line: We all wanted to fit in.
Everyone wants to fit in. The desire to blend in with the crowd hits a peak in those awkward middle school and high-school years, but it never seems to go away completely.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanted to fit in. There’s no harm in wanting to wear the same style of clothing as our classmates or co-workers. Most of the time it doesn’t hurt to adopt speech patterns and idioms of our companions. One I catch myself doing often is what is known as the “quotable like.” “I’m like, “Who left that there?” or I’m like, so glad I went to see that movie.” I mean really --- where did we get that? I’m like that is so not good English grammar.
We fit in without even noticing that’s what we’re doing.
But what happens when ‘fitting in’ means we do or say things that are contrary to living the life that Christ calls us to embrace. While our human nature struggles to find the right clothes for our wardrobe and the words for our speech, what we hear in Paul’s letter today suggests something very different. Instead of seeing his differences as defeating, he acknowledges his difference may indicate weakness, but our weaknesses simply make the power of Christ shine more brightly and clearly.
This is definitely one of those passages where you want to have read what comes before. In Chapter 11, Paul writes of the things he has in common with his audience. Like them he is a Hebrew, and Israelite, a descendant of Abraham. Like many of them he has suffered for his faith – He has been whipped and beaten, stoned and shipwrecked. He has worked and worked – hard – and yet known the pain of hunger and thirst, of cold and homelessness.
Who would brag that they had experienced beatings, hunger, homelessness? That doesn’t fit in with the crowd to which we want to belong. Our first instinct is to hide shameful truths about ourselves.
Says Bob Kaylor, Senior Minister of the Park City United Methodist Church in Park City, Utah, “Today Paul encourages us, through his own example, to reject the instinctual idea that we must downplay that which makes us weak and emphasizes what pop culture models as fashionable and strong. Instead, Paul urges us toward the opposite: not to cover our weaknesses with too much bragging, but to let our unique sins, struggles and scars shine.”
It’s one thing to stand out of the crowd for something admirable. To be recognized as a star athlete, a distinguished writer, a great humanitarian, a talented performer – to stand out in such ways is more than okay, for many people it is highly desirable. But when the thing that sets us apart is a weakness, a fault, even a sin, our first instinct is to cover it up. When I was taking painting lessons, our teacher frequently said to us, “It’s not how many mistakes you make – it’s how well you cover them up that counts.” That may be true if you’re painting with oils on wood or metal, but it doesn’t work with watercolors. Once watercolor paint hits the paper – it’s there to stay. And it doesn’t work in life.
“The problem,” says Kaylor, “with covering things up is that the struggle we’re hiding from others is still very real and doing great harm to us. And though others might be marveling at how we fit in, the fact that we’re hiding something typically only increases a sense of shame and a fear of being found out, which pushes us deeper into deception. In essence, we repeat the sin of Adam and Eve. Confused by the things we know about ourselves, we seek to cover ourselves, running from those who can actually give us relief.”
Covering up our flaws is not a good choice. Neither is celebrating our weakness(es). If we can’t hide our faults, then for some people the next best option is to embrace them, to indulge ourselves, to find uncritical company in our troublesome places. We can always surround ourselves with people who struggle with the same difficulties and tell each other it’s okay – it’s not a big deal. It’s called rationalization.
Unfortunately covering up our struggles doesn’t help. Celebrating, indulging and excusing our weaknesses can lead to destruction.
Hiding and indulging are the pitfalls. But Paul models for us a promise that if instead of denying, covering up, hiding our weaknesses, instead of swinging the other way and claiming that our troubles are not troubles at all, but something that fits in well with the world around us, excusing ourselves from responsibility, instead we can choose to expose our weaknesses and so experience the power of Christ at work within and around us.
No one in the first century had better credentials than Paul – as a Jew, as a scholar, as a man of the Law, as a person who had encountered and been transformed by the living Lord. And yet even Paul had a weakness – his ‘thorn in the flesh.’ We don’t know what that was. Scholars have speculated. I suspect that Paul is intentionally vague here because it’s not the particular “thorn” that matters. What matters is that it was enough to remind him consistently and constantly of his reliance upon the grace of Jesus Christ. In spite of Paul’s pleading with the Lord to removed the “thorn” Christ’s answer was that his grace was sufficient, his power was made perfect in Paul’s weakness.
The bad news is that each and every one of us has flaws, areas of weakness that prevent us from becoming and being everything that we want to be, or even that God hopes for us to be. The bad news is that we cannot hide our flaws and we dare not embrace our flaws.
The GOOD news is that when we get past both hiding and embracing our flaws, the power of Christ can heal our brokenness – as individuals, as a community, as a nation, as a church.