Scripture Reading - Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 19:28-40
Philippians 2:5-11 (New Revised Standard Version)
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Luke 19:28-40 (New Revised Standard Version)
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - Mantos y Palmas (UMH 279)
Palm Sunday often feels to me like the little party before the big party on Easter - after all, it’s been a long journey to get to this point! We’ve been together over 5 long weeks of Lent, delving deep into the broken places in our lives and in our world, inviting God’s healing and wholeness into our own hearts and desiring that gift for others. We’ve been fasting from the things that harm us and our relationship with God, we’ve been more intentional in our prayer practices or the things that draw us further into God’s grace, and perhaps we’ve even begun to notice those small shoots of new life blooming in our hearts - signs of God’s redeeming power and love.
The excitement is in the air, and so we - along with the crowd ushering Jesus into Jerusalem - shout Hosanna! Praise be to God! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Salvation is at hand! We can almost taste the victory to come.
And yet….there is still one more week of Lent...the week that we remember what happened after Jesus entered into the city...Jesus’s final days here on earth.
Jesus arrived in Jerusalem amid the preparations for the Passover - one of the biggest festivals when the Jews remembered God rescuing them - saving them - from slavery in Egypt. The Passover was a time for them to remember how God overthrew their oppressors and fashioned them as a people - that God had selected Moses to defy Pharaoh and lead the Israelites to freedom.
This story was very much in the air as Jesus arrived - and the people had placed similar hopes of salvation and deliverance onto him - that Jesus would overthrow the Roman oppressors, make them a sovereign people again, that they would once more be free and be restored to the glory days of King David. There was so much potential for unrest that Pilate, the Roman governor of the area, had to come to make sure order was maintained - a procession full of military glory, pomp and circumstance, power and might.
Jesus’s own entry into the city was quite the opposite - he instructs two disciples to borrow a colt for him to ride - and only if someone asks about it, to say “The Lord needs it.” A coat is spread over the back of the colt and Jesus and his disciples make their way into the city. It’s clearly not the display of power and wealth and glory one might expect from a conquering hero or from someone on whom all these expectations and hopes of deliverance have been placed.
Luke’s retelling of this parade into the city actually lacks one of the key things we’ve come to associate with this processional - anyone pick up on what that might be during our scripture reading?....Palms. Luke’s version doesn’t emphasize the waving of palm branches in praise and adoration as Jesus enters Jerusalem...what Luke highlights is the spreading of cloaks on the ground before him - an act of reverence and humility and submission. The crowd is laying down what they have in front of Jesus...perhaps this was one of the only things that each person owned - laid down before him.
As we lift our palm branches high and give God thanks and praise...what might God be inviting us to lay down before Christ as we continue the journey toward the cross?
I love how the reading from the book of Philippians pairs with our Gospel reading for this morning, because it highlights how Jesus - who had every right to claim that power and majesty of being equal with God, who could have come down in militaristic might to vanquish the oppressors, who could have demanded every honor and status due him as the Son of God - instead emptied himself in love and humility, coming as one of us in service...coming as one who lived our life, who died our death...who laid down every power and privilege for the sake of humankind. Jesus as God poured himself out in love for each one us….and at the very beginning of that passage, we have that exhortation from Paul to “Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus…” -- that same emptying of self...that same pouring out for others...that same laying down of power and privilege in preference for humility and love and service.
Even as we celebrate the coming of the reign of God, as we wave our palm branches high in praise for Jesus and laud him as savior and king...what do we need to lay down before him? What do we need to empty ourselves of so that God’s love and life can bloom even more fully in our hearts?
As a few of my colleagues have shared, “As we lift up our shouts of praise on this Palm Sunday, might we also lay down ways of living that do not honor God, our neighbor, and all life around us? As we lift up our voices crying out for an end to injustice and suffering, might we also lay down our lives, allowing Christ to fill them with humility and the new beginnings of hope? As we lift up our palms with songs to bless the One who comes in peace, might we also lay down the superficial cries of victory and triumph? As we lift up our eyes to see a vision of earth and heaven made one, might we also lay down our expectations of how God will change us and our world; of how God will come into our lives to accomplish this? As we lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, might we also lay down our hearts until they burn with the desires of God’s heart? And in our lifting up and laying down, God might just weave us into a tapestry of resurrection.”
What Palm Sunday -- and the story of this week to come remind us -- is that the pathway to resurrection and exaltation is never a steady upward climb or a sequence of brilliant successes and triumphs. It doesn’t come through the pompous parades or displays of might. Resurrection and redemption - healing and wholeness - come through the mess and the struggle, the hurt and betrayal, the putting aside of self, denying our egos, laying down our own expectations so that we can be open to the transforming power of the God who has conquered the powers of death, who fashions us into new creations, and who will make all things new. Redemption came on a borrowed colt, accompanied by the shouts and accolades of peasants...and who was ultimately executed by the state because of the message of life, love, and hope he shared and exemplified.
And so this coming week, are we willing to lay aside our lives - our time, our energy, our thoughts - to walk this journey with Jesus? What does God call us to lay down - to empty ourselves of - so that God’s resurrection power can come forth in our hearts….in our lives...or in this church?
May each of us continue to examine our hearts and our lives so that we - just as the crowd laid down their cloaks before Jesus two thousand years ago - may lay ourselves down so that God’s love and hope can be made manifest in our lives...in our community...and in our world. Amen.
Scripture Reading - Jeremiah 31:31-34
Jeremiah 31:31-34 (New Revised Standard Version)
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
We’ve been on a journey together this season - a time of exploring God’s healing and wholeness...a calling to remember ourselves as Holy Vessels of God’s love - and to remember that as we move toward healing, the gift is not just to see ourselves in that light, but to desire that gift of wholeness for each other and for all of creation.
Over the past four weeks of Lent, we’ve written our brokenness on pieces of seaglass and placed them on the altar as an offering to God. They’ve been here over this season as a reminder of the ways that we are a broken people, each of us seeking healing, and as a reminder of how we have a God who yearns to make us whole.
We’ve talked about the ways God gathers us together - like a beachcomber collecting seaglass - and holds us for safekeeping. We acknowledged the ways that God accounts for each one of our tears and struggles and heartbreaks and in gathering us together provides us with a safe space for healing. And yet, we remembered that not everyone experiences this gift of community - that there are those in our world who do not have safe spaces because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity, or their gender.
We’ve talked about stories - about how our stories become clear as they come into contact with the life-giving water that Jesus has to offer. Claiming our stories - in all their beauty and brokenness - not only leads to healing for ourselves, but can point others on the pathway to wholeness.
Last week, we talked about how community can allow our true selves to shine as part of something bigger that God is doing in the world. There’s power in a community that helps us create new and different pictures about our lives - different than the ones we’ve told ourselves or had imprinted upon us...and transformation can happen when one small piece becomes a part of a whole.
This week, we are reminded that our journeys toward healing and wholeness all take place in the context of relationship - relationship with the God who is present with us, loves us, bears with us in all things - and continues to offer us the grace we need as we become the people God created us to be.
We see God’s relationship with humankind all throughout the scriptures, but I find the language around covenant particularly helpful. We talk about the promises God made with various individuals and communities in the Bible as covenants - where both sides agree to uphold certain commitments and agreements. The stone tablets with the 10 Commandments - which were part of this covenant - were kept in a box called the Ark of the Covenant that moved around with them before the Temple was constructed.
However, again and again in Scripture, the Israelites can’t seem to keep up their end of the covenant God made with them. They worship other gods. They fail to care for the orphan, the stranger, and the widow among them. They exploit the poorest in their communities. They constantly struggle with God and with each other. They mess up time and time again - and yet God’s covenant love remained with them - even when they broke the laws and commandments. Even more, as our Scripture passage this morning points to - God is willing to enter into another covenant with this people - one that isn’t based on laws or words, but is within the very souls of the people - a covenant based on intimate knowledge...on forgiveness...a covenant that doesn’t need a physical reminder - stone tablets in a box, laws written on stone - but a covenant that resides within the deepest parts of their being...written on their hearts.
It’s a covenant that we understand was made through Jesus - his life, teaching, death, and resurrection - in the ways he demonstrated a new way of being and living with one another and with God, in the ways he offered of himself as fulfilment of God’s love, in the ways he gave of himself to those who were hurting...those who were broken...and restored them to life….and in the ways Jesus continues to offer reconciliation and restoration for each of us as we claim God’s promises - God’s covenant - for ourselves.
Claiming that covenant for ourselves - allowing that knowledge and love of God to rest fully in our hearts, opening our lives to the healing God has to offer, becoming fully the people God created us to be - is a journey. Much like the Israelites, it’s one we often don’t get right. We mess up, we get hurt or hurt others, we fail to live in to the hopes and dreams God has for us - this is why we regularly in worship have a time of confession together - and yet God is always present with us. God never gives up on us. God always keeps those promises - that no matter what we may experience in this life, God’s love will never go away. God’s grace will never leave us. There always can be resurrection.
This journey of healing and wholeness is messy and difficult - especially in a community when we’re constantly rubbing up against each others’ growing edges. It’s a slow and difficult process - one that takes time and attention but can’t be forced or hurried. It’s a process that can be full of unexpected twists and turns, of two steps forward and one step back. It’s not linear or even necessarily logical. And yet - God is with each of us. God is present, binding up our wounds, drawing us closer together, bringing us into deeper relationship with God.
Much like jewelry from seaglass...using wire to suspend...or to wrap around with decorative spirals and beads...God makes something beautiful out of our broken places, out of the twisting and the turning.
Our scripture passage from Jeremiah ended with “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
If this is something you want to be true for you in your life - no matter if you’ve been on the journey for your whole life or aren’t sure you want to be on that pathway - if deeper relationship with God is something you are yearning for...as we sing our next hymn together, I invite you to come forward, and you’ll receive a seaglass pendant that we spent time making yesterday. Each one has been prayed over - that it might be a reminder of God working in your life, creating something beautiful from the broken places...a symbol of God’s continuing healing power and presence.
Let us remain seated as we sing together number 394 in the red hymnal, Something Beautiful, and come forward as you are moved to do so. You are also invited to stay at the communion rail for a time of prayer.
May God continue to write words of love...hope….mercy...and grace on our hearts - may we rely on God’s promisesof healing and wholeness to guide us - and may we continually allow God to work our lives - broken as they are - into things of beauty. Amen.
Scripture Reading - John 4:5-30
John 4:5-30 (The Message)
He came into Sychar, a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was noon.
7-8 A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)
9 The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”
11-12 The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”
13-14 Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”
15 The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!”
16 He said, “Go call your husband and then come back.”
17-18 “I have no husband,” she said.
“That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.”
19-20 “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”
21-23 “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.
23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
25 The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”
26 “I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”
27 Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.
28-30 The woman took the hint and left. In her confusion she left her water pot. Back in the village she told the people, “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?” And they went out to see for themselves.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
But before we dive in to the text for this morning, look for a moment at the image on the front of your bulletins. It’s a picture depicting seaglass collected from a beach in Seaham Hall, a small town on the coast of the North Sea in the UK. The reason there’s such an abundant supply of seaglass - especially rarer colors like yellow, aqua, blue, and red - is because until 1921, Seaham had the largest bottleworks factory in England. It is no longer in business - but the company housed there - Londonderry Bottleworks, at the time would produce 20,000 handblown bottles every day. The practice was that at the end of the day, any discarded and waste glass was dumped into the North Sea - and so much of the sea glass that winds up on the beach is over one hundred years old.
Each bit of seaglass that is found has a story. Sometimes there are unique markings offering clues as to what it might have belonged to. Sometimes the glass is very old and it takes time and care and attention to find the truth behind it.
There is a power to truth-telling - to claiming and telling one’s own story as a path to healing. We see this in our Scripture reading for this morning and the story of Jesus’s conversation with a Samaritan woman. It’s a story that’s so familiar that upon hearing this text, it immediately brings to mind many assumptions about what’s going on - some of which are true, and some of which aren’t there in the story.
First is that Jesus is in Samaria, and that Jews and Samaritans don’t get along - which is true. There were irreconcilable differences between Jews and Samaritans - particularly in how they were supposed to worship God - and also because over their history, Samaritans - who shared the same ancestry as Jews - had intermarried with Gentiles, which Jews considered a violation of the law. However, as Jesus and his disciples pass through this village - the Jewish Jesus and his friends are the outsiders here; this is the Samaritan woman’s home turf - she is less of an outsider in this community than Jesus is.
Secondly - we often assume that this woman has a salacious past - she has had five husbands and the man she currently lives with isn’t number six. Because of this, she’s branded as a prostitute or a seductress, shunned by her community for her immorality. We think she’s out by the well in during the hottest part of the day because she wants to draw water when no one else would be around and thus avoid the derisive looks others.
However, there is no mention of this in the story. Jesus doesn’t condemn her for the situation she is in, nor is there any mention of sin or forgiveness. There is actually a long list of reasons she could have found herself in this predicament - she could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which amounted to the same thing for a woman in the ancient world). It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that this could have happened to her five times. As far as living with a man she wasn’t married to - this wasn’t necessarily an unsanctioned situation - women in this culture had to be dependant on someone - in most cases a man - in order to survive. There were also situations where she would be obligated to act as a wife to a man - to produce an heir or some other situation - but not be technically considered married.
Her situation is unfortunate, to be sure. Heartbreaking and tragic, most likely. She’s a woman with no agency, dependent on others - someone that in the biblical text isn’t even worthy of a name…but not necessarily a sinner - at least in terms of her relationship history.
Taking this view of our woman at the well, we see the conversation between this woman and Jesus unfold in a slightly different way. It’s noontime. Jesus, tired and hungry, sits down by the well - and when she comes near to draw water for herself, Jesus asks her for a drink. She’s surprised by this...not because she’s wearing a scarlet letter, but because Jesus is a Jew asking a Samaritan for water from the well.
This request, however, opens up the conversation around living water - Jesus tells her - “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”
The woman doesn’t quite see it yet, and still thinks Jesus is talking about literal water, and points to the history of the well -- this well that was dug by their ancestor Jacob (an ancestor that the Jews share as well). Jesus, instead, points out the difference between the water in the well and the water he has to give: “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”
The woman, intrigued, indicates her desire for this water...still not quite getting it because she’s still thinking about literal water and not having to come back to this particular well again.
So to make it clear that Jesus isn’t talking about actual water and that he is something more than just a random traveler, he asks her to go get her husband. When she replies that she doesn’t have one, Jesus says, “you’re right” and reveals that he knows about her five husbands and current living situation.
Then - she gets it. The moment of revelation for her has come. Jesus has “seen” her - he knows her and her past - he knows her vulnerability and dependance. She realizes that even though he knows all this about her, he has still recognized her and spoken with her and offered her something of precious value...and that in Jesus’s eyes, she is, in fact, someone of worth and value - someone worth time and attention - someone worth the gift of life-giving water springing up inside of her.
She realizes, then, that he is a prophet...and in this new light, she risks going to the core question of what has divided her people from the Jews for centuries and what divides her as a woman of Samaria, from him, a Jew. The answer opens up a whole new way of being in the world - not just a pathway for healing the rift between Jews and Samaritans, but a pathway for each person to be in new relationship with God.
Jesus tells her that “the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter….It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. ... That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. ... Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.””
The woman eventually leaves the well to tell everyone in the village about her encounter with Jesus - about this life-giving water she had received...and because of her story, because of how she came to understand that her own worth relied on nothing but this God-given well of living water within her - many others came to that same knowledge for themselves. Her own story - her past - became clear as it came into contact with the life-giving water Jesus had offered her -- that her own belovedness as a child of God didn’t stand on whether she was Jewish or a Samaritan, a man or a woman, married or not, but simply on being herself before God - worthy just because - and that her worship of God was to come out of that authentic place of being loved - not out of duty or obligation or regulation...but out of her spirit...her true self...out of adoration. It was a moment of healing for her that lead to healing for the whole village.
When we look at a piece of sea glass, it has a frosty finish that clears and shines when it comes into contact with water.
What might become clear for us as we claim our stories and when our brokenness is met with living water - as when the Samaritan woman understood her story through her encounter with Jesus?
What part of our history - our stories - may we discover to be in need of healing when we experience the life-giving water that Jesus offers us?
What truths come to light when we see ourselves as a beloved child of God?
There is immense power and healing in coming face to face with our stories - particularly in the ways it allows us to notice God’s presence with us throughout our lives - even before we were aware of it. There’s a reason that people who have had traumatic experiences are encouraged to talk about it as a means of healing, or why people in recovery attend 12-step meetings to tell their stories, or why in the early part of the Methodist movement, testimony was so important because being able to own your stuff and name and share the ways God was working in your life helped you grow - both as a person and in your relationship with Christ.
We all have a story - and we all have parts of our story that we aren’t proud of...parts of our story that continue to wound us...and the main question isn’t “how can we hide our brokenness” so that we can feel like we have it all together, so that we can feel acceptable -- the question is “how can we share our stories - put our brokenness - in the service of others?” How can our stories be a source of healing to others?
The Samaritan woman - her story was well known in the village...and Jesus used that story to tell her the truth about herself as a child of God...even though she wasn’t a Jew...even though she wasn’t married...even though in her life she had seen plenty of heartbreak...and she used that story to let others in her village know about the love and power of Jesus and what life-giving water he could give them.
I’m going to invite us into a few moments of reflection…
Consider your story for a moment - in all its beauty and in all its brokenness...in all the places you still feel wounded...in all the places where you have experienced healing...and consider your story in light of God’s life-giving water...the well springs within you that never runs dry...what truths about you become clear? ...Think about these things for a minute...
As we sing our next hymn together, come forward as you are moved to do so to pick up a piece of seaglass and place it in the jar of water….as a sign of your willingness to claim your story in light of the living water Jesus offers to each of us...as a sign of your belovedness as a child of God - in all areas of your life, even the places that are yet in need of healing. Let us remain seated as we sing together, Water, River, Spirit, Grace, number 2253 in the black hymnal.
Water, River, Spirit, Grace,
sweep over me, sweep over me!
Recarve the depths your fingers traced
in sculpting me in sculpting me.
*Hymn - Water, River, Spirit, Grace (FWS 2253)
Let us pray. (http://sacredise.com/prayers/type/intercession/around-the-well/, adapted)
We gather around the well of your grace, O God,
As those who thirst for friendship and love;
May we find here the living water of community and connectedness;
We gather around the well of your life, O God,
As those who thirst for joy and safety;
May we find here the living water of playfulness and protection;
We gather around the well of your mercy, O God,
as those who thirst for wholeness and peace;
May we find here the living water of comfort, healing and welcome;
We gather around the well of your presence, O God,
as those who thirst for meaning and connection;
May we find here the living water of service and worship;
May the life we have found in you,
be the gift we share
with all who hunger and thirst,
with all who are outcast and rejected,
with all who have too little or too much,
with all who are wounded or ashamed,
and, through us, may this corner of the world overflow
with you living water.
In Jesus’ Name
Scripture Reading - Psalm 56
Psalm 56 (New Revised Standard Version)
1 Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
all day long foes oppress me;
2 my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many fight against me.
O Most High, 3 when I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid;
what can flesh do to me?
5 All day long they seek to injure my cause;
all their thoughts are against me for evil.
6 They stir up strife, they lurk,
they watch my steps.
As they hoped to have my life,
7 so repay them for their crime;
in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!
8 You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record?
9 Then my enemies will retreat
in the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me.
10 In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise,
11 in God I trust; I am not afraid.
What can a mere mortal do to me?
12 My vows to you I must perform, O God;
I will render thank offerings to you.
13 For you have delivered my soul from death,
and my feet from falling,
so that I may walk before God
in the light of life.
This past week was the first time this year I was able to get out to the beach. Ben and Michael were away for the day, and the dog needed a walk, so I leashed her up to her long line and off we went. Of course, I do what I always do when I walk along the beach - which is look for interesting bits of rock and seaglass to add to my collection. I used to just stuff my findings into my pockets, but I’ve started to take a bag with me as I gather together interesting shapes, textures, and colors.
Now I’ve heard that if you live on Chebeague long enough, you’ll start to amass such a collection that beachcombing doesn’t necessarily hold the same appeal after a while - maybe that’ll be true for me but probably not, because ever since I was a little girl at the beach by the house where I grew up, I collected bits of rock and shells and seaglass, and somewhere I still have a jar of beach treasures I found as a kid.
I think of beachcombing as an adventure - you never know what you are going to find - if you will find that elusive bit of blue glass - or something even rarer...perhaps a bit of beach pottery with the design still showing...or a heart shaped rock. Even green or brown or white pieces still prove to be an exciting find - gathered up and marveled at. Each piece was once lost - undiscovered, forgotten, buried under sand or cast out far at sea - but is now found, gathered, saved, and treasured.
In the same way, God searches for, finds, and gathers us up - saves us. One of my favorite ideas in the Wesleyan tradition is that of prevenient grace - God’s grace that works in our life before we are even aware of who God is. It is the idea that it is God’s action in our lives that draws us into deeper relationship - not our own initiative - and that it is God who gathers us together into the Body of Christ, where the lost is found and healing is possible.
The psalm we read this morning points to this offer of hope and healing and the idea that God accounts for us and delivers us. The psalm is one of the ones we know was written by David, at a time when he was fleeing for his life and ran in the heart of enemy territory to escape King Saul - to the city of Gath which was controlled by the Philistines...and was Goliath’s hometown. Not exactly the safest place for David to be - recalling that David had defeated Goliath, the Philistine’s champion, with a stone and a sling. The psalm is David’s prayer to God when he is literally cut off from his people, surrounded by enemies, threatened by all sides - and yet knows that God will still deliver him - save him - from the hands of his foes.
The image that stands out to me from the psalm is from verse 8, where David says to God, “You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” The image on the front of our bulletins this morning is from Elaine Heath, former dean of Duke Divinity School, who currently is working on a project called the Garden at Spring Forest - a place of rest and renewal and intentional Christian community. Members work on the farm and are committed to the ministry of hospitality, prayer, and justice.
As they were working on their land, they found an area in the forest where someone decades ago had dumped many bottles and jars. Instead of getting rid of them, they cleaned up the area, washed what could be salvaged, and created the arrangement you see on the cover as a reminder of this verse. Elaine Heath writes, “The bottle in this passage refers to ancient funerary bottles in which mourners would collect tears. God mourns with us in our losses and pain, noting every tear and grieving with us. The lights in our arrangement represent divine presence with us in our grief.”
She continues to share that later during the year, her community will create a Tear Bottle trail as a type of prayer labyrinth designed for lament, incorporating these jars as part of that display.
God accounts for our tears - guards and gathers them for safekeeping - and delivers and saves us...for David concludes his prayer with: “You have delivered my soul from death and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.”
God provides a safe place for healing and restoration - gathers us together into the body of Christ - because God sees each of us - God has brought each of us here - God keeps account of each of our tears and struggles and heartbreaks - and God brings us into community together as a safe place for healing, for mending what is broken - gathering us together as a beachcomber gathers glass and treasures to create something beautiful out of the brokenness.
And yet, even as we praise God for the safety we have found in God, as we praise God for the blessing of community - we know that there are so many in this world who are not safe...whose tears God may notice...but go unnoticed by so many because of the cycles of violence, hurt, and harm perpetuated by the powers and principalities of this world....until crisis comes. We saw that in heartbreaking detail this week with the two mass shootings in Mosques in Chistchurch, New Zealand, and the ways that white supremacy has been globalized and exported. There was also a school shooting in Brazil this past week, where two young men killed seven students at a K-12 school - in an attempt to imitate the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. The violence we see and the rhetoric of hate - and its increasing acceptance in our American culture - has as global impact.
These are the events that make headlines, but there is so much that never makes it to the news - the fear that many minorities live with every day - particularly African Americans - of being harmed for the color of their skin, or that Muslims and Jewish people deal with because of the way they worship. There are the domestic violence disputes that wound spirits and bodies, people who are shunned by family and friends because of who they love or who they are, people who are lost to their addiction, children and families fleeing violence who have no place in to call home, people who live in places torn by war and conflict - there are so many who are not safe -- and God sees and accounts for each and every tear and longs for this world to become a place of peace and healing and wholeness for each and every person….each and every community...for the whole entire world.
God calls us as a church to be a place of safety and healing - this is part of why our congregation has undertaken the process of discernment around becoming a Reconciling congregation to make clear our embrace and welcome of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and their families - because so many churches have not been safe places for them. It’s part of the reason we’re drafting a welcome statement that states that we will be a place for all people - welcoming those who come through our doors to create a safe harbor of healing - a community that can shelter and restore us before we are sent out into the world to offer that same sense of welcome - shelter - and healing - to those around us. My prayer for us as we take this Lenten journey together is that our own healing will not only be for us personally, but that will lead us toward communal and global healing as we live more fully into being the Body of Christ, a place of “safekeeping”, a safe space for all.
Our next song together will offer an opportunity for prayer and reflection - Sanctuary - the word literally means a place of refuge and safety - and as we sing it together, consider the people in this world who do not live in safety - either physical safety or emotional safety….and as you think of those people, come forward and place a piece of seaglass into the jars up front here as a way of being in prayer for them...as a reminder of the ways God gathers their tears and heartbreak into bottles...and as a reminder of how we are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to be agents of God’s healing love and grace...a living sanctuary.
Let us remain seated as we sing together….and as we sing, come forward as you are led to do so to offer your prayers for those people who need God’s hope, love, and safety in this world.
*Hymn - Sanctuary (FWS 2164)
Lord, prepare us as your people - gathered together as the body of your son Jesus in the world - to offer safety and sanctuary to those we meet. Work in and through us to be agents of your healing love, both in transforming our hearts and in working for the transformation of our communities so that your kingdom may be made real among us and in our world. We pray this in the name of your son Jesus, Amen.
Scripture Reading - Psalm 139
Psalm 139 (The Message)
139 1-6 God, investigate my life;
get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you;
even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say
before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too--
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful--
I can’t take it all in!
7-12 Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings
to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute--
you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you;
night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.
13-16 Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I’d even lived one day.
17-22 Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them--
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!
And please, God, do away with wickedness for good!
And you murderers—out of here!--
all the men and women who belittle you, God,
infatuated with cheap god-imitations.
See how I hate those who hate you, God,
see how I loathe all this godless arrogance;
I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred.
Your enemies are my enemies!
23-24 Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong--
then guide me on the road to eternal life.
When we lived in Haverhill, there was this wonderful gallery that sold art from all over the world. I don’t remember the name of the store even though it was a place we visited several times a year - it has since closed - but I remember Margot who owned the shop. She traveled everywhere and formed relationships with artists, sculptors, craftspeople - and would purchase their goods to bring to her shop to sell. Some of my favorite work was done by an Israeli artist who works in ceramics and one year for our anniversary, Ben purchased some bowls and a plate that I had had my eye on for forever. I loved the colors and the design - they were definitely items that - as organizing consultant Marie Kondo would say - sparked joy. Whenever I looked at them.
We’d bring these bowls out whenever we had dinner parties or large gatherings - and one day, a couple years ago - it might have even been during my clumsy phase when I was pregnant with Michael - I went to put the bowl away and it slipped out of my hand and broke on the counter into two neat pieces.
Easy enough to fix - so I put it away in a drawer until I had the time and energy to fix it...but it became one of those little projects that I just never got around to, until one day, I was looking for something in the drawer and I pulled the drawer out too far and...everything came spilling out, including the bowl, now split into several pieces - and now most likely beyond repair.
I’ve kept it wondering - should I try to fix it? It seems like I could glue it back together, but for a big missing piece out of the top. Or - is it time to let it go - offer it to the mercy of the winds and waves and beachcombers, and hope that a precious fragment or two might make its way back to me as a momento?
We begin this season of Lent with this worship series called Holy Vessels: God’s Healing and Wholeness, using the image and journey of seaglass as a metaphor for understanding our own journey with God. We here in the West, when we think about Lent and this season of “penance”, we often associate it with suffering. Deprivation. Denying ourselves as a way of turning away from what is wrong and turning more fully toward what is right, turning more fully toward God.
However, in the Eastern Orthodox church, penance is less about suffering and more about restoration and reconciliation - allowing God to heal what has been hurt and broken within us. It is about preparing to live an Easter life - a life where death has no hold over us.
Each of us has been created as a precious vessel of God’s love. Uniquely gifted, infinitely valued, fashioned and treasured by God. And yet - each of us has experienced hurt and brokenness in our lives -- some of us have had the pieces of our lives shatter on the floor in one big traumatic event...some of us have had experienced the hurts and pains of hundreds of small chips flaking from our souls. Some of us have felt it all.
We live with brokenness. It is part of our reality as human beings - even as it is also true that God created us as whole beings and yearns to bring us once again back to wholeness - and holiness.
The beauty of Psalm 139 is that God sees us and knows us. God knows what is in our hearts, our minds, our spirits, our bodies down to the number of hairs on our head, knows our deepest inner longings and fears, is intimately familiar with what brings us joy, what gets us angry, what wounds we carry. There are no surprises - God’s presence surrounds us at every stage of our life, no matter if we are aware of it or not, no matter if we try to hide from God or not.
God knows every hairline fracture, every jagged edge, every missing shard, every chip and crack we carry - and God loves us...and desires to heal us.
The response of the psalmist to such utter intimate knowledge is one of trust - “Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong--
then guide me on the road to eternal life.”
Guide me on your healing path - bring me to that place of healing and wholeness and life in your love. That is the prayer of the psalmist - and it is our prayer as well.
You’ll find scattered around the sanctuary pieces of seaglass that are still in process - there are smooth edges and edges that are still unformed. Each piece of this seaglass began as something discarded. Thrown away. Carelessly discarded and forgotten and broken. A beer bottle. An old vase, no longer useful. A chipped plate. An empty jar. When we find ourselves up against the challenges in life - the loss of a job, the betrayal of a friend, the devastating diagnosis, the death of a loved one, the project that failed, the struggle with addiction or mental illness, facing our own insecurities and shortcomings - it can feel a lot like being broken apart and tossed to the side.
And yet - when pain comes and we feel discarded and worthless, when we feel lost and forgotten about - it’s not the end of the story. The glass began its journey as something thrown away, but as it found its way to the waters, tossed about by sand and sea, refined and worked and transformed by the wind and the waves - it becomes a mineral gem, something beautiful, sought after, and treasured. In the same way, when suffering comes, God can work in us and restore us, transforming those broken, jagged edges into places of beauty, and there is healing to be found in the God who searches us and gathers us up into communion and fellowship with one another - who brings us into love and forgiveness - who makes us whole again and who offers us the opportunity to turn toward new life….and we are reminded that in our beginning and in our ending and in all of our life - we belong to God.
We’re going to have a moment for silence and reflection, and I’d like you to prayerfully consider your own life. This Lent, as we journey with one another and with God, what are those fractured places in your life that need God’s healing? What are the jagged edges that God desires to restore? Where does God yearn to create beauty from your brokenness? Let’s take some time to silently name those places.
During our next hymn, you’re invited to come forward and take one of the pieces of seaglass on the table here and use a sharpie to write down a word or a phrase that represents where you’d like God to bring wholeness for you...and to place it on the altar as a way of offering your brokenness to God for healing. These pieces will stay here during the next five weeks in this space as a symbol that God holds all our hurt and pain and suffering together - and brings us wholeness. If you are moved to do so, you are also invited to spend time at the altar rail for prayer...to pray for God to work in you...to remind yourself that God knows you and loves you...to remember that the hurts and wounds we experience don’t mark the end of our story, but are part of our journey with the God who leads us to new life, who enables us to die to the parts of ourselves that prevent us from experiencing God’s love, and who reminds us that the things of death cannot hold us.
May we together turn toward life in God’s love, offering our brokenness to God for transformation and healing, as we stand and sing together “You Are Mine” number 2218 in the black hymnal.
*Hymn - You are Mine (FWS 2218)
Scripture Reading - Luke 9:28-43
Luke 9:28-43 (NRSV)
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
*Hymn - Holy Ground (FWS 2272)
If I’m being completely honest this morning, when I first approached this text earlier this week, it was with a healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism - not so much doubting that these events transpired or dismissing the glorious, miraculous nature with which Jesus was transformed before the disciples’ eyes or diminishing power displayed during the banishment of the evil spirits from the man’s young son...but more so wondering what in the world does this story have to tell us here today when the denomination this church belongs to was on the brink of transformation and not only fell short, but took a giant, massive step backward in its witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’m not just talking about the vote to enact stricter, more punitive laws around clergy who stand up for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers or those who identify as such seeking ordination. I’m also talking about the way in which the denomination handled that business together - a process full of political maneuvering, allegations of vote buying, dismissal of one another’s humanity - even after a full day of being in prayer together.
One bystander, an ordained United Methodist elder, shared his observation of General Conference on Facebook, writing these words:
It would seem that the famous observation of one of the leaders of the early church, Tertullian, has been reversed. In referring to Christians in the 3rd century, he said that pagans were baffled by the witness of the followers of Jesus: “See how they love one another,” they would say.
Now, in our modern day, in the wake of our General Conference, those outside the church are equally baffled by the witness of some of the followers of Jesus: “See how they hurt one another,” they must be saying.
Contrast this scene to the ones we have from scripture this morning - first where Jesus is depicted in all his glory, standing side by side with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures from Jewish history - representing the law and the prophets - dressed in brilliant white. Peter, James, and John, not knowing quite what to do with it all, but seeing that something important was going on and wanting to capture the moment, offered to erect tents - one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah - but before they could do anything, they hear a thunderous voice from the cloud proclaiming Jesus as God’s chosen one. And then they descend the mountain, amazed - if perplexed - by this display of God’s greatness….and again see Jesus in action with the healing of a boy tormented by demons - a boy, incidentally, that the disciples were unable to heal. The story ends with “all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
All were astounded at the greatness of God.
Both stories reflect God’s greatness - God’s work - God’s movement and healing and glory. What happened in our texts wasn’t based on human maneuvering, wasn’t rooted in the disciples agendas or plans - even the healing of the boy wasn’t something the disciples could even accomplish on their own - it’s not about human work, our initiatives, our plans or machinations - but about the power of a God who acts and moves in ways beyond our understanding, that leave us astounded and amazed and that reminds us that God meets us at the limits of our own power and planning and does that which we cannot do...all so that it can be God who is glorified and made known.
God’s work and greatness - not our own.
This isn’t to say that God doesn’t give us hopes and dreams and visions to accomplish...but those hopes and dreams and visions aren’t for our own sake, but for the sake of building up God’s kingdom of peace and justice - for the sake of revealing God’s greatness in our lives and in the world - for the sake of God’s movement among us to establish a more loving, just, and hope-filled world.
And where the plans and hopes and dreams of many may have failed this week when it comes to a more inclusive United Methodist Church...where our own maneuverings may have compromised the witness of this denomination...where we wanted to build tents and shrines to the way things have been and how the church has operated for the past 50 years...the Holy Spirit picks up in those places we fail, and I believe that whatever comes next, we are in the middle of God birthing a new thing - a new transformation - something that God alone can accomplish provided with follow the movement of the Holy Spirit. We don’t know what that looks like - and we don’t know what the journey ahead will entail - birthing is a difficult process, filled with hard work, pain, and uncertainty - but one also of joy as new life takes shape and grows.
Here in this place, as we think about our island, our Chebeague community, and the witness of our church - it’s a reminder that our role isn’t one of grand schemes or brilliant plans for ministry - it’s about being faithful to the work of God in our midst and trusting that as we follow the Spirit’s lead, as we make God’s kingdom our priority, and as we trust in the power of Jesus to transform our hearts - God’s greatness will be revealed through us and the witness of our church will not be about how wonderful we are - but how great God is to do such things in and with and through us.
I do believe God is calling this community to commit to being a church that includes all people, particularly our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning sisters and brothers - and the reason such welcome needs to be explicit is because of the degree of harm that the church universal - including our very own denomination - has caused. I know that we all know in our hearts that this church is a welcoming place, but for those who have so often been excluded from so many churches, hearing those words of radical welcome makes a world of difference. As I mentioned in the letter I wrote earlier this week, our Administrative Council is in the process of planning a congregational vote later this spring on becoming a Reconciling Church, and we will have opportunities over the next few months for conversation and learning around what that means, both in practice and from a scriptural standpoint.
But that’s only one piece of what God is inviting us into. The greater journey is this one into deeper trust and faithfulness to Jesus - the journey that takes each one of us to the edge of what we know and what we can do and leaves us there - perhaps on the mountain top, perhaps in the places of our failings - leaves us there to meet the God who waits to reveal great things among us...who beckons us to be transformed by the depth of God’s love...and who is ready to do a new thing among us all.
This week - may we be moved by the transfigured Christ - amazed by the brilliance of his love and compelled to listen to his word - as we seek to follow the Holy Spirit and be the body of Christ for this community in this time and space, and to rely ever more fully on God’s work with us - so that all may be astounded by the greatness of God in this place. Amen.
46They 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.
What does it mean to see something?
[Look at it with your eyes] -- there’s the physical act of looking...the light waves bouncing off whatever objects are within your field of vision into your eyes that then are translated by your brain into colors, and shapes, depth and size. You look at something, and it’s photons and chemicals - a scientific process that takes multiple organs working together to be able to see those things that are in front of you.
But what else does it mean to see something?
There’s also this element of knowing or understanding. I could hold up a variety of objects in front of you and you could see them, but if you didn’t have an idea of what I was actually holding up, you wouldn’t be able to really, truly see them. I watch this with Michael all the time, as he’s learning and growing and figuring the world out. I could have 10 different objects in front of him and ask him if he sees this or that, and if he doesn’t already have an idea of what I’m asking for - his brain has no way to make sense of the different objects in front of him. Like right now, we’re doing it with magnetic letters on the refrigerator. He’s really good at being able to see the letter “M” (in fact, wherever we go, he can pick that letter out), but other letters - A….K….Y… he just doesn’t see. There’s no connection between what he’s looking at with his eyes, and any sense of greater understanding.
There are a lot of layers of “seeing” that is going on in today’s scripture passage: what it means to see and be seen...to be blind, both literally and spiritually...and how our seeing and unseeing impacts how we relate to ourselves...to one another...and to Jesus.
In our story we have bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sitting by the roadside - presumably in the spot he always sits - looking for anything anyone will give him. When Jesus and his disciples leave the city, he hears of it and begins to shout out - “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those around him try stop him from crying out, but it only increases his desperation as again he calls out to Jesus. Jesus stops, stands still, and asks those who had tried to silence Bartimaeus to call him forward. They tell him “take heart, get up, his calling you.” Bartimaeus leaps up and casts off his cloak and makes his way to Jesus. (As a side note, I always found it interesting that they didn’t help him find his way to Jesus).
Jesus asks him, What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus says to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well...and immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows after Jesus.
The literal blindness of Bartimaeus and his regaining sight is a fairly straightforward layer in the text, but there are other blind people in this story - and it’s a bit more subtle. The crowd is blind to Bartimaeus; his ailment and his status as a beggar render him unworthy of an encounter with Jesus - at least in the crowd’s opinion. Even though they see him - they don’t truly see him...he is invisible, his cries - though heard - fall on deaf ears, and his very personhood is unvalued.
Until, that is, Jesus stops, and invites the crowd to call him. Jesus doesn’t invite Bartimaeus forward directly, Jesus tells the crowd to give him the message. In this act, Jesus heals the crowd of their spiritual blindness. He opens their reality to the value and worth of Bartimaeus, and where once they were trying to subdue his shouts and cries and pleas for help...they now encourage: “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.” In this act, connection and relationship within the community is restored - Bartimaeus is no longer invisible to them.
The interaction Jesus and Bartimaeus have is one that I find deeply moving. Bartimaeus sees something that the crowd does not - he calls Jesus “Son of David” which is a title that Jesus never uses publicly in his ministry. The crowd doesn’t fully understand who this Jesus is - and perhaps they see who they want to see in Jesus - a healer, a miracle worker, an exorcist, a teacher, a potential military leader, a revolutionary, a simple carpenter’s son, a great speaker. They don’t see what Bartimaeus sees - Jesus as the Messiah….Son of David...the Son of God.
Jesus is fully seen by Bartimaeus - a blind man. Bartimaeus sees despite his blindness - and Jesus fully sees Bartimaeus. Jesus doesn’t assume that Bartimaeus wants to regain his sight. Jesus doesn’t reduce Bartimaeus to a problem to be solved, or a series of labels. Jesus asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” which honors Bartimaeus as a full person - one with many wants, needs, and desires. Jesus invited Bartimaeus to gauge within himself what he wants of Jesus.
Bartimaeus in some sense had already made his decision - when he came forward to Jesus, he threw off his cloak - the most valuable possession he had - it gave him warmth and shelter, collected coins, gave him cover and an identity and a livelihood -- a thing safe and familiar that he cast off in order to meet Jesus...demonstrating a trust in this man he’s never met but knows and sees and that is confirmed when he follows Jesus after regaining his sight.
On the one hand, we could talk about and identify with the crowd and ask - who are the unseen people in our world or on our island...where does Jesus need to heal our own spiritual blindness to the troubles that allow and enable us to dehumanize and render others unworthy or less than. There’s a wealth of conversation we could have about how that plays out in our world and in our community.
Yet while the crowd features prominently in the story - it’s the encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus that leads me to consider the same question Jesus asks: What do you want me to do for you?
It’s a question of self-reflection and invitation for healing -- a question where Jesus asks us to examine our hearts and discover what lies therein...a question that points to our longings and fears. Jesus might also reframe the question: “What do you imagine I desire for you? Where in your deepest desires might we find each other?”
It’s a question that invites us to look within and see ourselves as we are - the hurts and pains and joys and sorrows, our intentions and mixed motivations, our deepest shame and our proudest moments, our sharpest wounds and faded scars. And to answer that question honestly, it requires that we see Jesus who who he truly is - God’s son sent to heal us and bring us back to life….to resurrect the dead and dying places in our lives and in our world...and it requires us to trust that when Jesus sees us - he doesn’t reduce us to our problems or our needs - Jesus sees all of who we are. He sees us as people worthy of love and attention, even if we struggle with thinking that about ourselves...he sees our suffering and our wounds, even if we try to hide them ...he sees the best and the worst in each our hearts...and looks on each and every one of us with love and compassion, longing for each of us to bring those wounded places to him for healing.
To end, I want to invite you into a place of reflection - hearing Christ call to you in and through this story. This was written by Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a United Methodist pastor serving in Acton, Massachusetts.
Close your eyes….breathe in and out….and hear these words:
Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting beside the Way.
What is the Way you are beside: something incomplete,
something not yet happening? Offer it to God.
He began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.
What has silenced you?
What has kept you from rushing headlong to God?
Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”
Imagine Jesus calls you.
Jesus wants you. Wants you near.
They called the blind man, saying to him,
“Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”
Recite these words to yourself.
Take heart; get up, your Love is calling you.
Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.
Your souls is not as timid as you:
casting your safety aside, leaping, unseeing, to the Beloved.
Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Let him ask you.
“My teacher, let me see again.”
What would you see?
Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.”
Your crying out, your soul's leaping,
your blind begging is holy.
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
What is the new Way you will follow on?
Pray this all day long without ceasing:
“Jesus, Beloved of God, have mercy on me.
“Jesus, Beloved of God, have mercy on me.”
Scripture - Mark 10:17-31
Mark 10:17-31 (NRSV)
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.”
Hymn - Jesus Calls Us (UMH 398)
I have to say, I really identify with the man who comes up to Jesus to ask him what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Of all the questions that he could ask Jesus - this man who works miracles, who casts out demons, who possesses all wisdom and knowledge - he picks the question having to do with getting eternal life. The big reward. The grand prize, blue ribbon, giant trophy. In the school of life, it’s the question - “what do I have to do to ace this class?” And being the good student that I am, I can relate to that. I was one of those kids that you didn’t want to have in the class if the professor was going to grade on a curve because if there was one thing I knew how to do well, it was being a diligent student and giving exactly what was demanded of me to perfection. What assignments do I have to complete, what rules do I have to follow, what books do I have to read. High school was tough because of classes like English and History where there weren’t any “right answers” - it was in college where this gift truly shone and I could hone in on my math and science skills to figure out the right way to arrive at the right answer. And truth be told, I operate out of that wanting to do things the “right way” mentality a lot of the time - wanting to say the right things when someone’s having a tough time or when I’m in a difficult conversation with someone, wanting to parent Michael the right way so he grows up into the person God created him to be -- wanting to have the right spiritual practices, to have all my stuff together and be presentable, to say and do the right kind of things that are expected of me...and when I don’t feel like I handled something the right way or mastered something I should have been able to do - I run through the scenario over and over again in my mind, thinking, “I should have said this” or “done that”. It’s all about matching my actions to outward expectations.
So when I see this man talking with Jesus - I see someone wanting to get it right, wanting to figure out what he has to do to be right with God, wanting to discover the expectations so he can get the prize. And Jesus hands him the list - no murdering, no stealing, no lying, etcetera. Your basic commandments - the ones, as it turns out, this man has been following all along. No sweat. A plus, buddy, you pass with flying colors.
But for whatever reason, this doesn’t satisfy the man. He wants more - and again, I can relate to that - the desire to master a challenge, to really sink your teeth and dig in to a project. A spiritual conquest, something that really proves that you’ve earned that eternal life.
Jesus, in our passage, looks at the man. And the text notes that Jesus loved him as he told the man the one thing he needed to do - the one thing that was missing, the one thing that Jesus probably knew that the man wouldn’t be able to do: to sell what he owned, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The man went away shocked and grieved because of his many possessions.
Jesus goes on to use this man as a bit of a teaching moment for his disciples - but again, his disciples miss the point - Peter is quick say that “Hey Jesus, we all left everything behind to follow you...look Jesus, don’t we get an A+ for that? We didn’t have a problem with letting go of our stuff to follow you.” Jesus instead brings the conversation back to their greatest sticking point - the biggest barrier to their own being all-in with Jesus -- and that was this whole notion of the first being last….and the last being first….and asking the disciples to let go of the notion that somehow they’ve earned first place or the position of being the greatest in the kingdom of God.
Jesus’s invitation - for both the wealthy man and for the disciples - is to give up the life they know and to live for others. To not be attached to the ego - the possessions, the need to be greatest, the need to be right - and instead live for others.
“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
This life with Christ is not about checking off boxes - following this or that commandment….sitting on this or that church committee….putting x amount of dollars in the plate -- and thinking that that equates to following Jesus. A life with Christ isn’t even about achieving a certain status of holiness or worthiness - as if you have to level up your soul to unlock new skills or additional bonuses before living the abundant life Christ offers. We can’t work or earn our way into it or create it ourselves - it is impossible for us to do. We can’t get there on our own.
When Jesus told the young man to sell all his possessions, I think Jesus knew that it was the one thing that was impossible for him to do. There was no way that he was going to be able to accomplish that task - and maybe that was the point. For if the young man had it within him to do it, had he said, “alright Jesus, consider it done” and went straight away to take care of it and came back to follow….he would have inherited eternal life all by himself - worked his way into the kingdom, getting there on his own merit, achieving eternal life as a reward for a life well-lived, done right, expectations met and managed.
Jesus knows this. He tells the disciples “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.”
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
How many of us are trying to save ourselves, relying on our own resources, rather than letting God grow the kingdom within and around us? How many of us lean on our accomplishments - spiritual or otherwise - and use them as a metric for determining our worthiness rather than offering all of who we are - the good, bad, and the ugly, and relying on God’s grace for the rest?
We can’t work ourselves into God’s favor or earn our way to eternal life - that was the mistake made by both the disciples and the young man in our passage. It’s a mistake I know I make all the time, thinking that somehow I can use my gifts and education and possessions and efforts and knowledge and translate that into saving myself from my own destructive habits, or that I can earn my way into making God love me more - as if the spiritual life were something to accomplish rather than a life poured out in love for others. The reality is, however, that there’s nothing you or I could ever do that would make God love me or you more...or less. And the way to access that love isn’t by achieving anything or getting your life in order or by thinking the right things or ticking off the correct religious boxes...but by surrender and letting go...surrendering our need for control or validation...our need to achieve or accomplish...our need for security and safety in the things we can see and touch….it’s a letting go of that which we cling to most tightly in order to follow Jesus…..a task that is impossible for us on our own….but not for God.
Jesus always invites us - “come and follow me.” That invitation stands wherever we are - however we are - whoever we are. There is no need to perform for God...or for each other. There is no need to show off our spiritual medals - or lack thereof. It is not necessary to have it together...in any area of your life. All that is needed is to accept the great depth of love God has for you - exactly where you are, no accomplishments needed - and trust that Jesus wants you to follow him not for your own sake only...but for the sake of a hurting and broken world that also needs to know how much God loves it.
We cannot save ourselves - but God can. May we trust this week in that invitation from Jesus - the one in whom all things are possible - to step together into that kingdom that God is building not only in the heavens but here among us on earth. May we accept fully God’s love for us - so that we can be a people poured out in love for others. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 9:38-50
Mark 9:38-50 (NRSV)
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”39But 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. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For 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. 43If 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. 45And 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. 47And 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, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt 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.”
*Hymn - There’s A Spirit in the Air (UMH 192)
“There's a Spirit in the air,
calling people everywhere:
praise the love that Christ revealed,
living, working in our world.”
This is an image that gives me hope, after living through this apocalyptic week - not apocalyptic in the end of the world sense (though I know that some are feeling that way) - but apocalyptic in the original sense of word and in the way original hearers of scriptural texts would have understood it, which is what happens when the layers of our society are peeled back to show the truth, often the very uncomfortable truth, about what’s been going on. We’re in the midst of this kind of uncovering in our country and regardless of where you stand politically, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the hurt and pain we’re inflicting upon one another as a result of this great divide. The fear and anxiety for the future that many live with on a daily basis seems to permeate the very air that we breathe.
I find strength in remembering that God’s Holy Spirit is in the air as well -- moving everywhere, calling and drawing people in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places, also at work revealing truth - that love is also at work, living and breathing in our world, in the church, outside the church, with the church - and without the church. It’s a Spirit that cannot be bound or owned by a group of people, and cannot be controlled or ordered about.
Jesus points to this - and so much more - in our Scripture reading this morning. Immediately before this morning’s text, the disciples had had an argument about who among them was the greatest - and in response, Jesus had given them a pointed lesson on being the servant of all and getting to the back of the line to be great in God’s kingdom. Jesus had taken a child in his arms - a symbol for all those people society considered to be less-than - and told them that welcoming him - and welcoming God - was to be found in embracing the most vulnerable.
And so here we have John, one of the disciples, who speaks up and says, “But teacher, we saw this person casting out demons in your name and he wasn’t following us. He was working this miracle and we weren’t a part of it. He was trying to claim something that he isn’t a part of. He’s not one of us. He wasn’t doing it the way we do it. Make him stop before he ruins everything.”
Jesus essentially tells them to worry about themselves, not what others are doing—especially when this work also builds up the kingdom of God. The Spirit works in many ways - not just through them, Jesus tells them. Policing your own behavior, your own actions, is probably as much as you can handle anyway. Jesus reminds them of the stakes of being a stumbling block to the poor and vulnerable people in the world. It would be far better, Jesus says, for you to lose an eye or foot or hand if it’s causing you to stumble, to have a millstone hung around your neck and be cast into the sea, in the event you prevent those who are the last and least from my love.
Jesus goes on to describe in gruesome detail what to do if a hand or foot or eye causes the disciples to stumble, with images of the unquenchable fires of hell paired with the image of being salted with sanctifying fire.
I imagine that the disciples were probably a bit shocked that Jesus didn’t take their side in this...but perhaps their concern around this unaffiliated exorcist had less to do with what he was or wasn’t doing, and more to do with their need to ensure that they were the only ones who were truly “in” on Jesus’s work. It was more about their egos than anything else….after all, the complaint against this man was that he wasn’t following them….not that he wasn’t following Jesus. Again - it’s like they weren’t really paying attention to what Jesus was telling them two minutes earlier about service and humility. It’s like they wanted to be the only ones who could do it - who could cast out demons and perform miracles in Jesus name, they wanted to be the gatekeepers for God’s work in the world.
Except that’s not how God works.
This passage is Jesus’s attempt to tell the disciples - pay attention to what is important! Don’t be distracted by what others are doing or not doing, focus on what you are doing, how you are living, how you are being my disciples - because the stakes are high. What you do and how you act affects the ability of others to be in relationship with me. Faith is hard. Don’t be a stumbling block, don’t make faith harder than it already is, and don’t, by your words or actions, by your focus on the little things, by your insistence on doing it your way, prevent those who are suffering and vulnerable from experiencing my love and presence.
Attend to your own behavior and conduct. Be faithful in what you have been entrusted with to build up the kingdom - and don’t worry about what others are doing...because ultimately this is God’s work, and not yours.
Or, in the words of Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, Do Your Job.
That goes for us as individuals….it also goes for our witness as a community of faith. Do your job, trust God with the rest. Be faithful in your work because your witness matters.
I want to share with you something I read from Debi Thomas at Journey with Jesus this week. She writes,
“What we do really matters. If Jesus is telling us the truth in this passage, then it is entirely possible for Jesus’s beloved “little ones” to stumble because of our carelessness, our apathy, our unkindness, our dogmatism, our prejudices, our unforgiveness, our laziness, and our fear. It is even possible for them to stumble as a result of our well-intentioned efforts to protect God, protect the Church, and protect the “purity” of our religion.”...She continues by saying,
“Jesus, does, however, want us to think carefully about what it costs to become path clearers. Stumbling block removers. People of God who actually help each other succeed. Because let’s be honest: sometimes, the process of removing a stumbling block from the path of faith can feel like surgery without anesthesia. Saying goodbye to a harmful relationship, surrendering a cherished point of view, breaking an addiction, forgiving a family member, making a significant lifestyle change, welcoming the oddball Other — all of these things can feel like deaths. Like drownings. Like losing our arms and legs. Jesus knows what he’s talking about; it hurts to change. It hurts to cut off the precious, familiar things we cling to for dear life — even as those things slowly kill us. The bottle. The affair. The obsession with money. The decades-old shame. The resentment, the victimhood, the self-hatred, the rigidity.”
The consequences of not doing this, as Jesus points out, is not being able to stand the sanctifying fire - I imagine that would feel pretty hellish...and when enough of us fail to do our jobs - if we’re so worried about who is doing or not doing what and not attending to our own inner life with Jesus - the body of Christ is in danger of becoming, in the words of Jesus, salt that has lost its flavor. A light hidden so it can’t shine. A house built on sand. In short, becoming nice people who occasionally do nice things for others in ways that can be safely expected, never to move the needle very much, either for them or for the world.
In other words, Jesus says - who you are, how you conduct yourself, what you do -- really, really matters, both as individuals and as a people who call themselves the church. And when we get caught up in trivialities, when we get distracted by the minutiae, when we stake our lives on molehills rather than on mountains, when we worry more about who will get the credit or policing the behavior of others, when we try to slide gently through the world without creating ripples -- when we lose our focus on being disciples of Jesus, hungry people go unfed. Hurt people find no one to bind up their wounds. Lonely people are left at the door. Homeless people find no shelter. And we find the world no different than we left it...and when that happens, as Jesus says, it would be better for us to have a millstone hung around our necks and be cast into the sea.
Yet paired with that challenge is a promise - that if we do our job, do that one thing that God calls us to do; God will take care of the rest.
Jesus points out: The world does not need more nice people. The world needs people who season the world to show where God is present and at work...people who witness to a healing community of hope where we are bound together by God’s love...people who embody Jesus’s love for the hurting and suffering and those no one else cared for, and those living in fear...people committed to serve in the way Jesus served...people who follow that Spirit in the air that shows Christ living and working in the world right now, whose whole lives are grounded in the deeper reality of God’s kingdom that transcends empires and the powers and principalities of this world.
That is the job. Kingdom work and aligning ourselves with that greater purpose rather than be distracted by other things.
And so God challenges us this week to do your part, to attend to your own witness, and to let God be God. To be faithful with your calling and let the God of the universe who loved you even before there was time take care of the rest. To be salt for this community - Chebeague Island - to be about the important things in our lives and in our work together as a church. To trust that God’s at work among us and out in the world in ways that we can’t see or understand.Let us do our part and let God take care of the rest. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 9:30-37
Mark 9:30-37 (The Message)
30-32 Leaving there, they went through Galilee. He didn’t want anyone to know their whereabouts, for he wanted to teach his disciples. He told them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.” They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?”
34 The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.
35 He sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.”
36-37 He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.”
Hymn - Make Me a Servant (FWS 2176)
About two weeks ago, a picture went viral on Christian social media - made famous thanks to a Christian comedian by the name of John Crist. The post said this: I was handed this card at church today, a few laugh emojis, #MajorShade #CheckUrHeart - and it was a picture of a card with the church logo blacked out...and the card said this:
“Thank you for being committed to being in church with your child. In order to allow those seated near you to engage in the message, please enjoy the remainder of the service in our lobby….A Connection Team Member Will Assist You.”
Naturally, a statement like this sparked all kinds of outrage of what kind of church would allow this and subsequent defenses of people and parents who find such practices helpful during worship and some even thought that this card must be satire. Lots of people weighed in on the children in worship debate.
And here in the passage we heard this morning we have Jesus, taking a child in his arms, embracing them, saying “whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me - God who sent me.” It seems kind of cut and dry to me.
But contrary to how it might first appear, Jesus isn’t making any kind of argument about whether or not kids should be in worship or about the inherent value or worthiness of children to a church community in this passage. Jesus is making a statement aimed directly at the heart of a debate the disciples were having as they traveled along the road to Capernaum….an argument that when Jesus casually asked them what they were talking about, the silence spoke louder than words. What had they been arguing about? [response] They had been arguing about who was the greatest.
I find it interesting that the disciples don’t want to tell Jesus about this conversation - this is the second time in this short passage that they don’t want to talk to Jesus about something -- the first being when Jesus told them about his death and resurrection...they were afraid to talk to Jesus about this news he had shared with them. And now, here we have the disciples, again not wanting to talk to Jesus about this conversation - this argument - they were having about who is the greatest.
We don’t have warm and fuzzy Jesus here - we have harsh reality Jesus, who lovingly but pointedly gives the disciples a lesson about what the greatest looks like in the kingdom of God….because it doesn’t look like what we think it looks like.
We don’t realize how much our culture shapes our understanding of what it means to be great. As I was talking about with the kids, we regularly have conversations around who’s the greatest ball player, the greatest actor or actress, or any number of things. Our standards of what makes a person great is measured in dollar signs, professional success, academic degrees or natural talent. All of it routes through our ability to get one leg up on the others around us...to find the best ways to meet our own needs and wants - usually at the expense of others. Even in our own lives, we play this comparison game, ranking ourselves against others in all sorts of arenas - parenting, career success, volunteerism, smarts - even who’s a better Christian. In the end, regardless how altruistic our goals, it is second nature to us to define ourselves, to rank ourselves over (and even against) all those who are around us, and to base others’ needs, wants, and even worthiness along that same spectrum. Who is greater than whom? It’s a very self-interested question.
We’d be in the same boat with the disciples around this conversation; I can imagine their argument about “who is the greatest” went much in the same way - who was the smartest, who had cast out the most demons or taught the best when Jesus had sent them off two by two - who had brought the most followers to Jesus, perhaps.
Jesus, on the other hand, flips the whole conversation around and redefines this cultural definition of what it means to be great. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” Want to be great? Then take the place of those who are used to having their wants and needs ignored. Want to build yourself up? Take the time to serve the needs of those around you, and build them up first.
Jesus then takes a child in his arms. Children in those days weren’t valued in the same way children are today. In Jesus’s culture, children had no rights, were considered property and inferior members of society - much like women and slaves, and weren’t regarded as worthy of time and attention by those outside their family, especially not by religious teachers. Jesus uses the image of welcoming a child - treating them as one whose needs mattered, being open to hearing them and entering into their world, serving them and loving them - to talk about what it meant to truly welcome him...and welcome God.
It’s in serving others as opposed to serving yourselves...especially serving those that are accustomed to being ignored or dismissed, those who are hurting or pushed to the side, those who have been told that they don’t matter...it’s in serving those outside ourselves...that’s where true greatness lies in God’s kingdom….that is where Jesus is...that is where God is.
Christ was never about serving himself - later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” As his disciples, we take up that same mantle. Discipleship is a downward path of service and humility, one that places us on the level with those who are forgotten and hurting...the marginalized and suffering….those who the world considered less-than or worthless...like the children and women and slaves and lepers and tax collectors and sinners of Jesus’s day. (Incidentally, those were most of the people Jesus hung out with). Discipleship is learning to put our own wants and preferences aside for God’s desires and learning how to live with Jesus as Lord of our lives and follow his way of being in the world….not with our own notions of greatness.
Here at the church, one of our values is inclusivity. We say that “We affirm the sacred worth of every human being, and so we welcome you. No matter who you are or where you are on your journey, you are loved and a child of God.” To be sure, when we talk about that value, we’re certainly including those of us who gather here on a Sunday morning for worship and Sunday School. That each of us here is loved and a child of God, that we’re all at different places in our relationship with Christ, that we all have worth and are welcome here. But when we talk about welcome….we’re not primarily talking about those of us here in this room. We’re talking about how we as a church are welcoming to others...being open to the needs and wants of those outside our doors...being able to serve the needs of our community first and foremost before our own, and fully embracing that value extends to everything we do as a congregation - from our times of worship to our times of business, from how we use our buildings to how we spend our money.
In the example of our unnamed church I spoke of earlier, I think it’s pretty easy to figure out whose interests they were serving in that particular aspect of their life together. But it’s not always so clearcut, especially when we’re talking about the congregation that we call home.
We talk a lot about wanting to be a great church - we’ve had these conversations about our values, we’ve adopted a mission and a vision statement that describe what we dream of being and how we want to get there, we’ve spent time and energy talking about financial sustainability, both in the present and for the future, and certainly we want to see our pews filled each and every Sunday morning. And it’s good to take the time for self-reflection to understand who we are and how God is calling us into the future together - but would that be how Jesus defines a great church? In our conversations about our life together - how we talk about worship or our building or our financial life, are we primarily serving ourselves, building ourselves up, focusing on our own wants and preferences, seeking to be great - or are we pouring out into others, seeking the good of God’s kingdom, looking out for those hurting in our community and our world, and taking a back seat to the needs of those around us?
Discerning our unconscious biases can be hard and challenging work. It can be painful to examine the practices that have held meaning for us and consider where they fit in the larger context of following Jesus as a church together. It can be uncomfortable to move to the back of the line when we’re used to being in first place. But Jesus gives us a way to reframe the conversation when we’re thinking about our life together as a church: when we find ourselves preoccupied with our own preferences and needs, with what would best serve us (both as individuals and as a community)...consider instead what would best serve others. What we do together is ultimately not about us, but about Jesus and welcoming those whom Jesus welcomed. It’s not about what we like or don’t like, whether we were served or fed for our own sake, but about the lost and the hurting...about those who don’t know God’s love and encountering Jesus when we as a community seek to welcome him.
Where might Jesus be calling us to serve with open hands? What would it mean for us to be a truly great church - a church that seeks first God’s kingdom, a church that looks first to the hurting and broken in our world? What would it look like to be a church where in our conversations, in our decision-making, in our finances, in our worship, in the use of our space - the primary purpose centered around being a blessing to those outside our doors?
If you want to be first, get to the back of the line. Be the servant of all. This week - let us be in prayer for ourselves and for our church, that we might together find ways to build up God’s kingdom - to seek God’s purposes for us and for this island - and to live into that together. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.