1 Kings 17:8-16 † Psalm 146 † Hebrews 9:24-28 † Mark 12:38-44
Beware the comma! It can change everything.
It can be a matter of life or death.
It can be the difference between “Let’s eat, grandma,” and “Let’s eat grandma.” Or consider another sign I saw not too long ago:
“Hunters, please use caution when hunting pedestrians on the trails” …which could have benefitted from a comma so that it would suggest that one should be aware of the presence of others while hunting.
Now when it comes to our ancient biblical texts, there is an added problem. As you may know, the original texts of both the old and new testaments didn’t have commas, or really, any punctuation at all!
Jeremiah 31:7-9 † Psalm 126 † Hebrews 7:23-28 † Mark 10:46-52
So how do you tell the difference between a crowd and a mob? How do you know? What are those markers that help to make the distinction?
Mark tells us at the beginning of today’s gospel lesson that Jesus and his followers pass through Jericho, and just as quickly, they leave. Nothing happens, except that Mark notes a large crowd follows Jesus out of town. Or is it a mob? Or a caravan?
I would imagine once the word made it to Jerusalem, it might have felt like a mob—at least to the political and religious leaders of Jerusalem who felt the pressure of an unsettled population. Especially after Bartimaeus refuses to remain silent: “Son of David, have mercy on me.” In other words, do something.
Isaiah 53:4-12 † Psalm 91:9-16 † Hebrews 5:1-10 † Mark 10:35-45
“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” asks Christian Wiman. Wiman, an American poet who was the editor of Poetry Magazine and now teaches at Yale, asks a question that might remind us of James’ and John’s request of Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you… Grant us to sit…at your right…and at your left in your glory.”[i]
“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” In a way, Wiman answers his own question: “I say God,” he continues, “but…greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means.”[ii]
Now, to be fair, it is making something of an assumption to suggest that these two followers of Jesus or the other disciples who react once they hear the other two got there first are motivated by greed, pure and simple. In these days, we have enough of this simplistic, binary thinking that reduce others to a simple idea, to an enemy, to one who is good or is evil.
Neither is Wiman thinking of this scripture in Mark. He’s reflecting on something more basic—about survival, and particularly our survival beyond ourselves.
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 † Psalm 90:12-17 † Hebrews 4:12-16 † Mark 10:17-31
There are five big words in the scriptures that speak to what God is like. Five big words that make the journey through the arc of the scriptures. Five big words that speak of God, and speak of us, because in the Christian biblical tradition, what it means to be human is to be in the image of God. What it means to be human is to delight in what God delights.[I] Five big words that speak of promise and possibility. Five big words that speak to what holds the world together. Five big words that give us something of an anchor in these unmoored times.
Five big words: Justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, compassion.
I’ve been thinking about these lately, because I’ve been wondering about how we are going to hold together what seems to be spinning apart. I’ve been wondering about how we are going to find ways to live as one, to live with hope, to look to a future that is for everyone, not just for the 50.1 percent of us—or sometimes less—who can muster the votes to muscle our way or our version of the world on others. I’ve been thinking about these lately because, not only can we not agree on ideals, goals, truth. We seem not even to be able to agree on facts.
Genesis 2:18-24 † Psalm 8 † Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 † Mark 10:2-16
Did you catch that little phrase at the beginning of Mark’s passage, “and to test him they asked...” I think that’s what bothered me the most about this text. And it took a while for me to get there because there was a lot that bothered me. But when I took some calm reflective time to read it well, I realized – it’s that phrase. “and to test him they asked……”
As I read this text from Mark, I realized I was looking through the centuries to see these men, these pharisees, dragging something that has intimately affect me, a divorced woman, into the public square, for their own agenda: to test Jesus – to have him, this dissident, weigh in on a hot topic of the day – to score some points against him, and hopefully discredit him. And frankly it made me mad.
And even though this story is from another time, my anger is not misplaced, because that’s how these stories work. Yes, the men from these texts, together with the women seldom mentioned, are in a different time and place. They are working with different laws and different cultural norms, but they do and say things that work to collapse our stories into each other. They speak to us of things we know about, care about, and they invite us to add our voices, to bring our experience, and to work with them, with God, and with each other to try to get to what is good and what will help us be well.
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16 † Psalm 19:7-14 † James 5:13-20 † Mark 9:38-50
In his book of essays called My Story as Told by Water[i], northwest writer David James Duncan writes of the chasm between his father and himself. His dad was a World War II vet whose perspective had been forever fixed by the searing experience of liberating a Nazi concentration camp. Duncan was a product of the protest culture of the 1960s Vietnam era. His experience was not unlike many in that age. He describes it this way:
In 1966, when I was fourteen, I began to question the war at our family supper table. The instant I’d speak up, my father would snap that the only reason I could criticize the war at all was that our troops in Vietnam were protecting my freedom to do so. I would argue back by saying that my freedom did not strike me as being dependent upon the clique of Saigon businessmen whom Americans were actually protecting, or on the deaths of the civilians our troops kept “accidentally” killing. Dad would then go off like a bomb, bellowing that I would never talk such rot if I’d seen a concentration camp.
Duncan describes the escalating series of arguments and tensions that grew night after night at the dinner table as both father and son found themselves dug-in deeper and deeper like fox-holes in perspectives that were shaped as much by their stations in life—Duncan as a student watching young men his brothers’ ages going off to a senseless and unwinnable war, never to come back, his father as a veteran of a more comprehensible war with an identifiable enemy, a clearer finish, and now a defense-industry salary that supported his family, including his son of fourteen years.
“I know now,” Duncan writes, “that no argument I could have constructed would have changed my father’s mind, any more than his ‘Nazi’ mantra could change mine. We needed wisdom.”
Jeremiah 11:18-20 † Psalm 54 † James 3:13-4:3 † Mark 9:30-37
I grew up on this guy.
Fred Rogers first encountered a television in 1951 when he was a senior at Rollins College. He hated it. People were throwing pies at each other, doing goofy things. “Why is it being used in this way?” he wondered, when it could be such a “wonderful tool for education.”[i] He was so struck by its potential that he told his parents he wanted to delay his plans to become a Presbyterian minister in order to pursue a career in television. And so he did. In 1966—the year I was born—he created “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on Pittsburgh public television. In 1968 it began a run of more than three decades on national public television. And it raised my generation and many after me.
It’s slow-paced, gentle approach eventually led the show to be outflanked by the manic movements of Sponge Bob Square pants—which we loved as parents—pie-throwing included, and the psychedelics of Adventure Time, among many others. I don’t think my 20-something kids were much influenced by Mr. Rogers, but I certainly was, and I’m frequently overtaken by nostalgia for him and what he represents.
Isaiah 50:4-9a † Psalm 116:1-9 † James 3:1-12 † Mark 8:27-38
It’s almost as if these readings were chosen for the beginning of school, isn’t it? They are all about learning and all about teaching. And that would not be out of the realm of possibility. The cycle of readings that we share with many Christians throughout the world were formed by a classroom full of teachers who took many things into account as they studied the scriptures, paid attention to points of connection, themes, repetition, insight. There is, as we have noted before, a surplus of meaning here.
And yet, caution is advised. We may not want to look too closely this morning, unless we are prepared to be challenged.
The readings start out well enough with Isaiah: “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”[i]
That’s a powerful, moving image, isn’t it? To sustain the weary with a good word—who wouldn’t want to do something so lovely. Not only our actions, but our words have power—to encourage, to empower, to heal. What an important thing to remember in these days when words seem to be so frequently weaponized instead—deployed for maximum destruction.
Isaiah 35:4-7a † Psalm 146 † James 2:1-7 † Mark 7:24-37
I had a conversation this week with a mom whose child is something of a challenge at the moment. Her description of the behaviors, the wild fluctuations between kind and crazy, tenderness and nastiness, tolerance and small-mindedness brought me back to my own days as a college student and young adult. I remember even today the struggle that raged within myself. There were times when it almost seemed like an out-of-body experience—I was angry and ugly and yet there was a more mature adult part of me that watched from the outside fully aware of a better way to be but not sure how to get there.
I hope I was helpful to the mom as I was able to reassure her this is a part of the growth from childhood to adulthood—that the work of transitioning from one to the other involves weighing the values and beliefs and perspectives we’ve inherited from our parents and other adults, evaluating them, testing them, and ultimately accepting some for ourselves, making them our own, while perhaps rejecting others.
Many developmental psychologists have spoken of this work and of the importance of creating space for this work to happen. It can be incredibly painful at times for us because, if you’re a parent of mentor, it can feel like you are being rejected, but in the long run it is what’s necessary for identify formation.
There is a sense that there’s some developmental work that Jesus is doing in this story in Mark. It’s a curious thing to consider as we play with these classical Christian notions of Jesus’ identity as both fully human and fully God.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 † Psalm 15 † James 1:17-27 †
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
It is probably not new to most of you that the 16th century reformer Martin Luther was not a fan of the book of James. In fact, he wanted to remove it from the New Testament canon. He didn’t think it belonged in the Bible. He didn’t think it should carry the force and authority of scripture.
Now, it may be news to more of you as to why he actually wanted to see it removed. It wasn’t because James was too focused on good works as a standard for true faith or true religion. It wasn’t because he saw it as being untrue to the arc of the Old Testament scriptures, including this text we have from Deuteronomy which is commentary on what it means to attend to the heart of the law—the commandments given to Moses on Sinai that were the heartbeat of Hebrew faith and the center of Jesus’ bible.
It wasn’t because he disagreed with James’ powerful summary that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God... is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
St. Andrew Sermons