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!
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.”
1 Kings 19:4-8 † Psalm 34:1-8 † Ephesians 4:25-5:2 † John 6:35, 41-51
No-one gets to move through this life Scot-free. No, not even the Scots. We are a charmed people it’s true, but even we, must at some point, reckon with what ours to face, ours to do.
Did you know that scot in “scot-free” refers to a tax? No, I didn’t either, until I looked it up – bless you: credible sources on the internet! Here in this country we sometimes associate scot-free with the important story of Dred Scott. An 19th century American held as a slave in Virginia who first sued for his freedom in 1847 and after ten years of appeals finally ended up in the Supreme Court, but was denied the right to a trial in a federal court because of his status as a slave. His case influenced Lincoln’s nomination and of course, our country’s history.
Lamentations 3:22-33 † Psalm 30 † 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 † Mark 5:21-43
There is a difference, I think, between interruption and distraction. Distraction is what happens more frequently these days when I walk into a room and forget why I’m there, and then proceed to wander around asking myself and anyone around me what I might have been doing. If they weren’t so kind, you could probably get some stories from Pat and Carolynn in the office.
I do wonder, though, if there is a reason besides my obvious physical and mental decline that I am so distracted. Certainly, we’ve been hearing for some time now from the media about our president and the suspicion that many of his more distressing and offensive tweets are intended and timed, at least in part, as distraction from more fundamental and substantial policy changes. I suspect that is true, as is the codependence of a media on reader eye-balls that causes them to report incessantly on the very thing they are so suspicious of.
Distraction, and despair, is also what I’ve experienced over these past few weeks as I’ve found myself heartbroken and feeling powerless by the ongoing saga of our zero-tolerance immigration policy, by the plight of little girls and boys in places we are not permitted to see. I suspect you may share that sense with me.
Distraction is different from interruption. Interruption is what happens in this story within a story in Mark. Interruption is what happens when a dignified synagogue leader in need goes through all the right protocols and takes all the right steps to ask for help for his sick daughter only to be intercepted by the inappropriate touch of a desperate woman who seems to have abandoned her manners, but not before her society abandoned her.
Genesis 3:8-15 † Psalm 130 † 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 † Mark 2:20-35
I wanted to redeem Jesus’ family. I wanted things to be better in the end. I wanted Jesus’ dilemma to end like the version of Heinz’s dilemma in which they end up on the beach, with her made well from the medicine she needed, and maybe with a fairer health system in place that values people over profit. I wanted the garden before the serpent shows up and everyone starts blaming everyone else for their choices. So I went to the end of Mark where we find two Marys. But, as much as I’d like to tell you Jesus’ mother shows up at the foot of the cross to be entrusted to John or at the empty tomb to wonder where they’ve laid him, I cannot. In Mark there is no happily-ever-after with his family.
One writer puts it graciously, suggesting Mark, unlike the other gospels, did not seem to know of any positive traditions about the family of Jesus.[i]
This is the earliest gospel. It is written closest in time to the conflict and heartbreak we suspect these followers of the reformer/disrupter Jesus experienced as he created something new from a religious tradition that had become misshapen and corrupt.
We know enough about broken families and broken relationships these days and in this political climate to have learned that sometimes the best move is to separate ourselves from what has become abusive or corrosive—even among our closest families. Sometimes we must separate for our well-being and even our survival, even as we try to hold onto our memory that we belong together, that we are one family.
Acts 2:1-21 † Psalm 104:24-34 † Rom 8:22-27 † John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
This was not the first time that fire from heaven came down on the earth. It had happened before. In Exodus[i] we read that fire from heaven descended on the Tent of Meeting. It says, “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Whenever it lifted the Israelites would move in the midst of their wanderings, but when the cloud of fire settled on it, the Lord was in the tabernacle, and they remained where they were.
The theologian N.T. Wright[ii] reminds us it happened again in 1 Kings 8[iii]. For generations God lived in the Tent of Meeting, even after David, the king had settled in his own home. Finally, around 950bce, Solomon, David’s son, had finished the temple. God finally had a home, and on the day of dedication, fire filled the temple in much the same way it had filled the tent of meeting. “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness,” Solomon proclaims. “I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell forever.”
And so the divine presence of God was assured for the Jewish people, and, in Jewish thinking, Solomon’s Temple became the centering place of the whole world.
When in 587, the Babylonians tore down the temple and exiled the Jews, it presented a profound crisis. If God lived in the temple, where was God now? Ezra, Nehemiah, and Jeremiah convinced the people the temple had to be rebuilt. And so, in 515 when they returned from exile, they did, constructing the second temple, the temple that stood when Jesus walked, until the year 70 when this one too was destroyed.
There was a problem, though. There is no record that the fire of God, the shekinah glory of God ever descended on this second temple. Wright suggests this embarrassment could explain the growth of Pharisaism—a dominant belief in Jesus’ time that if people simply obeyed laws more completely, practiced their rituals more perfectly, maintained the sabbath to the letter—then the glory of God would return. Then they would once again be God’s chosen people.
But it didn’t.
Exodus 20:1-17 † Psalm 19 † Corinthians 1:18-25 † John 2:13-22
Nikolas Cruz was not mentally ill. Let’s say it more accurately: any mental illness Nikolas Cruz had, under current law, would not have qualified as justification to taking him off the streets or taking away his guns.
The 19-year old shooter who walked into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 people, who on Valentine’s Day denied these souls and their web of family and friends and loves their constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, who on Ash Wednesday added meaning to the affirmation that you are dust and to dust you shall return, does not appear to have had a mental illness that would or should have ever led to his commitment into an institution.
This is not to say he wasn’t deeply troubled. He had a long history of violent and disturbing behavior that gave light to a sea of unsettledness, violence and despair. And in November of last year, all of this rage was multiplied exponentially when he lost his mother.
Many had tried to intervene. “His mother made a major push to have him lead a normal life,” said Paul Gold, a neighbor of the Cruz family who remained in touch with Nikolas up until his mother’s funeral in November. “But toward the end of her life, she really had given up,” he noted [i]
All of these red flags. All of these warning signs. Nicholas Cruz was not mentally ill. He was out of control, and he was in mourning after losing his mom November 1st.
Gold said he believes a host of factors contributed to Cruz’s instability: his mental illness, the bullying, an obsession with violent video games, his mother dying, no safety net.
“None of this is an excuse for the horrible, horrible thing that he did,” Gold said. “None of it — but if you wanted to create a kid who was a serial killer, this is how you would do it.”[ii]
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16† Psalm 22:23-31 † Romans 4:13-25 † Mark 8:31-38
Christy Ma began her newspaper article about a day filled with extraordinary events like this: “Valentine’s Day was a day of love, passion and friendships.” The first line flowed easily, but it took a few more days to get the rest together for the student newspaper the Eagle Eye. She and her co-author Nikhita Nookala drew guidance and reinforcement from each other and from the encouragement of an adviser to get it put together.[i]
Christy and Nikhita, you see, are students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and they were writing stories about one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history—a shooting they had experienced. They were covering the shooting and the candlelight vigil that followed, even as they were living it firsthand.
Isaiah 40:21-31 † Psalm 147:1-11, 20c † 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 † Mark 1:29-39
It was a shot of darkness that I encountered this week. A blog referenced by an old friend, a single voice attempting to name what we have lost. It began with a familiar refrain, noting that in the past 23 days the United States has seen 11 school shootings.[i] According to Everytown for Gun Safety, which seems to be the source of these numbers, we would need to add nine days to the total and only one more shooting for 12 shooting in about 32 days, which lowers the frequency a bit, but frankly doesn’t feel much like good news.
The point of the blog, though, wasn’t the frequency of shootings or even gun violence in general, but what has happened to us as events like this continue to occur. Umair Haque, the blogs author, is suggesting that American culture is in decline, that this American experiment and with it, our notion of American exceptionalism, seems to be on the way out.
Haque’s diagnosis is sobering. He names five destructive tendencies, five social pathologies he observes in American culture that signal this decline. The first is signaled by this statistic about school shootings—that our kids are killing each other. Haque puts the number of shootings and its frequency in perspective in order to make his point. 11 school shootings in 23 days, or 12 shootings in 32 days, if you wish. It is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan, even Iraq. In fact, this just doesn’t happen in any other country in the world. It is, he suggests, a “new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society.”[ii]
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 † Psalm 111 † 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 † Mark 1:21-28
According to those who have spent their lives studying the subject, mosquitos are, as it turns out, really quite smart, and also therefore, as it turns out, really quite trainable. Mosquitos identify who is good to eat based on how they smell. Clearly, they love my own sweet smell of coffee…and Scotland. They smell that hearty Northwest base of Pike Place roast laced ever so subtly with exotic notes of heather, and shortbread, and maybe a little peat bog, and they can’t help themselves. and who could blame them.
But here is the thing, if when that mosquito is buzzing close by and I swat at it, even if I miss, which I usually do, they feel the vibration of my hand tearing through the air, and their hunger pangs turn to alarm bells. If I keep at it pretty soon they associate my unique perfume with danger and they steer clear. Smart little pests, as it turns out. And also quite trainable. What I am hoping is that some dedicated scientist will spend their life working out how to teach these clever little pests how to communicate and then they can spread the news about which smells spell danger and I’ll be bite free. In the meantime, I’ll flap away happy to know I am contributing to a more highly trained mosquito population.
A number of colleagues and mentors have, at various time, told me, that when you are in the swamp you must stay vigilant, hold steady – it’s not the crocodiles that’ll get you, its the mosquitos. It’s the little things, the close things, the hard to get to, buzzing in your ear things, that’ll take you out, that’ll keep you from where you want to go, and who you want to be.
St. Andrew Sermons