Christ before Pilate, 1910 - Jacek Malczewski -
Christ Before Pilate, Jacek Malczewski, 1910

Christ the King Sunday (Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

Daniel 7:9-14

Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4-8

John 18:33-37

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more… 

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

It’s easy, given the chaos of the past few years, to wonder from time to time just who the hell is in charge around here. In a world where “truth” about everything from pandemics to politics is cobbled together like a mobile meth lab and sold cheap to the bored, angry, and gullible, it’s no longer a surprise when suburban parents scream threats of violence at school board members over whether their kids should have to wear a mask or be vaccinated, or when a white male member of Congress posts a cartoon image of himself killing one of his colleagues from across the aisle – a woman of color, no less – and then tells us we just need to relax. We live at the unlikely convergence of ostensibly opposite extremes, where those who aspire to amoral autocracy meet – and embrace – an increasingly gullible throng of ersatz would-be anarchists who reject all authority except the authority that makes possible their rejection of all other authority. 

We should be thankful, then, that on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, when we celebrate the now-and-coming reign of Christ the King, we’ve been given a collection of readings that help us separate the wheat of God’s peaceable reign from the chaff of every pretender to the throne. Each reading gives an account of the reign of God standing in judgment and demanding a reckoning of those kingdoms, powers, rulers, and authorities who would attempt to usurp or oppose God’s reign of shalōm.

Although the first reading, from Daniel, offers the most vivid account of this reckoning, it and the other texts are animated by the gospel text, from John 18. The Temple authorities have arrested Jesus and brought him to the father-in law of the high priest, Annas, and then to the high priest Caiaphas, both of whom have interrogated him before handing him over to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The conversation begins with Pilate’s question, which sums up the Temple authorities’ charges: “Are you the King of the Jews?” To which Jesus eventually responds that his kingdom “is not from this world” (ouk estin ek tou kosmou). 

The word translated “world” here (kosmou/kosmos) refers not to this world in the geospatial sense – the earth – but to an organized way of thinking, speaking, and acting – a “system” characterized by self-interestedness and coercive violence (e.g., see Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus’s claim that his kingdom “is not from this world” says not so much that he reigns over another, transcendent dimension, but over this one, according to a logic born of God, one so different from the kingdoms of this world that those accustomed to those kingdoms don’t understand or even recognize Jesus’s reign as a kingdom. And yet Jesus insists that despite its strangeness to this world, his reign bears and declares the truth about creation and its Creator’s intentions for it. This, he is saying, is how things really are; we are made for love, generosity, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and not for the selfishness, suspicion, exploitation, and violence that characterize the kingdoms of this world.

That God demands a reckoning of the powers and authorities does not necessarily mean that we are called to be the agents of that reckoning, especially not by way of violence. The readings from Daniel and (less explicitly) Revelation remind us that this is God’s work, not ours. The Daniel text (7:9-14) concerns Daniel’s vision, which is described in the previous paragraph (vv. 1-8), where Daniel dreams of “four beasts… different from each other” emerging from the sea, which in Jewish apocalypticism represents the element of Creation that most stubbornly resists God’s reign. If we read further along in the chapter, we learn that the beasts represent four kingdoms which have risen and fallen in succession, each ruling, more or less oppressively, over the Jewish people.

Scholars of the text tell us that although the book of Daniel is set during the Babylonian exile, it was most likely written more than 300 years later, during the Maccabean rebellion against the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. By these scholars’ logic, the four kingdoms represented by the beats are the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek empires, respectively. The focus of Daniel’s vision is the fourth beast, which is terrifying and destructive and “different from all the rest.” Daniel attends particularly to this beast’s ten horns, which probably represent the Seleucid kings who serially succeeded Alexander the Great, and then to another, smaller horn, one with “human eyes and a mouth speaking arrogantly.” This horn likely represents Antiochus IV, the megalomaniacal Seleucid ruler whose aggressive application of the doctrine of Hellenization and repeated blasphemous attacks on Judaism and its Temple sparked the Maccabean revolt. 

What happens next, in the verses designated for lectionary reading (vv. 9-14), is for our purposes especially noteworthy.  As Daniel watches, he sees the thrones of the heavenly court being set in place, with a vividly described “Ancient One” taking his throne. Then he sees the assembled court sitting in judgment, its books opened. The continued arrogant yammering of the small horn evidently draws the attention of the court, which executes its judgment; the fourth beast is put to death, and its reign quickly replaced by a new presence in the court room, one Daniel describes as “like a human being” (often translated as “son of man”). The Ancient One gives him “dominion and glory and kingship/that all peoples, nations, and languages/ should serve him/His dominion is an everlasting dominion/that shall not pass away/and his kingship is one/that shall never be destroyed.” Our Jewish brothers and sisters have historically read this “one like a human being” as representing the Jewish community, while Christians identified him from the beginning as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.

I’ve left one interesting detail unattended. The great temptation facing Christians, who are members of God’s reign in a world ruled by violent domination, is (and always has been) to seek to secure the peaceable reign of God by means that have no place in that reign. We have often succumbed to that temptation, and just as often been transformed by our capitulation, such that the kingdom we imagine we are defending bears little resemblance to the one proclaimed and embodied by Jesus. One reason for this is that we have harnessed ourselves to this or that worldly kingdom, sometimes even confusing those kingdoms with the reign of God. In doing so we overlook something important that our reading from Daniel gestures toward. 

In the same part of the passage that describes the destruction of the fourth beast, Daniel also mentions the other three beasts. He says that “their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (v. 12). Those beasts have continued to rule on earth in various guises as the several iterations of the kingdoms of this world. Some have been horrific, others less so. Still others have been comically inept. A very few have been relatively just, and even, in a limited way, forces for good. It is these that Christians should regard most warily, even or perhaps especially when they adopt our most officious language and pieties. For when they do this, we are most apt to forget that they are still beasts, destined to rule “for a season and a time” and then to pass away. They may offer their friendship, but always for a price, usually one that requires us to look away from or even to take up their manners and methods. When we do this, whatever “victories” come our way will be Pyrrhic, and the God and kingdom to whom we bear witness will be pale simulacra of the reign of the Ancient One of whom Daniel speaks. 

We must remain patient, then, loving our neighbors, living peaceably with one another, and speaking truth to power, knowing that the vision of John the Revelator from the week’s third reading is, when all is said and done, true:

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
    every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
    and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

When this reckoning takes place is none of our business. Our business is to embody, however partially and imperfectly, God’s reign of shalōm.  How we do this is something we have to figure out on the fly. Perhaps we might find inspiration from these words, from Wendell Berry poem excerpted as the epigraph above:

So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it… Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts… As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.

Life Between Lament and Praise

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Psalm 16 or 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25

Mark 13:1-8

“Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” The story of Hannah begins as she is living with the raw reality that the Lord has “closed her womb.” And year after year she continues to go up to the house of the Lord to pray, fast, and weep before her God. And every time she goes, “Her rival would provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.”Hannah is distressed, weeping, full of anxiety and vexation. This would be enough for most of us to be driven away from the Lord. Why continue to long for something that only seems to perpetuate despair? Why persevere in a context or ridicule and harassment? Why persist in petitioning a God who seems to be stingy with the blessing of new life?And yet, there is a boldness within Hannah, a holy presumption that she would approach the God of the universe and presume to be heard. I thank God for Hannah’s courage because she helps us navigate times in our lives when we walk between lament and praise. Hannah’s song of praise that we hear in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 was conceived in a life of lament. This barren space of life between lament and praise is powerfully portrayed in a sequence of scenes from one of my favorite movies, Tree of Life. It captures the haunting juxtaposition of the particularity of our painful prayers going up before an infinite God. The movie begins with a quote from Job 38:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?…When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for Joy

The film then continues with two parents receiving the news that one of their sons has died. You watch them as they navigate through various areas of their lives while carrying the weight of this reality — the weight and sadness of their loss is palpable.  The movie then shifts perspectives from this particular family, in this particular moment in their life. The screen goes completely dark, and the mother’s voice echoes in the darkness,
Lord, why?  Where were you? Did you know?  Who are we to you?  Answer me?

It is as if these whispered words drift into the vastness of the universe. The movie then shifts to portray a cinematic representation of the world being created, stars being born, solar systems coming into existence. However, as these scenes of the birth of the cosmos are being portrayed, a rendition of the Lacrimosa begins to be sung over and over.  “Lacrimosa” is the latin word for “weeping,” or “full of tears.” It is also an allusion to Mary the mother of Jesus as the “Our Lady of Sorrows.”This song grows louder and louder, as images of the cosmos being created play out before the viewer. I am so moved by these scenes because it captures how small and particular our sufferings are in comparison to the vastness of God and the universe. And yet, the prayer goes up, the Lacrimosa is sung. It is a lament of humanity being sung out into a seemingly cold and relentless reality. That is what our prayers look like: The weight of our deepest pain, anxiety, and vexation being uttered in an overwhelmingly immense cosmos.  This is the weight of Hannah’s prayer. And there are a number of ways in which Hannah can inspire and empower us. First, the same conditions that could drive us away from God, can also be very conditions that helps us to pray to God in new in powerful ways.

The people who have doxologies like Hannah’s are also the people who have the courage to persevere in prayer out of their own contexts of weeping, anxiety, and vexation. How can we use our angst, depression, and even rage as a catalyst for our prayer to God?  We should do so with boldness, because these are precisely the prayers that God seems to answers from the saints who have gone before us.  Second, instead of viewing a context of barrenness, isolation, or betrayal as a context of God’s absence, perhaps it precisely this context in which we see God is longing to enter, if we would just invite Him. This is one of the realities we celebrate when we come to the table of our Lord. While our prayers might seem to be met with a cold absence of God, we are reminded that Christ is with us, uttering our prayers before the Father — and the Father listens to his beloved. 

The last thing I want to highlight is that one of the things at work in bringing Hannah’s prayer of anguish to a doxology of praise is also a movement from harboring her own private reality to bringing it to a more public posture of prayer. While Hannah did not broadcast to the world her deepest anguish, she did allow Eli into her prayer of anguish.  As the Christian year draws to a close our lectionary texts do not allude to bringing things to an end, but rather a new beginning. The texts hold within them a sense of anticipation. But in both our Gospel text and in the story of Hannah, it is a hopeful anticipation that is laced with distress and vexation.  In our Gospel text, Jesus points to the temple and comments that some of the things that the disciples think are permanent will actually come to an end.  And things that they do not yet see will hold a much weightier reality. He talks about wars, rumors of wars, the clashing of nations, earthquakes, famines. And he says these things are “but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  Not even the birth pangs, just the beginning of birth pangs.  So here, at the close of the liturgical year, we anticipate a new beginning. If Advent is a season of anticipation, then we are anticipating a season of anticipation. What are we to do in between these times? Between the smallness of our particularities and the vastness of God, between the pain of a broken world and the joy of the coming kingdom, we, like Hannah, live a life between lament and praise. 

Daring to Trust in God’s Provision

Ruth and Naomi

Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost

Ruth 1:1-18 and Psalm 146

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Psalm 119:1-8

Hebrews 9:11-14

Mark 12:28-34

As a child of the 1970’s who is deeply in touch with my feminist rage, the book of Ruth has always been a challenge to me. And most of the time, like this week’s text limiting the story to Ruth begging to stay with Naomi, we prefer to focus on the beauty of Ruth’s love for Naomi and on her willingness to abandon her own culture, her own people and her own gods in favor of the God of Israel. But for me, too much of this story relies upon three women stuck in a patriarchal society who face possible starvation and absolutely certain hardship, not because they were lazy or incapable, but simply because they had the misfortune (or strength?) to outlive all the male breadwinners in their family.  

As we walk with Naomi through the brief details of her life provided in this week’s text, we can choose to see the sources of her economic and social vulnerability if we trace the story carefully. First with her husband and sons, Naomi endures the horror of a famine in Judah, causing the family to flee from Bethlehem into Moab. Next, with little description of the details, we see hints of the cultural challenges introduced by their sons choosing Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth, quite possibly because there were no suitable women for them to marry. At this point, life seems difficult and far from ideal, certainly not what they dreamed for themselves, but manageable. 

It is the death of first her husband and ultimately both of her sons in Moab that exposes her vulnerability when Naomi is left alone with her two daughters in law with seemingly no recourse but to return to her own people in Judah. She is a stranger in a strange land in which she has no legal standing, no extended family, and no social structures to support her. The only thing she knows to do is to go home to Judah where she hears the Lord has had compassion on His people and has resumed providing food. In Judah, she can hope that her people will remember her and welcome her home. 

But even if the folks back home do not remember her, Naomi clings to the hope that through His people, the Lord will provide for her as promised (Psalm 146:7, 9) for it is the Lord “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry…The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.” Naomi dares to trust in these promises. And although Naomi’s God is not a god that Ruth grew up with, she dares to trust in Naomi’s faith that provision will be made to them through God’s people. So, against many odds, they weep, they embrace, and Ruth makes promises she does not truly understand. And then they begin the painful, dangerous journey home with no male relatives to protect them or provide for them.

It is perhaps difficult for us to fully empathize with Naomi’s situation from our comparatively comfortable contemporary position. Regardless of the critiques we might justly level at our own governments, our own communities, and our own extended families, today’s orphans and widows (and single parent households) at least have something to catch them when extended family and community resources fail them, as imperfect as those social systems are. I have heard a few scathing critiques of Naomi’s bitterness, most often from people who have never known the terror of Naomi’s situation or the powerless position she was in as a woman. Rather than judging Naomi harshly, we ought to commend her ingenuity, her deep faith in God’s provision and her willingness to release all she had left by encouraging her daughters in law to return to their own families instead of obliging them to stay with her which was her right. I doubt that any of us are capable of much more than this under these excruciating conditions and heartbreak. 

If you have read the rest of the story in the book of Ruth, you know that ultimately it is Naomi’s clever and daring scheme to marry Ruth off to Boaz that really saves the day. While Naomi is described as bitter and despondent (perhaps even clinically depressed in her grief and trauma), Boaz is framed as the good guy who does right by poor Ruth, who we already know to be a remarkable young woman and to boot, Ruth seems to have been an attractive choice for Boaz if we read between the lines. So, Ruth and Boaz get to live happily ever after in newly wedded bliss. All’s well that ends well, right?

Well, maybe. What the story does not reveal is how Naomi and Ruth were received when they arrived home exhausted, starving, and alone. There is no evidence that anyone threw open their door, butchered the fattened calf, and had a party for them. There is no mention of them being given shelter or protection of any kind. And friends, this is a problem. 

But here again, Naomi shows her deep understandings of the Hebraic societal laws when she sends Ruth to glean in her husband’s relative’s field, for gleaning was a protected practice instituted by the Lord for widows just like Naomi. And Ruth is quick to see how she can be discovered by Boaz as she gleans in his fields. And our hero, Boaz, makes everything easier by getting drunk after a harvest celebration and waking up to find this pretty young widow in his bed. 

And while we mostly choose to see the charming parts of this love story, what we often miss is that Boaz and his neighbors failed to notice two starving widows in their midst and failed to offer food and shelter as the Lord commanded his people to offer widows and strangers among them. Quite simply, the story did not have to go this way, but it did because it was easier for people to turn a blind eye, to leave the edges of the fields to these women and hope that they would be content to ask for nothing more. 

But Naomi, even in deep grief and pain, chooses again and again to dare to hope in God’s provision for Ruth and for herself. And the Lord allows circumstances to work out as Naomi hoped. The Lord goes one step further and affirms the faith and daring of Naomi and Ruth by including them in the direct lineage of King David and ultimately, Jesus. And that is seriously beautiful. But for us today, I think the challenge is to learn from the failures in the communal systems and covenantal expectations for the ways that strangers and those without families to be welcomed into our communities and cared for generously. If Naomi and Ruth wandered into your neighborhood, what welcome might they find? We are called to heed the wisdom of Jesus, who declared when asked what that the greatest commandment is, answered,

The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12: 29-31).

And if we learn to dare to heed these words faithfully, perhaps we too will be “not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). 

A Severing of the Spirit

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; [he] is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

I always understood this to be a reference to scripture as the “word of God.” I am not sure that I do anymore. Recently, I have come to apply the Johannine use of the term “logos,” which is translated here as “word,” to hear this passage as a reference, not to the text of scripture, but rather to Christ, the Word of God. 

I suppose one could argue with the integrity of that decision, supposing that the Johannine use of “logos” does not necessarily make its way into the other books of the New Testament. But the rest of our reading from Hebrews also gives us reason to think it is referring to Jesus, seeing that the following verse (13) speaks of a person, using personal pronouns and the phrase “the one to whom we must render account.” Similarly, the following, well-known passage from Hebrews speaks directly of Jesus, our “Great High Priest.” The one who judges thoughts and intentions of the heart is also the one who is able to sympathize with them.  

For this reason, I believe the author of Hebrews is speaking of Jesus, and it makes even more sense as we see this two-edged sword do its work on the Rich Young Ruler in the Gospel reading from Mark 10:17-31. Here we see a pious man conflicted in his loyalty, perhaps unable to discern his own thoughts and intentions, and the call of Jesus will act with surgical precision in an attempt to divide a masked-but-unclean spirit from this beloved soul. 

Willie Jennings, commenting on Karl Barth’s exegesis of this passage, points to the posture and piety of this young man as he approaches Jesus, kneeling and honoring Jesus by calling him “good”. He is, as Jennings says, the “properly formed religious subject.” That is, he makes the right gestures and even admits to a life of righteous behavior after Jesus names the commandments of the “second table,” those directed at love of neighbor.

Here is where, however, the two-edged sword begins to split soul from the spirit that possesses the Rich Young Ruler: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” The devastation of the Rich Man at this instruction reveals both his wealth (for we have not known of it until this point in the reading) and of his absolute devotion the unclean spirit of wealth accumulation. Christ has called the man into covenant partnership, and, as Jennings says, “The rich man already has a covenant partner: mammon.” The man is not only ruled by this unholy covenant partner, but we are also led to ask whether his religious formation and right observation of the law were funded by this greater devotion to Mammon. Could his financial security be the bedrock of his religious mastery, with Mammon then being the great provider for the possibility of his religious devotion? 

Jennings gives us these questions to ponder, while also pointing to the invitation of Jesus as a direct challenge to the lordship of Mammon in the life of the Rich Man: 

The Rich Man’s theological mastery is resourced by his financial mastery, and he is being asked by Jesus to exercise that mastery in offering up both to God and neighbor…The man through his giving will have treasure in heaven and thereby begin the reorientation of his life through an alternative financial calculus. That alternative financial calculus is aimed concretely at the poor as the new point of coordination for wealth. It is in exactly how the poor and disadvantaged are helped that shows love of neighbor and constitutes the material conditions for the transformation of the rich man.

Jesus speaks to the Rich Man in love, asking him to follow him – to join him in covenant partnership and signify this partnership through the redistribution of his possessions to the poor – the very neighbors he has apparently neglected to serve in the course of his pious observation of the Law. For, his law observance was always subject to the call of Mammon and that unholy pursuit, grounded in the Lordship of wealth and service in that temple. Jesus is beckoning him toward a different pursuit, one that redirects wealth and possessions toward a shared life with Jesus and the poor who will inherit his Kingdom. Thus, there is Good News to be shared with the Rich, as Saint Oscar Romero has said, “that they, too, become poor in order to share the benefits of the Kingdom with the poor.”

But this severing of the spirit of Mammon from the soul of the Rich Man proves to be too difficult for him, and the Word of God has laid him naked and bare before the other disciples and, perhaps, to himself for the first time. This man only feels the love of Christ as judgment, and the invitation to covenant partnership, to discipleship, reveals just how tightly his identity is bound to the pursuit and maintenance of his wealth. Again, Jennings is spot on in his lecture: 

By calling the rich man to covenant partnership, Jesus has killed him. He has killed him by bringing him into [Jesus’] own life – his obedience to God his father and his life in the Spirit. God confronts the rich man with a death that leads to life. If no one can see God and live, then the rich man is now looking at God asking him to die.

This is nothing less than the call to discipleship, and we stand with the disciples asking Jesus the same question, “Then who can be saved?” Their question reveals their own temptation toward the pursuit of mammon, and it should resonate with us as we navigate a world where financial pragmatism and “stewardship” is measured by acquisition, accumulation, and growth. We are asked with the disciples, “Who are you trying to become? The Rich Man? Or the One who bears the cross in solidarity with the poor?”

The gate of the Kingdom is as narrow as a needle’s eye for those burdened with the heap of accumulated wealth. If the church is to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus and the Spirit of Grace, wealth must be shared and distributed as each has need so that no one is so burdened at the entrance of the Kingdom that they cannot easily pass through the narrow gate that leads to life abundant. 

1 Quoted from the NRSV, with the article changed from “it” to “he” in 4:12b. There is not article in the Greek text; it is an addition to the English translation.  

2 Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way, 34-35. Jersak’s experience recounted on those pages mapped onto my own, and I am grateful to him for exposing this as simply as he does in this book. 

3 The bulk of my reflections on this passage stem from a lecture I heard years ago and return to regularly. The lecture is titled, “A Rich Disciple? Karl Barth on the Rich Young Ruler,” and it was given at the annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary by Willie James Jennings. The audio/video of the lecture is no longer available online, but it seems to have been published under the same title in Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth

4 Oscar Romero, “The Political Dimension of Christian Love,” Commonweal, March 26, 1982.

Damage and Healing

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

My parish, over the past few weeks, has been engaged in a study of Wendell Berry. This past Sunday we read Berry’s essays, “Health is Membership” and “Damage.” This week we’ll be discussing the essay, “Healing,” and the short story, “Fidelity.” With those works on my mind I could not help but hear our scriptures for this Sunday with an echo of Berry’s voice. From our lesson from Genesis 2 to Psalm 8, the opening of Hebrews and Jesus’ engagement with the Pharisees, we find the themes of the membership, damage, healing, and fidelity.

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Taking Sides

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Psalm 124

Mark 9:38-50

One of the frustrations of our present moment is the constant attempt to draw lines in the sand, to make almost every hill one on which to die. One group or person will agree with another on most things (and likely all essential matters), but the remaining disagreements – no matter how minor – become a bridge too far. We see it both inside and outside the church. Every difference becomes a potential point of division. 

The results are all too familiar. Constant anger at someone else and their tribe. Frustration at the ongoing tension, which is often exacerbated by the trivial nature of the disagreement. Isolation as we slowly cut ourselves off from others. And exhaustion as the mental and emotional weight of such tension takes its toll.

Sometimes the history of the church can occasionally offer some solace. Perhaps we can find some context to our present perception of the world. Perhaps we realize that it is not as bad as it was in the past. Of course, it is also possible that we discover things have been like this for a long time, which can actually add more frustration.

Recently, I was struck by the similarities between oft-used contemporary rhetoric and that of Charles Spurgeon within the so-called Downgrade Controversy of the late nineteenth century. Among other things, Spurgeon was concerned about the embrace of new methods of biblical interpretation that he saw as threats to the Bible’s authority. He also railed against violations of expected moral guidelines such as ministers going to the theatre.

While there were some serious theological concerns that needed to be addressed, Spurgeon did not seek to address them through conversation. Instead, he offered divisive rhetoric, declaring that a “new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.” 

This view further contributed to division, as Spurgeon argued that “Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth?” It is quite easy to hear echoes of these sentiments in some contemporary tribes of Christians. Even if his opponents approached him with openness to conversation, Spurgeon expressed his skepticism of their sincerity: “Let every believer judge for himself; but, for our part, we have put on a few fresh bolts to our door, and we have given orders to keep the chain up.”

The result of this controversy was a split between Spurgeon’s church and its denomination, and his censure by that denomination. While there is quite a bit to lament in this story, in recent years (and quite recently), Spurgeon’s actions have actually been hailed as heroic and as an example to emulate.

The appointed Psalm reading for this week echoes this perspective as well. In it the psalmist gives thanks for God’s actions on behalf of Israel. The repeated phrase, “if it had not been the Lord who had been on our side” (Psalm 124:1-2), speaks with certainty that God was (and is) on their side. For the psalmist, this is about the futility of Israel to save itself from the grasp of its enemies or from the overwhelming flood. Gratitude becomes the result here. However, from another vantage point, we can easily project the psalmist’s certainty forward, concluding that since God is on our side, who can stand against us?

The gospel lesson enters the conversation at this point. As Jesus is traveling with his disciples, John states that he and several of his companions saw a person invoking Jesus’ name in order to perform a miracle to help someone. In response, they worked to stop that person “because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). This exchange is placed immediately after last week’s gospel lesson, where Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

We are not told what motivates John to speak up in this moment and tell Jesus this story. Perhaps he is concerned that this new miracle worker is usurping the disciples’ self-described importance. Maybe he thinks he is protecting Jesus from outsiders. Perhaps he simply picks up on “in my name” in Jesus’ previous instruction and proceeds to talk about another instance where his name was used. Of course, Mark’s gospel is filled with examples of the disciples simply failing to understand what Jesus is talking about. That is especially true in this particular section of Mark.

Jesus’ response is simple yet profoundly helpful: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He notes that anyone who can support Jesus to the extent of performing a miracle cannot truly betray him elsewhere. 

As we saw in last week’s lesson, Jesus uses a single word to open doors to the marginalized: whoever. There is an inclusivity here that holds off on painting lines of division. Whoever. This word seeks to find friends and allies in unexpected places. Whoever. Rather than taking sides against our neighbors, we are urged to take sides with God and find fellowship and common ground with whoever we find there.

Contemplating these passages in light of our present experiences (and even reflecting on older events such as the Downgrade Controversy), we see Jesus unsettling our certainty about God being on our side. More importantly, we see Jesus blurring any lines we may prefer to draw or divisions we might like to solidify. This undermines the entire project of excessively drawing lines in the first place.

This does not mean that there will not be serious doctrinal differences that might be problematic, but Jesus cautions against seeing every difference as a fault line and point of division. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This is crucial for taking Jesus’ closing admonition in this week’s lesson seriously: “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).

Image Credit: Chris Goldberg

Then He Took a Child

And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest (Luke 9:46).

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Mark 9:30-37

Jesus’ face was turned toward Jerusalem; he was on his way to meet death. Things were different now.  He didn’t want to mingle with crowds; he wanted to go deep with his friends, to teach them the most important lessons at all.  Time was short and the days were desperate.  Jesus knew if he didn’t get his message across to these twelve, his mission had failed. He was desperate to see some measure of understanding in the disciples’ eyes.  

“The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.”  Jesus scanned their faces—there was a traitor among them, and he knew it.  “They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” He announced it as fact, a warning, maybe even as an appeal.

Not a glimmer of insight showed on the faces of his friends. His words didn’t fit their plans or dreams; they grew quiet and began to fidget.  The Master’s sense of gloom, his talk of death, cast a shadow on them all.  They were like a patient who receives a dreaded word from the doctor: “We’ve found something in your x-rays…”  There are times when you don’t want to know more.  

“They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Fear kept the disciples from asking hard questions. Peter already made one attempt to manage Jesus, and earned the name “Satan” for his trouble. Maybe it was just easier to keep quiet. If they could have worked up the courage, what questions do you suppose the disciples might have asked? 

Why must you suffer? What kind of a Messiah dies? Will you leave us? What will happen to us?

Pause for a moment and ask yourself: What questions am I afraid to ask of Jesus?

Jesus’ frustration bubbled out after they found a place in Capernaum to spend the night. “What were you arguing about on the road?” he asked them, and a guilty silence filled the room. They  glanced at one other, hoping someone would come up with a decent answer. On the road they had been working out seating arrangements for the ticker tape parade that awaited them when they hit Jerusalem with the Messiah in tow.  They had squabbled over who got the office next to the boss, who was the alpha disciple?  You can almost hear Jesus pray: “O Lord, how can the keys of the Kingdom be entrusted to these guys?”

Do you demand proper respect? Do you enjoy the titles and trappings of your position?  Are you driven to succeed in your field, to rise to greater levels of authority or respect? Do you long for recognition, fame, wealth, security?  Does being stuck where you are stick in your craw?

If so, join the circle of the twelve.  It may be hard to find a place; everyone is elbowing in for the best seats.  The morning session has already begun.  

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”