Love.

Mark 12:28-34

The First Commandment

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

While reading this passage the past week, I was reminded of a conversation that I had with a fellow pastor who worked for Vida Joven in Nicaragua.  We were talking about the concept of doing ministry in a certain way, we had a phrase for this way that probably comes from the business world:  “quality of excellence”.  This means that we want to do ministry at a high level, we want to do it well, pour in resources, and make it attractive.  There is some good to that, but it’s not what they strive for with Young Life in Nicaragua much anymore…they don’t have all the resources that we have in the states, so they strive for something better:  “beauty”.  It’s beautiful to see teenagers sitting on a hill at a camp sharing life, laughing and crying together.  It’s beautiful to see folks believing in each other and giving and receiving grace.  

I believe that this beauty is demonstrated in this morning’s scripture passage.   Our passage in Mark 12:28-34 finds Jesus in the midst of four debates with Jewish religious leaders.  Jesus had been doing well, so the religious leaders were going to try a theological question, “Teacher, what’s the greatest commandment?”  This passage is also found in other gospel narratives.  They were asking a question with the intent of trapping Jesus, they wanted to put Jesus in some sort of religious box.

This reminds me so much of the debates that happen even today in the church.  We go on and on about so many issues.  We get so far into these debates, that we often forget why we got into them in the first place, they begin to take priority in our lives over honoring relationships…so much so that the phrase rings true that the church has become more known for what it is seemingly against than what it is for. 

Jesus takes this question and gives a beautiful answer in two parts.  The first part is this:    “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 

These words have power and intimacy.  We are to love God with all we’ve got, everything.  God is not supposed to be number one our list, God is supposed to be everything on our list.  All of our lives are interpreted and have meaning through this love for God and God’s love for us.  God created us out of love.  In God’s very nature of being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…the Trinity, there is deep relationship bonded by love that created us, saved us, and sustains us…this God loves us so much, and the love that God has for us and has placed within creation, believes in us and gives us the capacity to love others and love God.

Jesus also says that the Lord is ONE!  That’s powerful. God, three persons, one…and this same God is one with us.  We are bonded together into the Trinity!  

This love also gives us the ability to love ourselves and to see the beauty within ourselves.  We cannot truly love our neighbors until we begin to see how valuable we are within ourselves.  God created us good and in his image.  Read the first couple of chapters of Genesis, God is pouring himself into his creation, into us.  We are works of art.  Oftentimes we let circumstances and decisions in life diminish us.  As it says in John 10:10, there is a thief who comes to steal and destroy our lives, yet Jesus wants us to have life, abundant life.  

Yet, we were created for beauty and when we grow to understand the beauty that is our true selves and that God created and animates our very being, we can then begin to love God and to love our neighbors.

Of course, that begs the question then, who are our neighbors?  Well, everyone really.  The folks we live next door to, the folks on the other side of town, folks across the world really.  We are called to see everyone as being made in the image of God.  That can be hard sometimes, folks are different, have different tastes, cultures, personalities, mannerisms.  I get that we simply don’t get along with folks at times.  We have former friends or even family members who may have wounded us deeply.  Yet, God calls us to simply love, which requires a lot of hard work of self-reflection, cultivating our identity with God, and wisdom in how to deal with the persons around us.  We become true neighbors when we practice what the good Samaritan did by simply reaching out to those around us and loving them well.  

I believe that God calls the church to do this as well as a community of faith.  But, it requires an “outside-in” mentality.   So many times in churches we start from the inside and create “stuff” for people to come to, then we’re surprised when folks don’t show up.  What we should probably do is start from outside the church, talk to people, hear their desires, and let them co-create something with us.  This requires a deep sense that churches be rooted in a neighborhood and have a parish mentality.  The word parish from the greek means this:  πάροικος (paroikos), “dwelling beside, stranger, sojourner”.  What a great definition!  It means that the church is called to be beside its neighbors, to welcome the stranger, to be a fellow sojourner.  We are called to serve and to be alongside, not to issue edicts or to have “I’m better” mindset.  

When we practice this, beauty happens!  We are able to see God’s Presence in amazing ways as we love our neighbor and experience God’s love and attempt to love God back!  God is glorified by us when we simply live in God’s glory for us in relationship with each other and with God!

So, where do we start doing this as a church?

  1. Know that God has placed you where you are in your neighborhood and church.  All that God needs for beautiful things to happen, for community transformation, is present in this room.  So often in church we talk in terms of scarcity, not enough money, not enough people, not enough vision, etc.  Yet, I believe in a God of abundance!  There is a universe of talent present right here in this room right now!  You are all beautiful people with so much to share and to learn and to grow!  It’s exciting!
  2. Practice gratitude.  Don’t create more programs or committees or look for the latest church growth technique.  Just look around, invite folks over for a shared meal, sit on the back porch or deck and share life together.  And be thankful for the folks around you.
  3. Listen to yourself honestly.  Don’t be afraid to look into the darkness of your own life.  You won’t be alone there, God is present everywhere.  Get a spiritual director that will listen to God with you.  Find others to hold your hand as you do this.  I have a spiritual director and a group of guys that meet regularly.  These guys know me and I know them.  We love each other well and they hold me up without trying to fix me.
  4. Listen to your neighborhood.  Get involved in the local school, ask local business leaders what they see or need, open the doors of the church to civic groups, meet for coffee with folks from other churches.  Don’t have an agenda other than building relationships and being curious about what God may be up to in your community.  Then, get behind what God is already doing and get into that sweet spot where God’s Spirit will carry you.  

Know that seeing beauty and being a part of the beauty of God’s relational and community work is simple, yet it’s also the hardest thing that we’ll ever do.  There is a lot of darkness in this world, we do have a lot of distractions.  Yet, God is with us and the time is now to be faithfully present with each other and with God and to be a part of God’s kingdom presence and transformation in our lives and communities.  

There is a growing conversation within Cincinnati that is globally connected to see communities transformed in simple, deep, and beautiful ways.  I also have to report how excited I am to be a part of this conversation in our Presbytery and with our UCC Association right now as we explore where God is at work in and through the church, not for church growth per se, but for community transformation as I’ve been asked to be a part of a “new worshipping community task force”…part of that work will also be in collaboration with our UCC association in years to come.  Fleming Road UCC is in the middle of a sea-change within Cincy and really across the US and world!  Really!

So, friends, I’m looking forward to seeing more beauty in our neighborhood and in this church.  

My good friend Bart Campolo a few years ago summed up this Mark passage with this phrase:  “Love God.  Love others.  Nothing else matters.”  Friends, you are loved and you have loved.  May we continue on and grow deeper in our understanding of what it means to see beauty in each other, in ourselves, and in God’s vibe throughout our city.

Greatness.

Mark 10:35-45

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We all have a desire at times to be great in something.  We would like to think that there is something out there that we can excel at.  I know for me that I sometimes have this achievement mindset.  It’s OK to be an achiever, to want to work towards a goal, to get things done, but sometimes that can cloud your thinking.

A good example of that is right before I got engaged to Debbie.  I was pumped that after so many years of wanting to see my relationship with Debbie move towards a goal, it was finally coming together.  I bought a ring and I had a vision of what our marriage could be like.  

I got together with my friend Chuck Scott.  Chuck is a great guy, former NFL player, amazing family, and a national leader for Young Life.  He’s also someone whose opinion I highly appreciated and.  His dad, Charlie, was one of the original Young Life staff persons from the 1950’s and was one of my mentors.  I went to him to ask him about what he thought about me asking Debbie to marry him.  He thought very highly of Debbie, he tried to hire her in his Young Life area a couple of times, and I knew that he loved me as a friend.  

His response, wait…do you understand what you are getting into…he even said don’t get married to Debbie.  He tried to talk me out of it.  He said marriage was hard, that I wanted this so bad that I wasn’t thinking straight, I needed to count the cost, and that even though I had this friendship with Debbie for close to a decade, I needed to take a timeout and think and pray.  He was right in many ways, and he helped me to gain some perspective.

I still ended up asking Deb to marry me, and his dad, Charlie, co-officiated our wedding.  

Out of that commitment, there have been some moments of greatness, and some moments of darkness.  There have been failures, lots of them.  Yet, the relationship and growth I’ve received from Deb as a partner has been overwhelming.  Our story is still being written and I’m grateful.  

In much the same way, I had folks try to talk me out of going into the ministry.  I know that I had some personal visions that involved changing the world in big ways.  I wanted to see great things happen.  But, others cautioned me.  My dad even told me after I graduated from UK and told him that I was going into the ministry that I was making a mistake.  His exact first words:  “I just paid for 4 years of college for you to do what?”.  

Again, it may not have been the right wording or the right motivation, but it did cause me to ask some questions.

I still went into the ministry, obviously, as I stand here today.  And, again, out of that commitment, there have been some moments of greatness, and some moments of darkness.  There have been failures, lots of them.  Yet, the relationships that have been formed, my life and others lives have been changed…and the same is happening here at Fleming Road UCC in our lives together.  Our story is still being written and I’m grateful.  

As we jump into this passage, let’s remember that we are seeing the disciples live’s stories being written…Jesus is calling them away from a fantasy to something deeper, something better for them…Jesus is inviting them into the present moment, not for some pie-in-the-sky transactional relationship, but to let go of their desire to live into a narrative that want to create, a narrative that their culture may have conditioned them for, towards a narrative of loving themselves, others, and seeing that God wants them, and us, to grow into what Thomas Merton, the great catholic monk philosopher would say, our true Selves.  

Our gospel lesson tells us about the disciples having some wrong motivations for being followers of Jesus.  They are focused on this idea of being great and having special places.  They had waited for so long for the messiah and had high expectations, some fantasies.  James and John have some moxie and ask Jesus to sit on the right and left.  The other disciples are mad at them, but they are wondering the same thing.  

Jesus gives them a response, one he defers to the Father…really, he’s deferring to the community that he’s in of the Trinity.  A community of three in one that is so tight that things are created, saved, and sustained through deep, good relationship.  A relationship of yielding to one another.  

And, he says if you want to be first, you’ve got to be last and the last will be first.  He flips the understanding that is in the world.  A world of hierarchy and social climbing.  

Jesus also welcomes their commitment, but asks some hard questions, are you willing to struggle, to experience hardship, to truly live into his baptism?  They are commited, the have experienced a call, but he’s causing them to pause and think deeply about that calling and commitment as my friends have done for me.  

Rob Bell shares this about our commitment and calling to live life as Jesus followers, really as fully alive humans:  

Jesus is inviting his disciples, his friends, into a life that isn’t defined by greatness in worldly standards.   He is calling them into a deeper, more beautiful life that is full and expansive.  

We are called to ask ourselves some of the same questions.  Are we willing to suffer, are we willing to die, and are we willing to live life to the fullest and experience resurrection in Jesus’ baptism that symbolizes the old life dying and the new life beginning?  Are we willing to live into that as persons and as people of faith gathered at Fleming Road UCC?  Are we willing to let go of all that we hold on to so tightly in order to experience the beauty of God’s Presence in our lives. 

St. Augustine wrote in City of God:  “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are always too full to receive them.”  Jesus came to serve and calls us into a life filled with meaning and goodness, but we have to let go of the things that we think bring greatness.  If we are willing to serve others and to live as Jesus followers, then the story that is emerging out of Fleming Road UCC will be filled with hope for the world around us and in us…and we will see something greater happen than than our fantasies, especially as we live in the present moment, greater than we could have ever imagined.  May it be so!

Mark 10:35-45

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We all have a desire at times to be great in something.  We would like to think that there is something out there that we can excel at.  I know for me that I sometimes have this achievement mindset.  It’s OK to be an achiever, to want to work towards a goal, to get things done, but sometimes that can cloud your thinking.

A good example of that is right before I got engaged to Debbie.  I was pumped that after so many years of wanting to see my relationship with Debbie move towards a goal, it was finally coming together.  I bought a ring and I had a vision of what our marriage could be like.  

I got together with my friend Chuck Scott.  Chuck is a great guy, former NFL player, amazing family, and a national leader for Young Life.  He’s also someone whose opinion I highly appreciated and.  His dad, Charlie, was one of the original Young Life staff persons from the 1950’s and was one of my mentors.  I went to him to ask him about what he thought about me asking Debbie to marry him.  He thought very highly of Debbie, he tried to hire her in his Young Life area a couple of times, and I knew that he loved me as a friend.  

His response, wait…do you understand what you are getting into…he even said don’t get married to Debbie.  He tried to talk me out of it.  He said marriage was hard, that I wanted this so bad that I wasn’t thinking straight, I needed to count the cost, and that even though I had this friendship with Debbie for close to a decade, I needed to take a timeout and think and pray.  He was right in many ways, and he helped me to gain some perspective.

I still ended up asking Deb to marry me, and his dad, Charlie, co-officiated our wedding.  

Out of that commitment, there have been some moments of greatness, and some moments of darkness.  There have been failures, lots of them.  Yet, the relationship and growth I’ve received from Deb as a partner has been overwhelming.  Our story is still being written and I’m grateful.  

In much the same way, I had folks try to talk me out of going into the ministry.  I know that I had some personal visions that involved changing the world in big ways.  I wanted to see great things happen.  But, others cautioned me.  My dad even told me after I graduated from UK and told him that I was going into the ministry that I was making a mistake.  His exact first words:  “I just paid for 4 years of college for you to do what?”.  

Again, it may not have been the right wording or the right motivation, but it did cause me to ask some questions.

I still went into the ministry, obviously, as I stand here today.  And, again, out of that commitment, there have been some moments of greatness, and some moments of darkness.  There have been failures, lots of them.  Yet, the relationships that have been formed, my life and others lives have been changed…and the same is happening here at Fleming Road UCC in our lives together.  Our story is still being written and I’m grateful.  

As we jump into this passage, let’s remember that we are seeing the disciples live’s stories being written…Jesus is calling them away from a fantasy to something deeper, something better for them…Jesus is inviting them into the present moment, not for some pie-in-the-sky transactional relationship, but to let go of their desire to live into a narrative that want to create, a narrative that their culture may have conditioned them for, towards a narrative of loving themselves, others, and seeing that God wants them, and us, to grow into what Thomas Merton, the great catholic monk philosopher would say, our true Selves.  

Our gospel lesson tells us about the disciples having some wrong motivations for being followers of Jesus.  They are focused on this idea of being great and having special places.  They had waited for so long for the messiah and had high expectations, some fantasies.  James and John have some moxie and ask Jesus to sit on the right and left.  The other disciples are mad at them, but they are wondering the same thing.  

Jesus gives them a response, one he defers to the Father…really, he’s deferring to the community that he’s in of the Trinity.  A community of three in one that is so tight that things are created, saved, and sustained through deep, good relationship.  A relationship of yielding to one another.  

And, he says if you want to be first, you’ve got to be last and the last will be first.  He flips the understanding that is in the world.  A world of hierarchy and social climbing.  

Jesus also welcomes their commitment, but asks some hard questions, are you willing to struggle, to experience hardship, to truly live into his baptism?  They are commited, the have experienced a call, but he’s causing them to pause and think deeply about that calling and commitment as my friends have done for me.  

Rob Bell shares this about our commitment and calling to live life as Jesus followers, really as fully alive humans:  

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Jesus is inviting his disciples, his friends, into a life that isn’t defined by greatness in worldly standards.   He is calling them into a deeper, more beautiful life that is full and expansive.  

We are called to ask ourselves some of the same questions.  Are we willing to suffer, are we willing to die, and are we willing to live life to the fullest and experience resurrection in Jesus’ baptism that symbolizes the old life dying and the new life beginning?  Are we willing to live into that as persons and as people of faith gathered at Fleming Road UCC?  Are we willing to let go of all that we hold on to so tightly in order to experience the beauty of God’s Presence in our lives. 

St. Augustine wrote in City of God:  “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are always too full to receive them.”  Jesus came to serve and calls us into a life filled with meaning and goodness, but we have to let go of the things that we think bring greatness.  If we are willing to serve others and to live as Jesus followers, then the story that is emerging out of Fleming Road UCC will be filled with hope for the world around us and in us…and we will see something greater happen than than our fantasies, especially as we live in the present moment, greater than we could have ever imagined.  May it be so!

See.

Mark 10:46-52

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. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then 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.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

When I was a kid, we used to take trips to Mammoth Cave in KY.   I remember a couple of the tours of the cave.  It was always fun to see the stalagtites and stalagmites coming from the floor and ceiling.  Of course, on every tour, at some point in the cave, the tour guide would have everyone stand in the center of a large cavern, and then turn off the lights.  Of course, it was disorienting, you couldn’t see a thing!  Not even your hand being put right in front of you.  

Years later, I would go spelunking, or cave exploring, in a few small caves.  Friends of mine would crawl through some places and we’d have headlamps.  If those headlamps went dead or we broke them, we had the benefit of having back-up lights or are friends to help us out.

Our main character in our gospel lesson this morning knows what its like to not be able to see in the dark.  Bartimaeus, or Bart, is a blind beggar.  In 1st century culture, if you are blind, you don’t have many options.  You are pushed aside, not useful to society, not productive, and forced to make a living by begging, by leading on the hospitality of others.

Now, Bartimaeus has a name, has an identity.  He’s the son of Timaeus.  He has had relationships, he is a part of a family.  But, his blindness has left him isolated, alone, left out.  Could you imagine the hurt that he felt, the desperation.  

We know from this passage that he hasn’t been blind all of his life, maybe he remembers what it’s like to see things or to experience the love of a family.  But, now he’s left to beg, without much of a future and no friends.  

When I was in a cave with family as a child or with friends later, I wasn’t alone in the dark.  I had others around me that I could lean in on.  Bartimeaus doesn’t have that luxury.

Put yourself in Bart’s shoes.

When Jesus comes walking down the road, leaving Jericho, surrounded by a large crowd.  Bartimaeus senses the excitement of the crowd, when he hears its Jesus, he shouts out, have mercy on me Son of David!  He’s using Son of David in order to get Jesus to notice that he’s connected to him, to show him mercy.  I have to admit, I respect Bart!  He had some moxie, he was desperate, but he was also filled with hope one last time.  

Well, the disciples have places to go, they don’t have time for this guy, they try to get him to quiet down, they cannot imagine that this moment is filled with meaning and drama, they are not thinking of possibilities, only convenience, the next meeting, and not wanting to be bothered…but Jesus hears him.  He calls Bart to him and asks, what do you want me to do?  Bart springs up, comes to him and says, my teacher, again an address of honor, help me to see again.  Jesus says that his faith has made him whole, that he is healed.  

His sight returns, and, he follows Jesus.

Friends, as I read the gospel lesson this week, I’m not sure who the blind persons were in this story.   Sure, Bart was physically blind, but the disciples had eyes to see, yet they couldn’t see the possibility of the moment.  They were with Jesus, identified with Jesus, but they were focused on their agenda and not the person right in front of them.  Maybe they were wowed by the large crowds and felt like the numbers were more important than the folks right in front of them, they looked to the crowds and not to the persons.

Folks in this story could not “see” one another!  Yet, Jesus saw them and saw the blind man…really saw them…and that enabled the blind man to not only have his physical sight, but to “see” Jesus.  Isn’t it a gift when we can be present with someone and they see us, they don’t see things on the surface, but the real in us!  What a gift!

It’s also interesting to note that this man was spontaneous, he didn’t overthink the moment, he seized it.  In comparison, the disciples were filled with fear, silence, hesitation, opposition…they were contrarians to the man’s faithfulness.  

Friends, this is the kind of faith that God is calling us towards, the faith of Bartimaeus.  We are called to be in the moment, to seize it.  We have opportunities in our lives, daily, to live in hope and expectation.  God wants to deliver us out of the darkness and into the light.  Darkness, for a season, is a good thing…it may give us rest, perspective, and growth.  When seeds are planted in the ground, it is dark…with nourishment from the soil, water, etc. those seeds push through the resistance, grow strong and move towards the sun, towards light, which also gives growth to blossom.  God wants to restore our relationships, to restore our sense of community, to restore us…to blossom and be all that we were intended to be…  God wants us to “see” ourselves, to “see” others, and to know that God always sees us, the real us, and loves us!

And, God’s called us to notice the blind beggars, or those in our pews and in our neighborhoods that we often look over.  

It seems as a church, that we also are like the disciples in that we get caught up in crowds and numbers, or trying to get somewhere, that we miss the moment right in front of us.  Folks are literally jumping in front of us, asking for mercy!  We sometimes have folks come by the church looking for help, we have friends of Fleming Road UCC calling us to see if we can participate in something.  Friends, we have eyes to see, but do we have real sight, can we see God’s work in our midst?  

Thankfully, we are not alone, we have friends around us to help us, we do not have to be fearful or hesitant, we can live faithfully in exuberance with a God who is calling us to be the new parish that can bring hope and healing to our neighborhood.  

May it be so.

Rich.

Mark 10:17-31

The Rich Man

17 As 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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You 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.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, 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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It 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.”26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”29 Jesus 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, 30 who 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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

 As a kid, I wanted to do the right thing.  I found out early that if I say the right things, live the right way, do the right things, then I’d have some approval.  

That’s how I lived life pretty much.  I was a good kid.  

I was also raised in the church, so I thought that doing the right things and believing the right ways, pleased God.  

However, I also wanted to find a way to express myself, to gain the attention of others.  So, I grew my hair long, and played bagpipes.  But, still, did the things that I thought I should.  I kept the commandments so to speak.

My senior year, things started to fall apart inside of me…and outside of me.  I began to have deeper questions about life, relationships.  It came to a head on a Campus Life ski weekend.  I took a risk, shared with my adult leaders that I was struggling, I did all the right things but still felt lonely.  I was asking, in essence, what could I do to enter the kindgom of God, to be in God’s Presence, to feel God’s favor…because, I was doing the stuff, but not feeling approval.

My club leaders began to share with me that it was more about relationship.  That God’s Presence was there, but it couldn’t be earned, just lived in.  That relationship was filled with grace and love, that love and grace eventually began to have a transformative effect on me as I grew in my awareness of God’s Presence.  It also pulled me towards a calling to be and do who I am and what I do.  

Our gospel lesson this morning is similar.  The rich young ruler came to Jesus, asking what to do to enter the Kingdom of God.  He first calls Jesus “good”.  Jesus pushes back, and says why call me Good, only God is good…in essence, saying that goodness is about God and we live in that goodness.  

Jesus goes on to say, obey the commandments.  The young rich ruler, says that he has, since his youth.  Jesus looks at him with love the scripture says.  He loved this kid, not because of what he had done, but simply because of him being him.  Plus, the kid was honest.  Jesus then says that he lacks one thing, sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow him.  A disciple could not have the distractions of patronage and financial obligations that came with being a man of wealth, they needed to be willing to be committed and setting aside all of the trappings of status and self importance.  Even though this young ruler was pious and devout, he was unwilling to surrender and allow God’s love to run its course in his life.

This was hard…it’s really hard to give up anything that we hold on to that we draw our identity from, wealth, our roles that we play, the persons that we project to be to others.  Yet, Jesus is telling him that true wealth, true identity, is measured by how well we love others and experience God through relationships, especially with those on the margins, those that are seeking community, yet have been left out.  

The rich young ruler leaves Jesus heartbroken, he can’t let go of what he has or who has become or perceives himself to be…the disciples are perplexed, they don’t know what to say, they focus on the material wealth and ask more questions.  Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than to get into heaven.  It’s often said that Jesus is referring to merchants coming to a city gate at night.  They can’t get into a walled city then because the gates are closed, but there are smaller doors that the can get into called the “eye of the needle”.  They have to take everything off the camel, all of their goods, in order to enter.  Most scholars would say that’s not the case at all, Jesus is literally talking about a life size camel and a real needle.  It’s impossible.  

In essence, we can’t take “stuff” with us, material stuff or the personal baggage of image that we’ve created….and image that does not remind us that we are made in the image of God…  We have to be willing to share our material stuff as well as our personal lives with others…in essence, to be willing to not hold on to stuff, to give it away, as well as to not hold on too tightly the realities that we’ve created, but to be willing to give ourselves away, to let God’s love probe deeper into our lives, and to be shaped by that love.  

When the disciples still question and ask, how can anyone get into God’s Presence, into heaven?  Jesus says that with God all things are possible.  What seems impossible with all that we know and understand, with God, there is possibility.  God wants to spark our imagination, give us hope, but it takes a commitment and a desire from us to risk everything.  

I believe that Jesus was telling this young man, just like my club leaders told me 37 years ago, let go of my desire to seek God’s approval by things that I have or do, but to know that I have God’s approval already, that God looks at me like Jesus does to the rich young ruler, with love.  My response is hopefully not to shy away, but to rise to the invitation to enter into trusting God with all that I have and to imagine the possibilities that God can open within me and outside of me.  

The disciples state that they’ve left everything to follow you Jesus.  Jesus responds that they will be rewarded with even more relationships and with eternal life…which starts now.

Friends, I find this to be so true.  Last weekend in Atlanta, and this week here in Cincinnati, I was blessed beyond measure with conversations, surprising, unplanned conversations with friends in Atlanta, the community and with friends here in the church.  I am blessed, you are blessed.  We have relationships!  Are we willing to walk into God’s vision for us as a church, as a community, and away from our visions of what church should be?  If we are willing, if we give up all to follow Jesus’ way of love and relationship with others and with those on the margins, then we will experience God’s Presence, God’s kingdom in even more beautiful ways! 

Salt.

Mark 9:38-50 

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someonecasting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.  50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

As I was thinking about this conversation around our lectionary reading today, my friend Bruce Baker came to mind. Bruce, or “Bake” as we called him, was the executive director of student ministry non-profit in Lexington many years ago. It was a ministry that I was involved with in high school, it had a huge impact on my life. The relationships that I formed with other students and with the adult leaders of this group helped to shape me in many ways growing up in Louisville. 

When I got to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, I was thrilled to learn that this group was starting up in Lexington and I met Bake. Bake and I began a great friendship and a working partnership that established this group in Lexington and its still going strong 28 years later.

I thought of Bake because of the title of today’s sermon: “Salty”. Bake was very salty! He was one of those persons that everyone simply loved to be around, he was the go-to guy in Lexington for faith leaders. At the time, he was in his late forties and really was an established presence in the Lexington community. He was everyone’s friend, yet also not afraid to mix things up a bit. 

He was the one who introduced me to the writings of Thomas Merton, the Abbey of Gethesamani and the importance of Sabbath retreats and rest, and he was a Presbyterian Elder that greatly influenced me in my decision to become Presbyterian! 

Bake was also not afraid. He would joke about his willingness to do anything for a dollar. Which he backed up, repeatedly. There were numerous occasions where some of the young folks at the time would dare Bake to do something incredibly outlandish, and to our astonishment, he’d do it. For instance, the time we dared him to climb the water wheel while in line for the Beast roller coaster. And, in front of hundreds of folks, he did. 

But, there were also many times where Bake would go more than the extra mile to support us and to reach out to kids in the projects of Lexington, as well as the wealthy kids in the suburbs that were so lonely. His example pushed me in so many ways. 

Bake would also work with anyone willing to love our community and kids. He modeled what it was like to bring different denominations together and faith communities for the common good. Plus, he was committed to Lexington. He had many of what I’d call the celebrity Christian leaders at the time, both conservative folks and progressive folks try to get him to come and work with them. Oftentimes for higher, guaranteed pay and a higher platform. Bake would have none of that, he may have been tempted, but he valued the relationships he had in Lexington too much. 

Bake modeled so much of what our gospel lessons are sharing. The disciples were trying to get Jesus to recognize how special they were when they tried to stop others from driving out demons. They wanted to be exclusive, in their own identity as disciples. Yet, Jesus shatters that image by saying that whoever is not against us for us, that we can’t be so prideful to think we can do this on our own, that we have to recognize that if someone offers to help us, or to give us a gift to refresh us that could encourage us, we should take it. 

Bake got that and didn’t position Campus Life to be a siloed ministry. He worked with everyone. That sometimes didn’t help our “brand identity”, but it did help bring the community together. 

Bake had a way of focusing on the main thing: Jesus and Jesus’ love for others. I found this quote from an intentional Celtic community that highlights this way of living that fits well with our conversation this morning: 

“We can do worse than remember a principle which gives us a firm rock and leaves the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle ‘Hold to Christ and for the rest be totally uncommitted’” – Herbert Butterfield 

Another example of this here in Springfield Township are all of the faith communities starting to work together, the conversations that have been started. They have all reached out to me since I’ve been here with offers and desires to partner with us and to encourage Fleming Road UCC. Connect Day was a great example. 

It’s also interesting to think about Bake and his calling to teenagers in relation to this morning’s text. As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Jesus tells us to welcome all, especially those on the margins of society, those who are overlooked or looked down upon. Children in the 1st century we’re considered non-persons. Jesus is giving them recognition and this week’s text he continues with hard language about welcoming children and not causing them to stumble. 

With a background in in youth ministry, I thought of this passage often…I did not want to cause anyone to stumble! But, this passage also says a lot about taking risks. It’s about being vulnerable and entering into friendships with those considered on the outside. The saying in this passage about cutting of your foot or gouging out an eye comes from a common saying in the first century, however, the original proverb said to cut out both eyes or hands! This is an attempt to say that it’s better to lose a part of you than all of who you are, and if you are not reaching out and loving those on the margins well, then you are missing the mark, you are sinning. And, again, as we talked about, sin is relational…it’s not only present in what you do or are, but what you do not do and who you are not. 

Who you are is a wonderful human made in God’s image called to live and love as Christ did and does…to be the body of Christ. The opposite of that is to deny God’s presence and working in your life, which leads to a sense of loss of identity, or hell. 

Hell may or may not be real, but it’s an alternate reality. God never intended for there to be a hell, and the ways we tend to think of hell aren’t really expressed in Scripture…some would even say that hell is not a part of the scriptural canon… The true reality that God intended is heaven. Heaven is being in God’s Presence. That Presence is expansive, wide, and we can catch glimpses of it everywhere when are eyes are opened to that reality. CS Lewis talks about heaven in his classic fictional book The Great Divorce as being a place of endless wonder and hell being a small crack in heaven. Yet, we, humanity make that crack so much bigger as we settle for lives filled with dysfunction and lies about our true selves as God sees us. So often we live in a place of darkness or hell. God’s love is amazing, it is so amazing that it is overwhelming and to some that’s wonderful, but to others that can be really scary. 

Donald Bloesch in his book The Last Things says this: “…hell is being exposed to the light that redeems even when darkness is much preferred. Hell is the incapacity to love even in the presence of love.” You see, the problem is not does God forgives us or love us, but can we forgive and love ourselves and others? We want to hide from God and his love for us behind our insecurities, our comfort, our wealth, our pride…whatever it is that we are holding on to that somehow gives us some false sense of security. We often do not want to be exposed to the light of God’s love that exposes everything for what it truly is, so we often prefer to live in darkness. pastedGraphic.png pastedGraphic_1.png 

Jesus says that we will be salted with fire in this morning’s passage. It’s interesting, fire burns and it warms. It can bring life or turn it to ashes. Either way, it consumes us. The fire of Jesus’ love does consume us, but it brings us life. I want to be that person. 

My friend Bake, and many others over the years, have been that salt in my life. We can be that way with each other, and with the world around us. May we sprinkle that salt to all we encounter…including ourselves! 

Welcome.

Mark 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I’m a runner.  Most of you know that, and I struggled this week on whether I should use a running metaphor today, but this applies.  My image as a runner is important to me.  I also like to run fast.  I’m 53 years old, yet, I can run farther and faster now than I ever could…even with some minor aches and pains this past year.  Sometimes, I have this image of myself really training hard in hard and winning my age division at the Boston Marathon or something similar.  I don’t want to settle for being a good runner, I want to be a great runner.

I also imagined the same thing for the cross country team I coach.  I want them to go all the way to State every year.  Never happened as a team, but we did some individual runners to state and our girls team made regionals in a magical year.  

Yet, here’s the thing, running is a sport where you can’t hide.  All runners experience something similar, we are constantly humbled.  Most runners imagine winning, coming in first…but, obviously, that doesn’t happen all the time! 

In this sport, the only way you get better is by running daily, running workouts that make you suffer and experience some pain…not to the point of injury, but pain nonetheless.  It’s hard.  Yet, something emerges within, you begin to appreciate others, you experience a shared deep connection with other runners as you put yourself out there.  

You are also vulnerable after a race, extremely vulnerable.  After running the Boston Marathon in 2016 and being extremely humbled as I ran it injured and it only got worst.  When I crossed the line, I only wanted to call my daughter who I knew would understand as a runner…I cried when I started talking to her, and I don’t really cry that often.  

As a coach, I also have to remember that my words to my runners after a race have to be honest, authentic, and also encouraging.  Especially to my own kids ran for our team!

Many of those words after a race are themes that I’ve repeated often, yet so many times they are simply not heard, yet, after a race, after the suffering, they often are heard in a way that is much more meaningful and they are received in a way that is almost very innocent and pure.  Plus, honestly, I had some cred with these kids because they knew that I’m willing to suffer in races as well, they know that I know what they are experiencing, and that I was with them.

Running can be a great parallel to life, and to this morning’s gospel lesson.  

Jesus has been with his disciples, he wanted to simply teach his disciples something meaningful, so he went through Galilee in secret as it says.  He was teaching them that he would suffer, die, and be raised from the dead.  This was hard for them to hear and understand, but he kept on saying it, teaching it.  It was important to Jesus because he was called into this world as the representation of all humanity.  He was not only telling the disciples that he would suffer, die, and rise again, but that they would be participating in that suffering, death, and resurrection through him.  

The disciples were probably keenly interested in the new life part, the resurrection part, but in order to experience that resurrection, before we can truly understand what it means to live life as God intended, we have to experience suffering, we have to die.  This isn’t a cruel  joke on God’s part, it’s a reality that we, as created beings, don’t always see or experience life as beautiful as it was meant to be.  We have to go through experiences in life that push to ask some of the hard questions.

Yet, the disciples, like us, were not interested in the harder questions, they were asking the question:  which one of us is greater?  What is our image to God?  Where will we stand with God at the end of time?  What’s our status?

In the midst of those conversations, it seems like the disciples were focused on the resurrection part.  Which I get, don’t we all want to run to the ending of a story, we want to feel good and triumphant.  The passage even says that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant.  Could that have been because they were afraid to confront the hard realities of suffering, of pain?  

So, they escape by arguing about who’s going to be greatest.  Or try to hide.  But, they are missing the mark and Jesus would not let them hide.  Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they grew silent.  They knew that Jesus had caught them in a “sin”.  We don’t talk much about the word “sin”, but it is an archery term actually, it means missing the mark.  When you don’t hit the bullseye with an arrow.  

It in this context, sin is a relational term.  The disciples were missing the mark, they were focused on themselves, avoiding the hard questions, being distracted, rather than lifting each other up and loving well.

What does Jesus do?  Well, he doesn’t send down thunder on them, he doesn’t condemn them.  He does the opposite, he treats them with respect and simply calls them together, sits with them, and brings a child into their circle.  He encourages them to serve others, to be last, to put others before them.  

The example of a child is important to note.  Children in the first century were considered non-persons.  They were often slaves, they were of no value.  They were truly on the margins.  I tell my kids all of the time how amazing they are and how loved they are, but this wasn’t even close to the reality in Jesus’ time.

By doing this, by bringing in a child, Jesus is saying that children are the stand-in for himself, for the Son of God.  We should welcome children, those on the margins as we would God, the creator of the universe.  It’s not about becoming childish so we can enter the kingdom, it says much more about maturity, about being bigger than our selfish desires or our protected self-image and welcoming others in.

Friends, we are saved by God’s grace, all of us live in God’s love whether we recognize it or not.  In the UCC, we believe that God’s love, God’s salvation action has more to do with Jesus’ actions on our behalf than our actions.  We can’t evoke God’s salvation, he gives it to us, all of us, even those who have felt left out.  

We are also called, as followers of Jesus, to live into this salvation with a sense of growth and maturity.  We are called to live resurrection lives.  Maturity happens as we grow through experiences with ourselves and with others.  Oftentimes that growth happens when we enter into relationships with those who we may not normally associate with…God has so many friendships, so much growth, so much life, real life, waiting for each of us and for this church.  As we become welcoming in our lives personally and corporately as a church, we will experience growth and we will the experience the joy of our salvation.  

May we welcome life as it comes to us:  suffering, death, resurrection…even as we welcome others in our communities who walk through these doors or that we meet in the neighborhood, welcoming them as we would welcome Jesus.  

Declare.

Mark 8:27-38

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[a]30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[b] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[c] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Bold question by Jesus in this morning’s text!  “Who do people say that I am?”  If someone were to ask that about you, what would you say?  Take a mental checklist of things to say…

If it were me, I’d first think of being a father, a spouse (most days if you ask Debbie I think), a pastor, a runner, a neighbor, etc.  

But, who are you really?  Who am I really?  I know that for me, those are roles that I play, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, but who I am, how I know myself and others, who really know me, are able to see me and I am able to see them at a deeper level.  

A few months ago, we talked about the South African Zulu greeting and response, “Sawa bona”.  When one is present with someone else, they would tell them, “I see you”, the response, “I am here.”  

It is a powerful statement of being present with someone else.  It also means that two folks have a deep sense of their own self because they are able to see others and to be present with others.  

In so many ways, I think that’s authentic friendship.  

We are seeing that in this morning’s gospel lesson from Mark.  Jesus is asking his disciples, who do people say that I am.  The disciples give a lot of descriptors, but only one, Peter, is able to see beyond the descriptors and to say that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the promised one, the true friend of all peoples regardless of social status, of life situations, of their actions or sins.  

Jesus doesn’t want the word to get out just yet, he tells his disciples to let things unfold, to be patient.

Jesus then goes on to say that he would suffer.  Greatly.  Friendship with humanity, authentic friendship, comes at a cost.  In this case, this kind of life was going to lead Jesus into GREAT suffering, incredible shame, being exposed fully to the world…naked, scarred, broken.

And, something else, that he would go through all of this, but then rise again.  That, out of his suffering, his humiliation, his death exposed to the world, that he would rise again.  That no matter what he goes through, that love will win out and he will rise.  

He said this openly and the disciples, especially Peter, were stunned.  They thought of the descriptors, they wanted a deliverer, someone who can save them but without the pain and humiliation.  They wanted a triumphant God, a national hero that would solve their problems but without the hurt and scandal.

Jesus would have none of that…he gets mad and has a rather strong rebuke for Peter, “get behind me Satan”.  

You see, friends, even genuine friends, sometimes get a bit cloudy or hazy in what they see in one another.  In this case, Jesus is strongly telling Peter to wake up, to not hide behind some kind of hero type messiah, a nationalist messiah that would deliver Israel from the Roman occupation or make them a great nation again in the eyes of the world.  

No, Jesus was saying that to follow him, there something deeper going on.  He is saying that he has come to give life, to give Presence, to all of those suffering with humiliation, with brokenness, with pain, and even death.  That they can walk with him as he walks with them through the throes of life.  And, that they too will rise with him…but, they, along with him, will have to go through the hard stuff of life.  

They may even lose their lives.  Actually, they will lose their lives, in order to gain life.  Everything.

Friends, as I continue the journey of this summer, and really my whole life, of reconciling within me the grief of loss, that even things that I may hold on to dearly are dying, that this is the process of life…and that the messiah, the true friend, is with me in that process and that I too am rising again in the midst of the shame and the suffering of death.  Being with mom for the 24 hours before she died was hard…it’s been hard with every person that I’ve witnessed die…but, when it’s your mom, it was hard to see her struggle, hard to hear her wanting to go home, then hard to hear her breathe so painfully for much of a day, and then to simply stop and be in that quiet moment.  At times there was a tragic beauty in it, but mostly not very dignified…it was a struggle.  

Yet, it’s something that we all will experience.  And, we have a hope in resurrection because of Jesus.  But, let’s also remember that Jesus’ resurrected body still bears the scars of his humiliation.  And, yet, he overcame…and so will we, scars and all.  

And, you know what, that’s good news.  We have an earthy, really, honest faith that not only is with us in the hard stuff, as well as the good stuff, but a faith that is like yeast in the dough as it says in scripture that is causing new and beautiful things within us to grow.  

Open.

Mark 7:24-37

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Sermon:

Going up a mountain can be hard!  Our son loves to climb mountains, I do as well.  I’m pretty adventurous, but my son takes it to new places.  On our vacation this year in the PNW, Brennan picked out three amazing hikes for us as a family.  All of them required ascending lots of vertical feet.  They were hard, yet, the views were worth it…and the journey up, as hard as it was, and at times thinking our son is wanting to get his inheritance early…we made it.  Along the way, we had some amazing conversations, some great openings, and even some growth.

Our psalm reading this morning is from the Psalms of Ascent.  

As we’ve discussed before, these are psalms that would be recited during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Devout Jews in the 1st century would go to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.  Jerusalem sits on a hill and the temple sets on a high place in the city.  To this day, it’s called the Temple Mount.  So, there was a sense that one would be travelling upwards, ascending towards Jerusalem, towards God.

Our gospel reading this am from Mark, from the Lectionary, which is a universal pairing of Scriptures for the church for daily reading in order to paint a picture of God’s activity in our lives, actually gives us two stories.

The first is a healing of the daughter of Syro-Phoenician woman.  The daughter is possessed by a demon.  This woman is not Jewish, and she crosses some major social boundaries in approaching Jesus.  First, she’s a woman and women in this culture did not approach men easily.  Second, she’s Syrian, she’s not Jewish.  The very fact that she confronts Jesus with her daughter’s plight shows great courage.  

Jesus had been about his ministry in Galilee, yet he retreated to the region of Tyre.  Maybe for some rest, or time to get away from the crowds in Galilee.  Yet, the crowds found him in Tyre.  

When the woman approaches Jesus, Jesus may have been tired.  His response to her seems kind of rough.  His response of letting the children be fed first gives an impression that Jesus was saying to her that he had come for Israel, not the rest of the world.  That it was unfair to throw the children’s food to the dogs, was comparing foreigners to dogs?  I’m not sure.

We have two dogs, both are amazing in their own way.  Ella, the oldest, is a hound dog that sleeps a lot.  Leo, the shepherd/pointer mix is full of energy and always “on” it seems.  They both hang out under the table during our evening dinners, just hoping for a scrap.

Now, I do love my dogs, but not the same way that I love my children.  So, this passage perplexes me.  

But, maybe it could be a sense of Jesus testing the faith of this woman, but even that seems harsh.  Or, as some commentators have said, maybe Jesus is making an outlandish statement to highlight his Jewish audiences’ prejudices or sense of entitlement.  Jesus is always pushing boundaries, taking risks, exploring where love may take him and even us.  

I’m not sure, but there is a shift in this passage towards an understanding that God’s Kingdom is inclusive and God’s love and presence is for everyone.  God is not satisfied being confined to a temple mount or tied to one particular privilege group of folks, God is available and pursuing all.

God also values folks  willing to seek him out.  This woman has some “moxie”, after Jesus’ comments, she comes back at him saying that even dogs are blessed or lucky to get crumbs.  Jesus doesn’t get defensive or try to “save face”, he simply is amazed at her faith and says that her daughter is healed.  And she is.  

Friends, this story is perfect for us on a day we celebrate communion.  God did not come to give us privileged status, but to provide himself to the whole world in which we can have communion, or community, or deep relationship.  God wants to go to everyone regardless of background or status.  God doesn’t show favoritism.

It’s not an accident that the author of Mark includes this next healing story of having one’s ears opened right after the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Friends bring a deaf friend to Jesus.  Jesus declares an imperative “Be opened”!  And the man can hear!  I’m not sure what he experienced before that time, but I know he had to be disoriented when his ears were opened.  What was he hearing?  How did he process it?  How did he react?  One thing for sure, once he began to hear, his world began to change.

How many of you have had your ears cleaned out by a doctor?   My doctor pointed out, mowing my lawn with ear phones from my iphone causes wax build-up and apparently I have a very small ear canal.  I have had to get my ears dug out.  Which is literally what the gospel author is saying, we have to have ears dug out by God in order to hear.  We have a lot of cruddy stuff that prevents us from hearing.  Stuff like habits, pride, perceptions, image, cultural baggage, or emotional issues.  Whatever, we all have things that prevent us from hearing.  But, God is calling us towards God’s self.  God wants us to grow and be the persons we were called to be, all of us, together, in community.  

This man was deaf, God opened his ears through Jesus.  Jesus restored him into community.  That may have been messy and he may have things that he’s hearing and needing to share.  Which, he was also mute, so now he could share!  He was able to talk…and I’m sure he talked a lot for a while!  

Friends, may we hear God’s radically inclusive love calling out to us, inviting us into the beauty and sometime messy work of building relationships with our neighbors, this Nepali congregation that will be sharing our space, each other, and God.  May we come to this table this morning with a desire to be fully present with others and with this God.

Life.

John 6:53-60

53 So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

The Words of Eternal Life

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’

Psalm 84 gives us a great picture of what our approach, our attitude, our mindset should be every time we enter church.

How lovely is your dwelling place,
    O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
    for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
    to the living God.

If only we could have that sense of joy, of pleasure, of “loveliness” as we enter the church.  Now, of course, we all know that God’s dwelling place is not just confined to the church.  God is everywhere, all around us.  God’s dwelling place is, God’s residence, is ever present.  What would it be like if every time we got up out of bed, walked out the door into our neighborhood, we sensed such a deep connection with God’s Presence.  

It would be amazing, overwhelming, lovely.

However, we all know that isn’t the case.  We are consumed by so many things that crowd out a sense of joy.  We are busy, we have issues with others, we let anxieties overcome us, we can’t seem to cultivate that deep sense of belonging to one another and to God.  

If you are like me, you sometimes have weeks where you have to stop and pause in the midst of all that is happening around you and wonder if this world, or even your own world, is ever going to move towards becoming what you hoped it would be.

I know these past few weeks have been crazy with my mom dying from cancer.  Its been up and down and in the midst of a season of so much change, adaption, and growth…growth that isn’t easy…if it ever is or is supposed to be.  

I also began to wonder if I could be my true self in this context that I have found myself in.  In times like that, I need to know that others are willing to be in this together, to be in a place of covenant, of depth, of relational fidelity, a place of believing in one another.   This church has been that kind of relational space for me…for many of us. 

I have had other friends as well who have believed in me and I in them. Rob Waddles, who I grew up with.  He died at age 46, but his belief in me continues into death.  As does my grandfathers, my mom, my dad.  Bruce Baker when I was with Campus Life, Phillip Roebuck at Northminster, my partner, Debbie, on numerous projects over the years.  Jay Borck, Sean Gladding, Troy Bronsink, Mike Zimmer, Lisa Allgood, Daniel Hughes, Ed Goode, Julian Kenny, Andy Sexton, and so many others…as well as many of you.  

A hallmark in that belief in each other is a sense of deep humility, authenticity, and willingness to be fully present.  That’s hard.  A good example is Phillip Roebuck.  Phil is still one of my best friends, he’s 17 years younger than me.  He was in our Young Life club, amazing athlete and valedictorian at Wyoming HS, and graduated in the top 3% of his class at Harvard.  Phil also has one of the best, purest hearts of anyone I know.  He’s also extremely competitive and has a high capacity and desire to achieve.  He is honestly one of the smartest guys I know.

After I graduated from Fuller Seminary with my masters in divinity and moved back to Cincy, Phillip, who had just graduated from Harvard, was in a place of deep searching.  He wanted to know how he could grow and become what God intended for him. That led him to doing an internship with me at Northminster in student ministry.

I love Phil, so we made it a point to meet weekly, to be fully present with each other, to make sure we willing to submit to each other.  Early on I pledged to him that I would invest in him fully.  In the course of those two years, our friendship deepened and, to this day, even through lots of arguments, disagreements, hard feelings, as well as joys, amazing things accomplished together, and sharing of life.  

Now, let me be clear, our student ministry didn’t explode with numbers, actually, the first year we declined in numbers.  Phillip was, and still is, well known within our neighborhoods of Wyoming and Finneytown, we had an amazing group of adult leaders, we had great programs and were in the community all of the time.  The second year of the internship, something beautiful happened.  Community.  We began to see wonderful relationships deepen, community transformation, and a solid heading that continued on in the student ministry for quite a while…and, yes, some folks came into the church that are still there, even through some hard times at Northminster.

Why do I share this, because Phil and I made a commitment to believe in each other and to fight for each other’s friendship early on.  We built upon a foundation of my being in his life as his Young Life leader, to true friendship that gave us energy every day.  When we see each other, we echo the psalmists joy and feel as if we are in the Presence of God’s dwelling place.

Our gospel lesson this morning gives witness to that as well.  Jesus is continuing to share that to be with him meant to share in his life, to eat his flesh, drink his blood.  The very word, Sarx, means literally flesh…not sooma, which is another greek word that means body in the wholistic sense, the authors are using flesh to go to a guttural meaning…Again, sounds morbid, but what he’s saying is that we have to be willing to get into the very bowels of each other’s lives.  To love like we mean it, that each moment we are with each other, we are in the presence of someone made in God’s image and be willing to sacrifice for each other, to swallow our pride, to do things differently and to strive for authenticity.  Which, btw, authenticity is more than just being honest or “real”, it means being self aware and the surrendering of our self made identity in our work, projects, and even church.  It means living into the personhood that God created us to be, persons joined together with God, through Christ.  

The disciples are hearing this and realize that being this intimate with Christ and each other means deep change, deep awareness, and something that they couldn’t quite swallow.  They felt secure in the status quo and they let anxiety overtake them.  They realized that the hard work required for true community was too much.  I respect them for this recognition.  They were honest, and they left.  Jesus, at this point, was a failure at church growth.  Yet, Jesus also knew that something more beautiful, more lovely would happen.  Jesus wanted the disciples, and all of us to have life, real and full life.  It required taking in all of Jesus.  Richard Rohr talks about how hard this is, it seems like we in the church are constantly re-crucifying Jesus, constantly trying to put off our own death, yet Jesus says that’s exactly what we need to do, experience death so that we can experience resurrection life, true life.  

I have had to die so much in my relationships and even in my image of what could be. We all do.

Later in this story, in John 6, we have this passage about the crowd of followers after hearing Jesus:

66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

When Jesus asks Peter and the disciples that stuck around, what about you, Peter gives a feeble, but honest answer, where would we go, we don’t have anywhere else to go.  

We may be in that place today in our lives, we may feel like we don’t have anywhere else to go, but Jesus sticks by our side, believes in us, and calls us to partake in his life.  In so doing, we will change, it’s inevitable, we will also grow.  In this death and resurrection, we can trust that Jesus goes with us and we share in his life, even in the hardness.  Some of us may drift away, some may give up like many of the disciples.  But, for those of us willing to stick with Jesus and believe in each other, like the disciples, we may see the world change…at least our worlds.  

Abide.

John 6:51-58

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Sermon:

“To be or not to be”…isn’t that the great Shakespearean question?  What does it mean to be?  “Be” is the English languages most irregular verb…it’s a word of action…to be something or someone.  It is a verb of existence or reality.  I am in a car, I am in church, I will be grilling hamburgers tonight.  It is also a verb that points to relationship.  I am friends with…I am a member of this community…

This is something that has been incredibly important to me these past few weeks.  Being in friendship, relationship, community…here, in our church, and in the generations of friends that came by the hospital, the house, the funeral home, and the funeral service.  

Today I’d like to talk to you about being, specifically being in a friendship.  Over the course of my life, I have been blessed with some wonderful friendships and great community like we have here at Fleming Road UCC. 

I shared this at my mom’s funeral last week while officiating it.  “Mom, like her father, my PePa, believed in people.  She believed in me.  That has shaped me in more ways than can ever be explained.  It has led me to so many others throughout my life that have also believed in me.  My friend John McKnight, the well known author, teacher, community organizer, and mentor to many of the folks who have helped shape our culture over the years, once shared with me and another friend that his entire life has been touched and surrounded by the presence of God.  Why?  Because he’s been in relationship with people that believed in him…and that gave evidence to God’s belief in him as God is ultimately all about relationship. 

Mom exhibited the very nature of God.  The power of relationship.  She loved growing up in her community, has been blessed by community all of her life.  Wherever she went, she built amazing friendships.  So many people have invested in her over her life, the return on that investment has far outweighed anything that folks have put in!

Throughout my life, and even in so many ways the past few weeks, this investment in relationships was so evident.  

That makes sense, you see, we were all created to be in loving friendships or relationships with each other.  We were even created by a relational God.  It says in Genesis 1:27, that God created us in his image.  God’s image is one of relationship.  God exists in perfect unity as a three-in-one God…God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Three distinct persons, but of one essence…God’s essence is relational and that relationship demonstrates perfect love.  Out of that essence, that loving essence, God, the uncreated created us.  

If that wasn’t enough, creating us…God gave us the gift of God’s self.  God desires to simply be in relationship with us.  Throughout history God has demonstrated God’s pursuit of us, rescuing humanity from itself.  Humanity has sought to know God, yet we have often forgotten that God knows us and loves us.  

When Moses was being called by God out of a burning bush to go and preach release to the Jews who were being held as slaves in Egypt, Moses sought to know God’s name, because in those days, to know someone’s name was to know who they were, to have them define, to be in relationship and to know them.  Yet, when asked, God gave a peculiar answer:

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob–has sent me to you.’ “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation. (Exo 3:14-15 TNIV)

I am who I am.  The verb used here in Hebrew is “to be”. God is.  God is saying that he is wholly other and cannot be comprehended.  Yet, he goes on to say something more.  He is the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Moses knew that God interacted with all of those people.  God is saying, in effect, I am a God of relationship.  I cannot be comprehended, but I can be apprehended.  

God with us.  God with us in relationship.  Ultimately that is displayed in God becoming one of us through Jesus.  Jesus is completely God and is the exact representation of who God is, a God of relationship.  

Our passage this morning is one of deep relationship.  We are continuing the theme of Jesus being the bread of life.  Jesus goes on to say that in order to have eternal life, or abundant life filled with meaning and purpose, a forever life, then we must consume Jesus’ body.  Again, the word flesh is used, it’s very graphic.  When some folks in the first or second century heard this reading from John after Jesus’ death, they actually thought Christ followers were espousing cannibalism!

Of course, that’s not true.  It’s a metaphor that’s implying that we must consume Jesus, we must take Jesus in to the deepest parts of who we are, even the parts that are messy, our very bowels.  We cannot change, grow, become self/others/or God aware without help.  We need Jesus’ life to rise up within and outside of us, to take Jesus in.  

Jesus goes on to say that we must remain in him, as he is remaining in us.  This is a phrase that is referenced in others parts of John.  

John 15:4 says this, “Remain  (or abide) in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”  Remain, or abide, live…Live in Christ.  How do we do that?  We are in Christ, he sustains all things.  We simply have the pleasure of saying thank you by living in the imperative of remaining in him.  Just like any relationship, we need to be with God and with each other in order to grow.  

Friends, we cannot truly live as we were meant to live separated from Christ or from each other…to attempt to do so makes us less than human.  We may not understand that completely, but our being our “I am” is found in the actions of Jesus.  Jesus is the exact representation of God to us and he is our truly human representative in the presence of God as God in the flesh.  

So friends, BE!  Be in and with Christ, consume Christ!  He is your identity…you are not defined ultimately by the color of your skin, how much (or how little) is in your bank account, what political party you identify with, or what you have done or not done…YOU are defined by Christ’s actions on your behalf!  Your wealth in this life is defined by the relationships you have which is defined by your relationship with Christ!  My truest friend has always been Jesus.  He is really different, yet I find my identity in him because of his pursuit of me.  Friends, as you live and find you identity in Christ, know that God wants to be with you and will not let you go!