Unseen Things

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46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Before I became a Presbyterian minister, I worked in advertising for many years.

At this time of year when the leaves turn shades of red and orange and swirl around my car as I’m driving around, I am reminded of one of my photographer friends named Mark and a photo shoot we went on about 20 years ago in late October for one of my bank clients in Lancaster.

We went to take photos of a Fall Foliage Parade in a little town called Ephrata. While Mark set up his camera along the parade route, the art director and I kept ourselves warm with Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate we purchased from the local Lions Club. It was a perfect fall day and the late afternoon sun peeked through the trees with leaves saturated with fall colors.

Soon we heard the boom-boom-boom of marching bands approaching and Mark got into position behind his camera to begin taking pictures. The first division of marching bands came and went. But Mark didn’t shoot. One. Single. Picture.

Mark mumbled to himself and adjusted the settings on his camera as a float came into view down the street. The creative director yelled, “Shoot, Mark! It’s perfect!” “No it’s not,” Mark grumbled. He picked up all his equipment and went to the other side of the street.

The art director and I watched helplessly as Mark set up the camera and proceeded to…you guessed it…

not shoot any pictures.

Eventually, Mark grabbed his camera and ran up the street. The creative director went off after him, and I stayed behind with the other equipment and a whole bunch of curious stares from the good people of Ephrata who were just trying to watch a parade.

The parade ended and Mark and the creative director came back looking glum. We packed up the gear and shuffled back to the car in silence.

As we drove home, Mark explained the light just wasn’t right.

It didn’t make sense to shoot a lot of film because all of the pictures were going to be terrible. He had taken a couple shots out of desperation, but they would be unusable.

It didn’t make any sense to me. It was a gorgeous, colorful, festive fall parade. How could the photos not be gorgeous, colorful and festive?

When we got the few photos Mark took, my heart sank. Mark was right. Totally right. The photos were all awful.

Although my eye wasn’t able to see it, the photos revealed what had happened.

By the time the parade began the sun had gone down just enough so that, on film, all the people in the parade looked like fuzzy shadows and those brilliant fall leaves turned to gray blobs.

Over the years that Mark and I worked together, I learned to trust his eye. And trained his eye saw things I could not see.

Photographers, designers, painters, sculptors and other visual artists are able to see stuff that most of us cannot see. Mark could look through the lens of a camera and envision exactly what would end up in the developing tray. Mark had the talent and training to see what my untrained eye could not see.

This theme of seeing yet not seeing the way Jesus sees runs like a ribbon through this section of the gospel of Mark, including the text this morning.

The travel narrative contained in chapters 8, 9 and 10 serves as a bridge between Jesus’ mission in Galilee and his arrival in Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly life.

In chapters 8, 9 and 10, Mark loads in healings and stories and teachings about discipleship. The gospel writer tells us what it means to have a relationship with Jesus through these stories.

What it means to follow Jesus, learn from Jesus and live like Jesus.

All along, Mark invites us, urges us, to try and see the world the way Jesus sees it.

In chapter 8, Jesus tells the disciples:

“the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious authorities, and be killed, and after 3 days rise again.”

Peter hears what Jesus says and what does he do? He gets angry and rebukes Jesus.  He says, no way, that’s not how this gonna go, Jesus.

And Jesus, says: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter cannot see the way Jesus sees.

Then, passing on through Galilee in Mark 9, Jesus tells the disciples again that the Son of Man will be betrayed, killed, and will rise from the dead.  “But,” Mark tells us, “the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying” and, in fact, were afraid to even ask him for clarity.

The disciples cannot see the way Jesus sees.

Yet again, as the disciples are going up with Jesus to Jerusalem, Jesus tries one last time to tell the disciples what is going to happen:

The Son of Man will be handed over.

He’ll be killed.

He’ll rise from the dead.

In response to Jesus’ words, — or maybe in an attempt to ignore Jesus’ words — James and John start fighting over who’s going to get the right and left hand seats when Jesus comes into his glory.  You can almost hear Jesus sigh in exasperation.

James and John still don’t see the way Jesus sees.

But who can blame the disciples? The things Jesus talks about aren’t easy.  Suffering?  Betrayal?  Death?

And more incredible, still…resurrection?

Some things are just too hard to grasp; some things are better left alone. Life is hard enough.

Sometimes seeing really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I know people who refuse to watch the news or read a newspaper. Are you one of those people? It’s too depressing, right? Too much negativity. Too much bad news.

Every once in a while, someone will write a letter to the editor saying, “Why all this terrible news? Why don’t you write about all the good things that happen?” In fact, the Post-Gazette has a weekly column called “Random Acts of Kindness” in which people send in all sorts of feel-good stories about people returning lost wallets or helping little old ladies change a flat tire on a rainy highway.

We don’t like seeing the hard parts of life. Or the confusing parts of life!

That’s especially true in our life of faith.

It is so much easier to only focus on the positive, happy parts of being a Christian – God’s love, God’s desire for our well-being, the hope we find in God through Christ. We don’t come to church to hear things that will make us feel bad or uncertain. The world makes us feel bad and uncertain enough. We come to church to feel better. Secure in our faith.

But is a don’t-worry-be-happy faith a mature faith? Is that the kind of faith we’re seeking as disciples of Jesus?

Although the gospel is surely good news for us, is it the kind of good news that means it’s okay to shut down and tune out all that is broken and hard and confusing in this fallen world?

That’s what the disciples wanted to do. Shut down and not see the picture Jesus painted for them in his message of suffering, death and resurrection.

But these texts from Mark summon us to engage in the messy reality of our human life – even the hard things Jesus talks about – suffering, betrayal, death. Poverty, human trafficking, corporate corruption, climate change, hunger, domestic violence. The life of faith cannot be lived in a spotlessly clean box set apart from the world’s brokenness.

Author Nora Gallagher puts it this way, “I remember thinking as I worked in the soup kitchen that I didn’t want to know what I was learning. Because then my life couldn’t go on in the same way as it had before. Driving around in my nice red Volvo, thinking about what new linens to buy. What we learn we cannot unlearn. What we see, we cannot unsee.”[1]

Maybe the disciples knew deep down that if they really saw what Jesus was showing them, they wouldn’t be able to unsee it again.

Once the disciples could see what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom of God –

that the first would be last,

the greatest would be a servant,

that a little child would receive the kingdom

and a camel had a better chance at slipping through the gate than a rich man.

If the disciples could see the new reality represented by Jesus Christ, their lives would have to change.

Once the disciples engaged in this topsy turvy re-ordering of life that Jesus talks about, they couldn’t go back to the orderly existence they knew.

Maybe the disciples understood that seeing in the way that Jesus sees can be a dangerous thing. So dangerous, in fact, it might get you killed.

Consider this story about Kevin Carter, another photographer. In 1993, while covering the famine in the Sudan, Carter took a picture of a small girl who had collapsed while walking to a food station. Just a few feet behind the starving girl, a vulture stalked her. In May of 1994, Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph. Two months later, he committed suicide.1174202155_850215_0000000000_sumario_normal-1

A close friend of Carter’s said that after shooting the photo of the starving girl, Kevin sat under a tree and cried and chain-smoked and could not distance himself from the horror of what he saw. He could not unsee what he had seen. The image of the starving girl haunted him to his grave.[2]

Our text this morning shows us another way in which seeing the way Jesus sees demands us to look deeply and fully at life and the people around us.

In today’s text, it is a hard scene on that road with Jesus, and the disciples and the crowd around them as they are leaving Jericho. This is the last leg of their journey to Jerusalem. You can just imagine that the disciples are tired, dirty, hungry, maybe even discouraged by the way things have been going.

Then the yelling from the side of the road begins. And insistent, crazy kind of yelling.

The last thing the disciples want to do is slow down for Bartimaeus.

This blind beggar at the side of the road who is yelling like a crazy man.

Jerusalem is still 15 long miles away by foot.

And it’s not like it’s only Bartimaeus. There are beggars all along the road – if the disciples stop for every needy person, they’ll never get to Jerusalem in time for Passover.

Tick tock, tick tock. Let’s keep moving. Can’t somebody shut that guy up? If we’re lucky, maybe Jesus won’t hear him and we can keep moving.

But Bartamaeus just keeps hollering more. “Son of David!!!! Have mercy on me!!!”

And of course, Jesus hears him, even if the crowd is doing their best to keep Jesus from seeing him.

Jesus always hears the crazy people. And stops for them.

Jesus hears Bartamaeus’ screaming and the journey comes to a screeching halt. You can almost hear the disciples thinking to themselves, “Oh no. Not again.”

When Jesus asks Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” the beggar answers that he wants to see.

And that’s exactly the same question Jesus asked James and John earlier. “What do you want me to do for you?” And what do James and John say? They start talking about power and privilege. “Give us the good space next to you in heaven, Jesus.”

Bartemaeus’ answer is the answer of faith. “I want to see,” he says. “I want to see things the way they really are so that I can follow you, Jesus, wherever you lead me.”

Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

What would you say if Jesus asked you that question?

“What do you want me to do for you?”

What it is that is really important in your life?

Seeing the world in the way Jesus sees it can be a dangerous thing.

Seeing like Jesus sees will lead us to feel uncomfortable with the way in which the world works most days.

Seeing like Jesus sees will lead us to question the status quo and notice the hard and hungry places in our communities.

Seeing like Jesus sees will stop us in our tracks when we hear voices crying for mercy instead of heading on our way down the road, in a hurry like always.

When we see like Jesus, we won’t be able to keep moving so quickly. We will be sidetracked on a regular basis by the least of these.

Seeing like Jesus sees means we will be bothered by those things we can’t unsee.

After his healing, Bartemaeus won’t be able to see anything without thinking about the one who gave him new eyes.

And that is good news for all of us who have been claimed, healed and loved into new life by Jesus.

As Jesus tries to show his disciples again and again, when you look at the world – even at its ugliest, hardest and most broken – when you see the way Jesus sees, you will also see hope and the possibility of new life.

Now you may have to look at the hard, ugly, broken things for a very long time before you see the hope. But if you look at brokenness through the loving eyes of Jesus, you will see resurrection and you will see life as God intended.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Sacred Meal, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 22.

[2]http://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/29/world/kevin-carter-a-pulitzer-winner-for-sudan-photo-is-dead-at-dd.html

Fasting from Complacency — A Rant For World Food Day

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First, watch this.

https://youtu.be/ue8_doQgSW8

This is a rant I’ve been sitting on for a while.

It is a rant I’ve been sitting on, and yet its essence continues to creep into my sermons and conversations, bubbling up in my dreams, and sometimes hitting me on the head when I least expect it.

Today is World Food Day. And all I can think about are my brothers and sisters in Africa, many of whom will starve to death this winter.

In Malawi, the crops totally sucked this year due to the weather.

And in South Sudan, a place I had the privilege to see with my own two eyes in January, the crops were never planted at all because of the on-going civil war that continues to rage in the country. When bullets are flying, it’s tough to get shit done, you know?

My friend Rev. Dave Carver posted this quote on his Facebook page yesterday, and I’ve been chewing on it:

“It is not customary that an intelligent person clothes and cares for one part of his body and leaves the rest naked. The intelligent person is solicitous for all his members. Thus it should be with those who are the Lord’s church and body. All those born of God are called into one body and are prepared by love to serve their neighbors, not only with money and goods, but also, according to the example of their Lord and Head, Jesus Christ, in an evangelical manner, with life and blood. . – Menno Simons, 1552

As a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a member of Pittsburgh Presbytery, I am ashamed and embarrassed for us.  Because we are intelligent people who profess to believe we are part of the Body of Christ, and we’re walking around butt naked. Or at the very least, we’re wearing really stunning shoes, but the rest of our body is exposed and starving to death.DSCN0045

You see, here in my own little corner of the Presbyterian world in Allegheny County, there are more than 140 individual Presbyterian congregations. That’s at least 140 separate buildings for a rapidly dwindling group of people (around 31,000).

And many of those congregations are sitting on endowments, chunks of money given to the churches over the years. Some endowments are very modest. Others are massive. Like millions of dollars massive. Some congregations consider those endowments as insurance against a “rainy day.” Some congregations can’t even touch the money because those who gave it to the church restricted the use to certain things like organ repair or stained glass maintenance.

Well, I would venture to say what is happening in Africa and in many other parts of the world is way beyond a rainy day. It is a major deluge calling for something beyond scraping together a few dollars and calling it “sacrificial giving.”

Meanwhile, at the higher denominational levels, it seems the money for world mission has run out. The reasons for this financial crisis are many and varied. One reason is there are simply fewer Presbyterians giving money to mission than there used to be. I won’t go into a long explanation for why the PCUSA is shrinking, but with fewer people in the pews, there’s fewer dollars flowing upstream to fund mission work. And, of course, many churches have left the denomination, or withhold funding from GA because…well…everyone knows that story.

And of course, there’s the many hundreds of small congregations spending most of their money on keeping the lights on. Not much left for mission after that.

Presbyterian World Mission recently announced it will have a funding gap of a little less that $1 million dollars in 2016, which means we will lose nine mission co-workers.  In 2017, the gap will be $4.5 million dollars, which will result in the loss of 40 missionaries.  Right now we only have 165 mission co-workers.  Only 165 people to cover the entire globe.

Once upon a time, this would not have bothered me very much because I had pretty much no idea what mission co-workers do.  When I was in South Sudan, however, I had the privilege of meeting the entire team of mission co-workers serving in the country.

And let me tell you about these people serving Jesus in South Sudan.  They are fearless. They are committed. They are Faithful with an intentional and emphatic upper case “F.” They are kick ass Christians, working as hard as anyone I’ve ever met in the one of the most deeply challenging parts of the world.IMG_3504

And we don’t have money for them.

We don’t have money for folks like Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mathers who are doing the hard work of teaching and preaching and equipping others for teaching and preaching peacemaking in a country in which the only hope — and I do mean the ONLY hope — is peace. You can read more about what we don’t have money to support right here:

https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/missionconnections/smith-mather-shelvis-nancy/

I’m telling you our mission coworkers are extraordinary people doing extraordinary work for the sake of the Gospel. They are doing their best to make sure the Christ’s Body in Africa isn’t naked, riddled with bullets, raped, kidnapped, dehydrated, illiterate, or starving to death.

But we don’t have money for them anymore.

I look around my own presbytery.  And what do I see? It’s embarrassing.

So many largely empty buildings.

So many rainy day funds.

So few people hoarding so many resources.

We should be embarrassed. Ashamed. And, frankly, fearful of having to explain it all to God someday when God asks us how we prioritized our use of the incredible abundance God has entrusted (perhaps foolishly) to the North American church.

God may point to Grace Presbytery, who seems to get the idea that the purpose of being church is not to maintain our buildings or focus on our own survival as a denomination. Look at what they did at a recent presbytery meeting: http://www.gracepresbytery.org/grace-presbytery-allocates-6-1-million-for-missions-and-ministry/

Thanks be to God for the saints at Grace.

So what are we doing, friends?

I am going to quote myself from a recent sermon because this is the essence of my rant:

“Here’s what I think. What is at work in the PCUSA is not a literal poverty, but a poverty of spirit.  The denomination is on its knees because we have all the things just like the man who kneels before Jesus in Mark 10:17-31. We have buildings, investments, polity and structure — all of which we’ve worked hard to accumulate and all of which we really, really like.

And Jesus says, you know what? I don’t really care. Sell it all. Give it away and follow me, even unto the ends of the earth.

The PCUSA does not have a money problem despite all evidence to the contrary.

We have a spiritual problem.  A enormous spiritual problem.  We give lip service to resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit when the truth is we are too worried about our own survival to even imagine letting go of things that couldn’t matter less to Jesus.  But they are things that matter beyond our imagining to people in places like Malawi and South Sudan who are probably going to starve to death this winter.

If we keep going as we’re going, we will indeed lose the message of the Gospel entirely and be nothing more than a nice group of people with all the things in a rapidly shrinking social club who will not be missed by anyone when we finally disappear for good.”

So today, on World Food Day, I am fasting from complacency and calling for my brothers and sisters in the PC(USA) and in Pittsburgh Presbytery to think about this…

If the situation were reversed, our brothers and sisters in Malawi and South Sudan wouldn’t hesitate for one second to sell everything and take care of us. I am absolutely convinced of this. Just ask anyone who has traveled to be with our ministry partners in that part of the world.IMG_3511

Don’t take my word for it. If you are in Pittsburgh Presbytery, ask Dave Carver. Ask Ken White. Not for one minute would our brothers and sisters in Malawi and South Sudan allow any of us to starve to death if it were within their power to stop it. They would not allow us to be naked, because they consider us part of their body.

And the really great thing is this — we Presbyterians KNOW how to do this. We KNOW how to get stuff done. We KNOW how to do the things that make for peace. We KNOW how to get food where it needs to be. We have great partners with whom we work all over the world. We have young people, eager to make the world a better, more just, more educated, more Kingdom-like place.

We just need to get over ourselves. We need to open our damn hands, shake the dollars out of our buildings and endowments, and begin to look and act like the people of the Resurrection.

A couple of years ago when the presbytery announced that the money was running out and there was a budget crisis, I quipped somewhat glibly and probably unadvisedly to our Executive Presbyter  that it was the best possible situation for the presbytery.

Because when the money runs out, you figure out what really matters and what you really believe. Do we truly depend upon Jesus Christ? Do we really believe in an abundant and generous God? Do we really trust the Holy Spirit to move us into a grace-filled future?

If we don’t, then we have absolutely no business calling ourselves the church.

In closing, I will steal another quote from Dave Carver:

“In a quote attributed to an Australian Aboriginal woman, this idea is spoken well: ‘If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.’ Our liberation and wholeness in Christ is bound up with that of the Malawians and with people throughout the world, including our own neighborhoods here in Pittsburgh.”

Peace and grace to you.

Susan

All The Things

imagesMark 10:17-31

17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Mark Twain once said: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”

I don’t know about you, but there are many parts of the Bible I don’t understand well.

I don’t understand all the symbolism that runs rampant in the Book of Revelation.

My eyes begin to glaze over when I read the nit-picky laws of Leviticus.

There are parts of Scripture that are just horrific, like the slaughter of little babies and the rape of women. I don’t understand why such violent events are narrated in the holy text.

But not understanding those texts from Scripture doesn’t bother me nearly so much as The Golden Rule.

I understand the Golden Rule perfectly. When Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” in Luke 6 and Matthew 7, it’s pretty much impossible to miss his meaning. Interpreting that particular sentence isn’t controversial or difficult, and I certainly didn’t need a seminary education to understand it.

But despite the fact that I completely understand the Golden Rule, I manage to break it every single day. And the fact that I understand the Golden Rule but do not honor it bothers me greatly.

It bothers me because I can’t seem to consistently treat other people the way I’d like them to treat me.

It bothers me because I wish Jesus had said something like: “If someone treats you well, treat them well back?”

Or “Do unto others as you would have them do to you UNLESS the others are jerks. If the other guy is a jerk, you are free to write him off.”

But Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus NEVER lets me off the hook. Jesus has all these hard sayings –

“Turn the other cheek”

“Love your enemies”

“Do good to those who hate you”

What makes the hard sayings such an incredible pain in the you-know-what is not that Jesus’ words to us are hard to understand. These sayings are hard because they are hard to obey.

And honestly, sometimes I just don’t want to do what Jesus says. Sometimes, I want to do what I feel like doing. Sometimes, all I want to do is hit back at my enemies. I don’t want to do good to those who have hurt me. I want to hurt them.

So hang onto your hats, my friends. We have another one of those pesky, bothersome Jesus texts in the lectionary today and boy oh boy, is it a doozey.

Today we have to somehow get our minds around the text in Mark where Jesus tells a man with many possessions to, “Go and sell everything you own, give all the money to the poor, and follow me.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to sell my stuff, at least not all of it. Maybe I could sell a few things on eBay, and goodness knows I have a few hundred books I’d be happy to unload. But I kinda like my house, my car, and I dare you to try convincing me to part with my LeCreuset dutch oven.

Surely, Jesus doesn’t mean what he’s saying here, is he? Surely he’s talking about really rich people, right? Jesus can’t be talking about giving up OUR possessions?

Not surprisingly, many religious people have tried to find a way around this text. They’ve come up with all sorts of interpretations to soften this hard text in which Jesus not only says to sell everything, but also suggests you won’t get into heaven unless dump your 401K and hand over the cash to the homeless guys who sit outside PNC Park on game day.
The disciples know that Jesus is treading on some dangerous ground here. “Who can be saved, then?” they say. Surely Jesus is kidding around.

The King James translation of this text gets around the problem by adding words to soften the blow. Instead of, ““How hard it will be for those who have wealth or riches to enter the kingdom of God!” the King James says, “How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God.”

So as long as we have more faith in God than we have in our possessions, we’re good according to the King James version.

But that’s not what Jesus said.

Another interpreter said that there once was a very small gate into Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which camels could pass only they weren’t carrying something on their back. Maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about!

Maybe Jesus is saying all we really need to do is get rid of whatever is keeping us from getting through the eye of the needle. Might be possessions, but then again it doesn’t have to be possessions. Maybe Jesus is talking about spiritual burdens that separate us from God.

The problem with this interpretation is that the whole thing is made up. According to Biblical scholars, there never was such a tiny gate into Jerusalem.

Countless preachers have told us that what really happened is that Jesus took a deep look into the rich man’s soul with his super duper Jesus eyes and discovered that wealth was this particular man’s special spiritual “weak spot.”

This gives us permission to assume that Jesus would not ask us to part with all of our possessions, just those that have become weaknesses —like our daily stop at Starbucks or our collection of designer pocketbooks or a LeCreuset dutch oven. We can keep the rest of our stuff as long as we give up those one or two weaknesses.

And then of course, there’s the interpretation of which I’ve always been fond. The interpretation that suggests this text is all about grace.

Jesus didn’t really mean what he said about possessions. Jesus is just using a metaphor to demonstrate that none of us are good enough to get into kingdom of God. None of us can get through the eye of a needle, thus we must rely solely on God’s grace, and not our own goodness to get to heaven.

This interpretation has the added bonus of being perfectly in synch with good reformed theology. The story is all about God’s grace, not about giving up possessions. We don’t have to shrink ourselves or our lifestyle down to fit through the needle – God can do what we cannot because nothing is impossible for God. So we can keep all our stuff and still be good enough.

Or maybe. Just maybe. Jesus actually means exactly what he says about all the things. Maybe we ought to entertain the possibility that Jesus means exactly what he says.

Hmmmm….

The longer I look at this man in front of Jesus, the more convinced I become that he is a good man. A faithful man. He doesn’t go toe-to-toe and give Jesus a hard time the way the Pharisees and other religious authorities do.

I get the feeling that this man has worked hard to do everything right. He has faithfully kept the law. He has attends synagogue regularly. He tithes. He has taught adult Sunday school. He has served on the session. He has cooked at the men’s shelter and sent checks to worthy charities. Although it is tempting to think this man is like Warren Buffett or Donald Trump. I don’t think he’s that sort of rich guy at all.

I am convinced the man on his knees in front of Jesus is good and worthy and true. I am also convinced he is distressed because he’s stuck. He realized his possessions and his good works are all just stuff. Stuff that makes him sick and anxious. The man has all the things and has done all the things, but there is one thing he lacks.

The man may not know it yet, but what his heart desires is more Jesus. His heart has led him to his knees before the Good Teacher and ask, “Good Teacher, what more can I do? I have everything I need and done everything I can think of and I am still stuck. Sick at heart and still so far from where I want to be.”

1Jesus, looks at him and loves him. Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the mans hears these words, he is shocked by Jesus’ clarity. He is shocked by an answer that doesn’t include a requirement for him to do more things. The man is good at doing more – he has spent his whole life doing more, believing more, and acquiring more.

But Jesus tells him to do less. Stop doing more. Give up all the things and follow Jesus.

Hard words, brothers and sisters. Hard words from Jesus. Hard words about letting go of all the things that we think keep us safe and secure. Hard words about giving up our stuff. Hard words about throwing in our lot entirely with Jesus.

Hard words because Americans have never had more stuff. As a nation, we have never been more prosperous. And every study indicates, even with all the things we have, Americans never been more anxious and downright pessimistic about the future.

Americans have never had more faith options at our disposal. Hundreds and hundreds of places of worship. Almost 150 Presbyterian churches in Allegheny County alone. All of these churches offering every kind of worship experience. And every study indicates, the church in America, the church in Allegheny County, is in steep decline.

So we find ourselves on our knees before Jesus, saying, “We Presbyterians have been faithful! We’ve done all the things! We’ve worked, we’ve studied, we’ve planned for retirement and we’ve been model citizens! We’ve shown up for pot lucks and we’ve served on the session and we’ve served at the homeless shelter!”

And after we’ve done all the things that seem really good to do, we’re still tired. We’re still anxious. We are stuck. As a denomination. As congregations. As people.

And if we dare to look up, what do we see? Jesus. Jesus who loves us. Loves us in spite of our anxiety and our clinging to all the things. Jesus loves us deeply and tells us it’s time to let go. To begin divesting of our distorted sense of what we think makes us good and worthy. And invest in the kind of treasure that will not make us sick or sick at heart.

We lack only one thing. More Jesus.

A couple of months ago, I had the deep privilege of meeting the head of PCUSA World Missions.  Rev. Hunter Farrell was in Pittsburgh, fresh from a meeting at the PCUSA headquarters in Louisville, a meeting in which it was announced that Presbyterian World Mission will have a funding gap of a little less that $1 million dollars in 2016, which means we will lose nine mission co-workers.  In 2017, the gap will be $4.5 million dollars, which will result in the loss of 40 missionaries.  Right now we only have 165 mission co-workers.  Only 165 people to cover the entire globe.

The theme of the last couple months has been – the sky is falling! We’re out of all the things!

Here’s what I think. What is at work in the PCUSA is not a literal poverty, but a poverty of spirit.  The denomination is on its knees because we have all the things just like the man who kneels before Jesus. We have buildings, investments, polity and structure — all of which we’ve worked hard to accumulate and all of which we really, really like.

And Jesus says, you know what? I don’t really care. Sell it all. Give it away and follow me, even unto the ends of the earth.

Because there are days in which I do not have the good sense to keep my mouth shut, I told Hunter and others gathered at the world mission meeting that the PCUSA does not have a money problem despite all evidence to the contrary.

We have a spiritual problem.  A enormous spiritual problem.  We give lip service to resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit when the truth is we are too worried about our own survival to even imagine letting go of things that couldn’t matter less to Jesus and matter beyond our imagining to people in places like Malawi and South Sudan who are probably going to starve to death this winter.

If we keep going as we’re going, we will indeed lose the message of the Gospel entirely and be nothing more than a nice group of people with all the things in a rapidly shrinking social club who will not be missed by anyone when we finally disappear for good.

Like I said.  There are days when I cannot keep my mouth shut.

In the last paragraph of his great book entitled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has these important lines:  “The principle runs all through life, from top to bottom.  Give up yourself and you will find your real self.  Lose life and it will be saved.  Submit to death – the death of ambitions and secret wishes.  Keep nothing back.  Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.  Look for Christ and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in.”

Hard words, today, brothers and sisters. But they are hard words from the One who loves us, knows us and poured out his life to save us. There’s nothing cheap about this grace. It may just cost us everything. All the things that matter usually do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Proclamation, Persistance and Patience”

Alan Olson’s Ordination to Minister of Word and Sacrament

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2 Timothy 3:14-17, 4:1-5

14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

 

Good afternoon, saints! So, have you heard the latest news out of the PCUSA? The news about the 127 seminary students who took the Bible Content Exam in September?

For those of you who are not Presbyterian pastors, I’ll clue you in on what I’m talking about. The Bible Content Exam is a test that all candidates for ministry in the PCUSA must take and pass before they can be considered for ordination.

And of those 127 future pastors who took the exam in September, only 36 people passed.

36 out of 127!

That, my friends, is a 28% pass rate. Pathetic, yes?

By way of comparison, for the 12 previous examinations before September, the average pass rate was more than 80%.

The decline from 80% to 28% is pretty significant. So what happened?
There was no error made in the scoring, and it’s not like this particular group of Presbyterian seminary students suddenly became biblically illiterate.

The explanation for the sudden drop is obvious to many of us who already knew the dirty little secret revealed by the September scores.

Before September, the Bible Content Exam was entirely composed of questions recycled from previous exams. Which meant students taking the test could study past exams and memorize all the questions ahead of time.

It’s as if high school students could access all the SAT questions from the past 10 years and memorize them, knowing the questions they needed to answer on their exam had already appeared on earlier tests.

All a student would need to do is put in the time to memorize the old SAT questions. That’s what’s been happening for years on the Bible Content Exam.

I should know. That’s how I passed with a whopping 90% in my first month of seminary 15 years ago. And if my Facebook feed is any indication, there are a fair number of fabulous Teaching Elders who also memorized their way to a passing grade on the BCE. Maybe some of them are sitting right here in this sanctuary this afternoon.

The idea behind the Bible Content exam has always been to measure how well potential pastors “know” sacred scripture.

The exam contains lots of questions about who begat who, in what order the books appear, and what patriarch said this and which prophet said that and which epistle contains this passage, and oh, by the way, how many Psalms are there anyway? Anybody? (150)

I am slightly embarrassed about how feeble I am in knowing objective, hard factoids about the Bible. Factoids are my great weakness. I forget names and places, especially the ones that are hard to pronounce. I have to look up stuff about the Bible all the time. I am terrible at quoting chapter and verse unlike some of my brothers and sisters who grew up in churches that stressed memorization. My church was a more juice and cookies and Jesus loves you kind of church. No bible drills for this kid.

Then again, the devil can quote scripture all day long with great accuracy, and one Bible factoid I do know says the devil’s skill didn’t impress Jesus one little bit.

We have this book, this sacred story. And we Presbyterians are people of the word. We hold Scripture in great esteem. It is central to our life together. Today, Alan will affirm he accepts the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to him.

And the witness of our reformed tradition insists it is not only ordained ministers who are called to engage with the Bible.

All of us are invited into the story of God’s love, grace and faithfulness whether we are teaching elders, ruling elders, ordinary people in the pews

or little kids in lamb costumes proclaiming the awesomeness of the incarnation in the inauspicious garb of a hilarious Christmas pageant.

We are people of the word. And we are living in an age in which words are getting cheaper every day.

We are flooded with words. Cynical words.

Careless and cruel words.

Words designed to make us feel small.

Words designed to make us fearful of people who do not look and think and believe like us.

Words designed to make us fearful, period.

The average American is exposed to 360 advertisements every day, each one filled with words designed to ignite a sense of longing or inadequacy. Every hour we are awake, we are told 22 times we are not rich, thin, young, beautiful, strong, or stylish enough.

So many words are drummed in our ears that it is difficult to know exactly how our sacred words of faith can hope to be heard above the din. How in the world can the Word of God preached by your average earnest Presbyterian pastor compete with a TedTalk?

Assuming, of course, anyone shows up on Sunday morning to listen to a average, earnest sermon. As we all know, “showing up” is happening less and less. Biblical literacy is sinking like a stone, even among seminary students as we learned in September.

It’s partly the church’s fault so few people know about Scripture. Over the years, we’ve often done a poor job teaching the Bible, reducing it to a dusty and depressing book of religious rules and factoids.

Or we’ve made the Bible so boring for our kids that once they’ve escaped the confines of confirmation class and Sunday school, they never crack the spine of their neatly inscribed presentation Bible ever again.

And, of course, there’s the problem of what I consider Scriptural abuse. When the Bible is used to justify exclusion and shaming. Considering how often it has been used to whack people over the head, it’s understandable why many see the Bible as a cruel weapon of mass destruction.

It’s all very distressing. And perhaps we should have warned Alan a long time ago to think about a different line of work.

Because you, dear friend, are being entering ministry at a time when a pastor has no assurance the majority of people who show up for church know or care anything about the biblical story. In fact, you can be pretty certain they do not care about how much they do not know.

Why should they? Why should anyone care about more words from the Bible if it’s all factoids and boring rules and harmful weaponry?

It’s all very distressing until you realize this isn’t just a phenomenon of our own time. In our scripture text today, we overhear an older and wiser pastor encouraging a young pastor named Timothy to hold fast to the sacred story, even in the midst of all the competing stories floating in the 1st century air.

Pastor Timothy didn’t have to compete with the Internet and Sunday morning soccer games and 24-hour cable news and a whole slew of Joel Olsteen prosperity preachers. But Timothy’s ministry faced challenges familiar to pastors and the whole church today.

And in our text, the older and wiser pastor gives advice to Timothy we would do well to follow as we seek to live out the Word in ways itchy-eared people might notice and respond to today.

The advice Timothy receives is this:

Proclaim.

Persist.

And most of all, be patient.

Can we listen to what the Spirit is saying to Alan, and to us, and to the whole church right now, right in this moment?

We are to proclaim.

We are called to proclaim the Word with boldness, knowing the Biblical story of God’s grace, love and faithfulness is as deeply countercultural and downright radical today as it was in the 1st century.

Proclaim knowing   God’s story has always and will always bump up against the larger narrative of powers and principalities who say there isn’t enough, greed is good, and violence is the only way to hold on to what we’ve got.

Proclaim as a rebuke to the false teachers who so seem so terribly reasonable when they invoke the doctrine of scarcity. Proclaim instead God’s intention of great abundance despite all evidence to the contrary.

Proclaim right now and do not wait for the time to be “favorable”

I will quibble a bit with the epistle writer and say there’s never been a perfect season for the Word of God. It has always, always bumped heads against the larger narrative of Empire. It has never been a popular Word.

The truth will set us free but, as Gloria Steinham has pointed out, it will first make people really, really mad. In fact, one of the truest sermons I’ve heard in a long, long time was preached at the presbytery meeting. The Word proclaimed that day by Rev. John Welch was Gospel truth and that truth made a whole room of people really, really mad.

This business of proclamation is dangerous stuff.

Yet the people God has created and loves are

yearning – aching –

they are starving to hear a still small voice that might just whisper truth into their itchy ears.

That is the church’s gift to the world. The gift the Holy Spirit entrusts to all of us.

Alan, God has called you to proclaim. Carry out your ministry fully.

Persist.

We are called to persist in sharing the Word because Scripture isn’t just ink on a page, but a powerful lens through which to see people in all their terrible messy crazy brokenness.

Persist in holding up God’s word as a powerful lens to help people see beyond the brokenness and discover they are a Child of God.

Persist in sharing the Word because it is the lens through which we see ourselves and all human beings as children of God worth loving.

Persist in sharing the Word as an embodied rebuke to injustice in all its hideous forms – racism, poverty, inequality and hatred.

Persist in sharing the singular exquisite power of God’s word to release us from fear and into the fearlessness.

Because God’s word assures us death has been kicked to the curb and love wins.

Persist in preaching the good news about God’s love because,

as Anne Lamott says

“love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff anyone can throw at us.”

Alan, God has called you to persist. Carry out your ministry fully.

Above all, we must be patient in our ministry of the Word. This is the part of the sermon in which I am preaching to myself.

People with itchy ears don’t always want or need to be scratched. And sometimes our words do damage when we forget we do not own or control God’s Word

Sometimes the Word that is most needed is the gentle reassurance that God’s love endures all things, despite the itchy, wandering and sometimes annoying ways of God’s people.

Sometimes we are more convincing when we speak less and listen more,

patiently waiting for the Holy Spirit to reveal the Word that will bring light into dark corners and peace into conflicted situations.

Alan, God has called you to patience. Carry out your ministry fully.

At the beginning of his ministry on earth, Jesus invited his future disciples to “come and see.” And that is the essence of we do in ministry of word and sacrament. We invite people into the story of God, to taste and see that God is good.

It is a good story we’ve been given, saints.

It’s a great story.

It’s a liberating story of life and light and love.

It’s a story with a fantastic surprise ending that nobody but God could ever pull off.

It’s a story we need to keep learning how to proclaim better, with persistence and patience, in and out of season.

On good days in ministry, we tell the story soberly, patiently enduring the suffering of long meetings and tear-soaked hospital visits and sermons that seem to fall on itchy deaf ears.

On bad days, we moan and complain to our colleagues in ministry just as Timothy must have moaned and complained to the older wiser pastor. Every pastor asks the same questions on those kinds of days: Is anybody listening? Does anybody care? Is it really all just a bunch of words?

As the preacher at my ordination pointed out – the fact that we’ve shown up here today to ordain a preacher, a teaching elder, a Minister of Word and Sacrament

that very fact means that God hasn’t given up speaking God’s word through ordinary, messed up people like us. And it means we haven’t given up hope that God is still speaking to us and still inviting us into God’s extraordinary story.

It means that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is still entrusting us to carry out the ministry of proclamation, persistence and patience in the name of Jesus Christ.

What an awesome ministry we’ve been given, saints.

Thanks be to God. Amen.