October 17: Like Disciples, Like Children: Ransomed by God

Hebrews 5:1-10 ; Mark 10:35-45

We’ve been reading and thinking about the difficult demands Jesus placed on his disciples. He called them away from family and careers; he had them wander around the small villages of Galilee, under the constant threat of danger and violence from nasty King Herod. Jesus asked at least one would-be follower to sell everything and give it to the poor. What do we do with those demands? Probably none of us feels like we are Jesus’ followers in that way. So should we feel guilty, or inadequate, as I have sometimes felt in my early days as a Christian, and still feel that way a little today?

         Well, apparently Mark does not want us to develop an inferiority complex from comparing ourselves with the disciples. Because despite leaving everything to follow Jesus, they again and again show themselves to be very flawed. They display the same human flaws that many of us are all too familiar with; this is the humanity that Hebrews calls “ignorant and wayward” and “subject to weakness.” Now Hebrews tells us that Jesus “is able to deal gently with” our flawed humanity, which is just what we see in our story from Mark today.

In today’s reading from Mark, we see the flaws of the brothers Zebedee, James and John. They apparently are fantasizing about sharing the limelight with Jesus, when he comes into his Kingdom. Even though Jesus, right before our reading, for a third time was telling them that his kingdom could only come after he was arrested, mocked, spat on, flogged, and killed. They just keep not getting it. And so James and John, in starry-eyed ignorance, try to entice Jesus into making a big promise: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” First of all, never go up to anyone, let alone the Son of God, and say: “Promise me you’ll give me whatever I ask for!” The answer should always be no.

         Jesus’ response to them about drinking the same cup and receiving the same baptism as he will are confusing. Not for James and John: they confidently say, “Oh sure, we can do that. No problem.” What Jesus is probably referring to is the persecution and suffering that will be unleashed on him and potentially on his followers. Discipleship, advancing the Kingdom of God in this corrupt world, inevitably brings persecution and suffering. And Jesus tells them that they indeed will drink this cup and be baptized with this persecution. But still they won’t get to share the winners’ stand and receive the silver and bronze medal. In fact, when Jesus says that the places at his right and left hand are prepared from someone else, he (or Mark) is probably referring to the two criminals crucified with Jesus. They were not Jesus’ over-confident disciples, but two sorry losers who are caught up in and destroyed by the sin of the world. It is they who, by a great mystery, share in Jesus’ glory.

         I have frequently mentioned the next verses about how the community of Christians are not to lord authority over one another. Some of my favorite verses. But let’s jump to that mysterious final verse. Maybe there’s a clue here to solve the problem of discipleship and its radical demands: “The Son of Man (that’s Jesus) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This for some people, and in many of our old hymns, gets to the core of what Jesus came for, much more so than the calls to discipleship. But for others, this verse makes little sense. Does it mean Jesus had to pay off the devil, who held human beings for ransom? Or is Jesus paying off God, whose wrath demanded a punishment for sin? Did Jesus buy our freedom from God’s punishment with his life? One of my friends in the scholarly world has called that idea “divine child abuse.”

         “Give his life as a ransom” must refer to the cross. The idea of a vicarious death on behalf of God’s people was already beautifully and mysteriously sung about in the lectionary from Isaiah 53, which we didn’t have time to look at today. And the whole book of Hebrews, where our first reading is taken from, is a long and sometimes very difficult meditation on this question: how does Jesus’ death save us? We could spend a lot of time in Hebrews. I’m not even going to try to explain what it means that Jesus was “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” I know how disappointed you all must be.

         Jesus’ atoning death on the cross is the great mystery of Christian faith. By calling it a mystery, I don’t mean that we can’t say anything about it—like, “What happened to Amelia Earhart?” It’s a mystery because all our words are never enough, and never get it right. There’s too much that would need to be said about the cross. It’s the kind of topic I like to spend time on closer to Easter.

         But let’s try a quick go at it, remembering that this is no final or complete answer. When you draw near God and receive God into your life, one of the things you experience is the absolute demand of God’s righteousness or justice. God sees all, judges all, and calls the world into perfection. We feel that holiness of God and sometimes draw back like Peter once did, saying “Go away from me Lord. I am a sinful man.” The demands that Jesus puts on his disciples are one situation-specific expression of that absolute demand for a justice and perfection worthy of God.

Those radical demands are not false. Why don’t we sell what we have and give to the poor? We could do that. Why don’t we leave our careers and dedicate the rest of our lives to helping people in need, or fighting racism and exploitation? We could be saints like that. We could strive for perfect justice. Why don’t we even succeed in overcoming those selfish or destructive habits that we’ve picked up? It’s not impossible. Those “Why don’t we” questions are the absolute justice of God, calling us out of the compromises we have made with the way the world is, and calling us forward to the perfection of all things in God’s kingdom. If God were a complete stranger to us, if God left us alone, we wouldn’t feel those questions calling us out. We might just say, “Hey, I’m just trying to get by the way I am.” Or “live and let live.”

         That absolute justice and perfection of God is what we need to be ransomed from. Once we come to know God, and to see what perfect justice and perfect mercy and goodness is, we can’t help but feel indebted to that perfection. We know we are under an infinite debt, and that we could never do enough to fulfill our obligation to make ourselves and the world better; so we just try to ignore that debt. We compromise with the world as it is, and with ourselves in our flaws. But that’s just a form of bad faith; it’s just running away from this debt we feel to God’s perfection. We need to face that debt and be freed from it.

And Jesus is our ransom. He perfected human obedience to God, not by actually conquering the forces of injustice—that would require violence. Rather, he testified to that perfect justice, which includes perfect forgiveness, and he enacted it around him, mostly with those who were suffering from the injustice of the world. He happened to do this at just the right time and place, what Scripture calls “the fullness of time.” Because of Jesus’ particular time and place, his perfect obedience forced the hand of the violent injustice that had captured and corrupted even God’s holy city of Jerusalem—namely, the Roman Empire in league with corrupt Jewish leaders, and maybe even the fickle crowds and disciples. And so, being executed on the cross, he exposed the total fallenness of the world, right where we should have seen the world at its best, its most perfect. And right on the same cross, he showed forth God’s boundless mercy and forgiveness. As Hebrews put it: “Having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  

We’re just scratching the surface of this great mystery. Frankly, I barely understand what I’m saying. But there’s enough there, I think, to shed a new light on the problem of discipleship. We all have died to ourselves in baptism, and raised in Christ. We have been totally reclaimed by God as God’s own people, called to do God’s will. And there is no inherent reason we should not give up everything, sell everything we have, and leave it all to serve the Lord, maybe even better than the clueless disciples.

But Jesus took our flawed and limited humanity, “ignorant and wayward” and “subject to weakness,” and he, uniquely, was called to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. We don’t have to sacrifice everything to be Jesus’ disciples, and to do God’s will. Jesus fulfills that perfection for us, so that we can still see that it is possible, we can see what perfection looks like, and yet know that each of us can only ever fulfill it in a small way, at best. He is our perfect high priest, mediating between God and all the people, the “many” for whom Jesus came to give his life as a ransom.

So no one of us needs to be a disciple in that sense of giving up everything, selling all we have, leaving it all for Jesus. Neither does any of us need to be a total disciple to be included in this salvation of Jesus. We share that sacrifice among us, with each exercising self-giving in accordance with our gifts and our readiness. Each of us may be called at the right time and place to give up much, and all of us give up something for the good of this body. And we all gather each week in worship, giving thanks to and recognizing the one who showed for perfect giving to God and to all, even unto death, and who in the same death on the cross freed us from the terrible burden of giving up our good life as creatures to the infinite demands of justice. That is why we worship this one, the Christ.

That’s all very heavy, and it could use a lot of unpacking. I share it with you now because I hope it can help you understand why worship, this weird thing we are doing right now, is at the heart of this call to discipleship. You have heard the call to Jesus’ disciples to leave everything to follow him out there, to serve the world. All of us will obey that call in lesser or greater ways, depending on whether we are ready and able. Regardless, all of us share in that blessing of being God’s chosen people and holy presence in the world. We share it with each other, and with the whole church in all times and places, and only because Jesus himself first fulfilled the perfection of our humanity, and allowed us to share in it in our weak and flawed way. Let us follow him as we are called and are able, but first of all recognize and glorify him as our high priest and mediator before God.

For 10-11 Bible Study: Questions from Bill to Peter about “Disciples and Other Believers”

  1. Where I find myself farthest from your argument is in matters of biblical hermeneutics, as scholars call it—that is, the principles for arriving at a good interpretation. That’s all the stuff that you beautifully concentrate in Appendix B. These issues get quite technical. I would simply note that I cannot agree that the synoptics are written as “history” without some serious qualifications about the modern meaning of that term (at least as loaded a word as “disciple!”). And you are inclined to make “Jesus’ intentions” into the definitive meaning of the passages. I agree that trying to understand Jesus’ intentions can be a helpful guide, but there are many problems with the so-called “intentional fallacy.” Even theologically: we do not worship Jesus of Nazareth. According to Trinitarian categories, we worship the living Christ made present by the Holy Spirit. Christ and the Spirit are the same God with the Word made incarnate in Jesus, but there is room for differentiating the pre-risen Jesus from the fullness of the Trinity. But I’m not saying that reconstructions of the historical Jesus are not relevant and important. So…
  2. Where I find myself farthest from your argument is in matters of biblical hermeneutics, as scholars call it—that is, the principles for arriving at a good interpretation. That’s all the stuff that you beautifully concentrate in Appendix B. These issues get quite technical. I would simply note that I cannot agree that the synoptics are written as “history” without some serious qualifications about the modern meaning of that term (at least as loaded a word as “disciple!”). And you are inclined to make “Jesus’ intentions” into the definitive meaning of the passages. I agree that trying to understand Jesus’ intentions can be a helpful guide, but there are many problems with the so-called “intentional fallacy.” Even theologically: we do not worship Jesus of Nazareth. According to Trinitarian categories, we worship the living Christ made present by the Holy Spirit. Christ and the Spirit are the same God with the Word made incarnate in Jesus, but there is room for differentiating the pre-risen Jesus from the fullness of the Trinity. But I’m not saying that reconstructions of the historical Jesus are not relevant and important. So…
  • Rhetorically, the effect of your argument is to drive a strong separation between “disciples” and “other believers.” This has been helpful. I wonder though whether you have exaggerated the separation at points.
    • The way you describe “the Renunciation Demands” (and even just designating them thus) makes them sound like an ethical code of behavior that Jesus demanded his disciples live up to—like a new Torah. It sounds like a code that clearly distinguishes the disciples, and you often equate discipleship with having to sell all your possessions. (And you use the code to distinguish believers today from the disciples on p. 70). But you admit that what Jesus expected of his disciples was at least somewhat specific to the person (regarding Mark 10, p. 90f.). And you very convincingly derive the Renunciation Demands not from some Torah-like code, but from the strategic and tactical necessities of accompanying Jesus on his dangerous mission (loved that part! Pp 23-30). If discipleship is defined tactically rather than as a code, then it seems to me it would be easier to positively correlate discipleship in our own time and context. It is more imaginable to be adopting discipleship to a different tactical situation, even if you are not selling all you have or leaving family and jobs.
    • Your argument rests on the idea that Jesus was content to allow the “other believers” to continue in the covenant of Israel. You provide some good evidence here. But what of his pessimism toward Judaism of his day? His sometimes loose approach to Torah? And one of his favorite phrases: “This adulterous and sinful generation”—esp. relevant in Mark 8:34-38.
  • It seems to me that there isn’t a whole lot of data about “other believers” in distinction to disciples. Luke 14 does not look to me like a “positive response” (the leader of the Pharisees inviting Jesus to dine). Mt 24:17f is an odd discourse (given to disciples, but seemingly not talking about them). (Your list on p. 24 is good, but pretty Luke-dependent.)
    • What is more, many of these cases you call “other believers” are people healed by Jesus, not those responding positively to instruction. In fact, who among the “other believers” actually believes “in Jesus?” (Setting aside the blind man in John 9.) For that matter, who among the disciples believes in an ideal way, at least according to Mark?
    • What is also more, as Mark narrates it, the disciples do not follow Jesus because of a positive response to instruction. They are simply chosen. (Exception: maybe Nathaniel in John 1?)
    • I’m not sure what these questions might mean for your thesis. They certainly don’t invalidate anything. I think they might help shift any attempt to make positive application to “discipleship” away from a model of ethical deliberation, and more in the direction you nicely go: “Some persons are drawn into a more intense involvement [with Jesus] than others,” 69-70
  • Minor point: Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38). Peter still has a house. But he hasn’t been technically “called” (ch 5). (Does this question the typical portrayal of “instant following” by the disciples? Does it suggest Peter and others were gradually drawn to follow Jesus, despite how the gospels portray it?)
  • I appreciated your attention to the question of women disciples (32 ff.). I’m inclined, given not just our own greater attention to women’s equality, but also to 2000 years of sexism in the church, to find greater significance to the way Jesus had women in his circle. You are open to that, too, but I think the way you draw a hard line between disciples and other believers by use of the “Renunciation Demands” blunts the importance of these women consistently portrayed with Jesus and even more highlighted at the resurrection, against what I understand are the currents of his day.
  • About Paul. Just historically speaking (as well as the issues mentioned in #2 above), it seems likely that Paul’s theology influenced some of the gospels, and so I am not inclined to give a distinctive priority to the words of Jesus over Paul’s theology of the risen Christ—not everyone would agree, of course. I love your phrase “personality displacement,” p 17, but it might suggest Paul’s theory of “personality” is a separate issue from how faith is reflected in “lifestyle.” Thus you claim “Paul does not exhibit the lifestyle of radical renunciation depicted in the synoptics.”  Here again I see a potential for a “renunciation demand” code to exaggerate the difference. Paul does present a strong sense of a distinctive ethics and lifestyle for the church, in opposition to the “world” (whether or not he has a fair assessment of the world). And I think there is a pretty close analogue to renunciation in Paul: dying to self (Rom 6 etc).

Oct. 10: “Like Children, Like Disciples: Embraced and Challenged”

Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:13-27

         This passage more than any other gets to the heart of what this sermon series is all about. It contains one of the starkest calls about what one man has to give up to be a disciple—but what does that mean for us? Jesus tells a man, it turns out he’s wealthy, who respectfully seeks his advice, to sell all he has and give the money to the poor, and be his disciple. And last we hear, he declines, going away grieving. Maybe he went down the road to find a prosperity gospel church that preached, “Believe and God will make you rich!” (We do have that option today.)

         We can’t exactly cluck our tongues at this man. I haven’t sold my many possessions and given the money to the poor; most of my life I’ve been buying and acquiring a lot more than selling and giving away. Is Jesus telling me to sell it all, give it all up? When I was a new Christian in my teens, this passage weighed heavily on me. I thought I wouldn’t be a real Christian, a real follower of Jesus, until I sold everything I had and lived a life of poverty. Am I just weird that way? I guess not; Peter Milloy talks about how this and other discipleship passages have sent many Christians on a guilt-trip.

         So I was really hung up on the man commanded to sell all he has, and I can’t say I’m not still a little troubled, although my thinking has changed a lot over the years. But I never before considered the story of the rich man in light of one about children that precedes it. And neither does our lectionary; so I had to rearrange the lectionary readings a little. But I think the two stories form a perfect pair, and I think Mark put them together intentionally.

         You see, if you start with the rich man, you are immediately confronted with a puzzle. He runs up to Jesus, respectfully kneels before him, addresses Jesus as “Good teacher,” and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Sounds unobjectionable; pious, even. Jesus’ response is off-putting. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Well! Did anyone else find that rude? So these are the puzzles that make interpreting the Bible so interesting.

Here’s one possibility. Jesus goes on to refer the man to the last five of the ten commandments. So Jesus’ rude comment could be his way of saying, “What do you need me for, rich guy? Your healthy and wealthy, and you have God’s commandments given to Israel to guide you.” As if to say, “You already have God’s covenant, that’s enough for you. If you really want to follow the new path that I am treading, you’re not going to like it. You should probably turn back, keep your wealth, and just keep the commandments.” Because Jesus never says that the covenant through Moses is over and done with. So maybe Jesus is trying to put him off because he doubts this man is really ready to take his faith to the next level, and Jesus turns out to be right about that.

         But maybe there’s more to the mystery of Jesus’ rude remark. Let’s go back and start with the scene before it. Jesus embraces the children, after shewing away the mean old disciples. It’s really amazing that people were bringing their children so Jesus might bless them. It shows that people and their children were excited by Jesus. They must have known, as Mae put it last week, that Jesus is something special. A holy man. Even the children wanted just to be near and touch him. We might think of the way people today are drawn toward holy people when they come to town, whether it’s Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama. Even how children come wide-eyed to Santa Claus. When Jessica was little, she received a pat on the head from President Jimmy Carter, who said, “You’re a very cute little girl.” A Presidential blessing, kind of. Maybe something like that is what’s going on here with the children coming up to Jesus.

         But Peter Milloy’s book is making me see it a little differently. Jesus was also an outlaw. He was ducking around these smaller villages of Galilee, rarely staying in the same place for long, often jumping on a boat and sailing off like someone on the lamb. That’s because Herod, the local king and a lacky of Rome, had already killed John the Baptist, and we heard in chapter 6 that Herod is convinced that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life (somehow). Herod was a hated tyrant, so to the people, Jesus is both a holy man and something like a Robin Hood character, preaching this new order called the Kingdom of God which, whatever it is exactly, is certainly going to overthrow corrupt tyrants like Herod. We might imagine children flocking to see Pancho Villa or Che Guevara. And Jesus welcomes them. And then Jesus says of these children, “it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.” Let’s not lose the revolutionary meaning of those words in their context, because Herod got it.

         And then Jesus adds: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” These children come to Jesus because they are just excited. They feel like God is present in him, he’s special. They also sense that he contains a great promise of better life, an end to fear and oppression, and a real shalom. They just want to be near him. They aren’t asking for anything. Whatever Jesus is doing, they just want a little part of that. You know, this can be us too. We can just be excited to be here and be part of this new thing God is doing.

         Jump to the next scene: here comes a wealthy, pious Israelite. Is he just excited to receive the Kingdom like these children? No. He doesn’t ask about the “Kingdom of God” that is coming for all these downtrodden people and their children. He asks about how he can get “eternal life.” I get why Jesus, with the children’s laughter still ringing in his ears, is less than enthusiastic. He perceives in this man someone who’s got it all, who is dutifully pious to be sure, and no doubt feels like his wealth has been God’s reward for keeping the commandments; that was a pretty common attitude. And now he wants what money can’t buy, life beyond death. I think Jesus does recognizes that this man is a good Israelite. It’s just that his piety is still all about him. He wants eternal life as the icing on the cake of all the blessings he is counting. But his piety, however genuine, has left him, nonetheless, self-occupied.

         So what does Jesus say? “I see right through you. Your piety is going nowhere. Go away.” No, he doesn’t. Instead, we can really feel a moment here. The Greek says, “Jesus, looking straight at him…” Can’t you feel it? The disciples stop their chatter and say, “Uh oh.” “Jesus looking straight at him, loved him.” Not only did Jesus love him; this is the only person that Mark specifically tells us Jesus loved. You might think Mark talks all the time about Jesus’ love. And obviously, Jesus loved the children and others. But after first rebuffing the rich man, it is this man that Jesus explicitly loves.

         And how do we describe the love for this rich man? It’s not the same as for the children. And it’s not a love that says, “I just think you are wonderful. Just go and keep being you!” Rather, it is a claiming love. A love like God had when God elected or chose Israel from all the nations. A love that says, I want you to go with me. The rich man definitely wanted something more, and he really believed Jesus could help him. So Jesus claims him and says, “Ok, let’s take this thing to the next level. Become my disciple. Get rid of all that stuff that is tying up your good piety with a self-centered attitude. Sell it all and give to the poor, because God’s kingdom is for all these people to have together, not so you can have your own private afterlife.” And the rich man can’t do it. He’s too attached to his possessions to become part of this new movement called the Kingdom of God. And what a sad story, right? That Jesus loved him and gave him the special invitation, which usually results in someone instantly leaving everything and following Jesus; but here that love fails, and we’re left with a man grieving.

         These two stories are both about God’s love. God’s love is deep and rich, and like I wrote in the Rooster, God’s love is not the opposite of God’s justice. There’s that love for the children, that asked nothing of them. It just embraces and blesses them. And those children give us one model for how to receive God’s love, and even God’s kingdom. Don’t come to Jesus with your check list all completed. Don’t come with a bucket list with only one item left to fulfill. Just come excited to be part of what God is doing in Jesus, excited about sharing this new world order called the Kingdom of God. And don’t let any of us crusty old disciples tell you, “You can’t see Jesus until you’ve signed up for a committee,” or whatever. Jesus wants to bless you, to embrace you. Just come like a child.

         But if you really want to take part in the coming of that Kingdom, and to share in the redeeming work of Jesus as one of his disciples, and to have your treasure in heaven: be ready for the challenging love of Jesus, the love that will call you out. Be ready to have him look straight at you, and love just you, and tell you what you need to do to take your faith to the next level. Jesus didn’t give that side of his love to everyone. He didn’t ask everyone to follow him in that way. It’s not even clear what it would mean to follow Jesus today like the disciples did, leaving everything. We might get only a little piece of that love, and do that radical following in smaller ways. But he loved the people like he loved those children, and that love is for us too—we just come with no demands and just excited to be with Jesus. But if you really ask him, he’ll give you the challenging love too.

Beautiful, honest, devastating–A doctor’s regrets over telling a patient he is dying

From the New York Times, Oct 7 2021. I’m inclined to think that saying nothing would not be right, but I really admire her honesty in searching out her understandable anger that got in the way.

‘You’re Dying,’ I Told My Patient. I Wish I Hadn’t.

Oct. 6, 2021

By Daniela J. Lamas

Dr. Lamas, a contributing Opinion writer, is a pulmonary and critical-care physician at Brigham and Womenʼs Hospital in Boston.

My patient’s chart was brief. A diagnosis of colon cancer that might have been cured had he not disappeared from medical care to return, nearly a year later, with cancer so advanced that it had torn through his intestines.

Colleagues at the hospital had called him to schedule appointments, to get follow-up and to start chemotherapy, but he never responded. Now he was back, but there was nothing the surgeons could fix, and so he would remain in the intensive care unit until his death.

When he arrived in our unit one night last winter, his cheeks were gaunt, his body wasted and abdomen protruding. He was also angry. As I remember the events of that night, as soon as the doctors in training and I gathered at his bedside to explain his prognosis, he lashed out. There was nothing wrong with him, he insisted. All he wanted was for us to treat his pain so that he could go home. He had things to do: a game to watch on television later that night.

As a critical care doctor, I am familiar with denial in its many permutations. I know how it feels to sit at a bedside and in windowless conference rooms, talking with families who cannot or will not let themselves acknowledge what is unfolding in front of them. We learn language to show that we are on their side, while also making it clear that things are not going to be OK. “I wish that the antibiotics were helping, but I worry that your loved one is dying,” we say.

But doctors can be far less equipped to deal with impenetrable denial from a patient. “I have to leave,” my patient said again, louder this time, seemingly unaware of the medications that ran through his veins, acting directly on his heart to raise his blood pressure. “Let me go,” he moaned, pulling at the lines that ensnared him.

I might have left the room then. I might have told him that we were going to do everything we could to get him home, even though I knew it would be impossible. I might have reassured him that things were going to be all right. But there was a part of me, standing there receiving his

anger, that wanted my patient to know the reality of his situation. Even now, months later, I am not sure why.

What I do know is that I stood over his bed, distanced by my protective gear, and I told my patient the truth.

“I wish there were something we could do, but the cancer is too advanced. You’re dying,” I told him. I spoke loudly so that he could hear me despite the mask. He turned his head away, as if to avoid my words. I pressed on. “It could be hours now. I don’t think you will make it through the night.”

He flinched. The room was silent but for the sound of his heart rate monitor. The resident doctors looked toward me, trying to disguise their own surprise. I think each of us wanted to take the words back. To tell him that sometimes we are wrong and that maybe he wasn’t dying after all, but it was as if we were frozen.

He yelled, “Get out!” with all that his failing body could muster. He didn’t want any more of our lies. He just wanted to be left alone.

Outside, I took a deep breath. My hands were trembling. Later that night, I learned, my patient’s family arrived — a long-estranged sister and son. By then he was fading away, but they turned the hospital television to the game he had wanted to see and watched together as he died. I never had the chance to talk with him again.

For the next few days, I kept returning to that moment at the bedside. What had I hoped to accomplish? As a doctor and purveyor of science, it can be difficult to accept that sometimes the “truth” is not what a patient needs. Denial was my patient’s only defense mechanism. And as soon as the words left my mouth, I realized how cruel it was to try to take this defense from him in the final hours of his life.

I pride myself on being gentle with my patients and their families, even the “difficult” ones, who demand interventions that we cannot offer and believe steadfastly in a recovery that will never come. In the intensive care unit, we have the honor of caring for people at their most naked and frightened. I try to recognize the emotions in front of me without drowning in them.

But in that moment, I was not gentle. And as I revisit that night, I wonder about why I responded as I did and how we doctors react when faced with people who are dying because of bad decisions about their health.

In the most generous version of that night, my goal was to give my patient the information he needed so that he could reach out to those he loved, to say whatever he would want to say with the knowledge that his time was short. That was one piece of my response. But I also responded to him with my own anger, at the avoidable nature of this tragedy, at how denial had

turned deadly. This man was scared and he was going to die of a disease that might have been cured. And I could do nothing about it. When I told him that he had only a few hours to live, I allowed my frustration to obscure the reality of his suffering. And I caused harm as a result.

In most contexts, it is a doctor’s responsibility to tell our patients the truth, to help them to understand even the most devastating realities. But when I think about that night, I know that I added to my patient’s pain in the last hours of his life. I wish that I had done it differently. I could have paused and told him that yes, he was going to go home. I could have simply been there with him and said nothing at all. That small kindness might have done more for him than the truth.

Daniela J. Lamas (@danielalamasmd), a contributing Opinion writer, is a pulmonary and critical-care physician at Brigham and Womenʼs Hospital in Boston.

Oct. 3 (World Communion Sunday): A Homily on Bringing Together Catholic and Protestant Ideas of Communion

This was intended to be a short reflection that commented on presentations that several youth-adult teams did on experiences with communion. It turns out, we have many members who spent time in Catholic churches and shared those experiences.

Unfortunately, communion or the eucharist is one of the most complex topics for theological reflection. My comments ended up pretty dense. I hope some will benefit from revisiting them in print.

1 Corinthians 11:27-32 ; John 6:35-40

At the Church of Christ in New Haven, where I once attended, the spirit of communion was dominated by the reading from Corinthians. Paul seems to say that if you don’t eat communion rightly, you get not God’s grace, but God’s judgment! (“Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”) So at this rather conservative Church of Christ—which had a lot going for it—communion was a somber affair. Everyone held the bread and cup and examined themselves in fear and trembling, as if afraid that taking the bread and cup with sins in their heart would lead to their doom. That never sat well with me. They seemed to miss the grace of communion, so nicely attested by our reading in John: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” for this is the bread of eternal life. Communion is not just for introspection, but is about community. It is a celebration we do together. So I like to take communion out here, not in here.

But I can’t say that they were all wrong, and that my preference for community is the only right one. Nor will I say Corinthians is wrong, and John is right. A good ritual like communion always contains more meaning than we can say. (repeat) That’s why we do rituals like communion, rather than just talk about what they mean. But inevitably Christians have thought that if my way of talking about it is right, then their way of talking about it must be wrong. And thus we, the church universal, have ended up so badly divided by this table, which Christ so clearly intended to be a place of unity. Even this very congregation owes its beginning to a conflict at our mother congregation in Connecticut over the interpretation of baptism and communion. When will we figure out how to be united in the doing of the ritual, rather than dividing over the interpretation of it?

I think that is the reason that my ordaining denomination, the Disciples of Christ, while so like the UCC in most ways, has always practiced communion every Sunday. And the pastor does not preside at communion; the elders do—like our deacons. This table does not belong to the big talker in the church (raise hand), because the Disciples really believe that you get to unity by doing this together, not talking about it.

As our presenting groups discovered, the main difference over communion today is between Catholic and Protestant. The Protestant, especially Congregationalist option is that communion is about grace given to me individually in faith; communion is about my faith. Its main purpose is to help me in my personal, even private journey of faith. For Catholics, communion is about God’s grace given to the church, and especially entrusted to the successors to Peter—the church hierarchy. That’s what makes communion something really objective for Catholics, not just something private and subjective. But by the same token, communion for Catholics has been bound up with the enforcement of teaching and behavior, with following rules. Even today, some American bishops want to withhold communion from the most Catholic president we’ve had ever (sorry, JFK), because of Biden’s politics. (The Pope, however, does not agree with them.)

That impulse to tie communion to enforcement is not uniquely Catholic. Our Congregationalist ancestors denied communion to members who did not show evidence of what they called “regeneration.” In some cases, you had to convince the Pastor that you had been changed by God’s spirit, and then you received a little token for communion. I’m picturing a vending machine, especially with these pre-packaged units.

Most of us TODAY want nothing to do with tying communion to enforcement of rules in the community. So it is common to make communion merely personal, something purely “spiritual” in the sense of private. Communion reminds me of God’s love for me. (Which is true.) But the potential downside to that approach is that communion is deprived of its majesty, its power as something objectively real that unites all Christians everywhere. Protestant communion can lack that sacramental element of being something beyond myself that is very real, more real than just me and my feelings about it. Now, I confess I myself long for that bigger, sacramental reality. Only, I don’t find it helpful to look for it in a miracle happening in the physical reality of the bread and wine. I look for that objective, sacramental reality in the action of communion, the “do this,” the pattern of action in which all Christians share—think how many millions are sharing it right now! That pattern of action is objectively real.

Here’s one way (and only one way!) to think about that pattern of action, the thing that all Christians do: It begins with Jesus and the perfection of his self-giving love and his revelation of God as the very source of all self-giving love. Here at this table, the risen Christ Jesus unites us with this same God. We as one body take that Christ-reality into ourselves. Even though we have not matched Jesus’ self-giving love, still he makes us a holy community, set apart for God, at the heart of which reigns that self-giving love for one another and for the world. That is the objective meaning, the truth of breaking the bread and sharing the blood, even if you don’t realize it or don’t believe it. All of that is to say that one way to understand communion, quite simply, is that this thing we do marks the ideal of being a communion shaped by the same self-giving that was in Christ Jesus. This is the New Covenant in his blood, remember? In that way, doing this is very much like the Communication Covenant we are working towards, which will serve as an objective standard for what it means to lovingly communicate the truth to one another. We are doing a covenant at this table.

Just so, communion is the objective reality of what it is to be a Christian living in Christian community. We have all experienced the reality of this Christian community, but not perfectly. It is still beyond us, ahead of us, something we can only hope for. As such, this communion is an invitation, and assurance, an election or calling, and also a judgment. In taking this communion, we are judged by the ideal it represents.

That brings us back to Corinthians. In the church of Corinth, Paul saw people violating that spirit of communion in the very act of communion itself! Imagine something like this: for communion, what if we all brought our favorite goodies. Now, some could only afford a roll and a cup of juice. Others brought foie gras and a French Sauternes wine, with no intention of sharing; and they proceeded to party it up and get drunk. That’s like how the Corinthians were doing. So Paul reminds them that this pattern of action that we do together represents and really enacts the ideal of who and what we are as a church. To the extent we are not being that church, communion is a judgment against us—all of us. We’re in this together.

But for Paul, this judgment has nothing to do with enforcing the rules. That’s law. If love reigns among us, rather than law and enforcement, we can rely only on each person to “examine yourself,” as Paul says. But Paul isn’t telling us to be anxious and guilty, as if the bread and juice will poison you if you are a sinner. When we judge ourselves, then God does not judge us from outside. (It’s like last week, remember? Have salt in yourselves. Take the fire of judgment into yourself. Grace helps us be self-critical.)

Paul is getting at one of the many layers of meaning in this wonderful ritual. Let us take that rich reality, more than we can say, into ourselves. Own it! Discern the body and the blood. Let it bolster you when you feel inadequate or small or unimportant. Let it judge you when you feel complacent or inattentive or whenever you may be taking for granted what a serious calling this is to live wholly for God. This breaking, pouring out, and sharing of this bread and cup are the reality of Christ, they are the remembrance of him, and the reality of the community that God calls into being in his name. Take it, all of you, into yourselves and make it your own.

Some thoughts about Thomas Edsall on polarization and religion

Edsall regularly writes rather sprawling columns in the NY Times on political polarization, citing a plethora of social scientists. In a recent column on abortion, he cites a book that sounds interesting (one among many on a similar topic):

Michele Margolis, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, in her 2018 book “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity,” argues that “instead of religiosity driving political attitudes, the shifting political landscape — in which Republicans have become associated with religious values and cultural conservatism to a greater extent than Democrats — could have instead changed partisans’ involvement with their religious communities.”

“If,” Margolis continues:

“Republicans and Democrats select into or out of religious communities in part based on their political outlooks, they will find themselves in more politically homogeneous social networks where they encounter less diverse political information. Rather than churches being places where people with different political viewpoints come together, religious communities may become more like echo chambers populated by like-minded partisans.”


This is not a new idea to me, but Margolis states it well. Houses of worship are being affected by political polarization just like most institutions. Churches are more and more becoming ideological echo-chambers, whether liberal or conservative. This process has been going on for a long time.

What to do about this? A typical reaction is to seek to enforce church as a “politically neutral” space–that is, a politics-free zone. If “politics” means driving partisan wedges between people, as it more and more has come to mean, than the advice is well taken. But forcing religion into a “non-political” mold is itself a political agenda. It is to say that religion must be shaped and controlled by the interests of society. Usually, what is advocated is the idea that religion or faith is a “purely individual and private concern.” I’ve heard people tell me pastors can’t address anything remotely political because of “separation of church and state”–which obviously is not in the Bible. In fact, no traditional religion conforms to the idea of religion as a purely private affair. All religions are concerned with not just private faith, but community and, in various ways, society, including issues of justice.

It seems to me that the church is a “political” community, in that the church is very concerned with how we live a good life together. What makes the church’s politics distinctive is that it places self-giving love as the primary political value (as opposed to “equality” or “personal responsibility,” as our political parties might typically have it). That makes us a very odd fit in a society whose politics–liberal or conservative–is primarily rights-based, and the mobilizing aggregates of individuals sharing the same rights-based interests. Church politics is somewhat more individual than are typically progressive identity politics (where issues are defined by disadvantaged groups), although the Bible is clearly concerned with disadvantaged groups. But church politics is decidedly more communitarian than the rugged-individualist strain of conservative ideology (as distinguished from communitarian conservatism).

I see no other way to put this, but to make it very clear: there are no grounds within church politics for libertarianism (which can be leftish but is usually conservative). The Bible just doesn’t care about securing my freedom to do whatever I want. It puts mutual love over personal freedom every time. There is (sometimes) a strong concern in Scripture for what we could call “freedom of conscience” (see for example Paul in 1 Corinthians 4 and 9). But it is more like a “personal responsibility of conscience before God,” than the modern notion that I get to make up my own mind about everything. And this makes sense: a loving community would never compel someone to agree with something; but a loving community only works if everyone freely seeks to share the “one mind of Christ” (Philippians 2).

Now, that is not to say that the church should oppose all libertarianism in society. One mistake Christians (liberal and conservative) make is to directly translate the political values of the Christian community into a social program for what is in fact a secular state. Here I like Douglas John Hall’s way of thinking about post-Christendom church as “salt” or “leaven” in society, rather than as a political power broker. The love that drives internal church politics will hopefully spread out into the rest of our lives and our surrounding community–“a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” And that in no way means the church can’t very directly advocate for social issues in the larger public. But, I suppose, such “politicking” should arise organically from the life of the congregation, rather than being an agenda that seeks to dominate or manipulate the congregation as a tool of political power. Obviously, that would violate the politics of love and the sole lordship of Christ.

These are just my general thoughts on the state of religion and politics across our country right now. There is a great variety of ways individual congregations could implement the politics of love. I think a safe bet right now is for a congregation to work deliberately and covenantally to counter the partisan forces that are turning churches into “echo chambers,” as Margolis put it. Such measures include covenanting to abstain from news sources distorted by partisan agendas, or at least to incorporate some diversity into partisan sources, for those who insist on them. It also seems healthy to me for most congregations to take up local political issues or policy issues as they pertain to our communal contexts, rather than taking positions on matters of national, legislated policy. These look to me like viable ways to resist the polarization overtaking churches without resorting to the artificial and unbiblical idea of apolitical religion.

I welcome thoughts. Anyone want to read Margolis’ book?

Sept. 26: “Like Children, Like Disciples: Salted with Fire”

Jesus’s teachings to his disciples include some of the more difficult verses in the gospels. This week we looked at the off-putting verses about “hell.” They are serious, but also a little tongue-in-cheek, I think.

Isaiah 66:14-16, 22-24

Mark 9:38-50

         What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? That’s what this series is about. Do the heavy expectations Jesus puts on the disciples also fall on us? Or can we be disciples partially, or only some of the time? We’ll explore these same questions with broader attention to the Bible in our Monday evening Bible studies.

         This week, Mark gives us two snapshots of Jesus with his disciples, and I think they are meant to stand in jarring contrast. Let’s first recall that last week, the disciples were arguing about who’s the greatest, and Jesus had to set them straight, reminding them that the last shall be first, discipleship is not a power trip, and they should get rid of all airs, the way you do around children. Now, in this week’s first scene, Mark shows once again that the disciples are clueless. John tells Jesus, “hey we saw this guy rescuing people from demons by calling on your name” (which is interesting—Jesus had clearly become something of a phenomenon). And we told him to knock it off. Because he’s not one of us.” It seems the disciples still think that discipleship entitles them to exclusive authority; that they are the True Church, and anyone outside their ranks is illegitimate.

         Well, Jesus has to correct them again, but he’s not harsh about it. Nor does Jesus give a total endorsement of this renegade prophet, who probably would have benefitted from listening to and learning from Jesus. But Jesus tells them, “whoever is not against us is for us.” You don’t have to be a disciple to be part of what God is doing. Even those who help out in a little way, like giving you a cup of water, are noticed by God.

So you see, there are a lot of ways to be part of the Christian movement. I often think of this passage when the church today is looking for people to fill the ranks for our various boards. You know, you don’t have to be a full-fledged board member to be a great help to the church. You might not have time for it, or you’re just not ready, or you just don’t like meetings. So let’s make it easy for you to take on little tasks, and help out however you can.

Anyway, Jesus is telling the disciples, who, remember, have left everything and taken on considerable risk to follow Jesus, to appreciate those who don’t serve on the Church Council. Go easy on them, he says. Don’t look down on them, just because they are helping in the way that works for them.

         So in this first scene, Jesus sounds lax and easy-going. ‘However you want to help out is up to you; it doesn’t have to be within our order and structure.’ Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Being a Christian is chill.

         Now if I have that right, then there’s an abrupt change of tone in the next scene. What follows are some of the more disturbing sayings of Jesus; like I said, I think Jesus is intentionally exaggerating, having fun with hyperbole. Even so, we often don’t know what to do with these verses, except be a little embarrassed about them. But I want to try to take them somewhat seriously.

         First off, let’s recall that Jesus is, presumably, still in that house in Capernaum from last week, and still addressing the Twelve. He’s not giving these sayings to everyone, but to those who would be most committed to the Kingdom of God. And he warns them: “If any of you put a stumbling block, an impediment, before one of these little ones who believe in me…” Remember there were children around. Jesus may be referring to children, or just the ordinary adult followers of Jesus who were not called to be disciples. And he basically says, ‘If you disciples make them stumble, here’s a millstone lifejacket for you to wear, now let’s go take a dip in the sea.’  Jesus is making it painfully clear, once again, that being a leader in the Kingdom of God is not about perks and privileges; it is to take upon yourself the most weighty responsibility. If you are a leader in the church—and this goes for me more than any of you—and you cause a less experienced believer—whether a child or adult—to stumble, to be thrown off track, whatever that means, you bear the full measure of God’s judgment.

These are harsh words. Jesus is about to get harsher. As we already saw, this passage lays out the seriousness of entering the life of God or the Kingdom of God in an exaggerated fashion: Better to cut off your hand, or your foot, or throw away your eye, then to be just the way you are, whole and complete, in Gehenna. Where did the lax Jesus go? I can say more clearly than before that the Gehenna Jesus invokes was a place of child sacrifice. So not only does Jesus call us to protect and welcome children, but he thinks of the religious abuse of children as the most godless of all places. This warning is not entirely lost on us. What would he say about clergy today who abuse children? Would it not be better to cut off your hand, then to commit such atrocities? Would Jesus tell us just to forgive and sweep it under the rug? No, this passage makes it clear whose side Jesus would take. Leaders and clergy get no special privileges with Jesus.

There is definitely a place for these harsh words. At the same time, Jesus is surely employing some hyperbole or rhetorical exaggeration; it’s like when Jesus says if you have faith you can make a mountain be cast into the sea. You have to wonder what the mood around the circle was when Jesus said these words to his disciples, or when Mark’s original audience recited this passage. I suspect there was some nervous chuckling. Karl Barth said we should approach the things of God “with a deadly serious sense of humor,” and I think that is what Jesus is employing here.

The humor is warranted. Being a disciple is at least a little ridiculous. Look at how absurd the disciples are in Mark’s Gospel—always fearing and misunderstanding when they should be growing in wisdom and confidence. As Mark has us laugh at them, so we need to be able to laugh at ourselves and our inadequacies as God’s servants on earth. And we should laugh at what an absurd world it is, and how ridiculous it is, on the face of it, that our little efforts here will somehow bring about the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ wicked sense of humor reminds us at once of the humility that has to come with following him, and ultimately all our efforts must rely on the mercy of God. We and our mission will fail; but God will claim us and our work as God’s own nonetheless.

So please, take Jesus’ words with a little salt, with humor. I don’t want to see anyone missing a foot next week! But don’t lose the seriousness, either. What Jesus imposes to his disciples with a dose of humor, he himself will take on with all its grave consequences. He has already announced to his uncomprehending disciples that he will suffer and be killed. He will be the first to enter the Kingdom of God with a mangled body, although not by his own doing, to be sure. You should never harm your own body in your striving to serve God. It’s disturbing that Christian ascetics in the past did this with whips and hair shirts. But under the right or wrong conditions, Jesus shows us that if you serve God faithfully the world might very well lash out hurtfully.

Let us move to the final verses. This whole passage in Mark does not read smoothly, as if Jesus gave all this in a well-formed speech. Rather, Mark seems to string along sayings connected by key words: little ones, stumbling block, and towards the end, “fire.” So, although there is a textual variant we could consider, I think Mark inserts a connection between fire and some sayings about salt that occur in other gospels, resulting in the the unlikely sentence: “For everyone will be salted with fire.” Well, preacher, what does that mean?

Let me try this. Things about to be sacrificed on the altar of God—that is, things given up as holy to God—were first salted and then burned, so we’re told in Leviticus and Ezekiel. So I think by making this connection between fire and salt, Mark changes whatever Jesus may have meant by the original sayings about salt—“If salt has lost its saltiness and so on.” I think Mark’s version makes salt to be a symbol of how in discipleship we give up ourselves to God, and let God’s fire purge us, as First Corinthians says about testing our works, or in First Peter, how fire purging our works of dross. So Mark has Jesus say, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Everyone making themselves holy and dedicated to God will be transformed and purged. You can do it the hard way, and let God judge your works after the fact. Or you can do what Jesus here recommends: “Have salt in yourselves.” I think here this just means: be self-critical, be willing to give up what is getting in the way of your service to God. And so this saying continues the jokey ones about cutting off your hand or foot. And if you disciples don’t have that self-critical spirit among you, if you are set in your ways, how can you season yourselves? How can you make yourselves savor of holiness? And so I think the perplexing last verse of this passage is actually a great recipe for the disciples to live in harmony. The recipe they began with was arguing who was the greatest? Who is going to run the show? Jesus’ recipe is pretty much the opposite: “have salt in yourselves,” be willing to be flexible, self-critical, and give up what is getting in the way of doing God’s work, and be at peace with one another. There is no better way for those who would be first in the Kingdom of God to be at peace with one another than to be self-critical and willing to give up my way, so I can recognize the wisdom and goodness of others. If I really had that salt in myself, and if we had that salt in ourselves, as we work together in ministry, we would never need to worry about who is in charge, who is greatest, and we would easily be at peace with one another.

Easy, right? We are approaching the time of year when we call for people to volunteer for leadership positions in the church. We need deacons, missions, Christian Ed, and more. This passage in Mark is a terrible advertisement for taking on leadership. Sure, we’d all love it if those who take on leadership in the church, and me most of all, did so with the full, self-critical sense of standing under God’s judgment. But who wants to take that on? Fortunately, discipleship for us is generally much easier; the first disciples were preparing to face the opposition of the Roman Empire; are challenges are more subtle.

But what we’re missing in this passage is the positive side, the beauty and glory of discipleship that goes along with the demands. Think of that glory this way: Jesus wouldn’t demand so much of his disciples if what he was asking them to do wasn’t of such amazing value and importance. That value is most clearly seen in the task of bringing up our children in the faith. To nurture someone into true Christian faith, one who really takes on the name of Christ and extends Christ’s salvation to her corner of the world—this is of infinite value. It is as if the whole cosmos, with its billion billions of stars, has all been created for this little one to bear Christ’s name. Jesus’ threats makes no sense without believing in the exceeding value of nurturing faith in new Christians, whether young or old. God in any of us makes us creatures of infinite value. It is an exceeding and dizzying joy to have this task of discipleship bequeathed to us; let us receive it with joy.

September 19: “Like Children, Like Disciples” (Series opener)

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a ; Mark 9:30-37

Jesus doesn’t usually address a message to just anybody. Often, like today, he has something specific to say to his disciples. (We think of the 12 men called the Apostles, but he had a larger group of close followers that included, most unusual for that time, many women.) The message he gives at the start of our gospel reading is only for the disciples—we can call them Jesus’ Special Agents; indeed, he doesn’t want anyone else to hear it. And so there’s a really important question for us as we approach this text: Does he want us to hear it? Are we disciples of Christ? Is this message for us?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Because Jesus often asks his disciples to give up everything they have, to leave everything to follow him, to prepare for persecution and death. Now I take my faith in Christ very seriously, but if that’s what it means to be a disciple, then I’m not one. And that’s ok. Jesus came for everyone, and he did many acts of healing, liberating, forgiving; and often he does not ask the people he helps to become his disciples, to leave everything, and to follow him. And so they continue their lives as shepherds, fishermen, parents, and also children—and we’ll see several stories about children in the weeks to come.

         I never noticed this simple fact about the gospel stories until my friend and fellow pastor-scholar, Peter Milloy, gave me a wonderful book he wrote called “Disciples and Other Believers.” Peter is an accomplished New Testament Scholar, and leads a local group of pastors that meet weekly to read and translate the New Testament in Greek. His notes in his book that preachers have often read Jesus’ words to his disciples as if they were incumbent on all Christian to follow to the letter—as if we’re all disciples. “Leave everything and follow me.” “Sell all that you have, give to the poor, and follow me.” “If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek also.” “If you eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” (That occurs just after our reading for today.)  When I started to consider Christian faith in earnest for myself, in my early teens, I read these passages in a panic. They weighed heavily on me. I felt inspired to strive to a rigorous life of following Jesus, but I also felt a lot of guilt about how far from this ideal of discipleship I was. Did you ever feel that? For me at that tender age it was especially sayings like, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.” So here I am, a young teen who only recently started taking interest in girls, and already I’m an adulterer. Poor, hormonal, teenage Bill!

         Now, often pastors have been at pains to soften these injunctions Jesus makes to the disciples. I’ve never heard a pastor dwell on the lust bit, although it does happen in some kinds of churches. We pastors often try to interpret away the hard and unyielding demands Jesus makes on his followers; we don’t want to scare people away from church! But some pastors have also selectively laid some of these commands on us, trying to inspire us to a righteous life, but often instead we just feel guilty and inadequate. Progressive-minded UCC pastors have usually focused on the injunctions to poverty—give up all that you have to follow Jesus! Especially when it’s pledge time. And then the same pastor may go home with a modestly comfortable salary. I have known a few pastors who really live like disciples, and they are amazing; but only a few. And no, I’m not one of them.

         Peter Milloy considers all this, and then carefully notes that Jesus does not ask everyone to be a disciple. Those injunctions weren’t necessarily for everyone. And I cannot do justice to the scholarly rigor he puts into his very accessible book. So I’ve asked him to offer a Zoom Bible study in the next several weeks, and he has agreed, starting on Monday, September 27 at 7 pm. Be aware: I agree with Peter about this fact that there is a special category of disciple in the New Testament. But we probably think differently about what to do with that fact today. What do we do with this important category of “disciple” in the Gospel? How does it apply to us?

         I have two concerns about it. One is that we take the category of “disciple” too seriously. We assume that everything Jesus commanded of his disciples applies just the same to all Christians, and so to us—and all the time! And so we bring upon ourselves guilt and inadequacy, or we scare off people who don’t want to sell all that they have. But worst of all, we risk preaching what we aren’t willing to practice. The word for that is hypocrisy. And one clear message that Jesus has for everybody is, don’t be a hypocrite. Nonetheless, Christians from time to time have taken on a moralistic air, like we are the holy ones, we are the pure and the good. Everyone can smell that sanctimony a mile away, and we Christians have brought much dishonor to God and to our cause whenever we’ve put on those airs. (And we’ve probably all done it a little.) Calling ourselves disciples and then pretending like we’ve left everything for Jesus is an invitation to hypocrisy.

         But my other concern is the opposite: that we don’t take the category of “disciple” seriously enough. Not knowing what to do with the really tough demands Jesus lays on his disciples, we just pass over them, and imagine that Jesus came writing blank checks of forgiveness, as if he just wanted to make everyone feel good about themselves. And sure enough he does that for some, without expecting anything in return: For those desperate for healing who believe he can help; he does this. And again, especially for children. He never commands anything of children, nor certainly scolds them. He just blesses them, and tells us to bless and welcome them. But on those capable adults who would follow him, he sometimes makes very serious demands. And those opponents of Jesus who seek to undermine him, he doesn’t hesitate to cut them to the quick. Jesus didn’t offer a one-size fits all message. Which makes interpreting his words much more interesting.

         So how do we deal with this category of disciple—neither taking it too seriously, nor ignoring it as an inconvenient truth? Well, that will be the question behind my upcoming sermons. I think you have to take it one passage at a time.

         Thankfully, in Mark we almost never have to worry about taking the disciples too seriously. Because they regularly act like buffoons. They should be wise, and well-instructed. We hear in the first verse that Jesus was avoiding the crowds, traveling in secret, just so he could explain to his disciples and only to them about his coming betrayal, murder, and yet rising again. The disciples are clearly special, clearly set apart. And yet this special attention is lost on them. Worse still, in the next scene, Jesus catches them arguing about who among them is the greatest. And they knew perfectly well that this boastful argument was petty and unbecoming. Notice they don’t say anything when Jesus asks them, they just stand there silently chagrined. But Jesus knew.

         So Jesus calls the twelve—those boasting-prone males among his many followers—and repeats one of those famous sayings of his about the Kingdom of God: The last shall be first. So if you want to be first, you should be last, and a servant to all. Don’t argue about who is or will be first.

         And then he does this remarkable gesture with the child that we talked about already. Now, children in Jesus’ time had a different symbolic meaning than children in our time. We have romantic-and Victorian-era ideas about children: they are innocent, sinless, special; we even say children are the real wise ones. We should all strive to connect with our inner child. So we are quick to think Jesus is saying something like that; that we all should be more childlike—innocent, unpretentious, naïve.

         But these modern symbolic representations of children are not to be found in the Bible. Judaism prized children more than most of the other surrounding cultures, but children needed to be instructed. Until that happened, they weren’t terribly interesting. Moses talks about teaching your children, but he never hung out with them. Prophets like Hosea used their children as symbols, but no other prophets I can think of are shown embracing children. For Jesus the unmarried prophet to warmly embrace a child is surprising, and probably gender non-comforming as well—we might say, unmanly, especially when contrasted with the boastful and competitive disciples.

         Children in Jesus’ day were not cool. If you are interested in status, then you don’t hang out with children. But Jesus often did. But what is the meaning of this final verse? “Whoever welcomes [or receives] one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Again, he’s not telling us to become like children. He will say something closer to that in the next chapter. But here he says if you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me, and not just me, you welcome even God, the one who sent Jesus. What does welcoming a child have to do with welcoming God, and with being a servant to all, instead of vying to be first?

         There’s so much we could say about children—and I bet you have some ideas of your own to share with me. One thing I appreciate is that children are wonderfully disinterested in the status of adults. We adults are quietly aware of what makes others or ourselves impressive—our list of accomplishments. Children couldn’t care less. They respond to how you treat them here and now. How you welcome them.

         By the way, the same thing applies to dogs and cats. Try saying to your dog when you get home, “Hey, Bowser, the board really liked my presentation today. Looks like I’m moving onward and upward.” You’ll get the same [pant]. Or say that to a child and you’ll get, “daddy, come look at my doll house!” Just go ahead and check your boasting at the door, and enjoy being yourself. Because if you want to welcome Jesus and indeed the very living God into your life, you have to act just the same. That, at least, is not much to ask of the disciples. I bet we can handle that.  

August 29 (brief Fifth Sunday service): Perfecting Communication

Another summer experiment. To shorten the service, I just gave an extended Message for All God’s Children. This was to put us in a good frame of mind for a optional discussion that occurred after worship.

James 1:17-27

The Bible has two kinds of words, two kinds of messages. The first, and it always comes first, is about what God does. We call that grace. God acts first and what God does counts forever. The second message is about what we do–how we act, what we should do. So the Bible care a lot about what you do, but it cares more about what God does.

Now wait, you’ll say. Why do I come second? I thought what I did was important? Yes it is. But what God does is even more important. And, by the way, God can do things through you. So, the first two verses we heard from the reading, the verses that came first, are about what God does.

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above—the best things we do, and if especially if we do something good for someone that is perfectly done, is from above. (Not literally up there, but beyond us.)­­—coming down from the Father of lights. Or Mother of lights. It means God. So God does things through us. James even says God gives us the power of truth, so that we can become the “first fruits of God’s creatures.”

Now, what are first fruits? …

So we are the first fruits of all God’s creatures. They are all created good—like us, all creatures do good things like eat and grow and play and keep each other company.. But God gives us the word of truth so that we can be God’s choice fruit. Not just fruit, but God’s own possession. We do God’s work and speak God’s words. What we do becomes God’s own blessing on the earth. God does things through us.

Now wait a minute, you’ll say. I do things for myself. We’re back to that question again: Why does God get all the credit? Why does what I do come second? Hold on a minute. This is actually a really good thing, to come second. Why is it good for us that we come second, and God comes first?

  1. If you do something good. Say you score a goal in soccer. Or you say the right answer in school. People cheer, or your teacher says good job, or maybe you even win a prize. That’s nice. But then it’s gone. The cheering doesn’t last too long. Five minutes later, the teacher is telling someone else, good job. But if God does something good through you, then you good work is part of something much, much bigger than you. Your good act becomes part of what God is doing through people all over the planet, and things God has done through the church for 2000 years. So that’s not just going away in five minutes.
  2. Often in school or sports it what you do that counts. You don’t get good grades or bad grades because of someone else. You only get your own grades. So if what you do comes first, then all the pressure is on you. And what happens when you don’t do well? Everyone’s looking at you and saying: Why did you let her score that goal? Didn’t you do your homework? You mean you haven’t cleaned your room yet? / So, we still need to try hard in school and sports. But if what God does comes first, and what we do comes second, than we don’t have to feel so terrible when we make mistakes.

So see, it’s good that God’s actions come first, and ours second. This is the beauty of God’s grace. And in our reading from James, God’s grace or God’s actions come first; then our actions come second. And I think it’s absolutely vital for us as a church to understand that God comes first, and it’s not what I do that comes first.

But what we do is still very important. Actually, it’s even more important because what I am doing as a Christian I am doing for God, so God can work through me. So James has a lot to say about what we should do. He says “be doers of the word, not just hearers.” He tells us to do good stuff, like “Care for orphans and widows.” Care for people who are all on their own. So first, listen to what God says and does; that comes first. But if you just listen, you can’t do the works of God.

So what do we do? We’re just going to look at one thing.

Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.

You know what that means—quick to listen, slow to speak? (Not speak slowly…) This is all about how we listen, speak, and react to what we hear. Do you listen and speak every day? Right! So this is about what we all do every day.

Let me ask you, who gets the most attention in class, and who are the most popular kids in school? Is it those who are really quiet, or kids who always talk a lot? Yeah. How about in church? Who has the most say in church—those who are very quiet, or those who talk the most? Right. And who talks the most? Me. This is not the way the world usually works. But the Bible often tells us, “Don’t do what everyone else does. Don’t follow the same rules that everyone else follows.”

I wonder why some kids are really quiet. What do you think? …

This is a holy place. It is God’s place. And God always looks out most not for the popular kids, or the big talkers. God looks out for the quiet ones. And so, we should too. We should be quick to listen. Slow to speak. Let the quiet ones speak. And then we should be slow to anger. Because when quiet people are allowed to talk, sometimes the first thing they say is that they are mad it took so long for anyone to listen to them. Right? So don’t get angry. (See! That’s why we never let you talk in the first place!). Make room for the quiet ones to speak, and don’t get angry if their first words are words of hurt, of pain.

/When the Bible talks about what we should do, it often gives us a difficult word. Be quick to listen, slow to speak. And the words in our call to worship were pretty hard too. And I was amazed that the readings from today had so much to do with how we speak, with communication, because that is what some of us will be meeting about after worship today.

So I listen to these difficult words from the Bible, and I begin by applying them to myself. Now I did some teaching a few weeks ago here at church. And it was about some scary topics, like the way some churches like ours have had to close for good. And at first it went pretty well. But then I was running out of time. So I became very quick to speak, and slow to listen. Is that what James says we should do? …And I like listening, especially here, because people have a lot of good things to say. And it wasn’t because I was angry. I actually enjoy it when people disagree with me. But I failed in being slow to talk, and quick to listen. And then we can’t hear each other, and especially the quiet people don’t get heard. So today, we’re going to be talking together in small groups downstairs, to make sure we listen to each other and everyone gets listened to. Because only that way do we hear each other. And only in that way, will God speak through us and among us, and then the things we do become the things God is doing, and they last forever.

August 22 (Hurricane Henri Sunday): “A Temple for a Time Such as This”

Service was canceled due to the hurricane. It turned out to be inexplicably mild, but we had a very nice Zoom service from our homes!

Psalm 84

1 Kings 8: 22-24; 27-30; 41-43

John 6:56-69

In John’s Gospel for today we hear the difficult call of Jesus to his disciples. In fact, we hear that some went away, and stopped following. Peter, poignantly, says he and the others will stay, because they have no place else to go.

As I said last week at the Parkers’, this way of discipleship is not the only model for what the church is for. I want to again set aside the discipleship model today and look at our readings in First Kings and the Psalm we read for our Call to Worship. These present us a different model for us, based on the Temple of God in Zion. Now, this church used to be more like Solomon’s Temple, which was closely tied to the King and the political power of Jerusalem. For us also, religion and our public identity used to be much more united. But most of us, with the exception of those who long to reestablish America as a Christian nation, are glad to put those days behind us.

So what then does our temple mean today? Is it only a private place where we gather? Do we concern ourselves only with prayer and becoming disciples of Jesus? Do we have no meaning or purpose for those who are not members here, who do not take part in worship? Of course we do some wonderful missions work to people in need. But can we still offer a healing message to the public, to our community as a whole, or is our message confined to worship?

Our readings prompt us to think about how we can indeed be a house of prayer for all people. Because they provide us a model of the Temple that has a wider role than just worship. Not that worship is narrow or small. But it is relatively private. That was especially true of Solomon’s Temple. The area for worship was only a small part of the Temple, and was reserved mostly just for the priests. (See picture on cover.) The larger areas outside were called the courts. And this is what our Psalm celebrates: “My soul longs for the courts of the Lord.” These courts were where the pilgrims to the temple would gather and sing together, reestablishing old bonds. There might be teachers trying to attract attention, or debates. This was a public space. And the Psalm celebrates not just the private, inner sanctum, but this public, outer side of the temple. Here there’s room for everyone, even for the sparrow to fly about, and the swallow to make a nest for her young. This is a space for all of creation to be at home.

We see a similarly expansive view of the Temple in our reading from First Kings. This is Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple, after the priests placed the Ark of the Covenant and other holy objects within the innermost part, the Holy of Holies. This is where God was thought to literally sit, sort of. But after God fills the inside with holy smoke, Solomon addresses all the people with his prayer out in the courts. (This is almost certainly not historical, but a writer’s version of what Solomon should have said.)

         We’ve skipped a good bit of it, including a lot of Solomon’s taking ample credit for building the Temple. He was a King after all, a politician, not a priest or a prophet. But I love this verse in the middle: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” That’s really crucial. It is crucial to recognize that God is bigger than our buildings. God is beyond us, even while dwelling with us. Without that recognition, our attempts to house God and to be a people dedicated to God can become idolatrous. Any Temple can become an idol. But God remains free, God’s ways remain a mystery to us, and God is forever our Lord, not a protector at our command.

         And having made that crucial recognition, Solomon goes on to pray mostly for his own people, as you would expect (and again, we skipped much of that). But recognizing God is bigger than that, he prays also for foreigners. “When a foreigner comes and prays toward this house”—which would of course mean praying outside in the courts, not inside the Temple—“then hear in heaven in your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel….” This prayer of Solomon is a model of intercessory prayer. The people Israel are not here just for themselves, just to enjoy the private patronage of God. God is above them, and God’s dwelling and care go way beyond the Temple. And so Israel is also here for all people, praying to God to hear and fulfill the prayers of others as well.

         There’s a lot more to be said about that, and I may continue to preach on this theme in the fall. But let’s bring it back to us, here today. We as a church no longer want to be involved in running society and wielding political and economic power. But how can this Temple of God still, like Solomon’s Temple, welcome people into our outer court? How can we host our town and serve them, not by trying to make them all disciples of Jesus, although that invitation always stands open. But how can we welcome and affirm the deepest desires of what First Kings calls “the foreigner,” the one who has no need of this church as a religious body, but still might come here, seeking a blessing? And how can we intercede on behalf of others, like Solomon did?

         I was thinking about that this week. The news from Afghanistan weighed heavy on me. Twenty years of intervention, with so much money and many lives—mostly Afghani—squandered largely on establishing military control and training. And it all seemed to go down the toilet really fast, defeated by the single-minded, purpose-driven Taliban, whose misplaced religious zeal made mincemeat of all our support for western economics and democratic principles—if those values were even visible through our mistakes and the corruption of the Afghan government. This was our longest war, if we want to call it that; spanning two-thirds of my lifetime.

I listened intently to the news, and heard some informative analysis about why the Afghan forces collapsed so easily, and what might have been mistaken about the Biden and other administration’s policy decisions, and what would become of those Afghanis who worked for us, and whether the Taliban would be as brutally repressive toward women this next time around. Analysis like this is good, since we all should have some understanding about American foreign policy so we can elect the right people. But honestly, there’s very little I can do directly about 20 years of failed American policy in Afghanistan. I can entertain my own opinions about it all, but what does that do?

         What the news could not give me, nor the political recriminations game that inevitably comes in the wake of catastrophe, was a chance to mourn and grieve and look for hope. Did you find yourself wanting to mourn, and grieve, and look for hope? The news is good at searing images into our brain, whether its people clinging to a transport plane or the twin towers bursting into flame, still vivid 20 years later; but the news isn’t very good at helping us process our feelings about these images. Listening to the radio in my kitchen, all alone, is not the right place to do this, even if the news tried to fill that need. Not many institutions are equipped to deal with the deepest needs and questions of the human heart.

But I think we are. What if—and I know this is not going to happen any time soon—we were able to offer a service of recognition for these gut-wrenching events. Imagine if this church hosted a public gathering and invited veterans who served in Afghanistan to share their stories—good and bad—and their feelings about our pulling out—not their political opinions. And what if we invited some Afghan immigrants or students, and workers and local experts who have travelled and worked there, to share their stories and feelings? And what could we accomplish by hosting such a service? It wouldn’t be so we could tell everyone, don’t worry, God’s got a plan; what looks bad is really all for the good. But we could at least put a human face on this tragedy, rather than leaving this catastrophe as just an ugly fact on the news that we must face alone, and at a cold distance. We could at least affirm together, whatever our political disagreements, that this is not the way life is supposed to go. And affirm that we can do better. Just by mourning together, we establish a human solidarity that becomes a resource to do better, a resource for hope. None of that is going to happen this time around, of course. But what if we were ready to respond to the Falls of Kabul that almost monthly break our hearts?

         I’m not looking for controversy, here. This is not a proposal to divert us away from our current plans and efforts, nor to pile even more work on our overworked boards and Church Council. Nor on me, as a part-time pastor. I don’t think we’re strong enough right now to take on this vision of what it means to be a House of Prayer for All People, to use the words that Jesus quotes from Isaiah. When Solomon built his temple and offered his intercession to the foreigner, Israel was at the height of her powers, a formidable if dubious empire collecting tribute from far and near. We are not there. We need to build ourselves up. / But I’m simply encouraging us to dream big. It helps to get motivated to build yourself up if you imagine what amazing things we will be able to do, that no one else can do except a house of worship like us. We need to become a strong and confident church, able to serve others beside ourselves. The world needs us to be a house of God’s wisdom and grace, by which God desires nothing more than for the world to flourish, to be fruitful and multiply. May our temple be consecrated to this and other great tasks.