“On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, He was splashing… enjoying the jungle’s great joys… When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.”
If you’ve ever read the classic story Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss, you know what’s going on. But for the uninitiated, let me summarize. Good ol’ Horton, while enjoying the cool of that pool, sees a speck of dust floating by from which he is certain emerged that small noise. Using his noggin, Horton surmises there must be a person on that speck needing help. So he adeptly plucks that speck out of the air, placing it gently among the soft petals of a flowering clover. For, he declares with some bravado and grace, “A person’s a person no matter how small.”
As we begin this new church year and the season of Advent, I have a confession to make: I’ve never preached on this gospel.
While you may not think this is a big deal—this reading from Luke’s gospel only comes up every three years, I’ve only been in ministry 14 years, so mathematically that’s not much of chance at all. But if my ministry lasts 30 years or so, that means I’m nearing the halfway mark and so the question begging to be asked is what am I avoiding. A commentator on this passage writes, “Preaching on the Second Coming, the coming of the Son of Man, has fallen into disrepute in many churches. It is one of those themes that has been given over to churches that advertise their emphasis on Bible prophecy.” Having grown up in just such a church, I recognize my own proverbial baggage when I see it. The church of my youth and the pastors there spent a great deal of time showing charts about what the Second Coming of Jesus would be like, what things needed to take place, what would happen to those who believe in Jesus and what would happen to those who don’t.
Mark describes Jesus as packing up for a journey, when a man walks up to him. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus questions his use of good, trying to push on what the man meant by it. “Only God can truly be considered good,” he tells the man before getting down to the answer of his question. Jesus picks out six of the ten commandments, the ones dealing with a person’s interactions with other human beings—don’t steal or murder or defraud. You can almost see the man begin to smile. “Well,” he says, delighted, “I’ve taken care to obey them even from my youth.” That’s when Jesus looks on this man who has come looking for the affirmation that he has figured it all out, that he has taken care of everything and is now riding high until the end of his life, and has compassion on him. Mark writes that Jesus loved him.
“You lack one thing,” Jesus says softly to the man who has everything, which is clearly an ironic turn that the man didn’t see coming. As theologian Karoline Lewis puts it, “We can likely assume that given his wealth, his many possessions, the rich man lacks nothing. What could he possibly be without? What wouldn’t he be able to purchase, to acquire, to make happen in his life given what he clearly has? After all, wealth provides you with everything you could possibly imagine, right?”
My homiletics professors in seminary exhorted us as future ministers that when we prepare to preach on Sunday morning we craft our sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. They said our people, the ones who have come to worship with us, will be impacted by the week’s news, by the cultural shifts or the natural disasters, or by the more local stories less widely broadcast but no less significant to the lives of a community. And, we were reminded, the news of the day will impact parishioners differently, so keep them all in view when you write.
My mentor said that after he had been at his parish for a few years he could imagine how people in his congregation might respond to his sermons and held them together as a jury box of sorts when he wrote because in most congregations—this one included—we have people present from a variety of personal backgrounds and experiences. We have people of many different stripes at St. Mark’s. We have parishioners from different theological perspectives and who vote across the political spectrum. We have those who grew up in working class homes and those whose families lived in wealthy neighborhoods. Each one shaped by their own experiences and who cannot be easily segmented into separate boxes although we are often polled in order to see how we can be easily categorized.
I’m doing something I’ve never done before in my ministry: I’m preaching the same sermon I preached three years ago. We don’t hear enough scripture about women in the lectionary, or enough about women’s issues. Additionally, I cannot ignore the national conversation we’ve been having on the #Metoo movement the past many months. So please forgive me if my words sound familiar to you.
It’s obvious that whoever wrote Proverbs 31 was a man. “A capable wife, who can find,” the writer asks, and then gives us a litany of what the perfect woman looks like which sounds an awful lot like an Old Testament Martha Stewart. She collects wool and flax and spins them. She gets up while it is still dark to get food for the household. She goes out and buys a field in order to plant a vineyard herself, and her garden produces a magnificent bounty. She’s strong, getting in her daily workout, and also is a businesswoman with a savvy knack for buying goods. She stays up later than the rest of her household keeping busy with her many tasks. She’s generous. She’s a planner, having winter coats prepared before it gets cold. She’s an expert seamstress, creating luxurious clothes for her family, and her husband is a mover and a shaker himself, known at the city gates. She’s got enough time to make extra fashions, selling them at the marketplace. She has an air of dignity yet erupts in joyous laughter too. She’s wise and kind and is never idle. Her children praise her as does her husband, telling her she’s the best among all the women.
I’m exhausted just recounting that list. You have to wonder who could do all that and be sane? Had to be written by a man. No woman in her right mind would ever pen those words.
Jesus was tired.
Mark tells us that Jesus set out and went away into a different region—the area of the Gentiles—to get away. He’d just had that long conversation with the religious leaders about his disciples not washing their hands. He’d been teaching and healing and feeding people all over the region of Galilee, and he set out to a place where he might escape notice. But that didn’t happen.
Because a woman was tired and desperate.
Her daughter had an unclean spirit that caused the girl to be a completely different person than she always had been. We don’t get the gory details, but in a similar healing for a dad and a son we learn that the spirit convulsed the boy, forcing him to fall into the fire, and that the spirit tormented the boy day and night. Imagine the pain that mother felt, the hopelessness of not having her daughter in her right mind, of doing harmful things to herself.
Whenever you hear the gospelers making a comment about the Pharisees and scribes, you should pay attention. You should do so not because they’re portrayed as the foil for Jesus, as the “bad guys,” but because of what they represent. Far too often we think of them as these mythic villains in Jesus’ stories and then conflate them with all Jewish people, ignoring the reality that Jesus and his followers were also Jewish too. It would be far better to describe them simply as religious leaders or even the religious elite. A few weeks ago our supply priest Christine Whittaker preached a good and important sermon on the Jews and the rise of anti-semitism through the use of scripture. We must not do this, and instead continue to reach out to repair damages done both in the past and the current day by us Christians to our Jewish neighbors.
But by calling the Pharisees and scribes the religious leaders, it’s easy to recognize them as people dressed like me. The ones up front. Or the ones who gain status at a house of worship because of their identity as a standout member of the community. The vestry, the ones who run things behind the scenes, the in-crowd at church. That’s what we should hear in place of “the Pharisees and some of the scribes” when Mark begins our lesson from today. He’s talking about the ones who kept things running smoothly, who had incorporated all the written and unwritten rules into their daily rituals, and expected others to do so too.
I need to begin today with a few words on current events. We heard from our Attorney General this week that there is a biblical injunction from St. Paul in Romans 13 to follow all the laws of the ruling government. Therefore, the recent policy to separate families at our southwestern border is endorsed by God. The Press Secretary when asked about it doubled down by saying, “Enforcing laws is biblical.”
So let’s take a look at what Paul wrote in context within his letter to the Romans. In the verses leading up to chapter 13 Paul exhorts the Roman Church to do this, “Let [your] love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” He continues in that train of thought about empathizing with others and doing good and then he gets to the verses referenced by our political leaders.
We’re back in that Upper Room. The candles on the table have burned down considerably. The smell of the bread, and the roasted meat still linger in the air. In the corner lie the basin and the bowl Jesus had used to wash their feet.
Judas has gone out from that place to begin the plan he has cobbled together in his mind hoping for God knows what, and, our Gospeler tells us, “It is night.” The sun has gone down, and in Jewish custom even now, the day has changed. It is now Good Friday.
If you thought our reading from Mark detailing the resurrection story fell a bit flat this morning, you’re in good company. No, we did not somehow cut it short to create more drama; this is exactly how Mark’s gospel ends as it was handed down by the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Period. It bothered biblical scribes so much along the way, that they tacked on not one but two different endings to try clean it up.
In the Greek it’s even more troubling ending with the literal phrase, “they were afraid for…” and that’s it. Imagine those first hearers of Mark’s gospel gathered in a house church, meeting under the cover of night in Ancient Rome anxious about their own lives and hoping that the authorities wouldn’t discover them. “Wait, is that it? What does Mark mean ‘They were afraid for…’ For what? Are you sure that’s how it ends? Is there really nothing more? Did the women say anything? Where’s Jesus? Isn’t he supposed to be resurrected? I thought this was ‘Good News,’ but it doesn’t make sense. Reread those last couple of verses again.” And so they did.