Saturday, September 19, 2009

Transforming Hearts and Lives

Mark 9:30-37

Last week, in the reading from Mark, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. Peter speaks what they have all been thinking: “You are the Messiah.” I imagine he says this with a mental fist-pump. Jesus praises him for saying this, because this recognition of his identity came from God. But then Jesus immediately dampens their excitement by telling Peter and the disciples that he will soon be tortured and put to death, and then raised again on the third day. What’s more, he turns to the crowd and tells everyone that to follow him means living sacrificially. We skip over the next two stories, but I’ll summarize them.

From Caesarea Philippi Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain and is transfigured before them – revealing he is definitely more than human. In the meantime, the other disciples had been out and about doing healings and other ministry. But they were unable to cast out the demon from a boy. Jesus is frustrated, and does it himself. Apparently, the disciples did not pray about the healing.

In today’s reading, Jesus and the disciples travel through Galilee. Once again, Jesus tells the disciples he will be betrayed, killed, and raised. This time, they are afraid to ask him what he means, and they just stay silent.

They arrive in Capernaum, Peter’s home town, where Jesus also apparently lived. As they traveled, the disciples talked with each other, and Jesus wants to hear what they were discussing. They again keep silent, because they are ashamed to say they were discussing who of them was the most important. Perhaps they were imagining someone having to take over after Jesus died. Their focus was still on being the best, the highest, on being served instead on serving.

Jesus knows what they were talking about, and wants to make a point. He gathers up a child and puts the child in the middle of them. You may remember that children had little value in that society. While they were loved, and well-cared-for, until they were adults they were unimportant. The honor and shame society of the time placed great importance on being able to influence others through gifts, through attention, through the power of one’s rank. The more power one had, the more money one had, the more influence one had, the more honor one had. Children were unable to exercise this influence in any way, so they were essentially non-persons.

Jesus puts this child, this non-person in the middle of the disciples and tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all. Whoever wants to be served by all must be the servant of all. Those who welcome this child, this non-person, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes God who sent me.”

Jesus is doing everything he can to transform the hearts and minds of the disciples, the crowds, and even the leaders who are trying to get rid of him. But it’s slow work. Hearts and minds are slow to change. The disciples’ traditional Jewish patterns of thought and practice are well established and believed to lead to salvation. They know who is at the top of the power structure – the king and the priests and scribes. When they begin to think about Jesus as the Messiah, they can easily see themselves at the top of the power structure with him.

But that’s not what Jesus has in mind at all. To do life Jesus’ way means serving from the bottom, not the top. I’ve had the opportunity to serve from near the bottom, well at least not from the top. In Plainwell, Michigan, many churches supported the food pantry. Each month, there was a soup supper at one of the churches to raise funds for the ministry. When it was our turn, the guys dressed in white shirts and black ties to serve the soup and to clear tables.

I enjoyed wearing my black clerical shirt and also clearing tables. Out in the dining room, I got to talk to people and welcome them to Hope, as well as take away their used dishes. One day, someone asked me if I was the pastor, and I said, yes, I was. “Just wait until I talk to my pastor!” was her response. Apparently, her pastor didn’t wait tables.

Jesus worked hard to transform the disciples’ hearts and minds. It wasn’t easy work, and at times it was frustrating for him. Mark’s gospel in particular portrays the disciples as very hard-headed, very slow to get the picture. On the other hand, the foreigners readily see what Jesus is up to and have faith in him, and their lives are transformed.

As we have read the stories of healings and teachings of Jesus this summer, I have tried to issue weekly challenges to encourage you to consider how well you follow where Jesus leads you. Like the disciples, we are sometimes transformed in an instant, with an “Aha!” moment. But most of the time, we are, like the disciples, slow to be changed, resistant to transformation of heart and mind.

Transformation, however, is what Jesus is all about. He lived, died, and was raised in order to transform us all, from sinner to saint, from stranger to beloved. Transformed hearts love easily, judge rarely, forgive readily, seek justice for all, and are willing to accept those folks whom society labels as unacceptable. Transformed hearts are willing to learn new ways of living and loving.

Allowing God to transform our hearts is a life-long process. It doesn’t just happen at confirmation, and then we’re good. It happens when we get married, when we have children, when we lose a loved one, when we retire, when we attend a retreat, when we are cured of cancer, when we move to a new part of the country. It happens as we hear a sermon, as we listen to a friend’s pain, as we study the Bible, as we watch and help our children learn about Jesus. It happens as we pray, confessing our sins to God, and allowing God to forgive us and show us a better way.

This week, I challenge you to pay attention to how you think about other people. Jesus tells us that when we welcome someone the way he does, we welcome him, and God who sent him. It’s easy to see Jesus in those we love, and in those we like. But do we see Jesus in those we don’t care for? Do we see Jesus in those we think are sinners? Do we see Jesus in those the world judges as unlovable?

Please pray with me: Jesus, you transformed the hearts and minds of the disciples and many others. Help us also to allow you to transform our minds and hearts, too. Amen

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The cross and the blessings

James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Mark begins his telling of the Gospel with this statement: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” For eight chapters, we have read the developing story of how Jesus came to be known to the disciples and the world as the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one sent by God, God’s own Son.

With miracles of healing and feeding, with challenges to the powers-that-be, with parables and stories and explanations, Jesus has demonstrated to anyone paying attention that he is more than human. In our gospel reading today, halfway through the book, Jesus pauses and checks in with the disciples.

Who do the people say that I am? He asks. And the disciples respond, naming some long-past prophets, the recently-deceased John the Baptist, and including him among the prophets in general.

Then Jesus says to the disciples, “You know me better than the crowds and the critics. Who do YOU say that I am?” The other disciples hem and haw, probably, but good old Peter blurts out – “You are the Messiah!” Since Jesus doesn’t want his identity known yet, he then instructs the disciples to say nothing. But inside, I imagine Peter giving an enthusiastic fist-pump – YES!

Jesus then makes the first prediction of his upcoming death. Peter is still imagining the coronation of Jesus as the new king, and Jesus is saying, “I will be tortured and killed, and in three days raised from the dead.”

We don’t know how the other disciples are responding, but we can count on Peter to speak for all of them. He takes Jesus aside – at least he does this privately. Students should never rebuke the teacher in public. Peter’s excitement bubble has just burst and now he’s waving his arms, crossed back and forth in front of him, saying, “No, no, no. That’s not going to happen. Don’t talk like that.”

Peter and many others had visions of Jesus as the new King David. Peter had it all worked out in his mind how it was going to be. But it wasn’t like that at all.

Things like this happen in our every day lives as well. Mike and I recently saw the movie Julie and Julia. Julie is a young woman who decides to cook one or two recipes from Julia Child’s cookbook every day for a year. As she cooked, she also blogged about it – a blog is a journal, written on the internet so other people can read it. In the blog and in her daily conversations with her husband and her friends, Julie talks about Julia. But it’s an unreal, perfect Julia that she has in her mind, not the real Julia who has faults and imperfections. It was a real shock for Julie when she encountered the real Julia, and discovered she was not quite as she had imagined.

… It amazes me that – at least in the written stories of Jesus – none of the disciples followed up on the last part of Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection. No one seems to have asked him what it meant, that he would be raised from the dead. They always focus on the first part, that Jesus will suffer and die. They are thinking about how their own hopes and dreams will be crushed; they won’t get what they think they need the most. But Jesus knows what they – and we – really need, and was obedient to God’s plan.

After explaining to the disciples about the future, Jesus speaks to the crowd. “You came here to be amazed at the miracles, to see me challenge the leaders, and to hear funny stories. So you follow me around to see what I will do next. If you really want to follow me, it will be hard. You must deny yourselves, and live sacrificially. You must put following me ahead of everything else in your life. If you give your whole life, your whole self, to me, you will be richly blessed. If you deny me, if you hesitate to give me your whole self, you will miss out on those blessings.

So, how do we, in this time and this place, give our whole lives to Jesus? It may help to think of giving our whole selves to Jesus. We can give everything we are and have to Jesus, giving thanks for every breath, every movement, every morsel of food, every penny we earn and receive, every family member and friend, everything we get to do, everywhere we get to go.

For most of us, giving our selves to Jesus means we must reshape our prejudices, our expectations, and our natural impulse to put ourselves first. We may need an attitude adjustment.

A pastor friend put it this way about our finances. We receive the offering, not take the collection. If we take the collection, it can seem like someone reaching into our pockets or purses and taking what they want. The opposite is an image of us digging into our own pockets and freely giving whatever we wish to give. The more we give, the better it feels, so we should give until we feel really good about what we have given. That’s how we give to Jesus, freely and lovingly, because it feels good.

I spoke recently with one of our homebound members. She has suffered with arthritis and other disabling conditions for many years. She could focus on her disability, but she doesn’t. She is always cheerful when I visit, and her mind is lively – making it a delight to visit her, because we have such interesting conversations. She accepts people for who they are, without judgment. She talks about her gratitude that God has left her with one good hand and arm, so she can still brush her hair, and one good leg, so she can still move around her house and get to the doctor, and one good eye, so she can drive, watch TV, read the newspaper, and see the squirrels and birds at her window. She has given her self to Jesus, both in her faith life, and in her relationships with other people.

The lesson we learn from James this week is practical – we give our selves to Jesus with what we say to others. If we always speak to each other as if we are speaking to Jesus, our family relationships, our congregation, our communities, and world politics would all be very different.

I remember a couple of years ago, when the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts were in the Super Bowl. I heard stories about both coaches. Often our image of a coach is the flaming, swearing, chair-throwing anger of Bobby Knight, but Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy are soft-spoken, kind, and encouraging. Good friends, in spite of being on rival teams, and proof that coaches don’t have to be mean to lead their teams to victory. I trust the coaches we have at Hope are like Smith and Dungy.

When we speak kindly and encouragingly to each other, we give ourselves to each other, and at the same time to Jesus, since Jesus’ Holy Spirit abides within each of us. We are not perfect, so sometimes, our expectations and prejudices get in the way, as did Peter’s and Julie’s. So we can offer ourselves forgiveness, and forgive those who have hurt us, and ask for forgiveness when our words or actions have been hurtful – when they have not been what we would wish to give to Jesus.

There are many more ways I could suggest, but I’ll offer that as your challenge for the week. I’ve suggested we give ourselves with our gratitude to Jesus, with our finances, in how we speak to one another, and in the blessing of forgiveness. How do you give yourself to Jesus, and how are you blessed because of that giving? What expectations do you need to let go of, as Peter did, in order to more fully give yourself to Jesus? Where does forgiveness come in? So, this week, your challenge is to see how many ways you give yourself to Jesus, and how often you hold back from giving your whole self away.

Please pray with me. Jesus, you gave your whole self to us, even though we still don’t always understand what that means any better than Peter did. And, we find it so hard to put you first, to give our whole selves to you. Help us to give away a little more this week, so we can see what a blessing it is to give to you and to trust you with our lives. Amen