Gospel: Mark 10:17-31
1st Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17 2nd Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16
Okay, Fabian, today is your day. It was so fun to hear you ask your mom a couple of weeks ago, “When do I get to be baptized?” and when you heard her answer, you said, “I wish it could be today!” All that eagerness and excitement—I love it. It is fun to hear how you were progressing at reading through the little book the church gave you about baptism with your mom. If we didn’t have to make sure the family and friends got here to celebrate with you, I would have run for that font with you and splashed you good with that water of life several weeks ago. It reminds me of a story in the book of Acts, in the Bible, where the man on the road asks Paul to baptize him saying, “Here is some water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” It is a beautiful thing to be eager to celebrate. No wonder you could barely wait, because you’re starting to understand that today is the day God says to you, “Fabian, you are in my family. You always have been and you always will be.”
Fabian, today you are celebrating that you are God’s child. Today in the Gospel reading, a man comes to Jesus and he wants to know what he has to do to become God’s child just like you are. Jesus says to follow him. The man can’t do it. But Jesus says, anything is possible with God. That man is already God’s child, just like all of us, baptized or not. Jesus is trying to show him how to have a better life and how to make life better for people around him. He has come to Jesus because something is missing in his life. Maybe someone close to him died and he doesn’t understand why. Maybe he got a good education and found a job, but he just didn’t find any joy in his life. Maybe he bought a big house and filled it up with all kinds of nice things. Something isn’t working right, so he comes to Jesus, hoping that he might have some answers.
Jesus says following the commandments might help. That is a good first assignment for any of us. That is a good place to start. The commandments are good because they are a set of rules to work toward. If we follow them, they make a better life for us and for those around us. This man knows the commandments already, and has done a pretty good job at following them. He’s checked that box already and it didn’t give him the good feeling that he hoped. It didn’t answer his deepest longing. Now, he wants more. He’s at the advanced level and wants Jesus to give him some prayer, some homework, some list of things to do so that he will find fulfillment or joy or so he won’t feel that emptiness in his life anymore.
Now, Fabian, I know you are pretty good at following the commandments already, but it will get more complicated as you get older. Some look pretty easy, like not stealing. But others are harder, like putting God at the center of your life, which is the first commandment: There is only one God and you shouldn’t have any other gods. It sounds easy because there aren’t any of us praying to Zeus or anything. But we do sometimes put other things before God, like money, and DES games, and impressing our friends. This goes with another commandment that is hard to follow which is about coveting. We’re not supposed to sit around wishing we had the cool stuff that other people have. So now you might want the DES game, and in Jesus’ time it was a cow, but later for you it will be the house, the car, the babe, the clothes that make you cool, the way of smooth talking. Jesus says we don’t need any of that stuff. In fact, all the cool stuff we have can get in the way of having a satisfying life. It can get in the way of us being happy. So if you’ve already kept most of the commandments and have been doing pretty well for your life, but feel something is still missing, Jesus would say to start getting rid of some of your stuff and give it to the poor and see if that helps.
Helping other people often does start to help. It doesn’t make Jesus love us more when we help others. Jesus already loves us as much as possible. It’s like the “Mama do you love me” book that Sterling has and maybe you had it, too, when you were a baby. The mama answers “More than the dog loves his tail, more than the whale loves his spout.” That’s a lot! The child asks, “Even if I put salmon in your parka?” Yes, Jesus loves you, Fabian, and loved this man in the Gospel story. Nothing you do or this guy could do would make him love you more or less. You are God’s precious child forever and for always. And like a good mother Jesus recommends some things to make life better for us and our brothers and sisters and sometimes we follow them and sometimes we don’t. Jesus’ love gives us a chance to try again when we don’t follow them and try to make a better life for us and for other people.
When the man in the Bible asks Jesus what else he can do besides follow the commandments, Jesus tells him to get more empty. Getting rid of the stuff in our life that gets in the way of our relationship with God is one of the ways to make a better life for yourself and other people. Sometimes you might look at someone who has a DS game that you want and wonder what they did right and what you did wrong that you don’t have something like that. But Jesus reminds us, when he walked the earth, he didn’t have anything at all—no house, no car, no horse, no pillow, no friends who would stick up for him, no girlfriend, nothing. Jesus reminds us that the stuff we have doesn’t make us who we are. Even if we have nothing, God loves us. Sometimes we gather stuff around us so that people will like us. We like to impress them with all the cool stuff we have. But God isn’t impressed by all that. God made all the beauty that we see around us. We can’t give him something that he doesn’t already have. He’s impossible to impress with things. What he wants is to see us taking good care of each other. He wants to see us playing well with others. He wants to see us stopping to help someone on the playground that all the other kids make fun of. He wants to see us putting aside all our things and putting him and his love first and showing that love to people we meet.
On your baptism day, Fabian, God is saying, “You are important to me, Fabian.” We get a lifetime to tell what is important to us. Sometimes it will be our things. Sometimes it will be impressing others. Sometimes we will hurt others around us trying to show off. Sometimes we will hurt ourselves showing off and showing that we are the most important person to ourselves. God says there is a better way that will make life better. God doesn’t put his own needs and concerns at the center. He doesn’t always want to be the center of attention. Instead he put the poor and needy at the center of his attention and he asks us to do that, too. In fact, he sent his son Jesus to be poor and needy, to know how we feel when we don’t have any stuff to make us look good, to give away everything, even his own life, to show us how much he loves us and how he puts us at the center. He knows that stuff we have won’t make life better even though we think it will. He knows that spending time with the people and showing God’s love to those who need it most will make this world better. By our lives, we can show what is important to us. If it is things, anybody can have that. But God is offering us something more, and that is love. He doesn’t promise that love is easy. When you love, you can get hurt, but God found it worth the risk to love us and says it is worth the risk to love each other. It is a good investment to put our time and our love into other people, because that’s what is going to make a better life.
A couple of images came to mind as I was reading the scriptures for today. When I read the bible passage from Hebrews, it talks about how we are all naked before God. He doesn’t judge us by our clothes. He sees what we’re like without our stuff. He knows what is in our hearts. I thought about what makes people feel most exposed and afraid, and it is often public speaking. That’s when they feel most naked, like people can see inside them. I thought of us all in a school play, playing our parts in life. God will love us even if we forget our lines, or don’t get our costume on straight. God is like a proud parent at our school play. We take a risk and go out on stage and try to make God proud. The thing God wouldn’t like to see, is if we were a bad sport and we started to try to get other people to mess up their lines or we tried to trip them. Even if everyone else was doing it, we shouldn’t do that. That is kind of like life. There are people out there trying to trip others up and make them mess up their lines, but that’s not how God’s people do things. We should try to help people that other people pick on.
When I read the Gospel story, I thought of a Christmas tree. Do you know what it is to “flock” a tree? It is when you put the white powder on the tree so it looks like your Christmas tree has snow on it. I thought of us as a tree. Sometimes we put so much stuff on it that you can’t see the tree under all those lights and ornaments and flocking. The tree is the beauty that God made. We have so much stuff, sometimes you can’t even see the beauty of what God made underneath all that. Jesus says let that beauty show. You don’t need any special ornaments or lights. All you need is to be the very special one that God made you and to remind others that God made them and loves them by treating them with love and the world will be better.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Gospel: Mark 10:2-16 1st Reading: Genesis 2:18-24 Psalm 8 2nd Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 Pointillism is a painting technique developed by the impressionists where an entire painting is made out of a bunch of little dots of color. When we stand close to the painting we can see all of these tiny individual dots. When we stand back from the painting, our eyes combine the colors together and we can make out shapes and images. I thought of pointillism as I was reading the scriptures for this morning. I thought of God as the painter, standing alone with a blank canvas. God was thinking, it is not good for God to be alone. God was lonely. So God took up the brush or spoke a word and started to apply color to the canvas. There are two creation stories in the Bible, but the one we have for this morning says God created humankind. Humans, made in the image of God, are not solitary creatures, either. There is one dot on the canvas, the human, and then God created every bird of the air and animal of the field. Other dots start appearing on the canvas. Each animal has a relationship with the human and the human names them, one by one, identifies and classifies them. Even though God creates so many different species of animals, one isn’t found that is a true companion. A cat may come close for some of us, yet a cat can’t understand our problems or share in deep conversations with us. A dog may come close, but a dog isn’t going to live as long as we do and share a lifetime of memories and give us the kind of companionship that a spouse can. All these dots are appearing on the canvas and the human is relating to all of them like the dots in a pointillist painting are relating to one another. Yet, none is found to be a true companion. There is still something missing. So God dips that paintbrush in the human dot, which hasn’t dried yet, taking a bit of that hue and texture and makes another similar dot on the canvas. The human says, “This is what I’ve been looking for. This is at last someone just like me, in fact is part of me.” And the relationship between those two points is one that God says cannot be undone. The relationship of the painter to the painting cannot be undone. The relationship of the dots to one another cannot be undone: humans to animals, the dirt to the plants, the sky to the water, the humans to one another. They are part of a bigger picture that God is creating. Between the dots there is harmony and discord, contrast and highlight, almost a vibration of movement between the colors and shapes. God sees both the individual dots—it says in the Bible that God knows the number of hairs on our heads—and the bigger picture, something that we may not be able to see because we are flat on the canvas in our own little world, playing our part, where we can’t see it all coming to life. That is where sin comes in. We are obsessed with our own little dot and we think we are on this canvas as an individual. Certainly, God loves us for the unique individual that we are and even calls us by name. But we get stuck there. We don’t see the relationships. We don’t honor the relationships with children, with our spouse, with creation. We don’t see the bigger picture. Let me tell you a little about the context of these writings. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how children were disregarded at the time Jesus walked the earth. A Roman letter has been found from this time in which a man tells his wife who is expecting a child that if it is a boy to keep him, but if it is a girl to throw her out. That’s how little children were regarded at the time. Women had no options if they were divorced. A man could recover and go on. A woman would be shunned by her family and society and have to become a prostitute or starve. A woman would have never asked for a divorce. It was a way for a man to discard something he didn’t have any need for anymore. This is about caring for the weaker. This is about caring for someone other than ourselves. Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit to you is that?” Everyone does that. That’s just another way of being selfish. Jesus is talking about a different way of living. He’s talking about what God’s Kingdom looks like—God’s painting where everything is interconnected and relating to everything else, not just a series of dots. We read these scriptures and feel ashamed because of divorce or broken relationships, but that’s not what it is about. It is about the more powerful taking seriously their relationship with the less powerful. It is about the strong caring for the weak. It is about the group rather than the individual. It is about the bigger picture instead of the little points of paint. So the same is true of our relationship with God’s creation. We see the plants with regard to what they can do for us, rather than their part in the whole picture. We don’t care for the animals that God has given us responsibility for. Yes, we shower our pets with toys and love. But we treat the animals we use for food in horrific ways. We have distanced ourselves from our food production so we don’t have to see what God’s good creation endures so we can have a steak. Many children don’t know how a carrot grows. We don’t know who picks our food or what pesticides they are exposed to or how young the children are who are stooping ten or 12 hours a day to put food on our table. We think we are only responsible for our dot. But we are related to every other dot on that canvas and we are responsible to them. Recently a fire at a factory in Pakistan killed almost 300 workers. That factory makes clothes for Wal-Mart. There had been many complaints about conditions there, but there had been an inspection the week before and it was found safe for workers. Those that do the inspections have the interests of the big business at heart. Any workers who have tried to change the system to look out for worker interests have been fired. We selfishly demand cheap clothes in our country and Wal-Mart owners are the richest in the world, they demand pay beyond our imaginations. Our dot has failed to take into account the other dots that surround us. We feel helpless because it is so complicated. When we change our relationship to one dot, it affects the next and so on. If we buy clothes at Wal-Mart, maybe we can afford to give more to charity and help people close by. And whose to say that garments we purchase at Fred Meyer are made under more humane conditions. There are so many dots, where do we start. We are overwhelmed. Our first reaction to these readings may be to feel guilty. God created us to be in balanced relationship with everything in God’s good creation. We are out of balance. We deny that relationship. We don’t take our responsibility seriously. For that we could surely face the death penalty. What good does feeling guilty do us or others? We assurance of God’s grace and forgiveness. That allows us to take a serious look at what we’re doing and how we relate to each other. It allows us to be honest with ourselves about what we are doing to hurt others. It allows us to confess what we’ve done and continue to do. It allows us to go to those we’ve hurt and make amends for what we’ve done. Then it allows us to one by one, starting with the dots closest to us, start changing the way we relate to others. It allows to admit our relationship to the other dots around us and see how we can better work together, how we can respect and honor that relationship. It allows us not to put ourselves at the center but to shape our lives around the littler, more faint and vulnerable dots around us, whether that is animals and plants, whether that be children, whether that be our hungry neighbors, someone battling mental illness, the elderly, the factory workers in Pakistan, or whoever. It is one thing to see these paintings in a book. It is something else entirely to see them in person where you can stand close and far away and see how big or small the canvas actually is. The colors are so much more vivid and alive in person than in a book. This is how God sees creation. This is the painting that is in process, the Kingdom of God. We don’t yet know what the image will be as God continues to paint the picture and the beauty of the points play off each other in a magnificent display of creativity and balance and love.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Gospel: Mark 9:38-50 Psalm 19:7-14 1st Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 2nd Reading: James 5:13-20 We read these lessons each week at Sewing for Others on Tuesday mornings and this week we found ourselves chuckling at this first reading. The complaining is all too familiar. The Israelites complain against God. They don’t seem to remember back to when they were slaves, because they were complaining then, too. Then Moses starts feeling overwhelmed and he starts whining and complaining, too. It is funny because we have heard similar complaining from children and grandchildren, spouses, parents, etc. Everyone seems to have a better way of doing things. I try to keep my mouth shut when my husband is driving. I always know a better way to get some place, but if he hasn’t asked for it, I really try to keep from complaining, unless he tries taking the freeway south to go to the airport! It is just so easy to complain. When things aren’t going our way, it is so easy to look back and imagine a better time, whether it was better or not, and complain. It is easy to pick another person apart or criticize their way of doing something, even when our way probably isn’t any better, even when they have to learn their own way. I grew up in Albany and the other day I read an article from the Albany Democrat Herald newspaper. The gist of it was this. Don’t waste all your time complaining about our healthcare system or Obamacare, whether you are for it or against. Instead, take control of what you can. Eat right. Exercise. Then you won’t have to use the system that you don’t have that much say about anyway. I thought it was an interesting argument. I don’t see why we can’t do both. But isn’t it true that it is easy to pick apart and complain about something we have little control over and we don’t often take control of our own lives and our own health, the thing we often have some control over. In the Gospel for this morning, it tells us to start cutting off our body parts, if they have sinned, which is not funny at all. Cutting is a very serious issue for young people. Some handle anxiety or depression by making cuts in their skin in a place they hope no one will see. It is supposed to be a way of releasing tension. It is really damaging and scary and it isn’t something that Jesus would ever advocate. Instead, I think he means that if there is something in our lives that is causing us to sin, then we should remove it because it is damaging to us and others. Some people feel that television leads them astray or gets in the way of time with family and have gotten rid of the TV. Others have found that smoking is bad for them and taken steps to remove cigarettes from their lives. Some people have found a friend to be a bad influence and so don’t see that person anymore. We all have things in our life that get in the way of our relationship to God and we are encouraged to consider that and decide whether that needs to be part of our life anymore. Martin Luther would say that everything in our life gets in the way of our relationship with God or God’s people, at some level. So it is a matter of making priorities and seeing what is getting in the way the most and removing that barrier as much as possible. When I think of TV, I know that sometimes it is a waste of my time and in that way, sinful. On the other hand that is where I get a lot of information from day to day, so in that way it keeps me connected. So we have a compromise in which we don’t watch much TV, but when we do we try to make it worthwhile as much as possible, even if it just means time together for me and my husband. In response to all the griping and complaining, God sends people to help. Moses has been overwhelmed. Now he’s got 70 elders and leaders to help him share the burden. The reading from James reminds us that we’re not alone. We can delegate. We need people to help us. We shouldn’t go it alone. Jesus’ disciples have help from outsiders who are casting out demons and healing. God helps us when we complain to God. God gives us people to help us when we’re overwhelmed, if we can accept help. Yet it becomes another opportunity for complaining. “They aren’t doing it right!” Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, not the tent, like they should. People are casting out demons who aren’t following Jesus and his disciples, God forbid. I complain that my husband doesn’t take the shortest route. My husband complains that I don’t chop the veggies the way he thinks I should. God gives us people to help us and we complain about it. And we complain when others don’t help us. Other people are going to do it differently, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Maybe we could actually learn from them new ways of doing things. At the very least we can learn to let go of what we can’t control and work on taking care of the things we can. The good news for us this morning is that God hears our complaining and loves us through it. God is a good father who listens to his children. God sends us help to those complaining children. And when we still complain, God shows us how to let go of the little stuff—the details that drive us crazy. God shows us how to accept help. When Jesus came, he had a teenage mom and probably an elderly dad. He accepted their help and even appreciated it. The disciples’ help left something to be desired. Jesus was surely frustrated with their inability to heal and cast out demons, the way they couldn’t understand who he was, and their petty arguments and distractions from what really mattered. Yet, Jesus accepted and appreciated their help and they went on to finally understand and spread the Gospel. Jesus had to let go of control and teaches us how to do that, too. The Gospel of God’s love can’t be contained in a church or in a tent or in a nation. It is out of our control and isn’t it better that way? There is no one right way to share it or show it. There are as many ways to worship God as there are people on the earth. There are as many expressions of God’s love as there are cells in our body or stars in the sky. There are no limits on God’s love. It is available to us, no matter who we are. So we get it all. We get this amazing world that God has made. We get to complain. We get to give thanks. We get to be heard. We get people to help us. We get to complain some more. And we get to do something about the things we can. We get to help God make this world better, which is God bringing justice and love through us and bringing in the Kingdom. Our help probably isn’t ideal for God, since we’re constantly making mistakes and complaining. Yet God chooses to work through that which isn’t perfect because God made us to be creatures who can be creative and make our own decisions rather than robots that God would control but wouldn’t be any fun to interact with. God is willing to work with our mistakes and forgive and continue the relationship because God values us for the beautiful, unique creatures that we are. Maybe God can inspire us to look at ourselves that way with forgiveness and hope and to look at each other way, so that instead of complaining about the help God sends us, we can be grateful for all the beauty and good that we have in this life.