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.
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.”
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.
2 Kings 2:1-12 + Psalm 50:1-6 + 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 + Mark 9:2-9
“When I was six or seven years old,” writes Annie Dillard in her luminous book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.[i]
Annie Dillard is thinking here about seeing, about being aware of what is around us. She is making the point that “free surprises” and “unwrapped gifts” lay all about us in the world, in the same kind of way as does the poet Mary Oliver who asks what we plan to do with our “one wild and precious life.”[ii]
I think Dillard’s childhood memory may be helpful for us today as we take a look at this story of Jesus’ transfiguration—as we follow the arrows written in the dirt up the side of the mountain. SURPRISE AHEAD. A free gift from the universe. COME AND SEE. It makes me wonder if God in this story isn’t a bit like Dillard’s giddy six or seven-year-old self: SURPRISE AHEAD. Follow the path! LOOKIE HERE: my son, my son. Listen to him! Do you see what you’ve got here?
Jonah 3:1-5,10 † Psalm 62:5-12 † 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 † Mark 1:14-20
Our family has found ourselves in something of a stealthy pen pal relationship with a neighbor girl. It all started early this week when there was a knock at the door. Now, we don’t always rush to the door when we hear a knock anymore because half the time it seems it is a delivery, someone dropping a box, a quick rap on the door and then they are off to the next stop without waiting for an answer. This time, though, we were just in the back room. I headed straight away to the door, but found no one.
It turns out it was a delivery, a very special delivery, though not from Amazon or the mail carrier. Instead there was a bag on the porch with a small bottle of coke inside it, and a note. Well, actually a couple of notes. One was on a Christmas card—I imagine it was an extra from the holidays. On the inside of the card, above its pre-printed sentiments of “warmest thoughts and best wishes for a joyful holiday season,” in large, beautiful, sometimes backward five-year-old hand-writing it said “Happy holidays” except holidays was spelled with a “y” so it actually read “holy days.” And below it, “from Catherine.”
And I think holy days may have been a more accurate sentiment given the youthful energy and generosity that was clearly behind this gift. On the other flap, Catherine wrote “I am have a piano resital. But I want your family to go. I did not now were or time or day.”
It was, in other words, a lovely invitation for our family to attend Catherine’s next piano recital.
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 † Psalm 78:1-7 † 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 † Matthew 25:1-13
Shaun is a resident of the Seattle Interbay area and a representative of the District 7 Neighborhood Action Council. Neighborhood Action Councils – or NACs as they are known - emerged in Seattle in the aftermath of the 2016 general election. There is one in each electoral district in Seattle and on their website they describe themselves as a politically independent coalition of hyper-local neighborhood councils, committed to combating oppression and supporting our neighbors where the state fails them through mutual aid, solidarity, and direct action. Shaun and District 7 NAC became involved in supporting Tent City 5 and worked in close partnership with the Tent City Ecumenical Support Network. Together these two groups, along with a number of others, helped the residents of Tent City 5 find a new piece of land on which to set up their temporary homes because under current city ordinances Tent City 5 is not allowed to remain on the site in Interbay where they have been since the end of 2015. Finding a new piece of land is no easy task. Tent Cities are easy to disagree with.
On the face of it, it maybe seems obvious to some that the NAC and the local church would partner given their mutual goal of supporting neighbors, but really Shuan had lots of reasons to distrust the faith community. As a member personally of a deeply marginalized community and as someone representing those on the underside, Shaun has seen the church, or at least parts of it, move slowly to speak out for those Shaun loves and cares about and even act against what Shaun understands to be in the best interests of those who do not have power. But there was something about the way the church in Interbay went about serving the Tent City 5 that developed in Shaun a firm and trusting partnership.
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 † Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 Thessalonians 2:1-8 † Matthew 22:34-46
Tuesday is the day—the quincentenary, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation—182,500 days after another Tuesday, another October 31st, the year 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. This week Protestant, and even Catholic traditions are marking the day, and asking about its significance.
It is a day to commemorate. Remember. Consider, but not to celebrate, I suspect. What could we possibly find to celebrate about a split, a divorce, a tearing in two. Yet, it is a day to commemorate, an important marker. Our churches, Catholic and Protestant, Orthodox and Free, and religions throughout the world are becoming more attentive to our need to be together—because we belong together, because we are one human family, and because our survival as a species is dependent on us knowing this, remembering this.
That Tuesday, 500 years ago, Luther posted a long-list of complaints to a church that he loved, a church that had lost its way, neglected its purpose to shape and bless and lead, to draw people to God and to one another. Indulgences were Luther’s primary concern—an arcane notion for us today, but a big deal then—a way of selling forgiveness and of funding the building account. St. Peter’s was not going to build itself, after all.
And a thirty-three year-old[i] priest, professor, composer, and monk decided he had had enough. So he started a conversation that took on a life of its own, and changed the course of history.
Exodus 33:12-23 † Psalm 99 † 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 † Matthew 22:15-22
Orchestral strings playing, timpani chimes in, a harp glistens. I think, the theme from the Hunger Games, but it is actually the overture to the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.[i] And over the music, a voice: “We begin with a story of tribute to a great and dominant empire. Imagine yourself an emissary from a far-off province. What would you offer Caesar in devotion? Something that says loyalty and fealty and also the best features of your home? … Now, what if Caesar was Jeff Bezos and the empire was called Amazon?”[ii]
That intro this week to the segment on the NPR news show The Takeaway caught my attention. It was the day that homework was due for all suitors to Amazon’s second headquarters, or “HQ2.” It brought me to today’s text, of course. Render to Caesar what is Caesars; render to God what is God’s.
It was a clever tease which led to an examination of the give and take, the tensions and challenges that arise in our current culture of complex needs and competing loyalties. We need Amazon. We love Amazon. I am a Prime member, I confess. They have transformed Seattle, perhaps more than Microsoft or Boeing before it, or before them, the European settlers that stripped thousands of acres of ancient forest in only a few years and bulldozed tall hills in a few more to tame this metropolis. And yet, according to some examinations, being HQ1 is something of a mixed bag.
The effect of Amazon’s rapid growth has been called a prosperity bomb with a wide blast zone. Amazon’s story began in the midst of the Great Recession when unemployment was 10% and people were crying out for jobs. The benefits have been widely touted to potential suitors of HQ2: the rapid addition of thousands of high-paying, six-figure jobs, the transformation of the economy, massive infrastructure investment.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 † Psalm 19 † Philippians 3:4b-14 † Matthew 21:33-46
Am I the only one who thinks that this landowner is a little naïve?
I mean, what did you really think they would do with the son, given what they had done in the past with the landowner’s other representatives? Killed one. Stoned another. Did the same to the next group. Past performance may not be an indicator of future success, but it does provide some meaningful information. Right?
That’s what I was thinking about this week as we watched another act of “pure evil,” as our president put it, another heartbreaking tragedy, unfold in Las Vegas. By now we know the drill so well. There is nothing new under the sun. This is perhaps the most devastating aspect of it for those of us disconnected from the real life toll—it seems beyond our control, so rooted and rutted that we no longer expect anything to change. We feel helpless. It is such a part of the landscape—as established as Mt. Rainier, as rooted as an ancient Cedar.
Everybody has their role to play. There are those who will predictably resist—"now is not the time to debate gun laws,” comes the refrain; “it’s a time to come together.” Sure, with just about any other kind of tragedy, the response is different. This one seems to have its own rules.
St. Andrew Sermons