A comprehended god is no god.

A comprehended god is no god.

A wise saying by saintly John Chrysostom

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sermon for 14 October 2012 | Church of the Messiah, Santa Ana, CA

Readings: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15  Psalm 90:12-17  Hebrews 4:12-16  Mark 10:17-31
               The Gospel of Mark is in a hurry. A young man is in a hurry to find out how to inherit eternal life. This young person asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” When you are young you want everything right away. You want answers. Yet, for us, this passage calls on us to pause and answer some important questions.  

The meeting between Christ and the young person begins very promising. The fact that this person runs up to Christ shows humility; he wasn’t carried on a litter, he didn’t sent for Christ, he didn’t ask for a private conference at night, like Nicodemus. The young man ran. Running shows a longing to be in conversation with Christ. He came to Jesus and knelt down – showing respect for Jesus’ reputation as a great teacher. He wanted to learn from him. He was serious and sincere Pharisee who believed in eternal life. He was a devout observer of the Torah. Though he regularly attended religious services and knew when to sit, stand, kneel, and give the right responses, Jesus called him to something deeper.    

 Jesus, asks the young person to answer his question. Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” These verses have caused some considerable trouble. Over the centuries scholars have tried to answer Jesus’ question. One scholar claims that Jesus was using a rhetorical device in asking “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” The emphasis is on goodness. Jesus is not questioning his own goodness. He is agreeing that He is good, bringing attention to the fact that goodness comes from God. Jesus is God’s representative. Therefore, Jesus is good because he comes from God - He is light from light, true God from true God.

Another scholar claims that, since Jesus was fully human and fully divine, perhaps he was still wrestling with the idea of his divinity. Jesus slowly developed an understanding of who he was over time. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, explains that though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited and instead humbled – emptying himself by incarnation – taking the form of a servant.

There is a third way to look at this passage. Both of the first two scholars read the passage emphasizing the word “good”, “Why do you call me good?” What would happen if we emphasized the word “you”, “Why do you call me good?”

Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  The answers were all over the place until Peter, repeating what he heard other people say, was asked by Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” It didn’t matter what others thought about Jesus. Jesus asked Peter to make up his own mind. Now put both questions together: "Who do you say that I am?" and "Why do you call me good?" Jesus invites the young person into a deeper relationship.

Now let’s take a closer look at the young person’s question about eternal life. The young person did not ask, “How do I inherit eternal life?” but “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This should be making your inner Protestant jump up and down. We know that there is nothing we can do, in and of ourselves, to merit eternal life. We are saved by faith.

Jesus knew that the young person was just beginning to understand what it means to love God and love God’s people. The young person tells Jesus that he have tried to be nice to everyone. Jesus does not comment on the truthfulness of this claim, but instead points out a flaw in the young person’s reasoning. Being nice isn’t the point. Loving God and loving your neighbor involves right relationship. Right relationship with our neighbors, especially with the poor, requires a right relationship with money.

Jesus asks the young person to examine his relationship with money. Our relationship with money is telling. Giving money doesn’t save us or make us merit heaven, but living sacrificially helps us learn to value rightly. Our money claims that we trust in God. Each coin and bill clearly states “In God we trust”, but many of us are caught up in what money can buy - our wants and our desires for material comfort.  Jesus includes the command not to defraud our neighbor. We are commanded not to seek to own welfare in any way that lessens the welfare of another. Justice requires us not to advance or enrich ourselves by doing wrong or injury to any other. Valuing money above relationships is idolatry. Living into the kingdom of God is hard for people. 

Jesus tells us it is hard for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom. Jesus goes on to say that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone to enter the kingdom of God.” This is an incredible statement. Most of us have heard it before, but do we know what it means.

There is a medieval legend that the “eye of the needle” refers to a gate in Jerusalem where a camel could not pass unless it stooped and first had all its baggage first removed. After dark, when the main gates were shut, travelers and merchants had to use this smaller gate. The camel could only enter with its pack taken off and crawling on its knees!

This became a great metaphor for sermons on stewardship – pointing out the need of coming to God on our knees without all our baggage. Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this story.

There are other explanations to the problem of getting through the “eye of a needle” but I think that we are working too hard. What if we are not meant to reason away the apparent difficulty of getting a camel through the eye of a needle? Remember when Jesus spoke about trying to take a speck out of someone’s eye when you have a whole tree growing out of your own? Jesus is making an exaggerated statement to point out that it is impossible to “do” something to get into heaven.

Many people believed, and still believe, that wealth and prosperity was a sign of God's blessing - being poor means that you are lazy and somehow undeserving. Imagine how surprised they were at the idea that being rich did not mean that you were more righteous any more than being poor or sick or even unemployed means that you necessarily did something wrong.

Some Christians have used this story to point out that wealth itself is evil and therefore the wealthy are bad and the poor are good. This is a false dichotomy. The truth is that salvation is made impossible through our own efforts. There is nothing we can do to deserve it.  

The good news is that what seems impossible for us is possible with God. God only needs us to open up a crack for the Spirit to enter.  Even the tiny opening in the eye of a needle is big enough for God. God, who created heaven and earth, all living things, including camels, wants us to deepen our relationships.  

Jesus asked the young person to take ownership of their faith and trust in God. Mark wrote this Gospel in order to draw us into the most important conversation ever held.

Jesus is asking us “Why do you call me good?” and by doing so invites us into a deep conversation about our relationships. Jesus wants us to value people over possessions and examine our relationship with money. Bowing your knee to Jesus the great Teacher is only a good beginning. You are also invited to bow your pocket book to the needs around you. Bring your relationships, all your relationships, before the throne of grace and into the light of the Gospel. Entrust them to God; for with God all things are possible.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My Senior Sermon

Celebrating Wilfred Thomason Grenfell

All Saints Chapel | Church Divinity School of the Pacific

 Have you ever heard someone accused of being “so spiritual that they are no earthly good?” This accusation reflects a legitimate critique of religion and religious people. What does it mean to be “spiritual” according to Paul? The reading from 1 Corinthians begins “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” The Greek word translated as “spiritual gifts” is “pneumatika” which also means “spiritual ones.” A spiritual person, according to Paul, is both “gifted” and “gift.”  

Verse 6 suggests that the Spirit will activate “giftedness” in every Christian. Everyone is gifted in baptism for ministry. Not just Bishops, Priests and Deacons, but everyone receives something from the Spirit. Paul says “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” – everyone – “and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” We are prompted by the Spirit to respond with God’s love to the distressed and broken-hearted.

 Being “spiritual” then is a mature response to the Spirit of God - trusting the caller will equip the called. The prompting of the Spirit, the “calling”, often occurs when we pause, are willing to moved, willing to respond. Let me give you an example.  

The London School of Medicine was not in the best area of town. Wilfred Grenfell was in his second year of Med School. Returning from an out-patient visit one night, he turned a corner and found himself in an evangelistic tent meeting. When, in his words, “a tedious prayer-bore began with a long oration” he started to leave.

Suddenly the leader, whom he learned later was D.L. Moody, called out to the audience, "Let us sing a hymn while our brother finishes his prayer." Moody’s practicality interested Wilfred, he paused and he decided to stay. When he eventually left, he had determined either to make religion a real effort - to do as he thought Christ would do in his place - or abandon it. The Spirit gently prodded and he responded. He began looking for a way to serve others.

Wilfred volunteered to teach Sunday school, but he found the few boys that showed up uninterested in denominational teaching programs. He wanted to give up. He also found a friend with some musical ability and a portable organ and held services in underground basements used as lodging-houses. It brought him into touch with real poverty. They learned to preach as they learned to minister - by actually doing it.

I wonder if we have it wrong when we look for people, already groomed and perfect for ministry, when clearly God doesn’t call the gifted, but gifts the called. The text of 1 Corinthians makes it plain that gifts are allocated by the Spirit, and are not based on our worthiness or skill.

Someone once said, “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” Wilfred kept responding to the needs around him. He nearly went broke as he listened to bad luck stories and accepted I.O.U.’s. He quickly learned to wear used clothing and leave his watch and wallet at home.

 His growing experience helped him figure out a better way to reach his Sunday-School boys. In this poor section of the city there were no programs for the youth. They cleared the church dining-room every Saturday evening and gave boxing lessons. Wilfred enthusiastically shared his love of sports.  The boys began bringing friends whom his exegesis on scripture would never have lured into the church. The program grew. When the church closed down the program they started their own.

Wilfred graduated and began to practice medicine. One of his former teachers was part of an organization interested in the religious and social welfare of deep-sea fishermen. They chartered a small fishing boat, sent her out among the fishermen to hold religious services, simple, unconventional, and administer first aid. The battered boat owned by the Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen had the words "Heal the sick" carved on the starboard bow, "Preach the Word" on the port, and around the brass rim of the wheel ran the words, "Jesus said, Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Once he met the fishermen he knew what he had to do.  

 In the Gospel of Mark we read that when evening came, the disciples were in the boat trying to cross to the other side. They were straining at the oars against an adverse wind. There are many kinds of adverse winds: poverty, sickness, loneliness, and paralyzing fear.

When Jesus saw that the disciples were struggling, he came towards them, walking on the sea. Here is where the story gets interesting. Mark says Jesus intended to pass them by. Why would Jesus do this? Jesus, the lover of souls, who gave his life to bring life, was going to pass them by. I think Mark is trying to point something out. We see people in need all around us. The needs can be overwhelming. What can I do? What can you do? Mark suggests that though we might be tempted to pass them by we, like Jesus, should allow our hearts to be moved.

Jesus paused. He did not walk on by, but immediately spoke to them and said, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then, and this is the best part of all, he got into the boat with them. His mere presence made the raging wind cease.  

 Wilfred was sent by the Mission to Newfoundland and Labrador to see what could be done among the poor fishermen. He was shocked by the poverty. He could have passed them by, but moved by their need, he decided to devote the rest of his life to these people. He didn’t minister to them but with them. He lived with the people. He helped established hospitals, open nursing stations, schools, and orphanages.

He believed that if we look into our everyday life we cannot fail to see that God not only allows but seeks our cooperation in establishing God’s reign. Grenfell is a model for modern ministry.  He was entrepreneurial and practical. When funding for the mission dried up he started raising the funds himself. He went on speaking tours through both Canada and the United States, wrote books, and organized the International Grenfell Association. He showed innovation, flexibility, and perseverance. 

        Like Jesus, Wilfred Thomason Grenfell came to the aid of suffering humanity. He did not walk on by. Allowing the needs of others to move him to companionship and compassion, he participated in Theophany and carried the presence of our loving God.

We are all gifted. We are all called.  We too can respond to those near us. Let our heart and hands be moved. Amen.